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When I was interviewing for the position of pastor of faith formation here at Bethany, one of the topics of conversation came around to how to build community. My answer? It may be very simplistic but it was this: “Feed them!” I personally think that most of our Bethany Fund should be spent on food to gather people. After all, food is central in all of our lives, everyone regardless of any differences, we all have to eat! We need food to physically live, to be healthy and for children to grow up thriving. But I also think we also need food emotionally and spiritually. Eating a meal together reveals a lot about who we are, what we like or dislike, how or where we were raised, (so much of our food preference is geographical). It’s an intimate and vulnerable act, as who doesn’t at least once a meal accidentally spill a little, have something on their face or in their teeth. You can’t always be on your best behavior as you eat and as this is true for all of us, meals are also the great equalizer. The likelihood of a small faux pas is equal among us all. This is why I think so many first dates are meals, or why we invite people we want to get to know over for dinner. We’re willing to risk the vulnerability in order to find out more about people because we know over a good plate of spaghetti a good story will also be told.
Special meals also gather our families and loved ones together at points during the year. Perhaps it’s Thanksgiving at Aunt Jane’s where you know Uncle Joe will show up with questionable stories for the children and questionable behavior. Or it’s Christmas, when certain foods from your family’s heritage are concocted and served along with the stories of the recipes and the history of Great Grandma Mary’s cake. Or birthday dinners where you know an embarrassing story about when you were three is bound to be told. We might face attending these meals with some ambivalence, wondering why we go, yet go we do, to be a part of something, to be connected to the whole of your family and close friends, and to hear the stories once again.
The early church community gatherings revolved around a meal. A real, actual meal. I don’t know if it was potluck or if the host house prepared it or how that worked, but we read in the Bible over and over the importance of gathering for a meal. A meal prepared for three strangers who suddenly appeared from the desert, a meal where all shared what they had and no one had any need, a meal where food purity laws went out the window for the sake of sharing the good news of Jesus will supposed outsiders, a meal where eyes were opened in the breaking of the bread, a meal that proclaimed the promises of God, a meal that binds us as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Gathered around a table, we all sit eye to eye, elbow to elbow, nourishing our bodies together. Even when we sit with people we don’t know, or don’t like or think shouldn’t be allowed at the table. Paul was struggling with this issue with the Church in Corinth. The fledgling church was gathering for meals, but gathering under the auspices of society where some were in and some were out. They forgot the radical invitation to the table from the One who ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, the unclean and the undesirable. They had prettied up their tables and were making sure that who was at the table was acceptable by the laws of society and not embarrassing in any way.
When Paul first connected with the people of Corinth, he gathered them not just around food but the story of what truly fills and satisfies, the story of Jesus Christ. The story of Jesus’ love, his love for the whole world to the point of death-not death for the sake of death-but death for the sake of not making choices out of fear, scarcity or despair. Death that could not and would not be the final word. God transformed death into life-abundant life and hope. This story brings everyone in need of this reality, this truth, to the table. All of us are in need of this story and all receive it equally-no one receives more or less, no one gets fancier dishes, no one gets it first or last-but we come as one people to the table where there is room for all and enough for all.
Paul tells the Corinthians the story of the meal that Jesus shared with all of his disciples. Those who loved him, those who would deny him, those who would doubt him and yes, those who would betray him. All were at the table. There was no pecking order, no exclusion for bad behavior or dysfunction, only open invitation into the story of unending love and grace for all no matter where you may be in your own story with God.
So, yes my answer to building community and the Kingdom of God is to feed people. Not because I think it’s a good idea, but because God does. God sent Jesus to walk around with us, turn our few pitiful loaves and fishes into banquets, to fill our nets with more fish than we can eat in a day, a week or a month. Jesus who over and over again sets the table, invites us all to join and fills us with what we need to share the table with our neighbors, coworkers and family. We share the stories of our hearts, of our experience with the difference that Jesus Christ makes in our lives. How Jesus’ love opens us up to see those whom no one else does: those who are hungry, those who are sick, those who are despised, those who no one will eat with. At the meal of Holy Communion, we are part of the story that calls to us to see and sit with on another how God does-with love, mercy, vulnerability and compassion. Every meal we eat is a continuation of the story being in the community of God’s people whether you are at home with your family, eating at work, or eating alone. The promise from Jesus is that every table is sacred space that proclaims the presence of God and God’s promise for abundant life now and forever. Jesus says, “Come. For all is ready.”