Tuesday, January 14, 2020
The Sunday Sermon: The gathered community
“Work hard, and it doesn’t matter where you come from. You can go anywhere.” It’s the dream that has attracted so many to this country. Two stories from the film highlighted the tension we face:
In one, an elementary school teacher worked hard. She showed up every morning. She was dedicated to the kids she served. She lived in Oklahoma, and her school consisted mostly of native American students, many of them poor. Some of them would not be able to stay in her school for more than a few weeks at a time as their families would move from place to place, seeking a lower rent or better conditions for themselves. But she made a place for them, and ensured that her school was preparing for them to stay for the long-term no matter what. She came from two generations of educators. She acknowledged that she herself was only able to become an educator because of a land-grant her own native American family received, land which later turned out to have oil beneath it. If that hadn’t happened, she would likely have had a very different story.
In another story, a woman immigrated from India at a young age and went through public school right here in Southern California. She was admitted to Harvard and worked three jobs along with scholarships to pay for her education, and went on to found a non-profit that provides technical job training to the poor in developing countries, and then hires them to do work. She gave a Ted talk on what she learned, when someone from the audience suggested her model would work right here in the US, in rural Arkansas. She tried it, and opened a training center. It was much more challenging. While the participants were quick to learn new technology, cable companies simply were not willing to provide infrastructure so that their homes would have internet service. Cell service did not work in all parts of town. Without those connections they could not work. The educational barrier was eliminated, but obstacles remained. The participants had worked hard, but the structural obstacles of poverty could not be overcome just from just pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.
Several stories like these in the film helped point out that the American myth of “work hard and your dreams can come true” has broken down. If the American dream ever was true, it is less true now. Social mobility is declining. Trust in institutions is declining. The glue that holds society together is breaking so that it feels like we are merely a collection of individuals. Narrators Condoleeza Rice and David Kennedy claimed that society cannot hold together without a common aspirational story. Can we find a new aspirational story to share?
Now I am not a theocrat, and I believe in the separation of Church and state. But I do believe that the Church is here to have an impact on the world. Church in Greek is ecclesia, and it means the gathered community. Maybe we have something to offer a society that is atomizing, that is losing its identity, that is un-gathering.
In the story from Acts today, Peter is in the middle of learning a new aspirational story for the nascent Church.
Peter begins this chapter believing primarily that the church is good news for the Jewish people. But then he has this experience with a lavish picnic blanket, an abundant table, that shows him that God’s hope for the world is much larger than he has been able to imagine. All people are welcome in the Church, Jew and Gentile.
“God shows no partiality,” he opens with the first sentence from Acts in our reading, as he processes his learning. And he launches a new aspirational moment for the early Church, one that we carry still today: The Jesus Movement is not just for Jewish followers of Jesus but for all people in all nations.
It's interesting to look at how that vision came about for Peter. Something like a sheet came down carrying four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Jewish purity laws forbade Jews from eating some of these foods. God used a vision of a kind of a banquet to illustrate a new vision of the ecclesia, the gathered community, for Peter. And for us.
The table was a place with rules, with boundaries and purity laws, and by opening it up to abundance, the Church received a new aspirational story, to grow to welcome all.
And here we are, now, 2000 years later. Have we, society, let the work of scarcity creep in to our table rules? Do we listen to a voice that tells us that there is not enough to share what is on our tables with them, whoever they are?
We can have a new vision. The table as a place of abundance, a vision of a plentiful feast. “We live at God's table, because gifts are freely given, because grace animates everything.” There is enough. For you and you and you and them and them too! There is enough so that we can joyfully invite anyone to sit at the table with us!
Table economics is something we will examine closely over the next few weeks in our Epiphany formation series. I invite you to sign up in the courtyard this morning.
In baptism, we do sign up for a common aspirational story. It is the story of an abundant table with room for all. It is the story of working hard but also of grace when we stumble. It is the story of belonging and relationships. It is the story of laughter and love and of shared commitment and community. It is the story of belief in a God who loves us more than we can ask or imagine and walks with us on the way. It is the story of sticking with struggles together, enduring because going it alone isn’t an option. It is the story of shared discernment, listening carefully to each other and working together to find a way forward. It is the story of ecclesia, the gathered community.
It is our story, St. Paul’s. Be the baptized, the beloved, children of God! And let that light shine brightly out to the rest of the world, a story to share with the whole world!
The Rev. Canon Jeff Martinhauk
Baptism of our Lord A, January 12, 2020
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1. Ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2010.