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Dishwashing and loving God

May 15, 2022

Acts 11:1-18

Andrew Prior is a pastor in Australia who writes about an incident that happened in an Australian church following a shared meal between the differing Korean and Anglo congregations who both worshipped independently in the same church building. In spite of whatever initial awkwardness there may have been at that lunch, the two groups got along very well during the meal. 

 

Oh, but when the eating was over, the fur began to fly! And it all happened over something that may seem trivial to those of us who weren’t there. The controversy was about the proper way to wash dishes. It seems that water is a precious commodity in Australia and electricity is expensive — probably due to that water shortage. So the Anglo Australians have developed a method of dish washing that  has been adapted to fit those circumstances. 

 

Prior writes, “From a Korean perspective, we slurry the dishes around in a weak, tepid soup. Then we wipe the contamination into all the cracks in the crockery with wet, unhygienic tea towels which we often don’t even take home and wash! — well, not for a week or two, anyway.

 

“The Koreans in that church kitchen were revolted, disgusted, and unsurprisingly, outraged and deeply insulted, to realize they had been eating off this filthy crockery and cutlery for months. 

 

[…] At the other sink, the Koreans were washing the dishes properly. Burning hot running water—no plug in the sink, dishes draining, and tea towels retired as soon as they were moderately damp. The Anglos were outraged and furious at the waste of water and electricity. Who did these newcomers think they were?

 

“We know that Jesus said, ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples:  if you have love for one another.’ And we Australians know that proper love — the true love from God — does not waste water, and that if the water is even three degrees hotter than air temperature, it’s good enough for washing dishes. Just scrub harder.

 

Fortunately, in spite of the great heat of the controversy — which was definitely far hotter than the tepid Anglo-Australian dish water — the two groups were eventually able to work through their differences and keep their relationship intact. 

Conflict and controversy are inevitable parts of life. That’s because we are all individuals with our own ways of doing things and our own backgrounds and experiences that lead us to think in certain ways. Sadly those same experiences can also help blind us to other potentially positive ways of thinking or acting when we become convinced that we already know what works best. 

 

The same tendencies come into play when the issue under discussion is no longer strictly personal, but has expanded to a much larger political or theological stance. 

 

For example, as most or all of you know, our denomination went through a multi-decade debate over the issue of ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians. One summer maybe 15 years ago, a group of pastors requested a special meeting of our presbytery to hash over the issue yet again. 

 

Shortly after the meeting began, it became clear that there was nothing particularly new being presented in the debate. We had all heard the same old arguments before, shedding large amounts of heat and very little light on the subject. Obviously, the pastors who asked for that special mid-summer meeting did so hoping the other side wouldn’t attend the meeting in sufficient numbers so they could ram their agenda through the presbytery. That didn’t happen. 

 

Instead, everyone who was there wasted both their gas and time as nothing changed. So why did I bring that meeting up after so many years? Because one thing did stand out in that debate. Pastor after pastor who opposed the ordination of gays and lesbians claimed that they were the only ones who had the Bible on their side. And they were literally correct. Every single reference to homosexuality in the Bible — in both the Old and New Testaments — is opposed, almost always vehemently opposed. And, to the minds of those pastors, that should have been enough to end debate right there. But they made sure to make their case in a very unloving way that undercut their appeal to the Bible. 

 

To be sure, those on the other side often replied in equally unloving ways as well. At times, it was hard to remember that this was a discussion between a group of people all of whom were serving the One who commanded us to love one another. 

So, after hearing one too many self-righteous claim by one side to have exclusive biblical backing, I stood up to say that the truth was that both sides had biblical backing; the two sides were simply using differing interpretive methods. While it was perfectly fine to disagree with another person’s interpretation, it was wrong to claim that they didn’t have any biblical backing at all. Unfortunately, in that moment, I didn’t think to refer to today’s passage from Acts, but I still made my point. I thought. Then, when I finished speaking, the very next speaker again claimed that his side had exclusive biblical support. I might as well have said nothing at all! Sigh…

 

But isn’t that really what we see in our Church History lesson today? Peter has experienced a lot in the past few years. In one of the first times he ever met Jesus, he told Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus called him to be a disciple anyway. In all those years of following Jesus, Peter’s understanding of his faith was stretched and pulled in surprising ways time and time again. 

 

In today’s story, Peter has a vision at the home of Simon the tanner. In the Jewish faith of that time, touching a dead body made you ritually unclean temporarily. However, tanners regularly work with animal skins, so they were unable to escape that ritual uncleanli-ness, a state they could pass on to others. Yet, Peter willingly stayed with Simon, which he never would have done before meeting Jesus. 

 

Peter is praying on the flat roof of Simon’s house while his lunch is being prepared. And, as he’s praying, he falls into a trance and has a vision of a huge sheet being lowered down from the sky. The sheet is covered with a large variety of animals and reptiles and birds — creatures connected by only one thing:  none of them were kosher. 

 

And yet a voice from heaven tells Peter to dig in. Peter immediately objects. “Come on, Lord. You know I’m a good Jew. I’ve never eaten any of those things because you’ve forbidden us from doing that.” I suspect at that point, Peter is feeling pretty good about himself, thinking he’s passed some test. After all, like those pastors in that special presbytery meeting, Peter clearly has scripture on his side. 

 

What Peter doesn’t begin to grasp the first two times that God tells him to eat an unkosher animal is that if God is the one who forbid that act in the first place, God can also remove that restriction. 

 

It takes Peter three times before he slowly starts to clue in. As James Eaton puts it, “I love this part. Peter actually tells God off for not being Godly enough.” Isn’t that always the danger when we become so wrapped up in upholding our own fixed ideas that we close our ears to the new directions God may be leading us? 

 

The good news is that when Peter finally did clue in, he clued in all that way, recognizing that his vision wasn’t really about what are acceptable foods. Instead, it was a metaphorical message saying that there are no unacceptable people to God.

 

The rules that had seemed so solid as to who was blessed by God and who wasn’t had to be discarded. Peter and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem may have believed that God had just changed the rules, but the truth is that God was simply reminding them of Israel’s original call to serve as a light to the nations or, to translate that phrase more literally, they were to be a light to the Gentiles. 

 

To their credit, when the people in the Jerusalem church heard about Peter’s vision and then heard that the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentile household of Cornelius the centurion, they understood that Peter had acted properly and they praised God in response. No longer does God have an in-crowd with others fated to be outside. God’s grace is equally available to everyone without exception. 

 

That’s a lesson it seems that the Christian church and its members have had to relearn in nearly every generation. As Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote in Christian Century magazine:  

 

“Lately I have been tracking the illusion that God favors my group to the exclusion of all other groups — which is fairly easy to maintain, depending on which stories I choose to tell. Since the Bible contains the foundational stories of [three] distinct faiths, it is chock full of attacks on those outside the fold. Sometimes the attacks are sanctioned by God and other times they erupt from pure human meanness, but in either case they come as no real surprise. When any group of people is trying to discover who they are, they usually begin by declaring who they are not:  ‘We are not Canaanites, not Samaritans, not Pharisees, not Romans, not Greeks, not them.’ 

 

“These are satisfying parts of the story to tell around the campfire, because they reinforce the boundaries of the group as well as its rightness. Sarah orders Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael into the desert so that Isaac’s inheritance is sure. The Egyptians are drowned in the sea. Jesus [says, ‘]No one comes to the father but by me.[’] If these stories are beloved, then at least one reason is because they guarantee the privileges of those who tell them.

 

“But the truly astonishing thing about the Bible is that it also includes stories from outside the fold, where God seems determined to work through those whom the community has cast out. God visits Hagar in the desert and promises to make a great nation of Ishmael. God anoints the Persian king Cyrus to end the Babylonian exile. Samaritans star in at least two of Jesus’ own stories, and he almost gets killed in [Nazareth] for reminding his own people that God sometimes skips right over them to go take care of people who don’t share their faith. (Christian Century, March 8, 2003)

 

The Temple in Jerusalem was built in concentric rectangles. Each of the inner walls was designed to exclude an increasingly larger group of people. The outer court permitted anyone to enter; however, the first interior wall refused entry to non-Jews on pain of death. 

 

The next interior wall denied entry to women. That was followed by a wall forbidding entry to anyone who wasn’t a member of the clergy. The ultimate wall excluded everyone except the High Priest, but even he could only enter the Holy of Holies a single day of the year — on the Day of Atonement. 

 

I have two assumptions about that, although I can’t prove either of them. The first is that those restrictions were intended to protect people from becoming involved in a situation that could be harmful to them by accidentally offending God. 

 

The second is that those beliefs stretch all the way back to Moses and the freed slaves at the foot of Mount Sinai. In the 19th and 20th chapters of Exodus, the people of Israel hear God speaking directly to them and they are utterly terrified. So they demand that Moses to tell God to never do that again. Instead, they want God to talk only with Moses. Then Moses can pass the message on to them. 

Whether either of my assumptions is true or not, the truth is that Jesus’ crucifixion tore down every form of barrier that divides humanity from God — including the final barrier of death. But the crucifixion also demonstrated that we, in turn, should destroy every barrier we have erected between ourselves and other people. 

 

As Bron Yocum put it, “Jesus Christ came to remind us that there are no insiders and outsiders in the kingdom of God. The reason why that’s true is very simple — if it came down to drawing a boundary, we’d all be out. […] It is only God’s grace that allows us into the circle of his love.”

 

Jesus said, “Love one another just as I have loved you.” Jesus never placed any restrictions on the people we are to show that love to. We are called to love generously and indiscriminately in Jesus’ name. After all, God is love and God will always be present wherever love is shown. Amen. 

by Jim McCrea

Rev. Jim McCrea

Pastor

Rev. Jim McCrea

jrmfpc@gmail.com

Biography

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