Rev. George Miller
April 24, 2016
Recently there was an article in the New-Sun Times that gave an eye-opening statistic. It stated that the percentage of people who remain in Highlands County after the Snowbird Season comes to an end is 80%.
According to this article, the population of our county only goes down 20% during the summer and fall season.
80% of the population stays right here. It makes sense.
Think about it: why would Ashley Furniture be coming in, and Publix expanding unless if Sebring is growing and becoming a more permanent place of residence?
For those who live in Snowbird-specific places like Gulf Hammock, your streets may be emptying out, but for folk like me who live downtown, it stays virtually the same.
With this news that 80% of the population stays comes the reality that perhaps the ways things have been done need to be revisited.
With news that 80% of the population stays means new paradigms will have to be created for a business to be successful, for social services to be effective, and for churches to be relevant.
For example we can look at our latest directory and see that of the 158 people who attend here during the course of a year, 89 live here all year round.
This news means a new paradigm.
Like- what months do the choir sing? What events do we have? When do we do them?
What will the electric bill be? How much toilet paper do we need?
How do we define ourselves? As a Snowbird Church or a Year-Long Congregation?
What ways of thinking and doing do we embrace?
What ways of thinking, doing do we let go?
We see this with today’s reading as we witness a religious community in transition.
People have had the awesome experience of being introduced to Christ. Either they met Jesus when he was alive, or experienced Christ after he was resurrected.
Or they have heard and experienced the wonders of this new movement in which men, women, rich, poor, widowed, and married were having life-changing experiences in Christ’s name.
But this is all too new, and the religious leaders are confused. To properly follow Christ, does one first need to be Jewish?
Must one be circumcised, follow the Law given to Moses, and eat kosher?
Or can someone of any faith or no faith background at all follow Jesus, and not worry about having an extra piece of skin or what they consume?
In other words- the future of the Christian movement rests upon the questions- are you circumcised, and do you eat pork, shrimp and cheeseburgers?
It may not seem like a big deal to us today, but it really is. Judaism was very clear on what you can and cannot consume.
And it is nearly impossible to have a religious function or to visit potential new members if you’re limited by what you can eat.
Food is a powerful thing. I can say that because clearly I’ve been around food all my life and clearly devoured my share.
I’ve also lived in enough places and dined with enough people to see the different ways we eat.
For example, New Yorkers have a clear understanding about pizza. It’s served as a slice, which you fold in half, and you never, ever eat pizza with a knife & fork.
Coffee comes with 2 creams and 2 sugars. Chili is served over rice.
But the good folks of Minnesota? They drink their coffee black- best of luck finding cream and sugar at a church function.
They eat something called a “hot dish” in which the main ingredient is cream of mushroom soup and things like tater tots or Doritos are placed on top.
In Chicago people have deep-dish pizza which is served in thick slices and consumed with knife & fork. Hot-dogs come on poppy-seed buns with celery salt and diced tomatoes.
In Ohio people love their Skyline Chili, which they proudly serve over spaghetti.
In St. Louis people eat toasted ravioli and they’ll take grilled hot dogs and hamburgers and dump them in a pot of BBQ to let them soak up the flavor.
Citizens of Canada put gravy on their french fries. At fairs, folks in Florida eat gator bites.
Anywhere you travel in the south you can get deep fried catfish, livers & gizzards at a gas station.
Food tells us a lot about people. Where they are from. What their socio-economic background may be.
Are they an adventurous people who like lots of spice, or on the cautious side careful with their seasonings?
The food we eat, and are willing to try can unite us.
The food we don’t eat, and refuse to try can keep us apart.
That’s what is going on in today’s story. It is not as simple as drinking your coffee black or with sugar and cream.
It’s not as simple as do you serve your chili over spaghetti or rice.
It’s not as simple as do you fold your slice of pizza or do you eat it with a knife & fork.
It comes down to this- if Peter, or any of the disciples, are to spread the Good News about Christ, can they go into the home of someone who is serving something they have been forbidden to eat for centuries?
How can Peter or any of the disciples really get to know other people when most social interaction takes place around the table, and they may be serving popcorn shrimp and pulled pork?
And what if these new believers come to worship at one of the new home churches, and bring catfish nuggets to the fellowship hour to share, or bacon dipped in chocolate?
Who would be willing to have their place of worship desecrated by a food that’s considered unholy and profane?
This is a major dilemma for everyone involved because for over a millennia they have been told that to be faithful followers of God the men must be circumcised and no unclean food is to touch their lips.
But how could a church grow if:
1) You can’t share with the local community because they are considered to be unclean?
2) You expect grown men to give up a piece of skin they’ve grown attached to, and told them no more gas-station catfish for you!
No way would this work; no way they would grow and be able to deliver the message of the Resurrected Christ.
Fortunately, they do not have to solve the problem. God does it for them.
One day, while Peter is waiting for his meal, he goes to spend some alone-time with God. Peter has an other-worldy vision-
Something akin to a picnic blanket comes down filled with all kinds of critters. A voice says “Get up and eat.”
Peter protests, but the voice assures him “God has made all food clean; no longer call any of it profane.”
So as to make sure that Peter gets the point, this happens 3 times.
3 times Peter is assured that all food is clean, and he can eat whatever is placed before him without worrying that he is disrespecting God or being unholy.
The voice says “If you want to eat gator bites, eat gator bites. If you’re served bacon wrapped shrimp, eat bacon wrapped shrimp.”
“If you enter someone’s home and they serve you chitlins, ham hocks and cornbread dipped in clabber, you eat those chitlins, ham hocks, and corn bread and you be a gracious guest.”
What this vision does, what God does, what the movement of the Holy Spirit does, is to break open the possibilities for more people to come to Christ.
This vision breaks open the notion of who can join and be an active part of this worshipping community.
This vision makes the number of people who can hear, experience, and share the Good News become limitless.
A new paradigm is established, a new way of being. A new way of acting.
A new way to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the Lord.
A new way to care for the orphan, the widow, the alien.
A new way to be neighbor to people who were once seen as different, unclean, and unholy.
Now you can go to that Block Party where they are serving hot dogs. Now you can go to that church conference in New Orleans and eat crayfish etouffee. Now you can go with your friends to the Circle and have a bacon cheeseburger.
Now you can be a bigger, better part of the community, therefore you can do a bigger, better ministry of showing folk what a life lived in Christ is really about…
…We are a denomination that boldly believes “God is Still Speaking.” We believe God is still acting, God is still moving. God is still making all things new and newer.
What that means is that in Christ there will always be new paradigms, there will always be new things to discover, new things to figure out.
As the paradigms change, we change too. We do so with those who are like Peter, and those who are like Tabitha.
In Christ, a new community is formed.
A community in which fishermen preach to the Temple authorities.
A community in which a woman is not dependant on marriage or a man to make her mark.
A community in which one can see, one can stand, and one can rise again, even when facing defeat.
A community in which no one is defined by or turned away by what they eat, but everyone can sit, enjoy and be present at the Table.
A community in which we welcome those who see visions, we welcome those who dream dreams.
We adjust, we change, we grow, we thrive.
We remember all that has come before; we anticipate all that will come after.
We listen for the Still Speaking voice of God, and we are willing to go wherever Christ may lead.
Amen and amen.