Rev. Hogue Sermons
Broken Bread and Common Goods
Highland Park Presbyterian Church
May 3, 2020 (4th Sunday of Easter)
David Hogue, Interim Pastor
Our Spiritual Life Ministry Group was meeting via Zoom a couple weeks ago, reviewing our fledgling moves into recorded online worship, and considering how best to move forward. In the midst of that meeting we were discussing the utter disruption that has occurred to our lives in general and our worship lives in particular. We can’t meet together in our familiar sanctuary, bask in the music of the organ and choir, or gather for coffee hour in the parlor. We’re prohibited from visiting the sick and even the well for that matter, unless they are family. The world has turned upside down.
Director of Music Randy Manges observed that we were not the first Christians to have such an experience; the earliest followers of Jesus lived in a world that was falling apart, too. Uprisings against the Roman occupiers were increasing from the residents of Palestine, and the Temple would be destroyed in 70 of the Common Era, decimating the very center of Jewish religious life. Jesus had been crucified, risen, and by the time of today’s text, ascended again into heaven. They were without the physical presence of their leader, without familiar places to worship, and without even a separate identity; they were still a small reform movement within Judaism. Yes, immediately we recognized echoes of our own experiences in this time of pandemic.
As Providence would have it, our lectionary this month is filled with passages from the book of Acts, Luke’s history of the church’s earliest days. On the very last day of this month our worship will culminate in Pentecost Sunday when we recall that miraculous visitation of the Holy Spirit, when Jews from around the world gathered in Jerusalem for a great feast. To their utter surprise they were able to understand what was being said in spite of representing many different languages.
But today we get a succinct, simple description of how the church began to operate after Pentecost. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” Three practices were at the core of their lives together: studying Scripture, eating and connecting, and prayer. They listened and studied, they shared time in caring for each other, and they worshiped. To make sure we really understood, Luke says, “they spent much time together.”
Not a bad three-point model for the church, is it? Those practices all grew out of their shared Judaism. Study of Torah, regular worship in the synagogue or temple, and prayer were right at the core of their religious experience already. But it is those three that Luke particularly singles out as descriptive of their life together. And all three of those practices are being tested and tried in the days we currently inhabit.
One who lived in another time when the world was falling apart was German Lutheran Pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. After a time of study in the United States, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and eventually joined the Confessing Church, a Christian movement that resisted the rise of Nazism. He taught for a while at an underground seminary at Finkenwalde where they trained Confessing Church pastors. He was later arrested and imprisoned for alleged participation in an assassination attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler. He was executed on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the Allies liberated the camp and a month before Nazi Germany surrendered.
Bonhoeffer may be best known for his book The Cost of Discipleship, but his little Life Together speaks particularly clearly to us today. His experiences of close community in the seminary and forced isolation in prison granted him a perspective on community that few have written about as eloquently. He writes, “Many people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone. Because they cannot stand loneliness, they are driven to seek the company of other people.” This is a dangerous position, he observes, because community then becomes a diversion, an escape from ourselves. That is anything but true community. On the other hand, we are called into community, and “if we scorn the fellowship of our (sisters and) brothers, we reject the call of Jesus Christ.” “Each by itself (that is, solitude and community),” he says, “has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair. Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”
For some of us, these days of social isolation have forced a solitude that weighs heavily on our souls. Some live alone, and miss the communion of daily conversation and shared meals, or settle for written, phone, or online connections with others. Others find ourselves in the company of family and relive both the joys and dilemmas of life together. But we are learning how critical it is for us to be together, within our homes or outside, physically or virtually, with persons familiar to us and even with strangers. Extroverts and introverts alike require the lifeblood of human connection, and we have learned not to take community for granted.
This deep human desire to be with others is undoubtedly part of what drives some to risk health and infection to gather in large groups, despite the warnings of medical and government leaders. Social distance has become increasingly hard to enforce, as impatience with stay-at-home rulings escalates. Not only has isolation become harder and harder to endure, but spring is at our doorsteps and we long to enjoy the warmth and sun as well as the company of others. Whether it is a house party in Chicago, the beaches of Florida and California, theaters in Georgia, or a funeral in New York City, the profound need for community is in clear view for us every day. Even some faith leaders are claiming that restrictions on gathering in large public settings violate their religious liberty, and they are gathering large worship groups in defiance of state regulations.
How are we then to balance these competing needs for protection of ourselves and others with our yearning to be together? There are, of course, no easy answers, no way to make all this pandemic seem like a good thing, and we’re all trying in our own ways to connect as well as protect. Zoom fatigue is a real thing for those who are forced into endless meetings online, and that makes for hilarious skits on Saturday Night Live. Some have committed to learning some new skill or language or life practice, while others have jumped at the opportunity for downtime – freedom from the demands to produce. Jigsaw puzzles and Netflix subscriptions are at all-time highs, as are Amazon orders. Still others are basking in family time together while some confront family dilemmas they were able to avoid or overlook before COVID-19.
Perhaps Bonhoeffer’s insights are particularly worth considering in our day. Some of us have opportunity to practice being alone, to listen to ourselves, our hopes, our fears, the fulness of our lives, and life’s empty places. Without the opportunity to turn quickly to others, we may discover new depths we had not recognized, and even reevaluate some of the ways we had been living before this new reality set in. What do we want to hold onto from our pre-pandemic lives? What might we want to give up? What are we learning right now that we might want to hold onto?
For some, of course, this kind of loneliness is painful and even dangerous. So we also need to imagine new ways of being together, new ways of checking in on each other, new ways of seeking help when we need it. Some of us may find ourselves asking for help for the first time in years; we’re accustomed to our self-sufficiency and reluctant to acknowledge its limits. But life together requires the kind of vulnerability that opens us to the gifts that others also have to offer.
Later this morning, if you are watching at or before our usual 10 am time, we will have opportunity to check in with each other for a Virtual Coffee Hour via Zoom. You should have received an email invitation to join us at 11 am. That will, of course, not be a fully satisfying substitute for the real thing, and it’s just an experiment right now. But we hope you will have a cup of coffee and check-in with others to explore yet another way of being together in this new era.
Learning, sharing, and praying; three central practices of those early Christians. There is a fourth practice listed in this passage, though, that is a little more controversial. And that involves their economic practices. Luke says it this way: “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” If those words sound familiar, you may be recalling Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler who asked him what he needed to do to be saved. “Sell what you have and give to the poor.” That young man went away sad. Or, you might remember the way communism was explained to some of us when we were in elementary school. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Well, that is a form of income redistribution that is hard to square with 21st century capitalism, and it is a model that did not sustain itself very well in the old Soviet Union.
Luke may be giving us an overly idealized picture of what life was really like in those early days. This is what he wished they were doing more regularly, or his vision of the church at its best. But this particular practice is believable. And to be clear, the Scriptures don’t define any particular economic structure as more or less Christian, at least for all time. And we’ve certainly seen both voluntary and governmental steps that demonstrate some attempts to provide for those in need.
But if we can suspend our impulse to use Scripture to justify our favorite economic system, perhaps we can see in this passage the very kind of care that Bonhoeffer is talking about. Those who have resources – finances, time, transportation – have opportunities to “distribute the proceeds to all, as each has need.” We can take care to protect our neighbors as ourselves when we stay at home or keep our distance or wear masks in public. We can check in on those we know are alone or in need of care. There are many types of proceeds to be distributed.
For Christians, of course, our community is grounded in Christ. That is what makes us different from other groups we belong to. In Bonhoeffer’s words, “The community of the Spirit is the fellowship of those who are called by Christ.” In John’s Gospel this morning we were reminded that we (the sheep) recognize Christ’s voice, and it is that voice that calls us into the future.
Jesus himself was, of course, our model of self-giving love. So I’m reminded of the story of a mother who was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin, age 5, and Ryan, 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson. If Jesus were here, he would say, “Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.” There was only the slightest of pauses before Kevin turned to his younger brother, and said to him, “Ryan, you be Jesus.”
Well, that’s not quite the model we are hearing about this morning. We’re not asking others to be Jesus. We’re being asked what it means to embody Christ’s love for each other. The question is how can I be Jesus for others; how can you?