Thursday, May 23, 2013

A community of sharing

There are a couple words for church in the New Testament. When Paul writes to the “church of Such-and-Such”, the word is ekklesia, which literally translates to English as “assembly”. It’s just some folks who get together and follow the Way of Jesus, which was pretty radical back in the day. The other word the New Testament uses is koinonia, which is more like communion than organized church. The much cited apostolic community in Acts 2, the one where everyone shares their stuff so that everyone has enough, is described as a koinonia. Otherwise stated, the essence of koinonia is sharing.

I like to think that at South Loop Campus Ministry we are developing koinonia.

See, at SLCM, we originally intended to only minister to college students, but when homeless folks showed up to our Sunday night community meal, based on a Christian ethic of love, we couldn’t just turn them away. However, very quickly, homeless people outnumbered students on Sunday nights, and I know that I started having doubts about continuing to serve them. This is a campus ministry, for crying out loud!
  But then I starting getting glimpses of koinonia breaking through our well laid plans. As we kept handing
That's a lot of agua. Photo credit Giacomo Luca.
out sandwiches to homeless people on the street after dinner, a couple of homeless people, Ashley and Tony, started guiding us. That meant that we didn’t have to keep wandering around aimlessly hoping that we would happen upon some folks under Lower Wacker Drive. In another instance, during one particularly chaotic night when we already had a skeleton crew to set up, one of our student leaders stepped up to keep everyone (mainly over 30 homeless people) occupied and calm. Another student leader realized that all the leftover dining dollars from students’ meal plans could be used to purchase drinks and snacks for SLCM. Giacomo raised $5,000 in just two weeks. Another time we arrived at Grace Place with supplies for dinner, and we were surprised by a group of homeless folks already preparing dinner for the group. Sometimes the Holy Spirit just moves, and I sure as hell want to move with her.

There are more challenges for South Loop Campus Ministry, both now and in the future. It continues to be difficult to reach out to students at a university where religion is an unwritten taboo. I know that we haven’t figured out the ideal balance of working with homeless folks and with students. However, what we’ve started at SLCM was without a doubt inspired and resourced by the Spirit of God. I am sure that God does give us enough to live abundantly here in the world, but it is up us to share what God gives us. At SLCM, our essence is sharing. As we work through the quieter months of summer, we have the opportunity to figure out better ways to share not only material stuff, like sandwiches, bottled water, and socks, but also our empathy and love. That’s a koinonia worth developing.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Coming to dinner--scars and all

This sermon was given at First Trinity Lutheran Church on April 21, 2013. Really. I preach this way.

Let’s get one thing straight right now: I’m not going to talk about sheep today. Yeah, I know we sang Psalm 23 and the lectionary Gospel reading is about sheep and there is even a picture of a sheep on the cover of the bulletin, but really, I won’t talk about sheep today. Unless it’s about lamb chops or mutton stew because what I really talk about is food.

This resurrection appearance story in Luke spoke to me in a way that the sheep passages didn’t. Maybe it’s because I sang the “I Just Wanna Be Sheep Ba-Ba-Ba-Ba” just one time too many. Maybe it’s because I spent just a little too much time next to livestock as I was growing up in central PA, and I just don’t want to be like those dumb animals that I kept prodding with a wooden stick.

But food…that’s something else. Maybe a story about food speaks more clearly to me because I spent a weekend in Washington, D.C. talking about food justice. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so many Sunday evenings in the last six months making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for homeless folks. Maybe I’m just hungry right now.

Whatever the reason why this passage in Luke speaks to me right now, it does seem like the resurrected Jesus likes to eat. Verse 36 of this passage begins with the remaining disciples talking with each other about—you guessed it—a meal. That meal was with two other guys who were walking towards some town called Emmaus, and the resurrected Jesus snuck his way into dinner with them by explaining all of the Hebrew scriptures concerning himself. I think a lot of my Jewish friends would think that that conversation would be rather short, but it was enough to get these two walkin’ dudes to invite Jesus to dinner. Apparently dying and coming back to life doesn’t help Jesus’ table manners because he disappears just as the three of them are about to eat. I guess it’s better than dining and dashing.

So then these two walkin’ dudes rush over to the disciples and tell their story, and just as they’re arguing about whether Jesus had picked up the matzo or the foccaccia loaf, Jesus appears again. At this point I would think that the walkin’ dudes are pretty sure that phantom Jesus has decided to haunt them for the rest of their miserable existence, perpetually correcting their understanding of the prophet Isaiah and then preventing them from chowing down. But luckily Jesus puts them totally at ease by saying “Peace be with you”. That works every time, right?

Jesus convinces everybody in the room that it’s really him and not just the most annoyingly know-it-all phantom ever (so those walkin’ dudes can breathe easy). And then he eats some fish. Resurrection Jesus sure does know how to crash a dinner party, but that’s okay because he explains the Hebrew scriptures again. Sorry, walkin’ dudes, you’ve seen this part before.

But I’m going to try to release this image of Jesus as a know-it-all seminarian in search of free food, though that’s admittedly not easy for me. I am really struck at how resurrection Jesus keeps eating with people. I remember in my Bible studies as a teenager that we used to try to figure out the significance of that eating, that it has serious Christological implications about the dual nature of Jesus Christ. Or that’s what teenage me would have said if I had taken systematic theology instead of joyriding through the Pennsylvania mountains. But forget dual nature-whatever for now because even more than a free meal Resurrection Jesus is still really concerned that the disciples learn some really important things about, yes, his own identity—that’s the Christological part—and how to act with each other. Especially when eating.

Easter brunch at First Trinity Lutheran Church. No jacket
Recently I’ve learned that there are rules for dinner behavior, assuming you’re not eating pizza over the sink or something. Part of that comes from watching a lot of Downton Abbey, which is this BBC television series about English high society in the early 20th century and their many varieties of spoons, but even more comes from eating with my girlfriend Kacie. See, Kacie was super active in 4-H in Tennessee, and much to my surprise, she didn’t only raise sheep for the county fair (sheep!). No, Kacie also learned to dine finely—that is, with more class than I ever learned in my years in the Boy Scouts. We’re talking which fork goes in which hand, what to do with the napkin when it’s blocking the eating area of your plate, and how not to send a Tweet from your smart phone while someone important is speaking.

Yeah, there are rules for eating with other people, and while I can respect a lot of those as they show respect for the folks around you, I don’t see Jesus following a lot of those rules in this passage. In fact, I really only see Jesus following one rule here—be authentic when you’re sharing a meal. Jesus doesn’t dress up to impress here. On the other hand he has one of the classic guy conversations in all guy-dom: check out my scars. Now maybe that’s cool porch talk, but I think conversation about scars usually doesn’t occur at the dinner table. Yes, Jesus is soothing the disciples, especially those poor walkin’ dudes, but I have to think that he is teaching by example. Jesus recognizes that everybody in that room is traumatized at that moment, especially himself, and he draws that out as soon as he appears.

Then Jesus eats a meal and, as always happens after a communal meal, he shares a story: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to proclaimed to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Sounds vaguely like the Great Commission in the closing words of the Gospel of Matthew, huh? It’s not quite an explanation of the trauma that just occurred, but it does orient how Jesus’ listeners will respond to their trauma. Bad stuff happens in the world, but good stuff also happens, and now we need to tell everybody to change to world based on those experiences.

See, this week has been awfully traumatic for a lot of people. Bookended by a terrorist bombing and a violent manhunt for the perpetrators, with a giant factory explosion and local flooding here in Chicago, folks have seen some trauma this week. Maybe we feel scared and want to withdraw from a scary world. Or maybe we want to go out and fight the bad guys. Maybe we do actually feel a little like, well, sheep in need of a shepherd. Whatever your reaction has been to this week’s events, let’s recognize that we have experienced trauma, and let’s recognize that trauma before we take a bite at the dinner table.

Something I love about this church is that First Trinity has a weekly dinner table that is really open to everyone. And I am continually impressed at how people are willing to be authentic as they approach that table. However, this week let’s especially recognize that we are a mixed body, as Luther said, and we are a traumatized body. If you would like to work through some of that trauma, please come to the table. The church is also blessed with some wonderful deacons who truly care about caring for people who serve the church as deacons. These folks are committed to helping people in this mixed, traumatized body work through our trauma. Please seek them out if you’d like some space to continue to work through that trauma.
Now finally in closing, let’s remember that we still have to go out after the meal. We have a lot of repentance and forgiveness and world-changing to do when we get up from the table. The punch-line is that we will never be as holy and ready to go out as maybe we feel we need to be to this work. We need to do it anyway. Whether you feel like a lost sheep(!), a haunted walkin’ dude, or just somebody in need of some food, this is a good starting place. So please come, be filled, and then go, still your scars, because that’s what Jesus did, too.