By Rev. 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 four 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 diner. 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; generous space.
If you had known me as a child, it might not surprise you to know I’m now medicated for anxiety. I didn’t take that step of seeking medical treatment for my anxiety until about four years ago. But if you had seen me as a child; well, the cliché “spoiler alert” might have come to mind. I was a very nervous, anxious child. But, at least in my memory, my grandma’s booth in her kitchen was a place I could relax and feel at ease.
One of the most fundamental ways in which we connect with each another is around the table. Tables are one of the places where we cultivate hospitable space. What makes table space hospitable has less to do with the menu and much more to do with the sense that God is present at the table, acting as host. I can’t recall my grandmother ever talking to me about God or Jesus at that booth in her kitchen. But despite her very limited finances, that table space seemed to be a space of abundance and openness and safety.
We are now in the season of Easter, inching closer to Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, which we’ll celebrate in two weeks. The stories in Acts not only reveal how the Church came to be; they also reveal how the church is to be, both then and now. This morning’s scripture is 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 “star” apostle 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. 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. God’s people 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 providence 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, anxiety-producing 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.
Perhaps you have seen this picture, “Grace,” taken by Eric Enstrom in Minnesota in 1918. He printed multiple copies and they sold like hot cakes. Considering events in our nation, like WWI and the Spanish Flu to the stock market crash in 1929, 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 COVID), 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 anxious, desperate times, people can become territorial, fearful, suspicious, even aggressive. 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 trusted in God’s care. 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.
The world, my friends, needs the Church because the Church names and embodies God’s faithfulness and providence toward the world. We proclaim it and should feel honored to share it with others; 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 faithfulness 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 and tough as literal or proverbial sailors.
You know, according to researchers, we are a culture awash in anxiety. And, let’s be honest, if you watch or read the news, there’s a lot to be anxious about. Will COVID ever come to an end? Are we about to dive into a deep recession? Will the war in Ukraine spread to other countries? It’s getting harder and harder NOT to feel anxious about our groceries, our gasoline, our housing, and our healthcare. And, I don’t want to make light of any of those serious concerns. Nor do I want to contribute to a “name it and claim it” mentality that turns God into a magical vending machine in the heavens. But, this morning I do want to remind us that we, too, are apostles; those who are sent to proclaim the good news of Jesus. We too are apostles; those sent to speak of God’s faithfulness and providence in anxious, stressful times and places. We too are apostles; those sent to “set the table” in a way that reminds others that, truly, Christ is our host. We too are apostles; sent to cultivate hospitable spaces that are peaceful and generous. Even as storms rage around us, we are to deliver the good news that we are not alone. God – a faithful, providential God – is with us. We are the Church together. Friends: the Church is a people… called out and sent forth, especially into contexts of fear and anxiety and trouble, to build hospitable space in which we proclaim the good news of God’s providence and faithfulness. Amen.
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