Fruitcake and the family of God

Picnic by Anna Guerrero on Pexels

A sermon on Acts 10:9-48 for Kensington Community Church, as part of the “Becoming Family” sermon series.

What we just read

If you were to outline the book of Acts on one of those plot diagrams they make you do in 9th grade English—where there’s the exposition, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the denouement—the passage we read today would probably be right towards the top of the rising action hill, just before the climax.

Acts opens with the scene we talked about a few weeks ago, where Jesus ascends to heaven and tells the disciples to be his “witnesses,” to Jerusalem, and to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Then the Holy Spirit comes and people’s tongues catch on fire or something and they’re empowered to do that stuff Jesus said.

From that point until the passage we read today, the Apostle Peter—the same Peter who Jesus said would be the rock on which the church was built—has been kind of the “main character.”

He starts out walking around Jerusalem, preaching about Jesus and encouraging more people to join in the Christian community. His audience is mostly the Jewish people living in Jerusalem.

Then Peter goes outside the city of Jerusalem and starts to preach about Jesus in the broader Jewish community, the “suburbs” of Judea and Samaria. Just like Jesus said.

Then there’s a brief interlude where the Apostle Paul makes an entrance, but we’ll get to that next week.

Then Peter goes even further away from his home and becomes a witness of Jesus’ good news “to the ends of the earth.” He leaves Judea and Samaria and embarks on a mission to share the gospel with the Gentiles—with people who aren’t Jewish, who don’t share the same ethnoreligious identity or practices he does.

Peter’s first stop is just a few miles out, in the coastal city of Cesarea.

Smart strategy on his part. If I’ve got a tough travel season coming up at work, I am absolutely going to have it start in a beach town.

On the way there, Peter has this really wild vision where a picnic blanket descends from heaven with all kinds of food on it that is decidedly not Kosher—it’s not food that Peter, as a Jewish person, would have thought it proper to eat.

A voice from Heaven says, “eat up, it’s a feast,” and Peter responds almost as if he’s assuming this is a test from God: “surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure.”

The voice responds: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

What does it mean to be kosher?

Kosher dietary laws are complex—even the experts disagree about where some of the lines are and why they exist—and I am no expert in Jewish religious practices or history, so take this with a grain of salt.

But for the significance of Peter’s picnic-blanket vision make sense, in particular in context of Peter’s realization in the passage we read, I think it’s important for us to talk about kosher laws for a second, so I’ll do my best:

Kosher laws about food preparation and consumption that were given by God to the people of Israel. These laws cover things like how you slaughter animals and how you wash fruits and vegetables and which animals you do and do not eat.

Many people describe these laws as something like ancient public health laws or laws against animal cruelty, and there’s probably some element of truth to that. But a number of Jewish scholars and a Rabbi friend of mine have described all described to me the most important function of kosher laws as laws about creating a distinct identity. They describe these laws as a set of cultural practices given to hold the Jewish people together and identify their covenantal relationship with God even in the midst of war and division and colonization.

It’s an imperfect analogy, but it makes me think about when I first started working here last summer and learned all about our practices around Dia de los Muertos and our favorite hymns and the hymns which were very much not our favorite and the parts of our order of service and prayers that were sacred for the sake of them being “how we do things.” We find our own value in doing things that way, but the reason why we wouldn’t try doing it otherwise isn’t just the value we find in it—it’s because we value the traditions we have.

There’s nothing wrong with other churches that have people bring their mementos to the altar before service for Día de los Muertos, but it would certainly be “wrong” if I organized the service in such a way that we did that here.

Or maybe they’re something like my family’s odd shared love for Kix cereal with American cheese on it, or our secret pumpkin bread recipe, or our shared aversion to the entire concept of putting dried fruits in any kind of desert bread.

There’s some straightforward value to these family food boundaries—the “Kix-and-cheese combo” came from trying to make something exciting and maybe a little more protein-dense out of the free food we received from WIC, the no-fruitcake rule is obviously to keep us all from losing our appetites, right? At least, that’s what it feels like in my family.

But the more important value is the way those practices keep us distinct and keep us connected. It’s about the virtual pumpkin bread-baking gatherings my siblings and I have each year. It’s about all the times when folks gave me funny looks in my college dining hall as I put sliced cheese on my cereal, and somehow instead of making me feel judged or whatever, it just made me feel more connected to my family.

What’s on the picnic blanket?

So when Peter sees a picnic blanket descend from heaven will all kinds of fruitcake on it, he’s not just seeing God say “it’s okay, turns out these folks know how to prepare dried fruits in a way that isn’t disgusting.” No, beneath that, he’s also hearing God say “you need to be prepared to eat at the table of people who are very different from you.”

The thing I gave you that makes you distinct cannot be a reason to not be with people who are different from you.

He’s hearing a perspective, ironically, that is something espoused by every Jewish person I know today: that the God’s choosing the Israelite people for one covenant does not preclude God covenanting otherwise with other peoples. Maybe Peter just had to hear it from someone else before he’d listen.

Then we get to second part of this week’s reading.

Peter, after seeing this vision and hearing this from God, has gone and spent time with people and maybe even dined with people who were very different than him. People whose food would not have been on the menu if he was the chef.

Then, almost like a lightbulb goes off, he publicly proclaims that love of God has no boundaries and draws us to be in community even with people who are very different from us. That the covenant he and his community of origin have with God does not exclude other people from having covenantal, loving relationships with God and God’s people.

And when that happens, when he accepts that God loves the people who are strange to him, those people become strangers no more. Something special becomes unlocked.

They become neighbors, maybe even family. The same Holy Spirit that Peter and the Jerusalemite Christians received at Pentecost descends upon them.

And then Peter invites all these people who would have been so strange to him not long ago to join a distinctly Christian ritual and be baptized.

Later scriptures will tell us about how Peter never abandoned his own religious practices—how he, when cooking and serving his own food, kept to the Jewish dietary laws. But they’ll also tell us about how he worked continuously to make room for people who weren’t Jewish and didn’t follow Jewish cultural and religious practices.

What does this mean for me?

At Bible Study this week, we talked a lot about what the implications of this were for Christiansy today.

We talked about churches that have rules or practices which might be culturally meaningful them, but which wind up excluding others.

We even talked about things like how some churches go beyond cultural rules and add things like prohibitions on LGBT people or women serving the church, and how those create unhealthy “us vs them” divides.”

But then we got to the much harder question: what does this scripture have for us today? Us like the most immediate us: the people of Kensington Community Church.

Because the reality is, despite our goal of providing an extravagant welcome, there’s no way we are perfect at it. We don’t always make everyone feel welcome. That’s not unique to—every church misses the mark on that sometimes. And every church is called to do their best to avoid that.

One of us talked about how to some folks, having tons of people come up to you and thank you for coming might be the best way to feel welcome, and for others, the best “first Sunday at a new church” is one where you can kind of show up in the back and not be noticed.

One of us talked about how sometimes when you’re sick, the most special thing ever would be having tons of folks coming over to visit and pray with you. And I’ll confess in that moment, I thought about how when I was in the hospital a few years ago and got diagnosed with AIDS, I had so much to process, I couldn’t imagine taking visitors all day!

And I have to confess, I also thought about one of the most painful things I can ever hear as a pastor—but something every pastor I know has heard at some point: visitors who come to church then walk up to you later or maybe just send an email and say they felt judged and unwelcome, like no one noticed they were there, or like maybe they didn’t “fit in” with the crowd here.

I won’t pretend to have the most complete thoughts about where we have to grow if we are to extend our welcome deeper, if we want to make everyone ever feel like they have a place in the family of God. Maybe that’s because I’ve gone “nose blind,” like those Febreeze commercials, and I’m not noticing things I should. Or maybe I’m subconsciously avoiding that self critique because I don’t want to hear the answer is that we have to change something I like. Or maybe it’s because that’s the kind of thing we’re not supposed to discern alone; we’re not supposed to rely on just one person, one pastor, one member, to figure out. Maybe we have to do it together.

So as we think together about what it means to become family with people who are different from us, to turn strangers into neighbors, here’s my invitation to you:

Spend some time this week, maybe even today, walking around church, thinking about what it is that we do that’s maybe has room to be a little more generous, a little more inclusive, a little more welcoming.

And like Saint Peter, I don’t think we have to leave ourselves behind rectify that. We can keep our own practices and habits while find ways to provide an even wider and more extravagant welcome.

But I know there are ways we can invite more people into the family of God that meets here. And how we can watch them receive the holy spirit and all the good life and community and sense of family that comes with that as a result.