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The Reverend John Leedy
July 2, 2017
A Reading from the Book of Acts
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
The Church of Jesus Christ makes for a really weird restaurant. I mean, think about it – we’re already halfway there, right? You come in during the Sunday brunch hour. A host or hostess greets you at the door and you get handed a menu of today’s offerings. As you enter the dining room there is music playing in the background. You’re seated in these Alamo Draft House style rows at this restaurant with only one table. Once you get comfortable in your seat we welcome you and ask if this is your first time here. Don’t you hate that question at a restaurant when you just want to blend in and go with the flow?
At this restaurant there is a kid’s menu that comes with crayons. Your table server runs through their prepared speech about the special of the week served up hot and fresh from the Word of God. Then we ask you to help pay the bill before you get your meal. When we actually get around to the food part, we randomly select 10 of you to be the waiters and waitresses in order to serve a very, very specific menu. It’s a small plate, tapas style meal of a crouton served in wine, fondue style. And yes, there is a gluten free menu as well.
Then we all leave, but not before making a reservation for next week – same time, same pew. Yeah, the church of Jesus Christ makes for a weird restaurant. Thank God that the church of Jesus Christ isn’t called to be one.
You see, at a restaurant, customer service is the name of the game. We go to restaurants to be served. We pay extra for other people to take care of the cooking, the cleaning, the ambiance, the shopping, the planning, and the dishes. There is an expectation that we are treated to lightning fast yet unobtrusive service, our water glasses always full and the breadbasket never empty.
We go to a restaurant because it feels good to be served and our needs and desires catered to. We go to a restaurant because we want someone else to do it for us; we want someone else to wait at our table. And all of that is wonderful if you’re running a restaurant. But a long time ago, someone realized that the church needed to be something else – something entirely different.
That while the restaurant experience is a straightforward and predictable one, the church experience is in its essence a paradox – layer upon layer of symbol and meaning crashing together and breaking open for us and for the world.
We come to church to be spiritually filled – yet we do so by emptying ourselves. We come to church to find a source of life, a font of life, but first we must die to ourselves in order to truly live. We come to this church for the friendships – yet we find that these relationships bear no resemblance to friendships outside these walls, because our connection with one another is based upon our sinfulness, our mortality, and, in spite of those things, our baptismal identity as children of God.
At the table we elevate the broken body of Christ, then we distribute it to the resurrected body of Christ, to you, the only body Christ has left in the world. We offer our prayers up to a God that we cannot see, yet if Christ is the head of the church and we are the body of Christ then Christ is praying with us, for us, alongside us. Just as the head is connected to the body, so Christ and his church are one in prayer. The church is paradox after paradox and is crowned by the greatest paradox of all: the Lord of heaven who came to earth not to be served, but to serve.
This is why the church makes for a weird and dare I say a lousy restaurant. We come to this place, Sunday after Sunday, both to be served and to then serve others. What restaurant that you know of would come with that expectation?
Welcome to Kerbey Lane, our special pancake of the day is pumpkin swirl and Eddie needs some help washing dishes in the back whenever you have a sec. Welcome to P. Terry’s, can I take your order after you fill in for me at the drive through window for a half an hour? Welcome to Franklin’s, after you’ve stood in line for three hours we need your help hauling in mesquite for the pit.
The church is not Kerbey Lane. The church is not P. Terry’s or Franklin’s or any other kind of restaurant. The church is a place where we run headlong into the mysteries of God – headlong into the paradoxes born of water and fire, wheat and word. We run to the waters of the font of life to be washed of our sin, then turn to scoop that cool water into cups and share it with the thirsty. We run to the Word of God to be uplifted and inspired for the week ahead then allow that same Word to break our hearts for the sake of the world. We run to this waiting table to be served the bread of life, then go out into the world to serve at all those other tables waiting to share in this feast. All those other tables, those waiting tables. Tables of the poor, waiting for bread. Tables of those who are home bound, waiting for a friendly face. Tables of those afraid to go out in public, waiting for safety.
All these waiting tables, all tables represented by this table, this table as every table in every home and life throughout time and space. The church is a place of waiting tables. The church is a place of waiting tables.
The church has always been a place of waiting tables. As it is today, the early church in the apostolic era faced its share of waiting tables. Our Bible story today tells of complaints that were made against the leadership of the apostles because the widows of the community were being neglected, their tables sitting empty of food.
Now up until this point in the New Testament church, the apostles are running the show. The first five chapters of the book of Acts details the busy pastoral schedules of the apostles. Peter and James and the others devoted themselves to teaching and preaching, to fellowship and the breaking of bread, to the prayers, to healing the sick, baptizing thousands, managing finances, sharing with the poor, defending the faith, facing persecution, dealing with conflict in the community, managing explosive church growth, and all this without Presbyterian Board of Pensions insurance or a night off to catch up on Netflix.
What we have here in Acts chapter 6 is an incredibly real moment for the life of the church – a very human moment.
It’s the moment when the apostles realize that they can’t do it all. They can’t be everything to everyone and still turn in their expense report on time. They can’t preach and teach and sit in on disciple committee meetings and host whatever the first century equivalent to VBS was without something or someone falling through the cracks. And, as is the case in every story, the first ones to fall through the cracks are those on the margins of society, those most vulnerable, those most in need, those with waiting tables.
Our story today is a moment of reckoning for the apostles, a moment of reckoning for the church. The apostles needed help. The church needed help. So in Acts chapter 6, we read about institution of the first office of the church – in Greek diakonos, in English, deacon. This is such an important turning point in the early church that the Bible lists these seven proto-deacons by name. This group of seven, these first officers of the church, were named diakonoi, deacons, because their name needed to match their job. The word deacon means table server. The church needed table servers, waiters to wait on waiting tables.
And the church of today still needs table servers. We still need those who wait on the tables of the waiting. We need those servers who will take the bread from this table to those who cannot be with us in this place. We need those who will share the warmth and connection and fellowship we enjoy in this place with those who are lonely, sorrowful, sick, or near death. We still need our deacons. For the past five years, I have had the immense privilege of sharing in the life and ministry of our diaconate.
These are some of the silent worker bees of our church, selflessly performing ministries of compassion and service and living faithfully into the ancient calling of their office, to take the church’s bread to the home bound. Our deacons serve the critical role of minding the cracks – those places where Matt, Krystal, and I can’t always reach. Their work is difficult work, but it is life-giving work. I am grateful for our UPC deacons, for these table servers, extending the table of Christ to every other waiting table.
And I am grateful to all who come to this place prepared to serve at waiting tables, deacon or otherwise. Because the calling to serve at table extends even farther back in the story, before there was even such a thing as church. It goes back to the night Jesus took a towel and wrapped it around his waist. Looking up from Peter’s still wet feet, Jesus gives us his new commandment, to love one another, as I have loved you.
So yeah, the church would make for a weird restaurant because we were never called to be just a restaurant. Perhaps, the church is also called to be like Uber Eats, Instacart, Favor, or Grub Hub – one of these food delivery services where ordinary people with ordinary lives in ordinary cars pick up food and bring it to hungry people. Maybe the church is like that, an ancient paradox, some combination of a place where we are both served and are called upon to serve others. Both customer and waiter, patron and server, filled – only to be poured out for the life of the world.
In the name of Jesus Christ who first served us, Amen.