April 30, 2017 / BLESSED - REVOLUTION AT THE TABLE / Sara Wolbrecht / Acts 2:42-47
Every time I see this I get teary eyed – anyone else? Last week – we named how throughout the bible one of the central images of what the Kingdom of God is like, what the life of God is like – is a meal. A feast, a rockin party with good food. Jesus throughout the gospels, uses the table as a place where he eats with people – and the uses the table as a central place in the stories he would tell.
And the story he told last week was about a dinner party. Where not just anyone is invited – like family and friends – but actually everyone is invited – not only the rejected and poor folks in town, but even those out in the country who are wretched and left out – drag them in. Go down the hall and knock on the door, right?
Which is a radically beautiful statement about the Kingdom of God, and when we say “Kingdom of God” we’re talking about the life of Jesus, the life of God, made accessible here and now, as a way of life that embodies Jesus’ love and grace – and describes the kinds of dinner parties we should host, too.
Today we start with this video – because this captures a piece of that, yes? This is whatthe Kingdom of God is like.
For today, TODAY we start with this video to dig more deeply into the context and cultural landscape of the 1st Century, where the first followers of Jesus tried to have meals like this, as Jesus has instructed them to. As we move through this, it will all point us toward what it means that we are blessed. That’s where we’re headed. So let’s dive in.
So let’s flashback to the 1st Century: two-thousand years ago, the world was ruled by the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was a massive military, economic, social giant – basically the biggest empire the world had ever seen. The Roman Empire went from England all the way to India. This massive military machine charged into new land after new land conquering everybody in sight. The Roman Empire was run by a series of emperors called Caesars, and they believed they were the sons of God, who had been sent to earth to bring about a universal reign of peace and prosperity. And yeah, it is peace depending on which end of the sword you are on.
Because, what would happen, is the Roman Empire would march into your province and they would say: Confess Caesar is Lord! If you said, Ok: Caesar is Lord! Then your area would become a part of the Roman Empire, you would begin paying taxes to Caesar, to the Roman Empire, and then Caesar would take those taxes you were now paying, to make a bigger army to conquer more lands.
But if the empire came to your town and the soldier said, “Confess Caesar is Lord” – and you said I’ll tell you where to take that Caesar, tell Caesar to bug off! They would say, Oh. And then they would take you and punish you in a way that shows people what happens if you defy the empire. The Romans had perfected a way to keep people in the most amount of pain without dying – because if you kill someone right away for defying your empire it doesn’t really make the point you’re trying to make, but if you keep them alive too long and they’re not in enough pain, well then that isn’t really that useful for what you’re trying to do.
So they had this thing called an execution stake and having perfected how to do this – they would hang a person, they would crucify someone, keeping them alive and in the most excruciating pain possible. And they’d put one of those execution stakes right near the main thoroughfare of town so that everyone would see that – this is what happens if you don’t submit to Caesar. And so the empire grew and grew and grew and grew.
Now – 2000 year ago a movement started in the corner of this massive global empire. A group of people kept insisting that their leader, their rabbi, a man named Jesus from Nazareth, had been crucified by the empire, but had risen from the dead. Not only had the empire’s strategic course of punishment failed, but those who followed this rabbi subversively took Caesar’s propaganda and turned it upside down.
For example, a very famous slogan was: Caesar is Lord. And these Christians, they would say, “Jesus is Lord.” Which was a terribly loaded, dangerous, subversive thing to say. Because everybody knows when you say Jesus is Lord, you’re saying Caesar is NOT Lord, and if you defy Caesar you die. That’s how the world works under the empire.
And these Jesus-followers would take bread – because Caesar would hand out bread as a way of saying – look I provide even your meal because food coming from the earth is the greatest sort of provision. Look how great I am.
So these first Christians would take that bread and wine – and they would have these meals. They’d remember Jesus in a way that he had shown them, Jesus who they knew had been crucified by the Romans and who had risen from the dead.
Much of what life looked like for these Empire-defying first followers of Jesus is captured in the New Testament. We are so accustomed to hearing the stories of the New Testament, that we forget that these were stories of revolution. The Book of Acts is particularly dense and descriptive, as it begins with Jesus’ disciples figuring out what the heck to do now that Jesus was no longer physically with them. And there is much to say about what we read about them, but the piece we’ll turn to is this description of their daily life, and the common rhythms they honored as a community – how they spent their time together, including how they broke bread together. Acts 2:42-47.
Acts 2:42-47 (The Message) They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.
Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.
They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.
Every time we read this description of those first Jesus-followers, it is so provocative, moving – and quite the contrast to the life of Caesar and the Roman Empire, yes? This is a picture of revolution. Hang on to this picture for a moment….
So if you had a good Roman friend at the time, and you were a part of this subversive practice of Christians who ate and shared, worshiped, learned, served together, this group who said Jesus was Lord and not Caesar, a practice that could potentially lead to death, the question your friend would ask you if they were a good Roman, is this: What has your Jesus done – look at the world Caesar is making! Look at his power! What has your Jesus done other than get crucified?
Well, here’s what you might say: How about you come with me tomorrow, we’re having one of our meals together?
And if they said yes, then you’d walk there together the next evening. And as you approach the house you’d hear a lot of noise – the sound of people together. And the surprising thing about these folks is that they don’t fit into any one category – it’s a motley crew from all backgrounds, Romans and Greeks, Jews and Gentiles, free, not free, men, women, it’s a random lot.
People would crowd around, finding a place to recline at the table, kids squirreling around like they do, those more elderly grabbing an arm as they lower themselves to the floor. On the table is food for everyone, and somewhere in the mix bread and wine are set aside.
There’s a surprising moment that happens as everyone gets settled: before everyone rips into the meal, the group goes around to make sure that all the single moms have their rent paid, to make sure that everybody who doesn’t have a way to get out and get food – maybe because of an illness – that someone is going to bring them some food later. They make sure that everyone’s practical needs are met. And they make sure that those who have way more than enough feel free to share with those who don’t have enough.
These regular meals we just read about in Acts 2, looked something like this – shared by Christians, in an organic way in their homes, they called them Agape Feasts. What does the word “agape” mean? Love. These were love meals, where they toasted resurrection and the day everything changed, and Jesus’ presence with them was remembered not only with food – they remembered Jesus in how they made sure rent was paid, and folks were fed, and people had a place to sleep – in how they blessed and loved one another. Agape, Love, indeed.
After everyone has their needs met, the meal begins, and as you turn to see your friend’s flabbergasted face, maybe the thing you say is: we do this because we believe Jesus is Lord – and we believe that because of him there’s a whole new way to be human.
At some point the bread and wine are passed around, people take the bread and dip it in the wine, often saying the phrase, Jesus is Lord. And in that moment there is a kindred spirit, reminding those who knew him and those who didn’t of Jesus’ presence with them always, the source of this new way to be human, and in the dipping and eating they responded to the invitation to repent, to turn and follow this way of love.
It is done this way because Jesus had told them to at the Last Supper – and what’s amazing is that nearly all biblical scholars of various backgrounds agree that this is what worship looked like in the New Testament – worship consisted of the love feast (eating and the meeting of basic needs), followed by preaching or conversation and what we call the Eucharist.
Then when you and your friend are walking home later that night, you would ask the question: So, who do you think is making a better world – Caesar or Jesus? Is the world made better through coercive military violence or is the world made better through sacrificial love?
This was the question the first Christians asked their very Roman world – who’s making a better world? Caesar or Jesus? Or to put it another way: who do you believe is Lord? Caesar or Jesus?
And this continues to be our question – we ask it of each other, we ask it of our world. Who is making a better world? Jesus? Or the empires of our world, today?
Although we do not live under the shadow of the Roman Empire today, the Agape Feasts described in Acts 2, and the video we watched of a meal shared by neighbors in an apartment building hallway – these continue to be practices of subversion. Revolution in the face of empire. Choosing a new way to be human.
I know those are bold statements, so let’s back up and frame this with the language of the journey we’re on these four weeks. Last Sunday we spoke of how Jesus took the bread – he chose it, and like the bread we are chosen – that we, even in our own ways of feeling outcast, broken – that we are chosen, as God’s beloved, as is everyone and anyone, to come to the table, and be part of God’s Kingdom.
Today as we name how Jesus then blessed the bread. Which means we are blessed, too. I want to spend a few minutes relating all of what we’ve been talking about to what it means to be blessed. And here it is: the thing about empire, is that empire messes with us, distorts what blessing really is. For the Roman Empire: “blessed” was being on the side of power, dominating violence, and coercion. And we experience empire today in all the ways we’re told that violence and hierarchy, and power are the way. Empire messes with what blessing really is by trying to convince us that blessing is in: winning, prosperity, money, success, achievement, popularity, influence, acquisition – that’s what blessing is, yes?
There is nothing wrong with money or success. But you see my friends, the Jesus story tells us that we are blessed – not because of all the ways we’ve gotten it right, or worked hard, or been awesome – that is what empire tries to convince us is “blessing.” The Jesus story tells us that we are blessed because we are the Beloved of God. Anyone and everyone who says yes, I’m in, anyone who says that Jesus is making a better world. That is who is beloved. Blessed.
Jesus’ first followers embodied that love at the table. In these Love Meals, the Agape Feasts, where love is served. Where blessing is given – blessing through words, through conversation, and yes, blessing through food and the practical needs people have to stay alive and thrive. Blessing. Indeed a new way to be human, revolution that stands up to empire.
I wonder, how about you, right now, after the week you’ve had – do you know this to be true deep in your bones – that you are blessed? At any given time, I think we can all nod our heads and shrug it off and say, well, yeah, I know I am blessed and beloved. At least on the surface we know that. But maybe another way to ask is: in what ways are you feeling the weight and demands of empire? How is empire – really, the cultural water we swim in – distorting your sense of blessing? I think a good measure of how in touch we are with our blessedness is if when we fail at something, mess up, how far does it knock us down? How much grace can we give ourselves? When we know we are beloved, we can extend the grace to ourselves when we inevitably mess up. Are you in touch with that grace of belovedness?
We take a moment, in all of this to check in with ourselves and listen for what God is saying, letting ourselves sit with these two questions:
How (and why) is it hard to receive my blessedness today?
When have I experienced blessing this week?
(Leave these on the screen)
I invite you to prayerfully hold those questions – paying attention to what God is saying, as I share a little bit about my responses to these questions. But please continue to hold your own responses with this as you listen…
Many of us know that Salt House is part of the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This past week I spent three days with all the other ELCA pastors in Northwest WA. I walked away reminded of who I am and why I decided to become a Lutheran pastor in the first place – because, truly, this picture of the Agape Feast, yeah, this is central to who Lutherans are, as people of inclusion, service, love, justice, forgiveness, good food, and grace. I’m grateful for that this week.
Being a part of the ELCA, comes with many blessings – and by blessings I mean the kind Jesus intended when he took that bread and blessed it. And one of those blessings is that pastors get a Sabbatical. Sabbatical is a word related to the word Sabbath – which means to cease striving. To rest. Every seven years, pastors get 3 months of sabbatical. Three months off to cease. To rest.
I get a sabbatical. Starting May 15th - August 15th, I will be on Sabbatical. Which means I won’t be here! I will do no work for Salt House. I don’t check my email. I don’t come to church on Sundays. I will cease.
It’s happening now, because when I said YES to being the pastor for this new thing in Kirkland, I walked away from my former church in California right at seven years, when I should have had a sabbatical – which I forfeited – because you start over at zero when you move to a new church. But the amazing pastors and council at Salt House’s parent congregation, Holy Spirit Lutheran, when they heard that, they said I could take a sabbatical in 2017, and they would cover the pastoral responsibilities, at no extra cost to Salt House. Which is absolutely amazing!
So I get a sabbatical! Which again: is blessing. I want to name that transitions like this – even just for three months – can raise anxiety for folks or in our community. If some of that comes up for you (or even if it does not) I want to say two things, first a word of reminder – that we here at Salt House hold experimentation as a central part of who we are. We try things! And this is something new we get to try, right? (What’s it like when Sara’s not here?). And second, I want to offer an invitation to all y’all…
My invitation to you is to see how you might show up in these three months to receive blessing, and to be a blessing. Here’s what I mean: frankly, pastors have a habit of trying to do all the things. And over-functioning like that is absolutely my jam. And yet at Salt House we also hold as central to who we are, that everybody has something to offer. We believe that we are blessed to be a blessing, and that absolutely holds true to how we show up here at the table and in community. To bless and serve.
So: are you up for embracing this experiment, and looking for how you can be a blessing and fill in the gaps that you see?
The real blessing in this, also, is that Pastor Katy McCallum Sachse, from HSLC our parent congregation – who you have heard preach here before – she will be here to rock it as your pastor the whole time I am gone. Preaching, leading worship, available during the week. She is your pastor. (A little secret: she is smarter and funnier than I am, so you will have an amazing time with her!). And Jason and everyone else will still be here, too – so much of our Sunday experience will feel the same.
The other reason this is a blessing to Salt House is, honestly, because this will help me to be a better leader, a better pastor for y’all. I have to tell you: Salt House, this thing we have made together with God – this is one of the greatest joys of my life (up there with my children and husband, chocolate). And I love, love, love, that this is what I get to do with you and God.
But I also have to tell you, starting a church takes everything you’ve got. I started two years and nine months ago – and I have to confess that I am tired. More than anything, I am ready to take three months to remember that who I am is not what I do, but who I am is beloved. I am ready to remember my blessedness again.
I will say more about sabbatical as we are together the coming weeks – but please, please let me know of any concerns or questions or recommendations you have for me as we make this transition, together.
Now, to bring it back from me to you, I wonder having heard all of this – about the Roman Empire, about the Agape Love Feasts of the first Christians who ate meals as an act of revolution – what is God saying to you? What is God saying in your reflections on these questions:
(still on screen)
How (and why) is it hard to receive my blessedness today?
When have I experienced blessing this week?
Stick in those questions, and hold them alongside the video that we began with. A reason why that video gets me, is because of the awesome arrangement of “What the world needs now is love” – thank you Burt Bacharach for that gem.
But there’s something to that lyric, right? To holding love as what’s happening as we watch that scene at a table. To feeling like with all the crap we see in politics and in Syria and the genocides – that we can’t help but wonder if only we could just sit down in the hallway together – and pass the Siracha and bread – what kind of love and peace could we work out? What kind of blessing could we be, together? Hasn’t Burt Bacharach penned such a modern-day prayer for us?
Let’s spend some time singing this prayer, a song of revolution, a prayer that could be our table blessing every time we gather together. I invite you to sing these words as a prayer for yourself – where do you need to receive blessing? And hold it as a prayer for our world – where is there a need for love – not just for some, but for everyone? Let’s pray: