A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
Have you ever had a really bizarre dream? I remember when I was in the third or fourth grade and I dreamed that I was on a school field trip, not to a museum or some educational outing, but to an amusement park. Even though it was a school field trip with my classmates and teachers, other people were there, too, like friends from church and TV personalities like Ronald McDonald and Mr. Rogers. While we were riding a roller coaster, dinosaurs pounced upon us, and all of a sudden, I found myself running, first in a forest, then in my neighborhood, then on the beach, all the while Tyrannosaurus Rexes were chasing after me. I remember shouting “Dinosaur! Dinosaur!” just as my mom was shaking my shoulder trying to wake me up. I still remember this dream after all these years, mainly because my mom has been reminding me of this incident ever since: “Remember that time when you had that dream and you were shouting ‘Dinosaur! Dinosaur!’ in your sleep?” “Thanks for reminding me, Mom.” If only I had written it all down in a book, and called it Jurassic Park. I could have made a lot of money!
Have you ever had a bizarre dream like that, where people and things that don’t usually go together, that shouldn’t go together—like oil and water, cats and dogs, Wiley E. Coyote and the roadrunner, Redskins and Cowboy fans—are in fact, happily together? If you have, then you are not alone. Peter had a similar experience in this morning’s New Testament lesson. He was in the city of Joppa, and while he was praying, he fell into a trance and saw a vision. In this vision, the heavens opened up, and something like a large sheet was let down by its four corners, and on this sheet were animals of all kinds: four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles, and birds of the air.
This vision was a nightmare for Peter, because, like all the earliest Christians, Peter was also a Jew. Since the days of Moses, good orthodox Jews have adhered to dietary laws. These laws were not just human-made traditions, they were commanded by God in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These dietary laws identified clean animals which Jews were allowed to eat — like cows, and fish with scales, and separated them from unclean animals which Jews were to detest – like pigs and shrimp and shellfish. Clean and unclean animals were not supposed to be mixed together. But Peter saw in this dream all these animals, clean and unclean, all together on the same large sheet. In this bizarre dream, animals that don’t usually go together, that shouldn’t go together, were in fact together. What’s more, Peter heard a voice calling him to kill and eat.
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” Peter was reluctant to obey the dream, for this was against everything that he had been taught regarding eating unclean animals. The dietary laws not only separated animals into clean and unclean, it also separated people into clean and unclean: To eat unclean animals shattered all the boundaries that helped shaped his own identity. Faithful Jews were ritually clean because they observed the dietary laws; Gentiles were unclean because they didn’t. Faithful Jews had nothing to do with the Gentiles; they did not step into their houses, and they certainly did not eat with them. This idea shouldn’t be too foreign to long-time Baptists since we used to have this saying: “Baptists don’t drink, dance or chew, or go with girls who do.” Yet Peter took this dream to heart and became open to the possibility that God might be erasing the lines between clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile.
While Peter experienced this vision, an angel of God had already instructed a God-fearing Gentile centurion called Cornelius to send his men to bring Peter to his home. Peter was welcomed into Cornelius’ house and ate with him and his family. Peter then preached the Gospel and while Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit descended upon Cornelius’ whole household, and they were baptized by that same Spirit. What an amazing, heady experience it must have been for Peter! He saw firsthand God’s saving work among Gentiles, among a people whom the Jews had considered God-forsaken. What an inspiration it must be to experience firsthand God’s lack of favoritism among nations and proclaim God’s acceptance of everyone from every nation who fears God and does what is right. Who could be against that?
Well, there were people against it, especially among the Jewish Christian leaders and believers in Jerusalem. When Peter returned to Jerusalem, those believers criticized him: “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them!” Peter had to defend his actions in eating with a Gentile, and he recalled the whole story, witnessing to the work of God’s Holy Spirit. When those Jewish believers heard Peter recount this whole story, they had no further objections, and they praised God saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”
You’ve to give those early Jewish Christians credit— they were willing to sacrifice beliefs and traditions they held dear for the sake of advancing the gospel. They were open-minded enough to hear what Peter had to say, and they were open-minded enough to consider the inclusion of Gentiles as part of God’s expansive dream in advancing God’s Kingdom.
Being opened minded is a timely lesson that I’m learning, as a group from our church is about to attend a city-wide rally tomorrow night at John Paul Jones Arena. This gathering is called the Nehemiah Action Assembly organized by IMPACT, which is an acronym for “Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together,” a grassroots movement comprised of over twenty-six member congregations in the Charlottesville area working together to address serious, community-wide problems such as affordable housing, transportation, and dental and mental health care. When I first become the senior minister here at UBC, I quickly learned that our involvement in IMPACT was the most divisive issue in our church. Some were committed to participating in IMPACT. Others were turned off or embarrassed by the strident tone of IMPACT in its early Nehemiah Action Assemblies, as some perceived that IMPACT could be too political or too negative.
I was wary when an IMPACT representative came to meet with me and invited me to see for myself the approach that IMPACT was taking to address the problem of unemployment among our young adults. In their research, they identified over 3,000 unemployed young adults in our area. At the same time, they also noticed that the lack of entry-level nurses is the greatest challenge for two of our biggest employers, UVA Hospital and Martha Jefferson Hospital. Based on that conversation, I attended and observed a meeting of IMPACT officers (Pastors of area churches) and the CEO’s of UVA and Martha Jefferson hospitals. What struck me was the cordiality of the meeting and how both sides wanted to address this problem. I saw first-hand that IMPACT was not interested in demanding concessions from the hospitals, but desired to work with the hospitals to help supply them with entry-level nurses, while at the same time providing unemployed young adults in our area a promising career path. IMPACT pledged to both CEOs that there will be no booing or negativity at the assembly. Instead, they hope to highlight to the community what our hospitals are actively doing to help reduce youth unemployment in our community. They are seeking a win-win solution.
At the end of the worship service today, we will be commissioning those who will attend the Nehemiah Action Assembly. I too will be there with open eyes and an open mind to see how our faith communities can partner with our hospitals to address the problem of unemployment. We will also hear what is being considered to provide permanent solutions for those who are homeless in our community. I invite you to attend this assembly tomorrow night to see for yourself how IMPACT is changing its approach in working with our government and businesses to address the community-wide challenges for the benefit of all. I believe providing more career-track employment opportunities for our under-privileged youth and providing systemic and permanent solutions to homelessness are also a part of God’s expansive dream to advance God’s Kingdom for our community.
What other ways may God be challenging us to open our eyes and minds to see God’s expansive dream? While we may scoff at those early Jewish Christians for obeying strange dietary laws, let us examine our own lives and consider our own list of what or who is clean and unclean, acceptable or detestable. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that today, we have our own “purity codes.” We often find those who are unlike us to be “impure,” people with whom we would rather not associate. He suggests that for some of us it might be people like Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, illegal immigrants, gays and lesbians, poor people, aging people. Even inside our churches, we may have a tendency to divide between “us” and “them” along lines of young vs. old; conservative vs. liberal; those with power vs. those without; those who’ve been here all their lives vs. those who’ve recently moved into the community. Like Peter and those early Jewish Christians, we often see outsiders, the people we call “them,” as a threat to our traditions, a threat to who we think we are as a church. But this morning, we are confronted with the question in verse 17: “If God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who are we to think that we could oppose God?”
I don’t dream about dinosaurs these days, but I do have a recurring dream that is seemingly just as bizarre. I dream of a church where Republicans intentionally associate with Democrats. I dream of a church where the rich intentionally commune with the poor. I dream of a church where the young intentionally fellowship with the old. Where people of all races, ethnicities and skin color worship and serve together. Where the educated and those less educated mutually learn from one another. Where people who like organ music worship with people who like guitars. I dream of a church where everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples because we love one another. I dream of a church where the most important thing all the members share is the same gift of the Holy Spirit that unites all in the midst of our diversity. I dream of a church where we can welcome and include all the people that our society considers as “them.” Because if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who are we to think that we could oppose God?
May God give us the courage, like Peter, to live out God’s expansive dream, both out in the world AND within our church. Amen.
 Walter Brueggemann, in http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2007-04/blogging-toward-sunday-1.
Michael Cheuk is a leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Baptist Center for Ethics / EthicsDaily.com board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.