For All Saints Day, I preached at two churches, thanks to the magic of the internet and the reality of remote worship. One of the churches is working their way through the Acts of the Apostles, so I went with their scripture—Acts 6:1-7—for both groups. It is a collection of verses that isn’t in the lectionary cycle, as far as I can tell, but it had a lot to say to me. Here is my sermon “Pulling Ourselves Together” and Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart,” which felt like a good hymn for the day.
Every time I come to the Communion table as we are today, even though we are doing it remotely, I carry with me a specific memory of a Communion service at a youth camp almost thirty years ago. My friend Kenny was preaching about the Last Supper and talking about Jesus’ words, “As often as you do this, remember me,” and asked, “What is the opposite of remember?”
“Forget,” was the answer that came from most of the young people.
“No,” he said, “the opposite of remember is dismember. Life pulls us apart. We come to the Table to remember–to put ourselves back together in Jesus’ name.”
As I pondered what to say on this Sunday, which is not only Communion Sunday, but also All Saints Day and the Sunday before our Presidential election, the memory came even more alive. Remembering, by his definition, is not just about memories, but is a crucial part of our daily lives. Whether we are holding the memories of those who have died, or trying to figure out how to take care of one another, or just how to get through these crazy days, we have to spend a good deal of our time re-membering–pulling ourselves together, don’t we?
Our story from Acts 6 is a story of re-membering, of pulling together. I think this little section could be titled, “Living Together Is Hard Work.”
After Pentecost, which we remember as the birthday of the Church, the followers of Jesus began to realize they were the ones who were going to have to make the word become flesh, which meant they had to learn how to live together. The people who came to Jesus were a mixed bag. They were not all alike. Many were not well-off economically. They were not mainstream. What they all shared was their love for Jesus. And they shared that they all lived under Roman occupation.
Then they decided to share everything with each other so that no one would be in need. After all, Jesus did say, “I was hungry and you fed me . . .” But it didn’t take long for things to fall apart, or at least for the new system of solidarity to stumble.
What does it mean to share everything, to hold everything in common?
One of their practices was to make sure everyone had enough to eat, which took time, resources, and effort.
One of the dividing lines in the church was between the locals–those who spoke Aramaic and had lived their whole lives in Palestine–and those who were also Hebrew but had grown up in the larger Mediterranean world. They spoke Greek; some even had Greek names. The issue was the Greek speaking group said their widows weren’t getting the same attention as the Aramaic widows. The apostles recognized there was an issue but said they didn’t want to spend their time sorting it all out. They were the Chosen Twelve—the ones responsible for the new and growing congregation; they didn’t think they should use their time waiting tables. So, they instructed the congregation to choose seven people to handle it. To minister. The Greek word is diakoneo, from which we get our word deacon. A few verses down it’s the same word used to describe what the apostles were doing. In fact, it shows up three times in this passage, each time translated differently: it can mean to serve, to minister, or to attend to—to wait on.
But even though they were using the same word, not everyone looked at things the same way. the apostles said, “It isn’t right–it isn’t acceptable–for us to set aside the proclamation of God’s word in order to serve tables–to minister at tables.”
Now, I have to say as someone who spent a decade of his life working in restaurant kitchens and who loves to feed people as much as I love to do anything, I have struggled to understand the tone in the apostles’ response to the problem. I’m not sure it’s fair to paint them as acting superior, but if I had been one of the ones preparing the meals, I might have taken it that way. As we said at the beginning, living together is hard work. They had to deal with expectations, responsibilities, different personalities, varying backgrounds, divergent political views, and money.
Any of that sound familiar? Pulling together, as we know, is not an easy task. And it is the task to which God has called us.
The theological term we use when we talk about the life of Jesus is incarnation—as John 1 says, the word became flesh and dwelt among us. I know enough Spanish to know carne means meat. In carne sounds like “with meat,” which is another way of saying real relationships are embodied, not theoretical. Whether we are talking about a marriage, a friendship, or a church community, pulling together means putting meat on the bones of love. Words alone are not enough. We have to have some skin in the game. The early Christians committed to share everything in common, which meant they had to struggle to figure out how to make sure everyone felt like they were being treated fairly. So, they chose seven people who would be in charge of making sure everyone was fed equitably and they went on with life together.
I started off talking about Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “As often as you do this, remember me.” In many liturgies, we interpret the first phrase as meaning as often as we share the eucharistic meal, but I think it offers a wider reading. What if we were to understand Jesus to say, “Every time you come to a table, every time you sit down to eat, take the time to pull yourselves together.”
The Greek word for table can be translated to mean a dinner table or a money table. So how about this: as often as we come to the dinner table, the conference table, the coffee counter, the checkout line, or any other chance we have to be with one another, we have a chance to re-member ourselves, to put ourselves back together in Jesus’ name.
For me to say that life has a centrifugal force that throws us all to the edges is not telling you anything new. Pretty much everyone who is a part of this worship has been dismembered by circumstance, left broken-hearted by grief, struggled with disappointment and failure, wrestled with competition and comparison, even as we have opened our hearts to others and loved those around us. We know what it feels like for life to tear us apart and we know what it means to re-member. As we come once again to the Table on this Sunday filled with memories of those who are no longer here and with uncertainty about what lies ahead, let us choose, once again, to pull ourselves together in Jesus’ name. Amen.