May 17, 2009
Scripture: Acts 10:44-11:18
Sermon Title: “Food Matters”
Rev. George N. Miller
Any fan of Broadway musicals is familiar with the play “Mame,” about a woman who lived life to its fullest. It features a line that says “Life’s a banquet, and most poor sons of (guns) are starving to death.” It also featured iconic actress Bea Arthur who died just a few weeks ago.
With her deep voice, lurching height and cutting stare, Bea was known to the TV world as Maude, and as Dorothy Zbornac from “The Golden Girls.” When she died, friends from all over called me; for us it was like losing a friend, because after decades of daily reruns, she was, indeed a friend.
Bea’s character was the emotional glue of “The Golden Girls”. She was the odd duckling who spoke her mind, dealt with life’s unfairness and deeply loved her family, both her biological and the social one she created.
“The Golden Girls” was known for its strong ensemble, its controversial take on adult sexuality, but perhaps most affectionately, for its scenes around the kitchen table where the ladies ate cheesecake and drank coffee.
Jesus and his disciples had bread and wine, and for the Golden Girls there was no problem they couldn’t discuss no problem go great it couldn’t be dealt with over cheesecake and coffee.
For many shows, food is the emotional center of life and relationships. The Sopranos had their pizza, the women of “Sex and the City” had their cosmos, and the funniest moments of “I Love Lucy” featured food: from Lucy working in a candy factory, to her squashing grapes or her infamous “Vitavegameatamin” commercial.
Today we’re going to talk about matters of food, because, at the end of the day food matters. It’s more then just what we take in to fuel our body. Food connects us to one another, it helps to define cultures and generations, and food feeds our soul.
Food can also be used to keep us apart, which is one reason I’ll never stop drinking coffee or be a vegetarian. As a pastor it’s impossible to attend pot-lucks or visit homes without eating meat.
And if you recall, I came here as a professed tea lover; iced tea and peppermint tea was my thing. And Mary Jane, bless her heart, went right out and got an electric tea-pot just for me. But every Sunday when I come downstairs and smell the freshly brewed coffee? Or visit someone’s home and there’s a pot of coffee ready to be shared? There’s no way I’d say “No thanks, can I have a spot of tea instead?”
As long as I’m a pastor I’ll always eat meat and be up for a cup of coffee. What we eat and drink with others is important, because food matters.
Think about the fact that one of our 2 sacraments involves food. Next, see just how much space the author of Acts gives to the eating of food.
The Spirit has fallen upon the people, hundreds are being baptized into this new religion. During a time of personal prayer Peter has a vision of a large sheet coming down from heaven filled with all types of animals and he’s invited to eat.
But Peter is a faithful Jew, with strict dietary laws, and his response is “No God, I have never eaten anything unclean.” He’s told that God has made all animals clean to eat, and to make sure he gets the point, this happens 3 times.
After this vision, Cornelius, an Italian, invites Peter into his home. Peter obliges, but reminds him that it has been unlawful for a Jew to visit a non-Jew, but God has revealed that no longer is someone to be called clean or unclean.
Peter visits with the Italian and his family and begins to share the Good News, preaching peace and testifying that all who believe in Jesus will receive forgiveness of sins.
So powerful are his words that the Spirit falls upon all who hear, even though they are Gentiles, and Peter, realizing that no one can withhold the Spirit’s gifts, baptizes all of the people in the name of Jesus Christ.
So successful is the event that Cornelius invites Peter to spend a few days with his family. And since Cornelius was an Italian, you know they were sharing some amazing feasts, with sauces filled with pork and shellfish, glasses of wine and many hours around the dining room table, discussing Christ.
After a few days of living, sleeping and eating Italian, Peter returns to Jerusalem. And do you think the church people are happy with him?
Uh-huh. Instead of celebrating the news that Peter evangelized a Gentile family, they say to him: “What were you doing? Hanging out with uncircumcised men and eating their dirty, filthy food. You weren’t following our church bylaws.”
What Peter did was a breech of Jewish etiquette, because not only did circumcision matter, but so did food and who one ate with.
The earliest Christians were Jews. And as Jews, it was important to follow the Law of Moses, and the laws were very clear. All Jewish males were to be circumcised, that was a sign of their covenant with God. And the bylaws clearly stated there were foods you could not eat: pork was a no no, shell-fish was a no no, mixing meat and dairy was a big no-no
And there were reasons. Rules about pork made basic health sense: pigs were dirty animals and if not properly cooked could cause sickness. There were also ethical issues. You did not mix meat with dairy because the off-chance that you may be eating an animal in its mothers milk. But the food rules also dealt with societal issues.
Food mattered. Food is how people celebrated and interacted with one another, and social interactions could lead to improper influences and straying from one’s beliefs.
The Jewish people understood themselves to be God’s Chosen which meant they were to be separate from others. The influence of pop culture was too great, creating opportunities to fall back to old ways of sin, of worshiping other gods, or worshiping political leaders. A solution was to keep a distance from society, and what better way to insure separation than through food?
If you can’t eat pork, then you can’t join your Gentile neighbors for the block party pig roast. If shellfish is out of limits, then you can’t go to the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. If you can’t mix milk and meat, then you can forget about stopping at your local Mickey D’s for a cheeseburger.
By limiting what people could eat, it limited relationships and perceived negative influences.
So the Kosher laws dealt with matters of food because food matters. It mattered in relationships, it mattered in ethics, and it mattered in showing ones faithfulness and love to God.
Since the earliest Christians were Kosher abiding Jews, they assumed they had to continue making food matter. And they were right: food mattered, but now it would matter in a new way.
First, Jesus was a man who broke table rules, spending much time eating with folk who were known sinners and of questionable morals. To emulate him would mean sitting at table as well, and because Jesus had come to bring good news to all, it would mean that all were welcome to the table.
In order for all to feel comfortable at the table meant that all foods would have to be welcomed as well. Hence Peter’s vision giving him permission to eat all foods, hence why God gives him the vision three times.
And why the author of Acts tell us this story twice: so we understand that in order for us to share the Good News with people, in order for us to hear the Good News from people, in order for us to be the Good News to people, we have to be able to eat with people, all people, all foods, because food does indeed matter.
Today’s scripture is essential to the development and spread of Christianity because what it said was that the Good News was available to all who heard and to all who believed, and could not be limited to only those who ate cheesecake, drank cosmos, ate pizza or took Vitavegameatamin.
Food matters, because it’s what ties us together. It creates memories, from our grandmother’s cookies to ice cream cones purchased in the summer time. Food matters because it defines who we culturally are from hot dogs to apple pie.
Food matters because it offers us comfort in times of distress, from cookie dough ice-cream after a bad break-up to finger sandwiches after a funeral.
Food matters because it was through five loaves and two fish that Jesus was able to bring forth a slice of heaven here on earth.
Food matters because Jesus took bread and said “This is my body” and a cup of wine and said “This is my blood”.
Food matters because it was in the sharing of a meal in Emmaus that the resurrected Christ was revealed, and Cleopas and his companion ran to the disciples proclaiming “The Lord has risen.”
Food matters because it was by eating formally forbidden cuisine that Peter could enter into the house of Cornelius and preach Christ, ushering in the Spirit and baptizing a family in the Lord.
Food matters, because that is one way we, as members of BCUCC, will find a way to survive and move on.
On Wednesday, after a shared potluck, we deliberated about the future of this particular sensuous Body of Christ. Do we stay open? Do we close on July 26? With heavy hearts, the majority made the choice to close.
But we did not make the choice to stop being part of the Body of Christ. People will look into other congregations to join. Some will stay in the UCC, some may join a church that is closer by.
Amidst the sadness of closing our doors after 85 years of ministry comes the questions: what do we do, how do we get to know people, will we fit in?
One answer we can glean from today’s scripture: eat.
Like Dorothy Zbornac, like Carrie Bradshaw, like Tony Soprano, like Peter, like Jesus, eat with the people around you. Don’t just go to worship and leave immediately afterwards. Make sure to stay.
Sit down for a cup of coffee. Have a slice of cake. Taste a cookie. Stay for a nosh.
It will be heartbreaking at first. It may be scary as heck. But don’t be afraid to join others at table, to eat, drink, talk. Open yourself up. Listen. Pray. Watch. Feel. Smell.
Food matters, and one of the ways in which God will take care of you, one way in which the Spirit will move, is if you are willing to spend some time eating and drinking with the people you meet at the places you may go.
Who knows what new friends you’ll make. Who knows what new family you may find. Who knows how the Spirit will move and how Jesus will make himself known.
Life is not the “Golden Girls.” All problems can’t be solved in five minutes over coffee and a slice of cheesecake. But it certainly won’t hurt none.
In closing, when Bea Arthur was interviewed and asked about her fondness of drink, she responded “I believe that you’re here on Earth for a short time, and while you’re here, you shouldn’t forget it... ‘Life’s a banquet, and most poor sons of (guns) are starving to death.’ Do I look hungry? Or thirsty?”
In deed, the Lord is our shepherd. Not only are we made to lie in green pastures and led beside still waters, but in Christ we are given a banquet, and our cup runs over.
May we continue to enjoy our time with one another, may we experience the presence of Christ every time we sit in fellowship and share at table, and may the Spirit watch over and guide us during our time of grief and transition.
Amen and amen.