During my first few months in the Dominican Republic, I lived with a host family. They were very nice people and I got along great with them for the most part. But my host mom, Doña Nicia, never thought I ate enough – she was always trying to get me to eat more. The trouble was that, after a while, I had gotten really tired of eating rice and beans all the time. It was always the same thing every day: rice and beans, stewed meat, mashed plantains, and a big mug of fresh milk in the morning and in the evening – the milk part sounds really nice until you find yourself actually having to peel your milk twice a day (I never thought I’d appreciate the word “homogenized” so much).
One day, Doña Nicia’s daughter-in-law, Moraima, made a great big pot of a rice dish called chofán and brought a bowl over for me. It was basically fried rice with a mix of vegetables and some chicken – and I completely devoured it. Seeing this, my host mom was like, “Aha! She likes chofán!” So the very next day at lunch, Doña Nicia proudly set before me a big, heaping bowl of “chofán”; except, instead of rice and a mix of different vegetables, this was rice with a mix of different meats: chicken, pork, goat, and – I swear to you this is true – hot dogs, all chopped up into little pieces. I knew she was so excited to make it for me, so I ate as much of it as I could stomach. But to be honest, I felt a lot like I imagine Peter did in our reading from Acts. In Peter’s case, he has a vision of some kind of bizarre picnic descending down out of the clouds – and a voice tells him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat!” and Peter takes one look at that picnic and is just like, “Uhhh… pass.”
The sheet in Peter’s vision is filled with animals – it’s kind of its own sort of meat chofán. He sees four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air – and Peter is horrified by the command to eat any of these animals, because they were considered ritually unclean in Jewish dietary law. He tells this strange vision to the apostles and believers in Judea – he tells them because they were equally horrified by the fact that Peter had gone to Caesarea to preach to Gentiles. But he explains to them step by step that the Spirit deliberately sent him there to be a witness to a Gentile household. And he describes how the Holy Spirit was poured out upon these Gentile believers just exactly as it had been poured out upon the disciples. In the face of this testimony, the people criticizing Peter are silenced.
You might expect the early disciples to be a little more excited by this news. After all, this is a story about the expansion of the church – it’s a story about God’s expansive vision of the church, which reaches out to include the whole world! It seems strange to us that Peter gets pushback for being such a successful evangelist, for responding to the Spirit popping up in unexpected places and bringing new people into the fold.
But it makes more sense when you think about who these people were. These weren’t other Jewish or Semitic people that Peter was evangelizing. These were people of a different culture and nationality and language. If you actually go back a chapter to Acts 10, you can read the whole story. Peter was sent to a man named Cornelius, who was not only a Roman citizen, but also a centurion in the Roman army. Cornelius had received his own angelic vision and had sent people to Joppa, where Peter was staying, to ask him to come visit him and his household.
Now, Cornelius was not at all the kind of person that the earliest followers of Jesus ever imagined being part of the church – for one thing, Roman soldiers like him had been the very ones to carry out the execution of Jesus; and also, he did not belong to the house or tradition of Abraham. The conversion of Cornelius and his family marked a radical shift in the church’s understanding of its mission. They realized that God’s kingdom had been opened to more than just the nation of Israel; God’s mission was now to unite God’s people of every place and nation and language and culture into one heavenly kingdom.
This was a huge struggle in the early church. Like many religious groups, the people of Israel had defined themselves for centuries by their laws and traditions, by their dietary practices, and by their ancient family lines. Now the Jewish followers of Jesus had to wrestle with how these new Gentile believers fit into that picture. Did these new followers have to take up all the Jewish traditions, or only some of them? Would they have to be circumcised? Would they have to follow Jewish dietary laws? And so on and so on.
All these things were the traditional markers of Jewish identity, the signs of belonging. They were the practices by which the people of Israel defined “us” and “them,” and kept themselves separate from the world. But God’s expansive vision for the world had just blown that separation completely to bits. Not only does the Spirit deliberately tell Peter to go visit Cornelius with the men from Caesarea, the Spirit explicitly tells him not to make any distinction between “them” and “us.”
Now that is a huge struggle, not just for the early church, but for humans in general. We humans love coming up with ways to distinguish ourselves from other people. By the languages we speak, by the clothes we wear, by the food we eat, by the flags we fly, and by so many other things — we are constantly finding new ways to draw lines between “us” and “them,” to create separation. Our human love of division was made painfully clear just this last week for our own church. An ELCA pastor in Wisconsin named Betty Rendón was detained by ICE and she and her family are now in detention, facing deportation. Betty and her family are originally from Colombia, and they came to the US over a decade ago, seeking asylum. Betty had been a school principal back in Colombia; she and her family started receiving threats when she stood up against guerilla soldiers who were trying to recruit her students. But the US refused to grant her asylum status. And now, ten years after the fact, they have decided to arrest her as though she were a criminal and to send her right back into the danger she fled.
Many of us want our communities and our schools and our churches to grow – but “not like that,” not with the “wrong” kind of people. We want more people who look and act and think like us. And so we tend to resist when the Spirit moves us instead toward relationship and community with people who are not like us.
This is part of the hard work of ministry that we are called to do – to build relationships and communities with the Corneliuses and the Bettys of this world. This is especially true in a community like Schuyler. We can’t ignore the fact that the community of Schuyler outside the walls of our church looks pretty different from the community inside them. It would be easy to just let things continue to be this way, to let those distinctions continue to stand. But it is Godly work – hard work – to make space for others who are different from us, to learn to see past our divisions to welcome people as they are – and to love them as God first loved us.
The Spirit calls us and equips us to open our hearts to others, just as God’s heart is open to us. And this is really good news for us too. It expands our idea of who our neighbor is and of who our family is. The Spirit invites us to look with God’s eyes and see that the whole world is full of not just neighbors, but relatives, family. It’s like it was with my host mom, Doña Nicia. I never really did come to enjoy her cooking. But I still showed up on her doorstep for dinner every single Sunday, because through those meals, her family became my family too. Those meals taught me to open my heart and helped me learn how to imitate God’s expansive love.
And that same expansive love extends to all of us too. I’d be willing to bet that every person in this room, at some time or another, has known what it feels like to be rejected, to be treated like an outsider, to be made to feel less-than someone else. We have all known in some way what it’s like to be a “them” excluded from an “us.” But with God, there is no distinction, not for anyone; there is no “us and them” – God is a God of “we” and “us” and “all.”
God’s inclusive vision for the world is more powerful than any human divisions or objections. God’s Spirit is constantly breaking forth in unexpected places and among unexpected people, working to erase the divisions between us. We are called to join in that holy work. And we are called to make God known through our care for one another, so that the whole world may come to know God’s radical reconciliation, inclusion, and love. Thanks be to God! Amen.