The Real Deal Meals

A sermon based on mark 9:38-50
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 27, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A non-denominational church school asked students to bring an item to class that represented their faith. The next day a Catholic student brought a crucifix. A Southern Baptist student brought a Bible. An Evangelical student brought a cross. And a UCC student brought . . . a covered dish.

That story seems to fit us. We have a number of pot lucks throughout the year. Even this evening we are bringing pot-luck desserts to the reception for the Jason and deMarco concert. In addition to the great food we bring to our pot lucks, I always enjoy the surprise factor of what shows up, as well as my fascination with the fact that no matter how many pot-lucks I go to I’ve never encountered everyone bringing the same thing. Thirty bean casseroles or thirty cherry pies never happens. And my goodness at pot-lucks there is always plenty of food for everyone.

Pot-lucks are a sign of community and they serve community and always lead to not only memorable feasts where everyone gets fed aplenty, but great fellowship ensues. So, as much as the joke I told might make us smile, I actually love the idea of a covered dish being a symbol of our faith, of the UCC, of Christianity. It speaks volumes about compassion and caring and fellowship; and it also resonates with Christian history which started with inclusive meals, not exclusive meeting houses.
I think I have told some of you this already, I have a theory that Jesus invented pot lucks – and if he did not, a shared meal practice can certainly be traced back to him. In a seminary class on communion I almost wrote a paper on Jesus inventing pot lucks. In fact, I went back and looked and in footnote 89 of a 24 page paper I wrote in reference to New Testament stories about

Jesus feeding thousands with fish and bread . . . that I considered pursuing the idea that these feedings were [a] . . . modification by Jesus of the [Greco-Roman] banquet [tradition, by] holding huge “pot-luck” or other type food share meals so that the poor, excluded from the ordinary Greco-Roman banquets could experience the social gathering of the meal, have the meal itself, and be made clean through acceptance into the community.

Jesus, you see, invited the rich and the poor – and everyone in between– to his meals. This brought into community those on the margins, those who were ordinarily outcasts. And I imagine that just like today’s church pot lucks, at Jesus’ meals there was plenty enough for those who had no food to bring or neglected to bring something. I also imagine that today if a church, any church, decided to hold a pot luck and intentionally invite the rich and the poor – and everyone in between– and asked those who bring food to bring extra for the poor, it would seem like one of the Jesus’ feeding the thousands story.

People get fed well at church meals and always have. So, see, it’s not that crazy a notion that the covered dish is actually a pretty good symbol to represent our religion. The real deal is in our meals! Christians of virtually all stripes, when they are asked and able, are in my experience very, very generous about sharing food at meals. This town is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of this. I’ve mentioned before how I’m always bragging on the fact that every single day in Mount Vernon there is food provided for those who need it. The Hot Meals program is truly remarkable. Sandy Reppart leads an awesome hard woking team from this church.

And it is not just our church’s team, Hot Meals throughout the city are God’s grace at work and in the hands of faith communities giving those in need food every single day. WHAT A BLESSING! Participating churches aren’t fighting about theological issues. They don’t withhold daily bread because of this or that belief or unbelief or social status. They just give to people who show up and want to eat. Period. No questions asked. In a very real sense Jesus’ loaves and fish stories are played out in the Hot Meals program.

The Apostle Paul claims the Church represents the Body of Christ. And everyday a tag team of Christ’s followers – churches in this town– act as Christ’s body preparing food that God provides and handing it out to those who gather with a smile and from what I have seen a great deal of compassion and respect.

This relating and working with other churches is what pastors call being ecumenical. The Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms on my desk indicates that “ecumenical” means

embracing the whole household of God. It . . .concerns all churches and their relationship with each other as well as the relationship of Christianity to other faiths.

Today’s text can be heard as an ecumenical teaching. Some of Jesus’s disciples are worried that those outside their particular way of following Jesus are also using Jesus’ name.

And not unlike today, some of followers of Christ are judging and trying to stop others from doing things in Jesus’ name. As we heard,

John said to [Jesus] “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

We’ve all probably noticed that some Christians and churches don’t seem to relate well to others. Some have even protested and written letters to judge, criticize and try and stop this church. The conflict is mostly about our Biblically based theology that God’s love is unconditional, and our related loving actions in the community where we side with the oppressed, like God and Jesus do in Bible. It’s not that we act as church without Christian motive, Biblical precedence or church tradition, it’s that others want to try and stop us from using Jesus’ name because we are not following them.

This is not new in Christianity. It’s not new in town either. For 181 years our church has been judged and criticized by a few Christians in the community. When we’ve opposed slavery, racism, misogyny and homophobia we’ve got flack from other Christians who judged that our actions did not meet their interpretation of what is Christian, Biblical or traditional. They point at us and complain in essence, like John in the lesson, that they are “not following us.” Despite the complaints we remain convinced that opposing slavery, racism, misogyny and homophobia is, and always will be, following Jesus. All of those things are oppressive by definition. So we’ve sided against them as followers of Jesus, as Christians, as church. And all along there’s been some friction–and some negative responses.

These negative responses, as disturbing as they may be at the moment of the attack, really represent a very small piece of our relationships with other Christians. Despite what it may sometimes feel like, we are not “always” under attack by the other churches . . . or most the other churches, or half the other churches . . . or even very many other churches. As far as I can tell at most it’s been relatively few people and maybe a couple churches.

The truth is locally we work well in ecumenical settings on many level with many churches and people of other faiths. For example we’ve long pooled resources with other faith traditions to create and sustain with them Interchurch Social Services, Habitat for Humanity, Hope Now and The Winter Shelter. We also work with other faith traditions to support New Directions women’s shelter and this past year we helped create and sustain our Multi-Church Youth group. And, as I’ve mentioned, we are part of a remarkable network of faith communities that provide hot meals every day of the week and we share responsibilities for Tuesdays with our Christian brothers and sisters at St. Vincent dePaul’s Catholic church.

And of course, our very successful Peace Village summer camp for children was specifically designed to honor and uphold and work in relationship with leaders and members of other faiths and children as we played and taught and had meals together. I have also been meeting over meals Dr. Joy Brennan working with her to not only open up our church for Zen Buddhist meditation on Tuesday but to find ways for us to make more and more interfaith connections in the community–including the exploration of how we might work together at a Buddhist retreat center and in developing an Ohio interfaith peace conference with classes and conversations and meals together.

And this church’s ecumenical work is not just with other denominations and faiths. We are making tighter ecumenical connections within the UCC as well. Last year we helped found an ecumenical clergy group with five other UCC pastors. Two weeks ago I took a trip with that clergy group to Pilgrim Hills a UCC campground about a ½ hour from here. The six of us met there to scout out and plan an association wide religious retreat –you know one of those old fashioned multi-church retreats that many of us remember so fondly. The retreat is being planned for a year from now –on a weekend Ohio State has a bye, of course. We are calling it “CONNECTING TO THE SACRED, IT CAN ALL BE PRAYER: A SPIRITUAL RETREAT.” And we plan to start it with a Friday pot-luck and end it with an old fashioned church barbeque. Meals for and with Christ.

All of this inter-church and inter-faith connecting we are doing and planning often has meals involved. So really it is easy to imagine a covered dish symbolizing church as we lovingly gather with other faith communities to share ideas and concerns and compassion and meals.

Today’s words from Jesus best represent why we do this stuff with others. Unlike John and his ilk who try to stop those who do not follow “their” path, we understand that those who act with love and in the name of love are not against God or Jesus or the church or us, but rather are on the same side with us and God.

And when we work together we learn to respect and honor and care for others beyond the walls and the traditions of this church.

And did you notice in the lesson how Jesus claims that those who help us, regardless of their faith are honored and upheld? Jesus said

truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

This is the very opposite of what we are told by those few Christians who judge and criticize other Christians and other faiths for not following their path. While they claim everyone who does not follow their theology, loses God’s reward . . . Jesus says otherwise! He claims whoever – that is literally anyone – whoever helps Christians out “will by no means lose the reward.” “No means” means, no means. See ecumenical work is a win-win situation. We help each other and share love and fellowship, and are irrevocably rewarded, not punished for doing so. Since that is how Jesus understands it and acted, that is how we need to understand and act. And we are doing just that and trying to do it more and more!

Alright . . .if you remember nothing else from this sermon, you can tell your friends and family that you learned “covered dishes” are a great religious symbol . . . because inclusive meals represent Jesus’ real deal, love.