Wrestle with the Tensions in God’s Word & World

Wrestle with the Tensions in God’s Word & World

Acts 10:9-22

by Daniel Harrell

We’re walking through our core values this fall, five verbs from the Bible, all discerned through prayer and ReForming reflection which together encapsulate our congregational character: Welcome, Risk, Wrestle, Immerse and Do Good. These five verbs fuel the answer to the question: “What is God calling us to next?” The immediate answer for our next season as church—our strategic focus as our consultant calls it—is “Cultivate a deeply relational community and cross the gaps that divide.” Specifics as to what this focus looks like are coming into focus. Already we’re unifying around a single Sunday service with Jesus at the center for the sake of deeper community, crossing gaps of musical preference for the sake of worship, the hallmark of Christian identity. We’ve revamped our Wednesdays with Meetinghouse to maximize our intergenerational strengths, and enhanced our ministries for students and kids and adults. We’re rethinking mission too—seeking to do good in ways that fit our congregational calling. In all of this we’re wrestling with a faith that wrestles back, apropos to our third core value: wrestling with the tensions in God’s word & God’s world.

Thanks to Rev. Sara for starting us off with her choke slam of a sermon last Sunday. (For those who don’t watch professional wrestling, a choke slam is a move similar to a power bomb or a pile driver.) I especially liked Sara’s reminder of how the name Israel means “to wrestle with God.” Here in Acts 10, the apostle Peter gets a taste of what it means to be Israel. God power-slams a hungry Peter with a sheet-full of meat, except it’s a menu that Peter can’t cotton. Having been a bad boy in the gospels—he denied three times ever knowing Jesus—here Peter’s trying to do better by keeping kosher. Despite being hungry, Peter fends off the food by appealing to purity: “No unclean thing has ever touched my lips!” But God rolls his eyes and commands Peter pick up his fork: “Don’t call unclean what God has made clean.”

We read that Peter had traveled far, was famished and had fallen in to a trance—the Greek word is ecstasy. I’ve been in something of a trance myself all week—the English word is jet-lag. Last Sunday I’d just returned from a week in Senegal with Rev. Carter, Jason Phillips and Mustafa Omar. We went to scout possible new paths for international mission engagement, having completed a commitment in Burundi last year. Mustafa leads Shelter for Life, an international faith-based relief and development organization that provides sustainable development and humanitarian assistance to post-conflict countries around the world.

Senegal’s conflict is due in part to geography. It’s is a country split in two, the product of European colonization which greedily divvied up West African lands. The French took Senegal, but not without the British sticking a finger right down its throat, separating what became a more prosperous north, centered around Dakar, the capital, from a resource-rich but economically impoverished south. Senegal’s most recent conflict was fueled by the disparity, with southern rebels fighting the government, and displacing thousands of southern rural villagers. Once the government suppressed the rebellion and restored order, Shelter for Live moved in to rebuild homes and build roads. These roads will provide easier access for cashew farmers to get their produce to market. As you crunch on those tasty nuts over the holidays, say a prayer for Senegal.

Our core value this morning is to “wrestle with the tensions in God’s word and world.” While Biblical, to name wrestle as a value does seem ironic. We’re taught to think of wrestling as uncomfortable and to be avoided; of our faith as a source of tranquility more than tension. The word tension never shows up in the Bible, but you constantly feel it. You feel it first at creation between Adam and Eve and God, and then between Cain and Abel, between Job and his friends, between Jacob and Esau, between Moses and the chosen people, between the prophets and the kings, between Jesus and the Pharisees and his own disciples, and of course all the tension that is the cross itself—just pick your Bible story.

You feel it in your own stories too—tension between family and friends, at work and in school, between nations and factions, over politics and over money, over priorities and choices, over personal health and mortality, between what you want and what you have, tension between who you are and who you wish you could be. In Senegal I spent an entire afternoon counseling missionaries and aid workers experiencing inordinate amounts of tension. 

Western humanitarian organizations provide development and relief to address hosts of problems, but in doing they cause other problems. We desire to do good and improve the lives of the poor, except that improvement isn’t always better. I read this week how “Modern hospitals quickly become pest houses in the absence of an infrastructure many countries find difficult to sustain. How western modes of agriculture can become a pool of cheap labor, exploited until cheaper labor is found elsewhere and then abandoned to the effects of social and cultural disruption. How ragtag armies so easily acquire ferocious weapons. How the fluidity of modern societies and the chaos of failed states expedite human trafficking.”

We’re increasingly aware of how much energy is required to create the conveniences and and ease of Western civilization. I read this week how it takes on average a whole year for a Senegalese person to produce the same amount of carbon emissions as an American puts out in a mere 28 hours. This is changing. Dakar is an overcrowded, congested and polluted metropolis, piled up with trash and smothered in smog. Senegal’s beloved Baobab trees, a national icon and symbol of pride, wither under the pressure of urbanization. UN Aid workers occupy the trendy side of town, near the beaches, with a sparkling new US Embassy sitting as a fortress by the ocean. Senegal’s government is remarkably stable for West Africa, its power dependent on US foreign aid and military presence. And yet, according to reports, 46% of the population remains impoverished. You feel the tension.

Our last day in Senegal took us to Gorée Island, a notorious port for colonial slave trade off Dakar’s coast. This is a a slave house where captives were chained and abused before getting shipped off to America for sale—the door you see is called the door of no return. Families were separated except for mothers permitted to nurse infant children, unless the mothers’ got sick, at which point mother and child would be cast together into the ocean to drown. Near the ocean sat a convent of devout Christian missionaries who would rescue these infants from the water and nurture them back to health, only to then give them back to the colonial slave traders. Hearing these horrors made it really awkward to admit we were from a place called Colonial Church. Our guide, a Senegalese Muslim man, remarked how Westerners often come to Senegal to lecture the people on human rights.

Here in Acts we read about Peter who was so sure he was right. Europeans and American slave traders justified their prejudice with Scripture. Peter does the same. Adherence to Levitical food restrictions were one way Jews maintained their distinctive personal purity and superiority over Gentiles who’d eat anything—the same way organic foodies lord it over people who can only afford Hamburger Helper.

What’s hilarious here is how Peter recognizes the voice and the sheet as coming from God, but obviously God’s got it wrong. Three sheets later, Peter’s still turning up his nose when there come three knocks at the door from three men. (With Peter it’s all about threes.) These three visitors—two slaves and a soldier—were sent by a Gentile named Cornelius: a man of great power, a warrior, a Roman centurion, a commander of armies, a slave master, strong and self-sufficient. Cornelius represents the colonizers of his own day. The Romans, while progressive among the ancient world, were also oppressive and indifferent to human suffering. And yet Cornelius is also a God-fearer—a military man who understood how power worked, an unclean Gentile outsider who nevertheless prays the prayers and gives to the poor and hears the word of the Lord who calls him to stand at Israel’s door and knock.

We read earlier how Cornelius was commanded by the Spirit to “seek out a certain Simon also called Peter;” a hint, perhaps, that Peter’s own transformation was not yet complete. I liked how Sara reframed this story as more about Peter’s conversion than about Cornelius’. But how is this possible? Peter had witnessed Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, had encountered the risen Christ in the flesh over breakfast and watched Jesus fly off into heaven. Peter had been blown away by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. He spoke in tongues, made a lame man walk, raised a child from the dead and healed countless others with just his shadow. But then God Almighty drops down dinner from heaven and Peter won’t eat it. “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” It would be as profane as partaking of another’s own body and blood.

Before going to Senegal I went to the travel clinic to get my shots: malaria, hepatitis A, meningitis, tetanus, typhoid; Senegal has it all. The doctor then dropped down her own sheet, a paper list of food restrictions, what was safe and not safe to eat. Nothing raw. No salads. No street food. Nothing unclean or unfamiliar. And stay away from the villages. But then here we were in a village being served lunch eaten from a common pot of rice and some unrecognizable vegetables and uncertain meat. The village women who cooked were so full of grace, and the people hospitable, but without utensils. So we said grace and dug in, following custom and scooping up the food with our hands and squeezing it into a ball—the sauce oozing out between our fingers. Hungry as Peter, we refused to refuse, despite all the warnings, and ate it all and were satisfied and nobody got sick—until we got back to a restaurant in the fancy part of the city and ate the “safe” food there.

Part of the problem with being wrong is that it rarely feels like being wrong. More often than not, being wrong feels like being right. And because we so love the feeling of rightness, we so often fail at relationships and at ever knowing what’s true. We live in a so-called “post-truth” day of fake news and in-your-Facebook outrage where being right is all about taking sides. We righteously exclude and other-ize on the basis of race and gender, sexuality and economic status, tribal allegiance and political affiliation, fashion sense and home address. As author Marilyn Robinson writes, “We are, and have always been, dangerous creatures, the enemies of our own happiness.” Scripture teaches our only hope as humans is the unmerited grace of God—both to us and through us to others. “But,” as Robinson writes, “the grace we could extend to one another we consider it best to withhold in very many cases, presumptively, or in the absence of what we consider true or sufficient merit (we being more particular than God), or because few gracious acts, if they really deserve the name, would stand up to cost-benefit analysis. This is not the consequence of a new atheism or a systemic materialism that afflicts our age more than others. It is good old human meanness, which finds its terms and pretexts in every age.”

In this story, heaven and earth come together over dinner. But as long as we choose sides and insist on our own rightness, we’ll never get to the table. Jesus says as much in his parable of the dinner party. All the people invited made excuses, so Jesus shut the door. Still in his daze—three sheets to the wind you might say— Peter doesn’t hear the knock at his door. Thankfully (and graciously) the Holy Spirit choke slams Peter back to his senses.

Peter gets up and goes to Cornelius and into his house—where no self-respecting Jew would ever dare go. Peter breaks bread (and bacon) with a despised Gentile centurion and slave holder. Peter goes to give Cornelius the gospel but got pile-driven by the gospel himself. “The Lord has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean,” Peter declared. “I truly understand that the Lord shows no partiality, but in every nation, whoever you are, anyone who fears God and wants to do what is right is welcomed.” Jesus Christ is Lord of all. His body and blood of life for anybody who’ll eat it.

In this story God resides on both sides—the Spirit speaks to Peter and Cornelius. To the sought and to the seeker. Neither can know what’s right apart from the other. Truth resides in the tension. And if we’re willing to wrestle we’ll find it.

In Senegal we traveled to an impoverished village where we met a newly married couple with three children who occupied a small, modest two room mud house, its roof provided by Shelter for Life. Far from the city, there is no electricity or running water, little money and only the one road, but there’s a strong sense of deep community and plenty of fresh air and good soil and good work. The couple showed us inside their small home with great pride and their kids seemed so happy. Our guide was Martin Badiat, a Shelter for Life project manager who’d provided the roof and built the road. Martin is Senegalese from the Jolla tribe, but he’s now fully Westernized and married to a Minnesotan, no less, and fluent in English, the beneficiary of so much humanitarian help. Yet driving away from the couple’s house he admitted to me how he dreamed of living in one of those small, simple homes, farming cashews on his own land with his family amidst the sunshine and lush beauty and tight-knit community of love. Martin works hard to help people in need. But they help him too.

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