By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Acts 27:33-38
As a child, I recall time with my paternal grandmother. She had been widowed when the youngest of her three children was still a teen. She remarried but had chronic health issues, dying in her 60’s from kidney failure. She was limited in her physical activity; but she loved to play cards and she loved Ritz crackers. Her rented house in the city was old and at the end of her long, skinny kitchen was a booth much like what you’d see in a restaurant. We would sit at that booth for hours and play cards and eat buttered Ritz crackers… neither of which sound like they would be very appealing to a child, but I loved it. I’m not sure why. But I do recall that, unlike most of the adults in my life, grandma moved slowly and she never multi-tasked and she never seemed to get overly excited about anything. That booth in her kitchen was a kind of quiet, gentle space to simply be. It was a hospitable space; gracious space.
This week we continue with Trinity’s fall Stewardship campaign, “Building, Growing, Connecting: Living God’s Vision for Trinity.” One of the most fundamental ways in which we connect with one another and with God is around the table. Tables are the place we cultivate a sense of community, remember our history, tell our stories, celebrate our blessings, and welcome the stranger into our midst. Meals (as we see in scripture) become defining moments that can convert us and transform us.
And it has been that way since ancient times. The defining event for the Israelites, their exodus from Egypt, is remembered and proclaimed still today at a table: the Passover meal. And the defining event in Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus, is remembered and proclaimed still today at a table: Holy Communion.
This morning’s scripture, I’m going to assume, is not one many of us are familiar with. It’s a rather obscure story. It comes near the end of the Book of Acts. Acts tells the story of the Church, of how the Spirit of the risen Christ comes upon his followers, referred to as apostles, and equips them to proclaim the good news of his saving grace to the ends of the earth. From the 9th chapter of Acts through its conclusion, the primary apostle for this proclamation is Paul; once a zealous Pharisaic Jew who encounters the Spirit of the living Christ as he is traveling the road to Damascus. In Paul’s day, the “end of the earth” – or at least the culmination of it – was the city of Rome. So Acts concludes with Paul being taken to Rome to stand trial for his ministry which some have charged as being seditious. There Paul intends to proclaim, in the most visible and influential of all forums, the good news of the saving grace of Jesus.
This morning’s story takes place as Paul is being transported by sea to stand trial in Rome. But it is late in the year, well past the time for safe sailing. So it comes as no surprise that the ship on which Paul is being transported faces storms so severe they are jeopardizing the ship and putting its sailors, soldiers and passengers at risk of death. But in the midst of the storm one night, Paul is visited by an angel who assures Paul that, so long as they all hang in there together, they will all reach their destination unharmed. But, that message is a tough sell in the midst of such a rough sail. Some sailors have already tried to escape in the lifeboat. They’ve been throwing things overboard in an attempt to lighten the ship. There is dissension and disagreement among sailors and soldiers and things have become so stressful, no one is eating. It is nearly sunrise and – as the cliché goes – it’s always darkest before the dawn.
Then Paul boldly stands before them, to deliver the message in Acts 27:33-34. Paul tells them they need to eat to survive and that they needn’t worry for God has made it known to Paul that not even a hair on their heads will be harmed. But Paul does more than speak; he takes action. It is what we church professionals refer to as “the fourfold action”; the same four actions taken by Jesus on the night he institutes the Lord’s Supper; the same four actions we take in this sanctuary each time we celebrate communion. Paul takes the bread, he gives thanks to God, he breaks it – and well, first he eats – and then he encourages others to do the same. Now it is not Holy Communion per se; there’s no wine and no proclamation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Yet it is a proclamation of sorts. Faithful Jews and Christians across the centuries and still today have been in the habit of giving thanks to God before we eat; a proclamation of the faithfulness and goodness of God. Bread is the staple of life. So bread is symbolic for all food (hence our prayer “Give us this day our daily bread”) and food is symbolic for God’s faithful provision over every area of our lives. Food saves us from starvation; but it also reminds us that God is – in a larger and more general way – our savior and our provider. In this particular instance, Paul’s giving thanks for both food and protection become a moment of proclamation. Eating under such dire conditions, Paul reveals his confidence in God’s provision for their future. Paul’s prayer and his confident actions give the others courage to also eat and be strengthened.
This picture, “Grace,” – which usually hangs in our Friendship Room in the church basement – was taken by Eric Enstrom in Minnesota in 1918. He printed multiple copies and they sold like hot cakes. Considering events in our nation from the stock market crash in 1929 through two world wars, it’s easy to understand how this photo became so popular. Always, but especially in times of uncertainty (whether a life-threatening storm at sea or the Great Depression or 9/11), we need to be reminded (and we need to proclaim) God’s saving grace; as people of faith, we need to give thanks for God’s saving grace. In dangerous or desperate times, people can become territorial, fearful, suspicious and selfish. Our sinful human nature is prone to want to circle the wagons and look out for what is in our own self-interest; fearful self-preservation.
But the Church is called to respond with generosity and hospitality: outward, visible expressions of God’s saving grace. That, by the way, is what a sacrament – like communion – is. Sacraments are those outward, visible things that keep us mindful of God’s grace; always present, always at work around us. So, while Paul didn’t celebrate Holy Communion with these sailors, in a certain sense, what he did was sacramental. He lifted up that bread and he gave God thanks for it. In doing that, he made clear to everyone on that ship that he had absolute trust in the graciousness of God as the one who blesses and preserves life. Paul believed God would keep them safe. And so, he could even eat in the midst of a dangerous storm. Much like the psalmist who proclaimed, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; my cup overflows.” Paul’s eating in the midst of that mess was a visible sign to everyone on that ship that Paul had taken the message of God’s saving grace to heart and to stomach. He didn’t just say it; he lived it; he ate it.
Friends; Trinity in recent years has taken more steps to break bread with one another and with our community. This summer we had our Garden and Grills on the lawn; inviting and sitting at table with our neighbors; talking and getting to know them. Right now there are lots of small groups and studies happening here at Trinity and most of those include food or snacks. Once a month we have a community conversations group and our family to family gathering that begins with a meal. Here’s what that consists of: we come together around the table to eat, to break bread. Then, some folks (church members and community members) remain in the Friendship Room and Ruth Smith leads us in some discussion time as we get to know one another and seek a better understanding of our neighborhood and what the needs are in our community and how we might become better representatives of God’s grace to the people around us. The rest of us, after eating dinner, go into the Fellowship Hall with families that have been selected by LUM. They have recently moved into LUM housing and we build relationship with them and help them identify goals for their life; we help them connect to resources in our community. We pray with them and keep in contact with them. In short, we seek to embody God’s grace for them and to communicate that – even in situations of shortage or perceived problems and anxieties – God is still with us and God will faithfully provide for us.
The world, my friends, needs the Church because the Church names and embodies God’s saving grace for the world. We proclaim it and should feel honored to distribute it; grace that is life-preserving and life-sustaining. This community needs our church to extend hospitality and grace that becomes outward and visible signs of God’s salvation and providence. I give to this church with my money, time and talents not just because I’m your pastor but because I believe in what we’re doing here. Friends; since Jesus ascended and returned to heaven, we’re it. We are the visible manifestation of God’s saving grace in the world. But that message can’t just be preached; it has to be lived; lived in the real world, among real people; people who may be as gruff or tough as literal or proverbial sailors.
Next Sunday we’ll conclude our fall Stewardship campaign here at Trinity. We want you to return your estimate of giving card for the 2018 calendar year. And I won’t lie to you: Trinity needs your support; we have significant financial needs. But the world needs the Church and I believe this community needs our church to proclaim and name and make manifest the saving grace of God through the ministries we do and the hospitality we extend. When you fund the ministries of this church you are funding the sharing of God’s grace. I hope that Trinity is a place that has helped you identify and celebrate God’s grace in your life. I pray that Trinity is a place that inspires you to share God’s grace with others through what you say and do. I hope that, when you get on our website, read our bulletin announcements, read the monthly newsletter, and get weekly emails; that you can read all of that and say, “Wow, those are some things that are making the grace of God manifest – real and tangible to the people in our community.” And I pray that if you can say that, that you will be willing to give generously, even sacrificially. We need your financial support and we need other support as well: we need someone to paint our parking lot sign; we need someone to assemble a child’s bed for our Family to Family family; to help with our Coffee Cart or Family Promise. We also need you to share and celebrate your experiences of God’s saving grace.
Friends; God’s saving grace is made manifest when we invite others to our table, to our church; into our hearts and our lives; when, in their presence, we celebrate God’s faithfulness and care. The actions of the Church must proclaim to the world that, because of God’s grace, we can risk giving and sharing generously; we can risk even inviting a stranger to the table. How we give to the church demonstrates what we really believe about God and his grace. Do we believe it is bountiful? Do we believe it’s for everyone? Do we believe making that grace known to others is worth a risk, worth a sacrifice? God gave his life for us and now he calls us to be generous toward others so that we can make manifest his saving grace in the world.
By Linda Dolby
A fried-egg sandwich walks into a bar and orders a drink. The bartender looks him up and down, then says, "Sorry, we don't serve food here,"
Who gets served? That’s the point of our scripture this morning: all are welcome at the banquet where God is the host. In the parable, a man planned a large banquet and sent out invitations. When the banquet was ready, he sent his servant to contact each of the invited guests, telling them that all was ready and the meal was about to start. One after another, the guests made excuses for not coming. One had just bought a piece of land and said he had to go see it. Another had purchased some oxen and said he was on the way to yoke them up and try them out. Another gave the excuse that he was newly married and therefore could not come.
When the master of the house heard these flimsy excuses, he was angry. He told his servant to forget the guest list and go into the back streets and alleyways of the town and invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” The servant had already brought in the down-and-out townspeople, and still there was room in the banquet hall. So the master sent his servant on a broader search: “Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full.”
You may not believe this, but when I was younger, I was quite the fiery feminist. I was determined that I could do anything a man could do. Thus, things that were traditionally the female role held no interest for me. In our young marriage, my husband and I attempted to split all the household chores equally.
I continued in this mindset until one summer when I was attending a week-long retreat. There the leader made the point that when we receive communion, Jesus is the host at the table. It is Jesus who invites us to eat and drink. “He sets the table before us,” says scripture.
Well, that caused me to re-think my stance. I was reminded of my Aunt Lottie. Aunt Lottie is the hostess with mostest. When my sister and I visited her in NorthCarolina, she prepared a fabulous meal. My sister and I wanted to reciprocate, so we said we would take her out to lunch the next day. “Oh, no honey,” she replied. “I have already prepared all of the lunches and all of the dinners for the 3 days you are here.”
I began to pattern myself after Aunt Lottie. I learned I loved having guests for dinner, hosting dinner parties. I loved the planning, the preparing, the cleaning, the cooking.
Our best friends – people who have been our friends for over 40 years – live in Muncie IN. A few years ago, we invited them, they accepted to come to our house for a few days. I was so excited. I got the house clean. I planned the menus. I went grocery shopping. And then the night before they were to arrive, my friend called to say they weren’t coming. I was crushed. At first, on the phone, all I could says was , “well, alright.” But when I hung up, I realized how angry – very angry – I was. I had done all this preparing and my gift of hospitality was rejected.
Don’t you think that is the way the host of the great banquet felt? We feel badly when we are rejected, but what about our God? Think of his grief and broken heart. Think of his anger and mercy.
But, anger does not over come him. He keeps on inviting. “Well, if they won’t come,” he tells his servant, “go find someone else.” Jesus ends the parable by relating the master’s determination that “not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet”.
The master of the house is God, and the great banquet is the kingdom, a metaphor that was suggested by the speaker at the table. The invited guests picture the Jewish nation. The kingdom was prepared for them, but when Jesus came preaching that “the kingdom of heaven is near.” He was rejected. The gospel of John says, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”
The excuses for skipping the banquet are laughably bad. No one buys land without seeing it first, and the same can be said for buying oxen. And what, exactly, would keep a newly married couple from attending a social event? All three excuses in the parable reveal insincerity on the part of those invited. The interpretation is that the Jews of Jesus’ day had no valid excuse for spurning Jesus’ message; in fact, they had every reason to accept Him as their Messiah.
The detail that the invitation is opened up to society’s maimed and downtrodden is important. These were the types of people that the Pharisees considered “unclean” and under God’s curse. Jesus, however, taught that the kingdom was available even to those considered “unclean.” His involvement with tax collectors and sinners brought condemnation from the Pharisees, yet it showed the extent of God’s grace. The fact that the master in the parable sends the servant far afield to persuade everyone to come indicates that the offer of salvation would be extended to the Gentiles and “to the ends of the earth.”
The master is not satisfied with a partially full banquet hall; he wants every place at the table to be filled. Someone once said, “God is more willing to save sinners than sinners are to be saved.” God wants everyone to be a part of the party.
I once heard Cecil Williams preach. Cecil was the pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, a church that was about to close when he arrived, but he started inviting the least, the last, the lost, the lonely to worship. And the church grew – exponentially. In the sermon I heard, Cecil told this story, “I come from a family of 8 children. And we were all busy, sports practices, extra-curricular activities. And when it was time for supper to be served, mama would look around the table and ask, “who is missing from the table?”
Friends, who is missing from our tables? Do we only eat with those who are like us or do we search the highways and byways for those who are hungry and hurting?
One of the great problems of this day is how divided we are. We even have gated communities. Communities that are for only those like the residents who live there and no one else. I hate gated communities. What would happen if we would open our hearts and our homes to someone who is a stranger, someone we don’t know very well, someone, who, to be honest, scares us a little bit?
Would the world be a happier place? If only we would extend ourselves to others. We live such solitary, individualistic lives.
Years ago, my then 8 year old son and I went to Honduras with a mission group from our church. We went specifically to form relationships with a church in the capital city of Tegucigalpa called “Amor, Fe, Vida” – love, faith, and life. With the help of translators, we studied the Bible, shared our lives and prayed together. We painted the church walls. By the end of the week we had become friends.
The last night we were there, different members of the church invited us to sleep in their homes. My son and I went to Marianna’s house, on a dirt road with raw sewage on the edge of the street. We got there about 4 p.m. and our hostess was in the kitchen cooking. She was making a treat – a big pot of tomatillas, which is meat and sauce wrapped inside corn husks.
Then I noticed that different people from the barrio were coming in, carrying little buckets, and would leave with their buckets filled with tomatillas. You see, these people had next to nothing. They knew they needed their neighbors. They shared, and it was a beautiful community.
How many of us like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient? Do we need others? How would we get along without the people in our lives? How much richer would our lives be if we were to set the table for one and all?
These are tough days. It’s a hurting world. Storms, earthquakes, shootings. What are we to do? I think I have a clue. A friend posted this on facebook this week –
My door is always open. My house is safe. A pot of coffee, bottled water, diet coke, tea, beer or glass of wine can be out of fridge in minutes, and the kitchen table is a place of peace and non-judgment. Anyone who needs to chat is welcome anytime. It's no good suffering in silence. I have food in the fridge, cookies and snacks in cupboards a listening ear, and shoulders to cry on. I will always do my best to be available...you are always welcome!
May it be so. Amen.
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 12:13-21
Sometimes after church on Sunday, I go home, grab lunch and plunk down in front of the TV. I’m not a sports fan and I don’t want to get held captive by a plot that is going to glue me to my recliner for the next two hours, so I flip on CNN. As is the current nature of our world, most of the news is focused on wars, terror, erratic governments, and natural disasters; a parade of refugees and victims of our world’s suffering. Yet, in between those sad stories, I am peppered – might I even say, accosted – with commercials about investing my money so as to “secure” my future. In a matter of just a couple seconds I am transitioned from the face of a child, alone, dirty, hungry, and frightened to a well-dressed, distinguished-looking investment representative reminding me of the importance of planning for a secure, “risk-free” retirement. We are advised; we can never have too much squirreled away – just ask the little Voya squirrel – as the investment professionals proclaim their version of the gospel that the more we stash away, the more we have insured ourselves against that which threatens to do us harm. While a young child stands impotent at a border, hungry and desperate, I am urged to secure my future by investing wisely so I can live in ease in my retirement. It is a distorted, yet all too common, version of the American dream… and it sounds remarkably like the character in this morning’s parable from the gospel of Luke.
This morning we continue our fall sermon series: Building, Growing, Connecting: Living God’s Vision for Trinity. This morning, like last Sunday, we focus on growth and the generosity that is needed for growth to occur. Growth requires the generous giving of our resources: time, money and talents. The opposite of generosity is greed and Jesus cautions us: “Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life is not composed of the abundance of one’s possessions.”
The parable Jesus tells comes as response to a man who is attempting to drag Jesus into a family squabble, an inheritance dispute. Rare is the family untouched by such squabbles. And the circumstances behind the man’s request illuminate the danger that results from such an unhealthy obsession with stuff. Greed jeopardizes our relationships. Greed jeopardizes our relationships and it jeopardizes our eternal soul. This man is at odds with his brother. What should have been a loyal and intimate relationship is now strained; clearly damaged by greed.
But the parable reveals that our attachment to wealth, our desire for abundance, threatens to destroy a wider, more-encompassing social fabric. Allow me to explain…
Two important factors in interpreting this parable require a better understanding of ancient Palestinian culture: 1) patron/benefaction and 2) the concept of limited good.
First, patron benefaction: In Jesus’ culture, there were no governmental services; so-called “entitlement programs.” The poor were cared for through patron/benefaction. Those who were wealthy were expected to provide for the poor. There were only a very few rich; most of the population were peasants. So, they relied on the generosity of the wealthy. Those who had wealth and did not share it were considered dishonorable, shameful. The respect that a wealthy patron received was based on their degree of benefaction or generosity. Now today, generous giving to charities can provide the giver with a nice tax write off. But in Jesus’ time giving to the needy provided the giver with honor… a social currency of far greater value than a tax write off. Such wealthy patrons were held in high esteem within their community because of their generosity; because the lives of the poor in their community were, quite literally, at their mercy.
So, at the start of Jesus’ parable, a Palestinian peasant in the audience might assume that this man whose lands have produced so abundantly will behave in an honorable way and many of his community’s more vulnerable citizens will be blessed by his windfall. Surely this man will be generous with his “ample goods” so that the poor and needy in his community can be blessed by his abundance. His unwillingness to share, his selfish hoarding, makes him a disgraceful social anomaly.
In addition, ancient Palestinian culture believed in limited good; that is, they viewed all resources as inherently limited. In America today, it’s hard for us to think of things in this way. We rail against limits. When something runs out, we go to the store and get more. But, in Jesus’ time, everyone understood limits. Resources were limited; they just were. And, if this landowner had excess, his greed meant that someone else didn’t have enough. If he was hoarding, someone was doing without. Even the land was subject to this kind of thinking. The people assumed that, if land produced a larger than average harvest one year, that would eventually be balanced out by a smaller harvest. Remember the story of Joseph in Egypt? It provides a perfect illustration. The Pharaoh has a dream and Joseph interprets it. The dream’s meaning is that there will be 7 years of bountiful harvest followed by 7 years of bad harvest. And so the Pharaoh, as benefactor for his kingdom, does what is expected of him. He puts Joseph in charge and the surplus is stored up in a responsible fashion, so that – when famine arrives – his people can go to Pharaoh to get food. Joseph and the Pharaoh act in an honorable way, a way that is fitting one who has been blessed with abundance.
But not so for the wealthy land owner of Jesus’ parable; he does not share his abundance, he selfishly and foolishly hoards it thereby jeopardizing the well-being of others and the stability of his community.
This man is an island unto himself; who thinks only of himself. I love the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases the last verse of this story in The Message. Peterson writes: “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”[i] Perhaps he has succumbed to the fear so prevalent in our 21st century culture: the fear of outliving one’s money. What could be a worse fate? Well, the good news is, this land owner won’t outlive his money. And the bad news is this land owner won’t outlive his money. That very night, he will die and what will happen to all that excess stuff? Well, exactly what should have happened to it in the first place: it will be passed on to those who need it because “you can’t take it with you.”
Friends, the vast majority of us are – by global standards – wealthy. If we have a reliable roof over our heads and a bed to sleep in and more than one change of clothing, if we own even an old economy car, we surpass many of the world’s citizens. And yet, we are tempted on a daily basis to buy into our culture’s message that squirreling away our assets can somehow insure, can guarantee, our well-being; that it can insulate us from disaster. Now, don’t misunderstand me, even Jesus in other parables encourages financial shrewdness. If everyone went out and gave away everything they had, it wouldn’t amount to a very logical solution. But, I’m not worried about that possibility because most of us will never consider that option. But what we should consider is this: do we have more than what we need? Are we holding on to abundance; storing up, warehousing, excess? Or, can we let go of that stuff so that our lives and the resources God has blessed us with can bring blessing into the lives of others? Fear and greed are like ugly monsters that must be continually fed. They will never get enough to be satisfied. When we hoard abundance, it reveals a lack of trust in God. When we hold on to more than we need, we are placing our faith in stuff, not God. Greed is idolatry as we succumb to the lie that something other than God can secure us and provide for our future. When we hoard abundance we jeopardize our own souls; and we jeopardize the well-being of others who need those resources we are squirreling away; and we jeopardize our relationships… and it is those relationships – with God and with others – that actually do secure our well-being in this life and the life to come.
Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story entitled “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” about a Russian peasant named Pahom.[ii] Early in the story the devil overhears Pahom remark that, if only he had sufficient land, he would not even fear the devil. That’s “game on” for the devil who decides to put Pahom to the test. He is a tenant farmer and when the old woman who owns the commune’s land decides to sell, the peasants want to buy it for themselves. Initially attempting to buy it jointly, they cannot come to an agreement, so the land gets divided up into small individual parcels. Initially, Pahom delights in this land that is his. But neighbors sometimes tromp through his pastures or let their cows stray and graze in his meadow. He takes some to court… which makes life in the village anything but pleasant. A traveler tells him of a commune in a more remote area. Land parcels are so much larger for there is abundance space. Pahom travels to check it out and discovers it is true. So he sells all that he has, uproots his family and settles in this distant region. But there, as well, he soon determines that the space is insufficient; he just doesn’t have the room he needs. Eventually, another traveler engages with Pahom and tells him of an even more distant land inhabited by a primitive and simple-minded indigenous tribal people. Their land is virgin soil and they will sell it at a ridiculously cheap price. One can offer these tribal people, the Bashkirs, gifts like tea and wine and blankets in return for which one can gain the title to as much land as can be walked from sunup to sundown. It is hundreds of miles away but Pahom is giddy with the thought of it. He sets out on the trip, leaving his wife to mind the homestead and land. When he arrives, he finds it all as the traveler had said.
So early the next morning, the tribal chiefs gather at a location Pahom selects to stake the ground. Pahom is to walk throughout the day, digging a small hole to stake each corner of his new property. He must return to his point of origin, marked by a cap laid on the ground, before the sun sets or he will gain nothing. He must walk the full circuit from sunup to sundown. Pahom walks quickly and covers a vast area before he makes his first turn and so it continues throughout the day. But he becomes anxious when the sun begins to drop and he recognizes that the tribesmen are miles away. He fears he has become too ambitious. So he walks more quickly and then begins to run, fearful the sun will drop and he will have nothing to show for his efforts. He is out of breath and feeling ill but still he runs and runs, desperate to reach his point of origin. He sees the chief and other tribal leaders laughing. He races toward them, heart pounding. And at this point, I quote Tolstoy:
[Pahom] uttered a cry: his legs gave way beneath him,
he fell forward and reached the cap with his hands.
“Ah, that’s a fine fellow,” exclaimed the chief. “He has gained much land.”
Pahom’s servant came running up and tried to raise him, but he saw
that blood was flowing from his mouth. Pahom was dead!
The Bashkirs clicked their tongues to show their pity.
Pahom’s servant picked up the spade and dug a grave
long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it.
Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”[iii]
[i] The Message by Eugene Peterson; NavPress; 2002; p. 1883.
[ii] Taken from Walk in the Light and Twenty-Three Tales by Leo Tolstoy; Plough Publishing House; 1998.
[iii] Ibid, p. 282.
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