Saturday, May 28, 2011

Accounting for Hope

1 Peter 3:13-22
May 29, 2011
Easter 6
William G. Carter

Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

The word for today is hope. That's a word we know something about. All of us know something about hope.

The young child starts her day at the day care center. Her father walks her to her room. Together they take off her coat and hang it up. They put her lunch bag in the space where her name is written on construction paper. A big hug, a soggy kiss. "See you later!" The father turns to go. She says, "Daddy, wait!" She runs to him, stands tall, and measures herself against the tallest man in her world. "Look how big I am, Daddy. I'm up to that next button." That's hope.

Picture the last wedding you attended. The bride shined bright. The groom was shaking in his rented shoes. The promises were spoken. The rings were given and received. "Now I pronounce you husband and wife . . ." Off they go, cameras flashing. They head out the door, showered with rice and best wishes. As they head down the road with tin cans tied to the tailpipe, they head off in hope. We know what that's like.

The winter was brutal. I moved the snow blower out of the garage on Friday. Seemed safe to do. The floor of the hall closet is still stacked with caps, mittens, and wool scarves. I remember one particular winter when everything looked endlessly bleak. I looked out back to see a dull grey blanket of snow. But right over there, not far from the septic tank, I saw the first green blades of grass poking their heads through the snow. Then I knew that spring was on the way. I had hope.

There's something universally human about hope. It seems to be a gift from God to every person under heaven, regardless of whether or not they are religiously inclined. Like faith and love, hope abides. Hope is a possibility for every child of God. From the infant reaching for a sunbeam to great-grandma in her rocking chair, every moment is pregnant with the opportunity for hope.

This week’s cover story on Time Magazine says hope comes from the chemistry in our brains. In Barbara Ehrenreich’s last book, Bright Sided, she claims optimism is an additive in America’s drinking water. Most of the time, it's easy to account for this.The little girl stands next to her Daddy, and catches a glimpse of her own future. When the newlyweds climb into their rattling Chevrolet, they are still writing the script as they go, and the possibilities are endless.When winter seems eternal, the calendar says otherwise. January always gives way to May. As we know,
if you don’t like the weather in northeastern Pennsylvania, wait ten minutes.

When the writer of First Peter talks about hope, some part of us is awake to hear it.
A few minutes ago, we heard him give us a piece of advice. It goes like this: "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you."

"Give an account for your hope," he says. It doesn't sound so difficult. Someone hopes the stock market goes through the roof; we can account for that. Someone hopes her teenage son will be home by midnight; we can account for that, too. Me? I hope the Chicago Cubs win the World Series this year. I know their track record, but that doesn't keep me from hoping. We can account for hopes like these. Anybody who is alive hopes for something.

But if we pay attention to the First Letter of Peter, we begin to realize that he is speaking to those occasions when hope goes on trial. Specifically he reminds us that good Christian people are put to the test. Maybe they face hardship due to circumstances beyond their control. Perhaps they are attacked precisely because they are good Christian people. Whatever the case, the world out there can seem strangely indifferent to the hope in here.

And whoever wrote this letter is calling on us to stand up and account for our hope. It's as if he knows that there are going to be days when the world will smack us around. When that happens, the church is called to stand and announce, "We are a people of hope!" And then we must be ready to account for it.

That may be easier said than done. As a friend of mine recently admitted, "It has always been easy for me to give an account for the complaints within me, the snarls within me, or the motives within me . . . but the hopes? That's another story."

That is the challenge laid upon us as people of faith. It is what we look for in church leaders. We want them to lead us into hope, into Christian hope. So what should they say?

Years ago, when Marj Carpenter moderated the Presbyterian denomination, she got to go on a trip anywhere in the world. So she went to Korea --- North Korea. On Easter, she worshiped in a church in P'yongyang. North Korea is still rigidly controlled by the communist party. For years, the church has lived underground to avoid persecution. But when Marj landed at the airport, Christians greeted her like a queen. The church building was packed. As military soldiers stood by, throngs of people descended on that church for worship. Not merely for Marj, you understand, but because it was Easter. She was speechless (for Marj, no small feat!).

Later she found her voice and said, "The border between the Koreas was tense, but you couldn't tell it where we were. The highlight was the church -- the faces of those faithful Christians -- their applause -- their joy at Easter -- their singing and their tears." In a repressed and anxious country, the Christians rejoice with hope! Now how do you account for that?

I remember when a Presbyterian missionary was shot in the country of El Salvador.
The Rev. Alejandro Hernandez was driving a car full of teenagers to a youth group meeting. Two men stopped the car and said, "Are you the Rev. Hernandez?" When he said yes, they shot him twice in the jaw. Hernandez survived the attack. He is deaf in one ear and needed reconstructive surgery on his jaw. Such attacks happen in a place where the homicide rate is 10 times higher than ours. Anybody who preaches the gospel and cares for the poor is liable to be shot there. Yet what did he say? “I can't wait to get back to work and tell others about Jesus.” A mission worker recovers from a brutal attack, ready to begin again. Now how do you account for that?

Maybe it’s true, generally speaking, that hope is a human trait. But the writer of First Peter declares hope can also be a way of life.

Surely that's what Peter was saying to the people who first received this letter. True Christian hope is more than hoping for rain or sunshine. It's more than hoping for your favorite sports team. It's more than wishing tomorrow will be a gradual improvement over today. Christian hope is a way of life based in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our lives are shaped by his. He gave his life for doing what was right and necessary. God gave him life again to keep doing what is right and necessary.

The preacher knows it’s tough. Remember how our text begins? “If we suffer because we do what's right, we remember that Jesus suffered in the same way. His suffering on the cross canceled the power of all sins, and brought us into God's presence.
As God raised Jesus from the dead, he raised us out of the clutches of everything that kills us.

As the writer says in the first chapter, "God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus. We have an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (1:3-4)

How do we account for our good Christian hope? We don't point to ourselves - - but to God. In sending Jesus, God has made hope possible. And so we don't have to be afraid of what the rest of the world fears. We don't have to be intimidated by the powers of suffering and death. We belong to God; therefore, the only appropriate fear is our reverence for God.

Barbara Lundblad teaches preaching at a seminary in New York City. She likes to take her students on a field trip. They go to Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx. A pastor named Heidi Neumark introduced the neighborhood by giving a slide show. There were pictures of abandoned apartment buildings gutted by fires flashed on the sanctuary wall. They saw pictures of rubble and broken glass, crack vials and trash.

The newest building in the neighborhood is a shiny prison topped with razor wire. It was built for juvenile offenders, aged 10 to 16, right across from the junior high.

The striking thing, says Barbara, is that mingled with these scenes were pictures of children, their faces alive with hope, laughing, lighting candles, gathered at the baptismal font, learning to read in the church's after-school program. Here was one of the roughest neighborhoods in our country, where tennagers pack pistols as a survival measure. Yet there is something in that church which will not give in to the violence.

As the students prepared to leave, the pastor said, "Follow me through these doors over here, and then stop and turn around." The doors have been painted by teenage boys from the congregation. Once kids like them covered those doors with graffiti. Now the pastor gives them colored paints, reads to those teenagers the scripture lessons for the upcoming week, and then the kids paint pictures of one of those Bible passages on the doors.

Barbara said, "We were in the Bronx. The sign on the corner said Prospect Avenue and 164th Street, but it seemed like we had come to Galilee. Jesus was standing there in the doorway very much alive. As usual, he had gotten there ahead of us. And off to the side I thought I saw an angel sitting on the stone."

My point is simply this: we live after Easter. The world doesn't call all the shots any more. Flip on the evening news, and we see plenty of danger or destruction. And it's real. Those tornados in Joplin were not created in some special effects studio, any more than the meltdown in Japan or the floods from the endless rain.

But God says, "There's something more than all of that destruction and damage." And that is what shapes our lives. That is what forms our ministry as Christian people.

Today we remember how we are baptized to do Christ’s work. We have before us people that you have elected to serve as our elders and deacons. We expect a great many things of them: show up at meetings, make good decisions, and give direction to our shared work. We expect them to worship regularly, to live faithfully, to offer time and talents freely.

But if there is one thing we need them to do, I think it is this. We need them to live as if Easter has really happened. We need them to testify in words and actions that God is stronger than the powers of death.

For this is our Christian hope. And we call on God to keep this hope alive in us.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Way to an Untroubled Heart

John 14:1-14
Easter 5
May 22, 2011
William G. Carter

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Believe me when I say it’s good to see you today. All this talk of the end of the world was quietly working on me. I was afraid that all the true believers would evaporate into the sky, and I would be left behind. I imagined that I might have to come into the sanctuary and talk to myself.

That was before Harold Camping, that 89-year-old radio preacher I had never heard of, turned out to be a false prophet. He had been preaching it for years. Sometime around 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 21, the trumpet would sound. I wasn’t sure if that was 6:00 Eastern Standard Time, 6:00 California Time, or if the end of the world would come one time zone after another, an hour at a time. Nobody from Great Britain was taken up into heaven, but then I didn’t expect they would. That’s Great Britain, after all.

I have to admit I worried for a bit, if only for a little bit. I postponed finishing my sermon until after 6:00. Why not wait and see if it’s necessary? This guy, Harold Camping, has been gluing together Bible verses for year. He has been treating the scripture as a puzzle book, poking around for three verses from the book of Daniel, cutting half a verse out of First Thessalonians, snatching up two verses from Matthew 24, and cooking them together in one of the burning cauldrons from the book of Revelation.

He’s not alone. Talking about the End Times is big business. It promotes millions of dollars sold in books, lectures, podcasts, and DVD’s. Even though Jesus said rather clearly, “No one knows the day or hour, not even me (Matthew 24:36),” somebody always pops up, claiming to know even more than Jesus. There have been devised elaborate schemes and charts to map out each possible sign of the end. These are taught by glistening TV preachers who have wives whose hair defies gravity. Some of them have written novels about the coming of Christ and the end of the world, claiming that this is how everything will end. And some of those books have been turned into movies.

One of them almost ruined my love life. As a ninth grader, I mustered up the courage to ask a pretty girl to the movies. Her name was Suzanne. Couldn’t take my eyes off her! She came from a very religious family, so I thought it best if we went to see a religious film. As God ordained it, such a film was playing in our small town. It was called, “The Late Great Planet Earth: The Movie.” My dad drove us in the paneled station wagon, and we were allowed to sit in the back seat. It was a big deal. I asked her to the movie and she said yes.

The theater went dark. I began thinking teenage thoughts. Suddenly strange goings-one took place on scene. There were earthquakes, volcano explosions, and tidal waves. A man who stood shaving at the bathroom sink disappeared, leaving behind an electric razor flopping around on the floor. A housewife driving her children to school was no longer at the wheel, nor were her children strapped in the car – all of them were gone, as the car careened out of control. This, we were told, was the Rapture: it was the great escape hatch for Christians. They would be snatched away into heaven, before God started blasting away to destroy the earth.

We sat in the dark theater. Suddenly I didn’t think it would be a good idea to put my arm around my date. I had been working on the chess moves in my brain, but the film froze me in my tracks. In fact, I didn’t hold her hand. I didn’t kiss her goodnight. We maintained a respectful distance because of that movie. It still hurts to think about it.

It was sometime later that I learned the whole thing was an invention. The word “rapture” is not mentioned in the Bible. It never found its way into a sermon by the apostles. It was never written about for the first 1800 years of Christian faith and history. And then, in 1830, a fifteen-year-old Scottish lass named Margaret McDonald had a vision. Jesus would come again – not once, but twice. The first time, he would take his true believers away. There would be seven years of hell on earth, and then Jesus would come again to say, “Enough of this!”

Well, this vision gave a few preachers something to talk about. Not content with the Sermon on the Mount, not content with the parables of Prodigal Son or Good Samaritan, not content with the cross and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit – they began to chart out the future. Of course, they sold the charts, they taught the charts. They broadcast the word that Christians didn’t have to get involved in the world, for they would be fished out of all trouble. Unlike the first 1830 years of the Christian faith, the past 170 years have had one strident preacher after another declare the clock was ticking down.

There were reports this week of people this week, cashing in their savings, quitting their jobs, assembling on mountain tops and California beaches. And I do have to say, even with all my schooling and skepticism, I confess to a few moments of anxiety. What if that wacky guy was right and I was wrong? I mean, he’s proven now twice as a false prophet, but perhaps he has some top secret knowledge that the rest of us don’t have. He didn’t show up at work today. He isn’t answering his phone. Makes you wonder . . .

I bring this up, not simply because it is a religious matter on a lot of people’s minds. Certainly it is that. These apocalyptic predictions have made the news unlike any in recent memory. Kids are buzzing about it on Facebook, cynics celebrated in watering holes last night with post-Rapture dances, and many folks wonder what all the buzz is about. Christian faith has always declared that the world as we know it will pass away. It will come to an end somehow and God will rule in a new and obvious way. That’s why we celebrate the season of Advent every December. We watch for God’s final coming. And we work while we wait.

Maybe you heard how Martin Luther replied to a student, when asked what he would do if he learned the world would end the next day. He smiled and quipped, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

But I bring this up because it is also a theme in today’s scripture text. What does Jesus say as he prepares to depart through death and resurrection? “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” He goes away – then he will come again and take us. Just that much is enough to get us wondering if the whole business of a Rapture is true.

Those of you over fifty will remember how the King James Bible translated that promise: “In my Father’s house are many mansions…” It must be a really big house: think of all those mansions! Who wouldn’t want to live in a mansion? Imagine a gold-brick patio, a heated swimming pool, platinum plumbing, and a huge hot tub at precisely the right temperature! And that’s only in each bedroom . . .

The word “mansion” has fueled all kinds of imaginative hopes. Heaven must be a lot more beautiful than here. Heaven must be so far above all the travails and troubles of earth. Wouldn’t it be great to be lifted up into the mansion from all of this?

Just one small thing: the King James Bible didn’t translate that correctly. “Mone” is the Greek word, and Jesus has used it many times in the Gospel of John. It is the word for a “dwelling place.” Nothing pretentious about it. It is the place where you stay.

They said to Jesus in chapter one, “Where are you staying?” That’s the word. Or there’s that line I like to quote from chapter 15 whenever we have communion. Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches; stay with me as I will stay with you.” That’s the word. Sometimes it’s translated “abide,” as in “abide with me.”

This is a relationship word: we stay with the Risen Christ, and he stays in us. There is no heavenly condo where we take an upward elevator out of our worldly difficulties. No, we stay with Christ – the Crucified Christ, the Risen Christ – and he stays with us. Sorry to break the news, but there is no escape hatch from the world. But there is a relationship that abides: as Jesus departs from his disciples through his death and resurrection, he returns to live within them. Where they are, he is. Where he stays, there they are also.

Frankly, I am sad that so much Christian preaching sounds like fear-mongering. It’s as if the approach is to say, “Let’s scare people into the arms of God.” And they describe an angry, vengeful God who keeps track of every sin, who hovers over every impure thought, a God who is just as narrow-minded as they are. Ever notice that? Well, the hell with that, I say. God is holy, it is true; but God’s holiness is complete love. God’s character is complete justice.

Did we hear how Jesus comforts his closest friends? He says, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.” Stop letting your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. Trust in Jesus. This is the way, the truth, and the life.

The way, the truth, and the life is not to be afraid. It is to trust. It is to trust that God comes to us in truth, exposing who we are and what we do, and when God sees us, God comes in grace – to receive us, to forgive us, to scrub our feet and purify our hearts. God does not blast away through earthquake, storm, or fire. God comes to give us confidence that earthquake, storm, and fire do not own us. They don’t make us cower in fear.

The God of the Gospels does not pin our arms behind us, shove us face-down in the mud, and force a confession out of us. We don’t have a God who tells us how persistently awful we are. No, we have a God who sneaks in unannounced, a God who is rejected for coming in overwhelming kindness. We have a God who does not come to condemn the world but save it, a God who love the world enough to send the Son into the world.

I realize that’s not good enough for some people. They want a hateful God who punishes people unlike themselves. They want to terrify one another and frighten everybody else. And if that’s what they want, they can have the nightmares. I think we can prefer a God like Jesus, a God who judges people like sheep and goats based on how they respond to human need. We can have a God who says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”

Our God also says in the voice of Jesus, “I am the Way.” Not “I am the Way Out,” but “I am the Way.” Christian faith just doesn’t make any sense unless it can be lived. Religion is more than a list of ideas. It is a life full of practices. We stay with Jesus by living out our life as if he is with us. We take these people who are around us, and we live out forgiveness and generosity with them. They aren’t imaginary people or cardboard figures. They have names and habits and feelings and histories, and we learn to love them where they are.

We live it out here and now, not somewhere else and tomorrow. Ever notice: some people are never content where they are, so they keep moving in the vain hope that the next stop will be the better place. “Maybe the next house, or the next spouse, or the next job will make me happy?” They pack their bags and go hustling off somewhere better. When they open their bags, they discover that they packed themselves. All the time overlooking that Jesus the Christ wants to come to them, and fill them with his peace, and to open their eyes and hearts to where they are. And this never happens quickly. Contentment is built through hard work over decades.

But we have to live out the Christian way, the way of Christ. If Jesus gets into us, we start noticing the things that he notices. We begin to care about the things that he cares about. If somebody sits off alone, dwelling in shadows, we go to them as bearers of light. If we meet someone hungry, and food alone will not satisfy, we stay with them long enough to discover and provide what they truly need. If we encounter a prisoner, someone held captive by forces they can’t even see, or restricted by the absence of possibilities, we visit them where they are, and we stay until God opens the window previously unknown. This is the way of Jesus. And it must be lived in specific ways: a cup of cold water, a warm meal, a friendly conversation, a listening ear, a word of mercy, a song of joy, a soul full of prayer, an untroubled heart.

Dorothy Day, the Catholic worker fed the hungry and spent time with those in difficulty. She loved to quote a line from St. Catherine: “All the way to heaven is heaven, because He had said ‘I am the way.’”

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Potluck Church

Acts 2:42-47
Easter 4
May 15, 2011
William G. Carter

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

In a few months, our congregation will begin to celebrate its one-hundredth year. A large task force is planning a lot of different celebrations, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. But before the parties begin, let me say it’s a risky thing for the church to look backwards.

Memory has a way of glamorizing the distant past. We are tempted to look through rose-colored stained glass, and recall moments that really didn’t happen as we remember them. Perhaps we remember the founders, who convened against great odds to begin what we enjoy without any of their struggle. We remember their enthusiasm, we recall their success, and we wish to taste the salt of their excitement. This is our temptation.

Remember back when the sanctuary was full? When the preaching arrested every soul? When the air was full of wild noise and outrageous song? This is what a lot of church people do when they look backwards. This is what Luke does when he remembers the first day of the church.

It was Pentecost Day, of course. It was a day when the whole world had gathered for a festival in Jerusalem to celebrate how God gave the Torah to Moses. It was the day when God poured ten million gallons of the Holy Spirit on the people who were there. It was the day when the church stopped hiding in an upper room and began to speak the Gospel. People were strangely empowered to hear about Jesus and to listen to one another. It was such a big day, says Luke, that three thousand people were baptized at the 9:00 service.

It would be easy to look back and say, “Luke’s excitement got the best of him.” We remember our pioneer days without the actual sweat and grime. If the second chapter of Acts is a local church history story, as someone has suggested, it is full of a lot of Wind and a good dose of Fire. But the interesting thing about the little paragraph that is our text is that Luke is not so much looking back as he is looking around. As anybody who has ever done a church mission study would know, Luke is describing what a church does.

  • There was worship: "They prayed. They praised God. Day by day, they attended the temple together."
  • There was education: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching."
  • There was fellowship: "All who believed were together and had all things in common."
  • There was stewardship and mission: "They sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need."
  • There was leadership: "Many wonders and signs were done through the apostles."
  • There was evangelism and growth in membership: "The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved."
Luke sums up the church at its best. This is what the church is called to be. He offers a model for all the good things that the church ought to do.

How curious that he adds one more activity: “They broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” The believing church is an eating church.

Now, he writes this before there was any well defined understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Certainly Jesus had “broken the bread and poured out the cup.” Luke remembered that and reported it to the church. In time, when the church began to celebrate its sacraments, one sacrament was a meal. It was more than the memory of a Passover Seder on the night of his arrest. It was the living reality of the Hidden Savior at Emmaus who took bread, blessed and broke it, and their eyes were opened. They recognized him before he hid again. That’s the difference between the Lord’s Supper and the Last Supper – Jesus Christ is alive again, though hidden.

Luke knows all of that. But he seems to suggest something more. The best way to do church is to eat together. I suggest we chew on this for a while this morning.

A meal is more than food. We know this. For three evenings last week, all four of our offspring sat at the same dinner table. Do you know how rare that is? Nobody was zipping through a drive-through window. Nobody was eating on their own. Nobody was coming late or leaving early. We sat at the same table, and we ate together. My wife and I remarked on this a half dozen times.

Our lives, like yours, are full of movement and chaos. Everybody is coming and going. It is a major effort to sit down at the same time in the same place to eat the same food. And when we do, we share stories of our day. We smile and laugh. We open up and share our struggles. We share in one another’s lives. At the table, there is something more than eating going on. And we are often left wishing that it happened more than it does.

I remember when I was single, the experience of eating alone. Nothing tasted very good. I gulped down my food. Never bothered with napkin rings, heavy plates, or metal silverware. Many times, it was a peanut butter sandwich while I stood at the kitchen counter. If I want to a restaurant, I often took a book or bought a newspaper.

Luke says of the early church, “They spent time together . . . they broke their bread, ate their food.” Eating together is a fundamental practice of the faithful.

We learn this from Jesus. One scholar has totaled up the number of New Testament stories when Jesus ate with other people. Want to guess how many different unparalleled stories there are? At least twenty-three. Not only that, he told at least sixteen parables about eating and food. There are another dozen short teachings from Luke’s Gospel alone that have to do with fruit, wine, fish, crops, salt, dinner, famines, and daily bread. It’s no wonder that his enemies accused him of being a glutton (Luke 7:34). We don’t know how much Jesus actually ate, but we do know he was always talking about food.

That’s because a meal is more than food. It is an expression of community. It is a way for people to share in the bread and butter of one another’s lives.

One year, our church needed a youth minister. We didn’t have any extra money, but we had a volunteer. So we gave the job to a 70-year-old retired educator. At a point in his life when he could have sat back and put up his feet, Bob pulled on blue jeans, sometimes he smeared greasepaint on his face, and he worked with our teens. They still talk about him ten years later.

Of all the remarkable things that happened that year, here is one of my favorites. He pulled together some of the more sensitive kids and explained, “Youth ministry is not only something the church does for you. It is ministry that the youth do for other people.” They weren’t sure what he meant by that word “ministry,” so he showed them.

He arranged for a series of meals that the youth would take to some elderly folks who normally ate alone. They made the phone calls, they set up the appointments, but they didn’t merely deliver the food. They knocked on the door, took the meal inside, set the table, and everybody ate together. All barriers of age and culture did not matter. They conversed about their lives and built friendships around the table. And when Sunday came around, they waved to one another and took delight in what they had shared.

This is what the church does. We eat together. There is something about a shared meal that brings together all kinds of people.That’s because a meal is more than food. It is the sharing of God’s daily gifts in a way that transcends differences. All of us have to eat. When we pass around platters of food, we are too busy to stick knives in one another. That is basic Human Hospitality 101. When we join around one table, we become one people

Back in March, the Presbyterians in our region had four different gatherings in our seven-county area. The topic was two-fold: to get to know one another better, and to encourage one another by sharing one good idea with our neighbors. The invitation said, “Tell us something that is working well.” A bunch of us went down to Hickory Street church in Scranton. But also at the last minute, I found myself filling in at a small gathering in Honesdale. We introduced ourselves and went around the room. What’s one good idea? Can you tell about something that is going well?

Somebody started talking about a new project outside of Honesdale. A hundred years ago, the Presbyterians started a Sunday School in the country. It was an independent Sunday School, back before a lot of congregations had education programs of their own. Years later, that country Sunday School had closed and the building stood vacant.

One day a new idea surfaced. There are a lot of people in that rural area who struggle financially. So the Presbyterians said, “Let’s welcome the community for a meal. We will feed whoever shows up.” So they did it, and fifty people showed up. It was a free meal and there was plenty of food. Everybody took home some leftovers. So they did it again, got some sponsors, and sixty people showed up. So they did it again and offered a brief devotional service before they ate, and sixty-five people appeared. A few struggling families were looking for clothing for their children, and somebody said, “I think we can find some clothing. It might not be new, but it will be clean and good looking.”

They call it “The Abraham House.” Every Thursday night at 6:00, the Presbyterians feed whoever shows up. Food becomes the means for justice. The meal forms a community.

This is Luke’s New Testament description of the church. Sure, there was preaching and teaching and stewardship and evangelism. Yet the life of the church was expressed in the sharing of food. As someone put it so well, “Whenever some eat and some do not eat, you do not have church.”

And should we voluntarily take our meal tray to another table, away from those around us, we destroy the unity that God provides as freely as our bread.

After I returned as a commissioner to the last General Assembly, somebody had the bright idea to invite me to talk about the things that we had voted on. It was a gathering for elders and pastors to talk about the big issues sometime before we voted on them. The hot topic, as you could guess, is the matter that has just been ratified – the question of whether the local presbyteries and churches can determine who is called to lead them, regardless of worldly status or inherited disposition.

Well, I feel pretty strongly about the matter. I didn’t always. But over the years, I have given it a lot of prayer and study. And you know, I am left-handed: I was born that way, people tried to change me but couldn’t, I didn’t always fit in. It was awkward when God called me to the ministry. I struggled with my calling. And I guess I believe that you are born left-handed, it should not be a deal-breaker, especially if it is God who is calling you to ministry.

So I’m explaining this, as even-handed as I could, so to speak, but it wasn’t going well. In fact, over half the room was getting quite frosty while a minority stayed warm. It was clear that I wasn’t going to change anybody’s mind on the matter. The conversation came to a lunch break. I lingered behind to pack up a few things. By the time I got into the lunch room, most of the seats were taken. All my friends had found seats together. There was no place for me.

Well, actually, there was one place open. There was one open seat. It was right in the middle of a table full of people who did not agree with me. It was pretty clear. Some of them had spoken up to say as much. I looked around for another place to sit, but didn’t see one. Then somebody from that table spotted me, and motioned me over. I said to myself, “Oh, I don’t know. I want to eat. I don’t want to get into all that.” But it was the only seat available, so I went over and sat down.

My host welcomed me, thanked me for my words, asked about my family. We talked about our congregations. Somebody told a joke and that reduced the tension. Pretty soon, we were all laughing, chatting, commiserating, rejoicing. In fact, I look back to that moment and I made a couple of new friends. “Pass the bread, pass the wine.” We ate together, and we rested in the sovereignty of somebody else’s grace.

Ever have something like that happen? For all of our differences, for all of our disagreements, it occurs to me that if we can keep coming to the same table, we will be OK.

Because it’s not our Table. It is God’s Table, hosted by Christ the Shepherd, served by the Spirit. “You prepare a Table in the presence of my enemies,” exclaimed the Psalmist, only to discover the main course is mercy. Mercy for every last one of us.

I have a friend named Charles. He taught preachers in a seminary. At one point early in his career, he taught in southern Africa. There weren’t a lot of ordained clergy in the region. When Sunday came, he and a driver would load up a jeep and drive out to the small villages to lead worship. It was usually a service of Word and Table, a sermon followed by the Lord’s Supper. Scores of people would appear for the service, either out of spiritual hunger or curiosity to see the Episcopalian from New Jersey.

Most of the villagers were dirt poor. Charles said they had little, but they had the Gospel. And there were so many of them. Never knew how many people would appear. So the worship leaders made sure that they were well stocked. The Table was always loaded with extra bread.

Each worship service would conclude the same way. Charles would lift the loaf, break it, and say, “This is my body.” Following the benediction he added, “And here is your lunch."

In that simple act, the Table of Heaven became the Banquet of Earth. Was it worship? Was it justice? Yes . . . Call it what you want. I call it “church.”

[1] John L. Bell, Ten Things They Never Told Me About Jesus, (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2009) pp. 96-101

[2][2] Fred Craddock, “Table Talk,” The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 218.

[1] John L. Bell, Ten Things They Never Told Me About Jesus, (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2009) pp. 96-101

[2] Fred Craddock, “Table Talk,” The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 218.