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.

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