Some years ago my then-spouse and I were walking along the streets of Taipei, Taiwan, soaking in the colors and sounds and scents of a foreign place. Suddenly ahead of us was this man jumping around with what appeared to be a snake following his every move. We went closer (but not too close!) and realized that the "snake" was a toy that was attached to his belt by a thin piece of fishing line or wire that made it seem as if it were trying to strike him. Then we noticed that the man was standing in front of a store with a window full of snakes of various kinds. People went in the store and came out with packages wrapped in paper and tied with twine. We found out it was a butcher shop that specialized in snakes which were a culinary delicacy there and folks were taking their main dish home all ready to cook and eat. I don't care if it does taste like chicken, the thought of eating snake is just a bit more than I was (or am) willing to seriously consider doing.
I wonder if Peter would have been braver in the culinary sense than I was? His story was that he had been on top of a roof, minding his own business, when suddenly there was this bright light and a big sheet coming down from heaven with all sorts of creatures on it like horses, giraffes, pigs, hippos, snakes, birds, lions, buzzards -- all kinds of things that were ritually unclean. Peter had been taught to see a "Not for human consumption" stamp on them but here was God telling him it was okay, they had been made clean and were edible. The point was, of course, not so much that Peter was now free to eat snakes or shrimp or even pork chops but that what had been believed to be forbidden was now not only permissible but mandated. The audience listening to his story had heard he'd been seen in public dining with non-Jews and they were a bit upset by having one of their chief religious figures caught in such a compromising position, so to speak. Peter's story of his vision was to reassure the people that he hadn't done anything wrong; in fact, he'd done precisely what God had told him to do.
There's a song from South Pacific that repeats the line "You have to be carefully taught" and lists things like fear of strange, different or unusual things or people, things or people your family wouldn't approve of and things you've been taught to believe pretty much all your life. Peter had been doing what he had been taught to do, namely avoiding certain foods which didn't conform to a specific set of physiological landmarks and food preferences. He'd been taught to avoid eating with non-Jews who might offer him food that had been previously offered to idols or which their culture and religion, unlike his, had no restrictions. His vision turned his thinking around. I don't think Peter was always the brightest bulb in the pack, but when God sent down a sheet with a pig on it and said that it was okay to eat bacon and barbecue, Peter could get the point. He could even follow the directions to draw a parallel between the animals on the sheet and people he had been taught to avoid.
I’ve been reading a book called A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren that got me thinking about Peter’s sheet in a different way. One of the points that he makes is that there are a lot of different kinds of Christians and none of them seem to have the whole picture of what Jesus was about and taught and expected. Something that stuck with me was his iteration of the idea that liberal churches point out the perceived faults of conservative churches and the conservative churches do exactly the same thing about the liberal ones. Each looks at the part that doesn’t agree with their own theology and spirituality and ignores the good that comes from another’s way of doing faith and church. Each has strong and weak points and wouldn’t it be great (and beneficial) if instead of focusing on the negative each could see what they could learn to see or do differently (and maybe more successfully) from the other?
I think this is what God was getting at with the sheet, more than calling attention to the fact that every one of the creatures in the sheet was made by God and that God had made them clean. When it came to people, others were still making distinctions between “them” and “us,” the people who think like they do or believe like them and the people who don’t. How many thousands of years of slavery, misogyny, authoritarianism and inequality have been based on that kind of distinction? Peter’s lesson from God had more to do with reconciliation than simply expanding a menu or proper dinner companions. It takes all kinds to build the world or a kingdom and God made them all. Granted, there are people we feel we have to exclude because of the very real harm that they choose to do, yet they are still God’s children. Perhaps they are among those God would send down on a sheet to us, along with people with whom we disagree ideologically, economically, politically or any other distinction that makes them “them” and us “us.” With McLaren, it’s time to look in the sheet and see where the reconciliation needs to take place, where the change needs to happen, where the good needs to be recognized and then get on with the process.
This is a hard lesson. I know that I would see faces peering at me from the sheet, faces that belonged to people who are also God’s children with whom I need to find my way to reconciliation, whether it’s because the hurts imposed on one side or the other, disagreements on things both major and minor, or just people about whom I don’t like something. I’m sure, if I really gave it a chance, there are things that I could learn from them that would be good or worthwhile. In my own mind I have consigned them to the undesirable list. That’s not to say that some shouldn’t be kept at a distance, but I must never forget that the imprint of God’s creation is on and within them, just as it is with me.
Perhaps I need to spend time thinking about Peter and the sheet and what lesson I’m supposed to learn from it. I think I have a pretty good idea of what that lesson is, my reading seem to be pointing me in that direction. I can’t promise that I’ll ever eat snake but maybe I can learn to see what is good in someone else and not just look for their weak points to build myself up.
I think it’s time to start looking.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 13, 2013, under the title "Oh! Sheet!"