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Mark 8.1-10

I Corinthians 11.17-22

Pot Luck Theology

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

In the summer of 1977 I was a summer intern at Trinity United Church of Christ in Trumbull, CT.  It was part of a program sponsored by the UCC’s Connecticut Conference, where seminary students were placed in local congregations to gain some hands-on experience in addition to the field education we were already doing at school.  Trinity UCC was a small congregation, and they needed a summer intern because their minister was taking a five week sabbatical to South America and they needed coverage.  But for Trinity, it was more than that, because they had a proven track record of successful seminarians serving them through the years.  I loved it, since it provided the opportunity for me to fly solo for those five weeks, and it gave me a good idea of what full time ministry would entail.  About halfway through the summer, the Conference gathered all of us summer interns together to check in with us and give us an opportunity to share notes with each other.  A wide variety of ministries was represented, though I think I was the only one who was the congregation’s only minister during those five weeks.  There were students serving as associates, a couple Vacation Bible School coordinators, a chaplain or two, and more than one was basically hired to go through town door to door to try to drum up new members - I understand why the settled minister wanted to pawn that one off on an intern!  But one of us had a ministry I had never heard of before.  She was working at what can gently be called a “tavern” ministry.  That’s right – she and a friend from another denomination went to the New Haven bars at night, sipped soft drinks and chatted up the customers, ostensibly about the kinds of profound theological matters barflys are endlessly debating.  This was in 1977, and it was clearly a spin-off of a phase in the church’s life when people would gravitate to coffeehouses, play guitars, sing and talk in broad terms about faith and Jesus and the way of the world.  It was a kind of sub-movement that came to be known as Coffee House Theology, and it appealed mostly to college and graduate students in the inner cities.  And I may have led a relatively sheltered life, but tavern ministry was a new one to me; alas, by the time I graduated from Princeton I could find no full time “tavern ministries” looking for newly minted clergy.

Still, in spite of my initial disappointment, I understand that it is less about the venue and more about the witness, the opportunity to bear the presence of God in places that are sometimes unexpected.  It’s one of the reasons I so enjoy my Friday morning Coffice Hours at Simon’s and The Villager, because it lets me engage in conversation with folks who would never darken the door of the church, as well as to let them know that I, and by extension, we – and this is very important, that we part – are here for them whenever they might need us.  And we all do this in our own way, and it is an important part of our church’s ministry that needs to be named and recognized.  Because whether we like it or not – sometimes we do and sometimes we may not – you and I in ways large and small represent out church, and beyond this, we bear the presence of God in all of our every day encounters.

The disciples were not entirely sure they liked this part of their ministry.  There were times they were annoyed by the seemingly endless neediness of the crowds who followed them.  Today’s story of the feeding of the multitudes is the second time it occurs in Mark’s gospel.  The first time, and the more familiar one, was the feeding of the five thousand – this morning we heard about the feeding of the four thousand.  It was in the first instance that their annoyance first surfaced.  When they saw all those needy souls they said to Jesus, “Send them away – send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves something to eat!”  Most readers today will recognize that the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is not so much about Jesus magically turning a small bit of food into more than enough for everyone to eat, but rather about the fact that his gesture of generosity prompted the crowd to share whatever they had with one another so that no one went away hungry.  Which is a way of saying that by bearing the presence of God among the large throng of followers, Jesus – and the disciples, eventually – encouraged and enabled their own generosity.

I often think of church pot luck suppers – or in today’s case, pot luck picnics - in a similar sense.  It’s not about the food, is it?  I mean, some folks may have a go-to pot luck dish that everyone wants to be sure to taste, but I’m going to hazard a wild guess that none of you is here this morning for my tri-color tortellini salad with fresh tomatoes and garden basil.  No, we are here because when we sit down at the table, we bear the presence of God with one another – the God of abundance, the God of generosity, the God of plenty, the God of enough, and more than enough.

It doesn’t always happen this way though.  We read this morning how the church of Paul’s day needed to be reminded to be generous.   In that day remember, most worship took place in people’s homes.  And when it came time for what we call communion, it was more like a feast where everyone brought a little something according to their ability, and everyone ate according to their need.  You know, like a church pot luck picnic.  But in wealthier homes, the hosts and their favored guests sometimes ate and drank their fill before giving anyone else the opportunity.  “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper,” Paul wryly writes.  “For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What!  Do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”  Paul is trying to help them understand that sharing a table is something important, and not just for communion but for any common meal.  Whenever you and I sit around a table, no matter where it is or who else is there, there is a blessing. You are a blessing, the food is a blessing, the folks around you are a blessing, because God is present.  God was present in the loaves and the fishes, God was present in the crowds of 5000 and 4000, God was present in the disciples, who simply didn’t realize it at the time, God was present around the tables and in the fellowship of last night’s Rotary Lobster dinner, and God is present whenever we share not just our food but our presence, our entire selves with others.

This may be why the church is so good at pot lucks.  One of the things we really missed during the pandemic, even after we regathered, was our times together around the table.  Right?  The church loves to eat – coffee hour, roast beef dinners, the simple suppers of Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, and yes, pot luck picnics.  Even when someone forgets to bring a dish, there is always plenty to eat with enough left over; what’s left after a church dinner usually out-rivals the seven baskets left over after that first church pot luck in the desert, but I have never seen anyone go away hungry, nor do I recall ever running out of food.  It is partly because God is so abundant and generous with us that we are naturally abundant and generous with one another.  Now I recognize we took a chance today by inviting the entire town of Chester to join us after church, and who knows, maybe we will run out of food, but I will be surprised if we do.  And if we do, we will always have the table fellowship that is one of the church’s most notable trademarks, and it is more than enough to satisfy the hungry soul.

So in spite of the fact that tavern ministries are no longer available as ministerial opportunities, or at least  officially UCC sanctioned opportunities, it was a night I ate dinner at the Pattaconk that I met a couple people who once attended, but since drifted away from, our church.  It wasn’t long before they were back in the pew.  And it was a night of music at the Gris that I shared a table with a family who came to church the following week and decided to join.  And it is both the intentional and random encounters with folks around town that demonstrate that this is one of the many places where the presence of God can be known.  When we share what we have, we also share who we are:  the blessed, and blessing, children of God.

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