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.
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