“The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separate from God.” That’s a quote from Thomas Keating that has kept bubbling up in my mind all during the week. I find it a very comforting idea. At the times when we may have good intentions about enriching our prayer life, but we are not feeling particularly prayerful or even particularly spiritual, it is worth remembering this quote to meditate on as we begin to pray: “The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separate from God.” Or, we can also remember that quote to meditate on as we clean out the cat’s litter box or wait in line at Food Lion, because as we do those things we are not separate from God either: “The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separate from God.”
It enables us to take a healthy skepticism toward the thought that we are separate from God. Maybe we’re not so separate from God after all. This may seem a little odd at first. After all, the word “holiness” has at its root the meaning “set apart.” Still, this sense of separation is exactly what today’s reading from Acts challenges.
Today’s reading concerns the prohibitions on non-kosher food. It is common to hear people say that the reason some foods, such as pork, were forbidden is so that people wouldn’t get sick from animals that carried diseases. But this explanation falls apart as soon as you start looking into it with any seriousness. The list of non-kosher animals in Leviticus is a very long and detailed list, and the list of kosher animals in Leviticus is also a very long and detailed list, and while some of the animals that carry disease are on the non-kosher list, some of them are also on the kosher list, and some of the animals that do not carry disease are on the non-kosher list and others are on the kosher list.
The true reason behind the rules for what is kosher and what is not is this: the things that fit neatly into tidy categories are considered holy, and the things that do not fit neatly into tidy categories are forbidden. The scholar Mary Douglas explains how this works in her excellent book Purity and Danger, and I will give you the highlights of that book this morning. You remember that in the creation narrative in Genesis we are dealing with three classifications: the earth, the waters, and the firmament. Leviticus takes up this classification and allots to each element its proper kind of animal life with its proper mode of transportation. If you are a creature who lives in the water, you are supposed to swim. If you are a creature who lives in the air, you are supposed to fly. If you are a creature who lives on land, you are supposed to have four feet and to hop, jump, or walk. If you fit neatly into your proper category, you are kosher. If you do not fit neatly into your category, you are, in the words of Leviticus, “an abomination”.
If you are a creature who lives in the water, you are supposed to swim. Fish fit neatly into that category. So Leviticus tells us that every water-creature that has fins and scales is kosher, because it fits neatly into the category of a water-creature. But what if you have the audacity to live in the water and not swim? If you are a shrimp who lives in the water but walks around on little legs or if you are happy as a clam in a shell, well then, you do not fit neatly into the fish category, and so, Leviticus tells us, all water-creatures without fins and scales are an abomination.
If you are a creature who lives on land, in order to fit properly into your category you are supposed to have four feet and to hop, jump, or walk. Leviticus specifies that four-footed insects that hop on the earth are kosher, and gives the examples of the grasshopper, the cricket, and the locust, which can be considered four-footed land animals. But it specifies that insects with wings are an abomination, because they do not fit into the category of land animals nor do they fit into the category of birds. Anything that does not fit into the category of a four-footed land animal is not kosher. So animals who have hands instead of front feet, and perversely use those hands for walking, such as a mole and a weasel, are an abomination. Also, there are some animals who do not fit into the four-footed category either because they have too many feet, such as centipedes or spiders, so those are an abomination, or because they have no feet at all, such as eels and worms, so those are abominations too, being neither fish nor fowl.
There are also categories within categories. Shepherding is very important in this culture, and so there is a special category for livestock. To fit into the category of livestock, Leviticus specifies that you need to have cloven hoofs and chew cud. So sheep, goats, and cattle are kosher because they have cloven hoofs and chew cud, like proper members of the livestock category. But, Leviticus specifies, a camel is an abomination because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hoofs, and so it can’t be in the livestock category. And, Leviticus specifies, a pig, which has a cloven foot but does not chew the cud, is an abomination because it doesn’t fit neatly into the livestock category.
Once I read Douglas’s book, the whole category idea in Leviticus seemed so blindingly obvious that I couldn’t believe I had never noticed it before. We don’t need any of the wild speculations about trichanosis, because Leviticus comes right out and tells us that the difference between kosher and abomination is based on these distinctions about fins and feet and wings, and gives examples by name, and the cloven hoof and chewing cud explanation is right there in the text as plain as day. And when you read through the entire book of Leviticus it is clear that this idea of the neat categories is the basis of the entire system in every permutation.
The rules about people who do not conform to the expectations for their gender are part of this system about categorizing. I hear there’s been a bit of controversy about that. But it’s the same system in which Leviticus says that if you wear clothing made of mixed fabrics that is an abomination: it doesn’t fit neatly into a category. Sowing your field with two kinds of seed is also strictly forbidden because you no longer have separate categories.
These categories are so tidy that they can be hard to give up. We like tidiness and order and separate categories. Even Peter has a hard time with this idea. Even when God gives him a vision of a large sheet lowered from heaven filled with four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air, and even when God Himself tells Peter to eat them, Peter says no to God. Peter says, “By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” And then God tells Peter that he’s broken through all the categories. God says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Words to live by.
Some people say we shouldn’t have controversy in the Church. I’m not so sure. God seems to stir up controversy in the Church right from the start. Today’s reading is one more example of the huge controversy God caused by encouraging Peter to welcome people who did not follow all the laws of Leviticus. Today’s reading from Acts tells us that “the circumcised believers criticized Peter, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” Peter is being welcoming and inclusive even to people who do not follow the laws of Leviticus, and other members of the Church are not happy with him at all! So Peter tells them about the animals and the voice from God, and his own saying “No” to God, and God telling him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Then Peter goes on to talk about his interactions with the uncircumcised believers, and he explains, “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.” Look out, God is stirring up controversy. And it sounds the same no matter which group the controversy is over at which point in the history of the Church: in the controversy over circumcision and kosher food, people said, “the Holy Spirit was upon uncircumcised people just as it was upon us”; in the controversy over the first African-American Episcopal priest, people said, “the Holy Spirit was upon him just as it was upon us”; in the controversy over the ordination of women, people said, “the Holy Spirit was upon these women just as it was upon us,”; in the controversy over gay bishops people say “the Holy Spirit was upon Gene Robinson and Mary Glasspool just as it was upon us”.
The primates in the Global South just released another communiqué saying even more vehemently that they want to exclude the Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion. They seem to feel that our actions come out of some perverse stubbornness. What they apparently can’t understand is that once you’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work you can’t just un-see it and return to the way things were in the past. Once you realize that God is out of the box, you can’t put God back into the box anymore. You have to say what Peter says, “If then God gave them the same gift of the Holy Spirit that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
If then God gave them the same gift of the Holy Spirit that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” If we insist that things can be holy only if they fit into categories, then we end up putting God in a box. And the good news of the gospel is this: when Jesus came out of the tomb, God showed us that God is outside the box. God even breaks out of the most basic categories of life and death, God breaks out of the categories of human and divine. We no longer have to be confined by the old categories. God is present in things that are outside the categories: shellfish and penguins and duck-billed platypuses. God is present in people who plant two kinds of seeds in the ground, and God is present in women who love each other, and God is present in people who wear cotton-polyester blends. After we’ve seen God present in those good things, we can’t deny it, we can only enjoy it. The things that used to be considered abominations, such as oysters and pork, become cause for two big celebrations at St. Stephen’s Episcopal! God is in oysters and God is in pork barbecue! We don’t have to keep things in their separate categories anymore, we can revel in the splendor and variety of all God’s creation. We don’t have to stay separate from things that are neither fish nor fowl, because they do not separate us from God. We can enjoy God in them. “The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separate from God.” Once we stop thinking that we’re separate from God, look out, because God is out of the box! And who are we to think we can hinder God?
Note: If you are still confused about how a gay Christian can feel they are 'right' with God I encourage you to read the section of the web site entitled "Gay and Christian? YES!"