"A Change of Heart and Diet...."
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
May 9, 2010
University Baptist Church
A friend recently lamented that the picture in their Facebook profile did not match their present size due to a change in diet and an increase in exercise. As spring turns to summer, and we pull out clothes that don’t fir like they used to, we contemplate a change in diet. At our house our dryer does funny thing with our pants. It shrinks the waistline. Funny, the inseams don’t shrink. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just photoshop in the images we would like and post that as our eternal status? A new diet means a lifestyle change. No more oreos in bed. More fiber. More water. Better fitting clothes. More energy. More guilt? More obsession?
What about when you have a baby? Mothers know that it’s dang near impossible to resemble your BC self. It’s one of nature’s crueler tricks.
Enter today with me into a world where diet meant everything. I’m not talking about the Biblical word, although there are certainly some parallels with today. And a change of diet means a change in not only what you eat, but also how you associate with others.
Folks who have gone through recovery know what this is about. When you change what you consume, you also need to change the rules of friendship—meaning that your values matter as much if not more in the relationships that we pursue.
Carolyn Hax wrote a column that appeared in the Star Tribune on May 5. A mother was writing with a dilemma about what to serve at her daughter’s graduation party. Her daughter is a vegetarian and her mother wants to serve meat as the main dish and have a few veggie options as side dishes. I love Carolyn Hax’s response:
Given that vegetarians are decades out from being an exotic breed, and given that round-the-clock cooking shows and worldwide cultural cross-pollination have made brie the stuff of convenience stores, and given that pasta, beans, dairy, nuts and eggs can give your guests all the protein they need in a form that won’t even scare Uncle Phil, there’s absolutely no reason to go against the guest of honor’s wishes. She may be one of two vegetarians there, but putting meat on the menu just for the sake of serving meat is actually a case of your imposing your values on her.
I attended a largely gluten-free party last night and I ate really well!
Today’s scripture reading is about a change of diet which lead to a change in heart, which lead to the vision of the very reign of God on earth.
In Biblical times, diet was a very important thing. It was how you defined who you were as a people. There were good foods and bad foods, clean foods and unclean foods, meats that were ritually prepared and other meats that were sacrificed to idols. Eating the wrong kinds of meat was a real no no. It meant that you were not a part of the community. It meant that you were unclean, just as the food of which you partook was unclean. And only clean people were full members of the community. Diet was ritually important.
Peter had lived his life as a good Jew, meaning that he kept the kosher laws, but it also meant that he kept the laws that restricted one’s interactions with the Gentiles, the Goyim, the nations, all the people who weren’t Jewish.
The 10th chapter of Acts opens with just such a Gentile, a Centurion named Cornelius having a vision from God. A Centurion in the Italian Cohort, had about 100 men under his military command. But Cornelius was not your typical Roman soldier. Acts 10:2 says that Cornelius feared God as did his whole household, he gave alms liberally to the poor, and prayed constantly to God. When you fear God, pray constantly and give alms, chances are that you will be more attentive to God, and you may hear God's voice more clearly.
Well, God did speak to Cornelius, but not late at night in a dream. No, God chose to send an angel to speak to Cornelius at the ninth hour of the day. That's 3:00 in the afternoon in plain daylight, probably while Cornelius was at work. The angel said to him, "Cornelius...your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial to God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter." So Cornelius sent about three men the 30 miles to Joppa in order to find Peter.
Meanwhile back in Joppa, God was at work with Peter. There he was up on the roof praying in the noonday sun. But while he was praying he started to get hungry. He probably smelled the food cooking in the streets of Joppa below him.
Peter tried to go back to his praying and get the food out of his mind, but God would have none of that. In a vision, Peter saw the heavens open up and something descending, which looked like a big tablecloth. And on that sheet were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him that said, "Rise, Peter, kill and eat." But Peter, whose mouth was watering by now, knew his kosher upbringing said, "No, Lord, I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." Peter was safe within his little box where all of the rules were clear. But God was sick of those restrictive boxes and was about to break them open. The voice from above said, "What God as cleansed, you must not call common." And Peter being Peter, had to have this vision three times. Peter had a thing about the number 3. He fell asleep of Jesus three times. He denied Jesus three times. The risen Jesus had to ask Peter three times if he loved him. God was going to make sure that Peter got the point.
Enter upon the scene, the men sent by Cornelius. The Spirit said to Peter to accompany them without question or without delay. So in silence, they all set out to Caesarea, again, another 30 miles in the desert. Are you beginning to catch on to the humor in this story? When Peter arrived in Caesarea, he saw that Cornelius had gathered quite a congregation of kinfolk and close friends knowing that Peter would be visiting. Talk about pressure. And not one of them, as far as we know, was a fellow Jew. Now, we need to remember, that the Jews and especially the Christian Jews were suspect in the eyes of government authorities. Both Cornelius and Peter were taking quite a risk on behalf of their faith.
When he saw Peter, Cornelius fell down at Peter's feet and worshipped him. Clearly Cornelius had a lot to learn about Christianity. Kneeling to worship a person is like idolatry. God taught Peter something about Christianity through Cornelius, though. It was something that would change the face of Christianity, as we know it. Cornelius showed Peter that God could speak to other races, other cultures, and other lifestyles. Peter's and the Christian world's mind was expanded because of how God worked through Cornelius.
The first thing Peter said to Cornelius was, "Stand up; I too am a man." Peter the apostle saw Cornelius the Centurion, a gentile, as an equal. As they looked at each other in astonishment and wonder, Peter broke the silence: "You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to even visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean." The two of them then exchanged stories of how the Spirit had brought them together. God told Peter that no food was profane. That’s the change in diet. Peter now states that no people are profane. That’s the change in heart.
Peter and Cornelius realized once and for all that whatever differences they may have had, they were both created by the same God, had similar hopes and dreams and benefited nothing from their fear and judgment of each other.
I think about today's conflicts and mistrust between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land today. I think about the splits among Baptists and others. I think of racial strife and economic fears in our own state and country. I think about the xenophobic and racist response to immigration. And I think we might need to listen once again to Acts 10.
Then Peter turned to the masses of people that Cornelius had gathered and said four words that would change the course of Christianity, and open up the gospel to the Gentiles. Four words which we still have a little bit of trouble swallowing, if we are completely honest about it. "God shows no partiality." “…But in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God."
God shows no partiality. That means that regardless of what popular culture would have us believe, God does not prefer one class, one race, one nationality, one gender, one sexual orientation, one party, one team, or even one church over another. God is above all of that. The question is, are we above that, too?
Do we show partiality to one group over another? Are we willing to only set ourselves up with the best people? Are we willing to have the mind of God when it comes to things or people we do not understand? Are we quick to judge someone simply because they are different? We remember Jesus' words: "judge not, lest you yourself be judged." "Judgment is mine", says God in the scriptures. Remember, God shows no partiality.
The visions challenged Peter to rethink not only his diet, but his interactions. And I think it changed his heart, too.
Peter finally realizes that the kosher laws are something that he should not be so rigid about as the church grows and changes. It is also the beginning of a move toward inclusion of former outsiders into the emerging church. It was a radical step. Peter declared that in order to be a Christian, you no longer needed to be Jewish. What resulted was a change of diet and a change of heart.
I think the diet change was easier than the heart change. Sometimes we need to practice something before it sinks in. People in recovery talk about “fake it ‘til you make it.” Maybe we need to find ways to practice generosity of heart even before we are ready to embrace it. We do this through giving, through volunteering, through attending to those less fortunate than ourselves. That’s why we come to church week after week, so we can witness to this change of heart so central to the Gospel. I guess eventually it can become second nature, but it takes a disciplined approach. This is especially true if we are doing something that is countercultural. Maybe that’s why children start out small, so they help us parents get used to doing things differently.
Parents, you do things differently because you have kids. You prioritize things differently, you make decisions with them in mind—whether you want to or not. You do it because you are responsible for this child. You eat what they eat. And more often than not, your hearts are changed. By the time they are grown, it’s hard to imagine life before they were there. So give thanks for each diaper, each feeding, each practice that nurtures your relationship.
My friends, Peter changed his diet when he realized he had to adopt not only a person named Cornelius. He needed to adopt a whole new culture. And it changed his heart and it changed the heart of the church toward one of inclusion, of welcome to the outsider. It broke down the barriers. It wasn’t easy. I’m sure there were still people who preferred the old ways and kept rigidly to them. But by the time the New Testament closes, those rigid ones disappear. What we are left with is the inclusive community. The transforming community, the resurrected community.
A change of heart is always what God has in mind for us. A change in diet is a preliminary step. A change in heart is what it’s all about.
What part of your heart is hardened today?
What part of your lifestyle needs to be altered in order to open your heart to God’s radical movement toward community?
Kim’s Southern Baptist mother Mary Jo was not immediately welcomed into her husband Jerry’s Jewish family. She needed to prove her worthiness. She tried really hard, and it was a change in diet that helped change their hearts. Jerry’s family was not overly observant, but they did celebrate with the elaborate meals at the holidays. Making Passover matzo ball soup is an art. If you cook it wrong, the matzo balls can either disintegrate or have the consistency of spackle. Mary Jo tried and failed many times, but eventually perfected the perfect matzo ball. This endeared her to her Jewish in-laws. And she passed on that art to her daughter and we continue to eat really good matzo ball soup and even practice a change of diet a few times a year in order to honor Kim’s departed mother and father. And each time we eat the food, our hearts are somehow changed.
Maybe we need to give thanks to God who through Peter’s visions, mothered us—showing us a better way to get along with one another.
And like a good mother, God offers us a change of diet which leads to a change of heart, which leads to the regin of God on earth.
Thanks be to God.