The first surveys that came out to pastors asking “how are you doing” in this coronavirus age asked about what help we needed with worship. And during Lent, to not have worship seems, well, unimaginable. My church had just started a new Tuesday night dinner worship. That seems like an absurdity now. This week we are considering the unthinkable: how to celebrate Easter online. One of the kids at my church’s food pantry said to me, “maybe Easter will be canceled.”
Easter, I must remind you, I must remind myself; Easter happens every Sunday. That is why Christians worship on Sunday, instead of on the Sabbath. Because every Sunday Christ is Risen. Easter can’t be canceled—it can’t be stopped from happening every week. But that feeling that missing out on the brass quintet and the Alleluia’s and the Lilies and Tulips and Daffodils (the order form is on my desk) seems to mean we are missing Easter. The loss is real.
Easter is the point of church.
Easter worship is not the point of church. Worship, the music, the prayers, the bible readings and commentary, all of this is important, but is not the point of church.
In this time of physical distancing, of caring for our neighbors by staying apart, of struggling to figure out how to gather, worship, and connect through the internet, we have the opportunity to identify what is essential to be church. What is our why? What is our purpose?
The short answer to that is “Easter”. Resurrection. Proclaiming good news to the captives. Feeding the hungry. Caring for the sick. In the early church Easter was the beginning of the God’s rule on earth, and they celebrated it by gathering to eat together. By telling others the story. To get some sense of the trust that Christians had that God’s rule is already here, when plagues came the early Christians went into sick people’s homes to care for them. Death was no longer the ultimate threat. The early church worshiped by living lives of caring for others. By imagining a bounty so large it had to be shared. They imagined the Kingdom of God is here. Now.
Over time the daily meals and discussions morphed into a liturgy and a Christian practice of weekly worship was developed. Today, one of the important activities of the church is Sunday (or Tuesday, or Saturday, or Thursday) Worship. It is important, but it is not our purpose.
This Sunday, Easter Sunday, we will do exactly what the disciples did on that first Easter. We will hide in our homes. We may wonder if the story we are told is really true. We share doubts about the safety of our lives, but also some excitement and hope. We will wait to hear if there is more to the story.
And to live out our purpose as church this Sunday we must also ask: who longs for good news? Who is hungry? Who is captive? Who needs healing? To be the church we must go out and Easter the world around us—sharing the bounty of God’s rule with the world. The rest of the world will know about Easter if we live out the good news. When we say “Alleluia, Christ is Risen” we must mean by that the there is good news for those that are homeless, hungry, sick, for those that are in prison, in violent relationships, living with addictions and mental health challenges.
Worship helps, but our purpose is outside the building, in the world.
I love the images of Jesus eating, eating with tax collectors, eating with Pharisees, eating at weddings and eating with crowds. Jesus eats throughout his journey, on the night before he dies, and again beside the Emmaus road. In an incredible image of plenty—plenty of fish, plenty of bread, plenty of sharing food, drink, and God’s love, Jesus offers us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.
After the creation of good food in the Garden of Eden God provides daily bread in the wilderness, Isaiah challenges us to eat rich food without cost, and Jesus turns water into wine at Cana. The Kingdom, God promises again and again, is full of good food, great drink, and more than enough to share.
Despite starting his ministry by creating the finest wine, the bread Jesus offers in the feeding of the 5000 is barley bread—not flavorful oats, not the treat of cinnamon raison, not even fine ground wheat bread, or a good sourdough, rather the cheapest of the breads, the most basic of foods.
With this lowly staple, however, he offers the crowd fish, an extravagance, food usually reserved for the Sabbath meal. For the Kingdom of God is not only about having enough to fill our stomachs, the Kingdom is enough food, the Kingdom is rich food, and the Kingdom is more food than we could need.
For there were leftovers that day, twelve baskets leftover, leftovers so significant they had to be gathered and measured. And that is the miracle that fills me with hope when my soul is dry, when my soul is starving, when my soul cannot survive another day. Those twelve baskets tell me again that Jesus will sit and eat with me, despite my selfishness, despite my lack of faith, despite my sinful and disobedient ways. Those twelve baskets of plenty insist that in God’s Kingdom there is more than enough for you, for neighbors, for strangers, for friends, for enemies, and yes even for unfaithful, doubting, and distrusting me. There is a ridiculously vast supply of leftovers.
In God’s world view there is food to spare, drink to share, and yes, above all else, there is love enough to hand out freely, twelve baskets, in fact, left over. And THAT is Good news!
Luke 10:1-12 After this the Lord appointed seventy (two) others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2 He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.
I love this text, but I must admit I always use it to talk about doing our ministry two by two. Frankly, when I started my outdoor church I was too afraid to go out by myself, so this two by two message seemed really important.
And, in fact, it is. Not just the safety in numbers, but we also know “wherever two or more of you are gathered, I am with you”. Two by two is good news.
But lately I’ve noticed some other things about this text that are very important to who we are as a church. First of all, do you notice that Jesus doesn’t send them out to start churches? Or to get folk to come to church? Or even to get folk to come to worship or Sunday school or bible study? Nope the people are sent out to “cure the sick and tell them the Kingdom of God has come near you”.
That’s it, that’s all. Deal with people’s problems, and say The Kingdom of God has come near.
This is clearly not the right-wing evangelical message of “sinners repent!” But it also isn’t the UCC and progressive Christian message of “we should just love each other”. There is changing going on here: curing. And there is this crazy idea that the Kingdom of God has come near you. What on earth could that mean?
Jesus’s message is that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Some of us have gotten this confused with the idea of Heaven—but Jesus is not talking about what happens after we die. And some of us instead imagine a time, as mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer, when God’s work is done on earth, just like it is done in heaven. But this text, and all the other times Jesus’ proclaims this, the Kingdom of God is “at hand” or “nearby” or “right within sight”.
For year’s I preached that the Kingdom of God is at hand in a little tiny church that met in a small restaurant. The ceiling was low and when I’d point up, as preachers are inclined to do, I’d point directly at the heat vent. Now the heat in that church rarely worked, and the church was in new England, so we had lots of jokes about the Kingdom of God being there in that not-working heat vent. But one Sunday, just as I reached up toward the vent, and proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is at hand, the heat came on!
Indeed, those little things that make us laugh, or feel joy, or feel the love of one another, I think those things are little hints of the Kingdom. In the early church, the community gathered for a potluck, possibly every day. There was enough to eat for everyone, even the poorest of the poor—and that in itself was evidence that the Kingdom of God was indeed already begun. Standard Christian theology is that God’s rule has already started. It’ll be more, it’ll be better, it’ll be everyone, but today our celebration is that it has started.
It feels, today, in the United States, in many mainline churches, like it would be audacious to proclaim that we are already feeling the Kingdom of God. Part of that is because our lives are just fine the way they are. We imagine the Kingdom is great, and can't see how to get from fine to great.
But for people who are struggling out in the world, it would not take much for their life to be a great deal better. I was at a retreat yesterday where someone said their picture of a beautiful community would simply be one where they felt they belonged. Belonging is a great start of the Kingdom that churches can provide, if we are trying to reach people who do not feel like they belong. For people who have been abused as children, or who are abused now as adults, being in a community where they are safe would be a great improvement. Safety is a great start of the Kingdom that churches can provide. I’ve worked recently in a church that has many parents of kids with mental health challenges. They constantly have to explain, and ask for, basic services their children need. Acceptance and Affirmation of that even kids that act out are Children of God would be a great start of the Kingdom that churches can provide. People who are hungry and lack housing and clothing and education and opportunities are treated as if that means they have no skills, no gifts, no contribution to make to the world. Respect and Appreciation would be a great start of the Kingdom that churches can provide.
You may notice that none of the things that bring the Kingdom near seem to be about stuff. And you may notice, as I have failed to notice, time and time again, that in this scripture text, the disciples don’t bring any stuff to give out. It’s actually worse than that, and that is probably why I ignore it, but they are not allowed to even bring the stuff that they need to care for themselves.
Essentially, the disciples are sent out to beg for their own needs. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to do that. And yet, what does it mean that Jesus’ asks them to do that?
When I started at Worcester Fellowship, I used to worry about whether I had what was needed to give to people. But over time I learned that what homeless people wanted, more than just about anything, was to do something useful for the world. Some of it was simple: there was no reason for me to try to get 5 gallons of hot chocolate out of my car; someone wanted to do that. There was no reason for me to figure out how to set-up the altar table; someone wanted to do that. There was no reason for me to shovel the walkway and chairs; someone wanted to do that. But later it was even more complicated things. When someone needed help finding the shelter, there was a person without a home who could take them there; when someone needed to figure out food stamps, there was a person without food who could work the system; when there was a call for Worcester Fellowship to speak out on youth homelessness, there was a youth without a home who wanted to speak at the state house.
It turns out not having stuff doesn’t take away knowledge, or compassion, or helpfulness, and it certainly doesn’t take away the desire to serve one another. But more than that, it turns out that when I stop thinking that I need to have what people need I start to be connected to many people who have many things that other people need. And it turns out that there is no better way to treat people as children of God than to treat people as gifted, helpful, ready to serve. In the end it was my ability to leave behind my purse, my bag, even my sandals, that made me more able to proclaim the Kingdom of God in near.
And that is good news.
From March 6, 2016
To see more about Worcester Fellowship. This sermon was the introduction to "Mission Goes Where the People Are". More on Workshops.
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.