The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 5/9/04
Text: Acts 11:1-18
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"You can pick your friends, but..." You finish it. Well, wait. I will finish it. No, it is not "You can pick your friends, but you cannot pick your friend's nose." It is "You can pick your friends, but you cannot pick your relatives." Something that we certainly know on Mothers Day.

Most assuredly, that unsought relationship has likely been incredibly influential in who and what you are. On the plane to California, I read Cokie Roberts' new book, Founding Mothers, an intriguing history of the women who were influential in the establishment of our nation. John Adams, our second president is quoted from a letter to his daughter, Nabby, "It is by the female world that the greatest and best characters among men are formed. I have long been of this opinion that when I hear of an extraordinary man, good or bad, I naturally...inquire who was his mother?"(1) George Washington is quoted as saying, "My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her."(2)

We could wish that all mothers were as good as George's, but we know such is not the case. Jacqueline Kennedy is not quoted very often, but she had something to say on this: "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much."(3) And that explains why everyone is not of the same mind about Mother's Day. For some it is a wonderful day of celebration; for others, those whose family portrait could never be mistaken for something by Norman Rockwell, this is a day that is just as well ignored. In fact, even though Mothers Day normally attracts church crowds that are surpassed only by Christmas and Easter, some folks stay away on purpose - the reminder is just too painful. But, as we say, you can pick your friends, but... You know the rest.

In a not very subtle way, that is also the message from our scripture lesson. As the passage opens we read, "The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God." Uh-oh. This is going to mean trouble. Despite the fact that Jesus himself had dealings with Gentiles, the early church was of a mind to keep Christianity essentially Jewish. This report of Peter's ministry in Lydda and Joppa was, to say the least, troubling. As the text has it, "So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them." How dare you???

Now Peter tells his curious story. He was having a rooftop prayer time when he saw a vision - "something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and in it a veritable menagerie: "four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles, and birds of the air." Then comes a voice: "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat."

"No way, Lord," says Peter. Not this. These are not pure, not kosher. They are unclean. And you know me, Lord, I am a good Jew. I keep kosher."

The voice responds, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."

Three times this happens, Peter says. Why three times? Because it was important, that's why.

Now the rooftop reverie is interrupted. Three visitors have arrived - Gentiles, as it turns out. They have come with an invitation to visit a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Hmm - the same rank as the one who supervised the crucifixion of Jesus. Peter felt led of the Spirit to go with them, and shortly thereafter, he was doing something no good Jew in his day would normally do - he actually went into the home of a Gentile. Peter reported on the conversation, the vision that Cornelius had had that prompted the invitation, the sharing of the gospel and their positive response. Finally, Peter had to conclude, "So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?" Good question.

To be honest, the response of the church leaders in Jerusalem was remarkably enlightened. Since the soil in which the church had been planted was thoroughly Jewish, it would not have been terribly surprising to have encountered significant resistance. After all, the issue of separation from other races and nationalities had been the focus of debate ever since the end of the exile in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. Ezra and Nehemiah, for example, favored the complete expulsion of all foreigners who had joined Israel and sought to settle with them in the restored territory of Judah.(4) To them, the only way to guarantee Israel's continued existence was to close the door on all foreign influences and seek a higher standard of racial and cultural purity.

But there was another camp, exemplified in writings such as the books of Jonah and Ruth and the last section of the book of Isaiah, which urged Israelites to consider throwing wide the doors of Israel to any and all who would convert to the worship of Israel's God. This mindset had Israel surviving by letting the world in, by inviting everyone, regardless of race or national origin, to see their "light to the nations" and turn to the one true God.

To their credit, those early church leaders responded to Peter's story in a remarkably enlightened way. As the lesson has it, "When they heard [Peter's story], they had no further objections and praised God, saying, 'So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.'" One big, happy family. Amazing.

In his book What's So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey tells of a time he was asked to present the sermon in his church. He started out with a children's sermon, and invited all the youngsters in the congregation to "Come on down." He held up a bag, from which he pulled a package of barbecued pork rinds for them to munch on. Next he pulled out a fake snake and a large rubber fly, which led to squeals from his young audience. Yancey and a few of the children then sampled scallops.

"Finally, to the children's great delight," he writes, "I reached cautiously into the bag and extracted a live lobster. Larry the Lobster we called him, and Larry responded by waving his claws in a most menacing fashion."

After the children departed, Yancey explained to the congregation that Levitical laws specifically forbade everything they had just eaten. No Orthodox Jew would touch any of the contents of his shopping bag. This is why the message in Acts 11 is such radical news: "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."(5)

The struggle continues today. Not in the same form, of course, but there is still a tension in the church as God continues to move us. Some Christians are terribly distressed at some of the changes they have seen in recent years and they long for a return to a more stable, predictable age. They would be more than happy to take some of those Old Testament laws and make them normative for our world. Others are thrilled at the new freedoms they enjoy and are willing to accept a broader range of theological perspectives and cultural differences, even though that means learning the occasionally uncomfortable lesson that Peter and his friends did saying, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." The result, of course, is that disagreements are bound to arise. That is why the church struggles over hot-button issues such as abortion, gay rights, medical ethics, the ordination of women, the morality of war, and so on. Those tensions are tricky because they do not simply break down clearly into right and wrong, or good vs. evil, whether we like it or not. But we remember that, even in the midst of disagreements, we are family, and that old truism continues to hold, "You can pick your friends, but..." We are in this together.

To be honest, it is difficult for a minister to know how much to change and how much to preserve - our life together is a work in progress. The guidance Peter received is helpful. So also is the direction we get from the example of Jesus, a ministry that was willing to break established purity laws in order to care for the outcasts of society. He healed on the Sabbath, touched menstruating women, put the needs of children before the needs of adults, and preferred the company of sinners over saints. It was a new way, a better way.

Rita Snowden tells a story from World War II. In France some soldiers brought the body of a dead comrade to a cemetery to have him buried. The priest gently asked whether their friend had been a baptized Catholic. The soldiers did not know. The priest sadly informed them that in that case, he could not permit burial in the church yard.

So the soldiers dug a grave just outside the cemetery fence. And they laid their comrade to rest. The next day the soldiers came back to add some flowers only to discover that the grave was nowhere to be found.

Bewildered, they were about to leave when the priest came up to speak to them. It seems that he could not sleep the night before, so troubled was he by his refusal to bury the soldier in the parish cemetery. So early in the morning he left his bed, and with his own hands, he moved the fence in order to include the body of the soldier who had died for France.(6)
He drew a circle that shut me out - Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in!(7)

Yes, "You can pick your friends, but..." A good thing to remember, not only on Mothers Day, but any day.

One more homáge to Mom. One day a little girl was sitting and watching her mother do the dishes at the kitchen sink. She suddenly noticed that her mother had several strands of white hair sticking out in contrast on her brunette head. She looked at her mother and inquisitively asked, "Why are some of your hairs white, Mom?"

Her mother replied, "Well, every time that you do something wrong and make me cry or unhappy, one of my hairs turns white."

The little girl thought about this revelation for a while and then said, "Mama, how come ALL of grandma's hairs are white?"(8)

Happy Mothers Day.


1. Cokie Roberts, Founding Mothers: the women who raised our nation, (New York: William Morrow, 2004), pp. 174-175



4. See Ezra 9; 10:6-17; Nehemiah 13:23-31

5. "The Telephone Pole Problem," Homiletics, May/June, 2004

6. Susan Andrews, "Full of grace and truth: Demonstrating the divine," Sermon preached January 24, 1999, at National Capital Presbytery,

7. Edwin Markham, "Outwitted"

8. Carlos Wilton on "The Immediate Word," an internet service for preaching at

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