Do you ever have recurring dreams? I do. I’ve had a recurring dream for years. The dreams are like movies with different settings and different people, but they all have the same plot. I need to be in the pulpit preaching by a certain time, but I just can’t get there. For instance, I may be in the narthex waiting to go into church and a homeless man asks for money. So I go over to the Wells Fargo ATM which transforms into a google map and suddenly I am on the toll road heading west frantically searching for exits so I can get back to the pulpit on time. But the toll booth turns into a tunnel and as I emerge on the other side I am on the Pennsylvania turnpike heading toward Ohio, stressing on how I am going to get back to the church on time. In all these dreams I wake up before I ever get back to the pulpit. In one of the dreams it is a multilevel church and I can’t get the elevator to stop on the right floor!
I’m sure that these kinds of dreams reflect something that we are anxious about in real life. College students have these kinds of dreams about final exams. (I’d love to hear about your recurring dreams after church.) I’m sure anxiety or stress motivated the dream Peter had. Peter’s responsibility was to spread the word of God following the death of Jesus. Peter’s message was that Jesus is the new way to God’s kingdom. He had been spreading that message among Jews. But some gentiles caught wind of this and wanted to hear this message also.
The anxiety producing problem was, though, that the Gentiles were considered unclean by Jews. It would have been against law and tradition for Peter to go to them. So, Peter has this really, really weird dream in which four-footed animals, snakes, and birds were all squirming around in a large sheet which had been lowered in front of him. These would have been animals considered unclean by Jewish law. Then a voice commanded Peter to eat these animals. Peter was grossed out and said no, “Nothing profanes or unclean will ever enter my mouth.” Then the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” It was a recurring dream for Peter. It happened three times. So, then when Peter had the opportunity to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to a gentile household in Joppa he dutifully went rejoicing that God’s good news was not just for Jews. It was for all people. Gentiles were clean, too.
Every three years when these lessons present themselves I always like to preach from the first reading – Acts --- Peter’s dream --- because I see it as an opportunity to proclaim inclusivity. This is the God who, Genesis tells us, said “This is good” when she created each thing – especially humans. To God, all people are “clean.” All nations are “clean.” All religions are clean. Every three years Peter’s dream gives me an opportunity to address anti-semitism, racism, classism, xenophobia, misogyny – all those “isms” which purport to divide the world into “clean” and “unclean” and all those who, of course, would include themselves among the “clean.”
So, every three years I welcome this opportunity. But this year it doesn’t seem so much an opportunity to say these things as it does a requirement. This year, in particular, it seems a requirement to state that there are no “s—hole” countries. It is a requirement to point out that we seem to get a whole lot more bent out of shape about immigrants of color than those of European heritage. It is a requirement to point out that God does not, does not, declare the entire LGBTQ community to be unclean. It is a requirement to state that this is not a “Christian nation,” but one which welcomes all religions – especially Muslims.
But, having said that, this does not mean that God simply declares all things to be clean. There is a distinction. For instance, I wonder what the reverse image of Peter’s dream would look like. The opposite. Let’s imagine. Let’s imagine the devil, not God, drops a sheet down in front of Peter. In this sheet are neo-Nazis and autocratic dictators, people telling lies and calling them truth, hate-radio announcers, heads of pharmaceutical companies jacking up prices on medicines which could save lives, congressional leaders who give tax cuts to the very, very rich, priests who molest children, parents who don’t vaccinate their children, terrorists, people who don’t use their turn signals etc, etc. All squirming around in a big sheet. And the devil says, “Get up, Peter. Partake of this.” Peter is grossed out and refuses. But the devil’s voice says to him, “What I have made clean you shall not call profane.”
So, there really are clean things and unclean things in the world. Figuring out which is which can be difficult. I think that is why many people come to church. They need to be given a frame of reference from which to distinguish clean and unclean. It is not enough to say, “The Bible tells me what is right and what is wrong. That is all I need to know.” I would commend to you an article in the current Lutheran written by Herbert Chilstrom a former presiding bishop of the ELCA.
Chilstrom says that, for Christian, the issue behind all issue is the authority of scripture. It is not helpful, he says, to pretend that all parts of the Bible have the same weight. Rather, there are some parts which are more important than other parts. That’s why we stand when we read the gospel. We cannot just pick and choose verses which back up our preconceived notions of what is clean and unclean.
Rather, we must distinguish between the written word and the living word. The living word is Jesus Christ. Therefore, we read scripture through that filter. Do these words bear authentic witness to the living Christ? So, for instance, when we come across Old Testament passages which explicitly condemn homosexuality, we consider them in the context of your red-letter Bible. You remember your red letter Bible. All the words Jesus said were printed in red letters. And not one of those red letters said anything at all about sexual orientation. But most of those red letters spoke of loving all people, especially the poor, the oppressed, and the one’s rejected by society.
Joseph Sittler, a favorite theologian of mine, once said that “people should read the Bible from its center – its witness to Jesus Christ – and not from its edges, trying to use it for purposes for which it was not intended.
I don’t particularly enjoy my recurring dreams about not being able to make it to the pulpit on time. I am glad to wake up out of them and be here, just like I am now. When Peter woke up out of his dream he took action on what it had all meant. He went into the home of the gentile family in Joppa and welcomed those “outsiders” into the family of Christ. You see, when we are confronted by those who society has labeled unclean we have a responsibility to act, to reach out, to defend.
The Reverend Joachim Alexandropoulos was an Orthodox priest on a Greek isle in World War II, now memorialized at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. The Nazis came one day, demanding that he provide them, the next day, with a list naming every Jew on the island. The next day he handed them a list containing only one name, his own.
Standing with those who have been declared unclean takes courage. But, especially in these days, it is not so much that we have the opportunity to stand with them. It is that we have the requirement.
Text: Acts 11:1-19