A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, October 21, 2012
IN PRAISE OF POTLUCKS
A Meditation on Spiritual Community
Then shall the good teacher say unto them, “Come, you blessed ones, inherit that place prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungred, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in, naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.” Then shall the community answer him, saying, “Beloved master, when saw we you hungred, and fed you, or thirsty, and gave you drink? When saw we you a stranger, and took you in, or naked, and clothed you? Or when saw we you sick, or in prison, and came to you?” And the good teacher shall answer and say unto them, “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as you have done these things to one of the least of these my sisters and brothers, you have done it to me.”
—Adapted from the Gospel According to Matthew
Chris Carmichael at his Sacred Sandwich Blog reports from the great fear that haunts every organizer of a church potluck. I recount it here in a slightly abridged version, but you might want to look up the longer version sometime.
“Tragedy struck Langley Baptist Church on Sunday afternoon when every covered dish at the church’s monthly potluck was a green bean casserole. Stunned onlookers watched in horror as family after family arrived with the same popular side dish... By the time grace was said over the meal, there were over twenty-five green bean casseroles lining the buffet table with no meat dish in sight.
“Marilyn Perkins, supervisor of the Langley Baptist potluck, recalls the terror of witnessing the casseroles flooding in. “I’ve heard scary stories from other churches about excess hominy or okra, but you never think it’s going to happen to your church... All I could think at the time was, Why us, Lord… why us?”
“Despite the initial panic, church officials were able to restore order and send people home without further incident. Reports of one member being detained for trying to sneak extra wafers out of the church’s communion tray could not be confirmed.
“In the aftermath of the ill-fated potluck, theories abounded as to why this catastrophe took place. Speculation on the cause ran the gamut from the 25 cent sale on Libby’s green beans at McGonigle’s Market to a sign of the Apocalypse. The main theological issue under debate, however, was whether it was part of God’s sovereign decree or the tragic outcome of man’s free will exercising the right to bring a lame side dish to church.
“Seven-year old Kenny Myers, son of members Todd and Carrie Myers, tried to put things in the proper perspective. “I’m just glad they weren’t brussels sprouts. Seriously, I woulda puked.”
Jim Estey we know your pain.
Personally, I like green bean casseroles. In fact I have such positive memories from my childhood Baptist life of those green beans combined with Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and topped with French’s French fried onions becoming through some mysterious alchemy of the heart an ultimate delight, that I always eat some whenever I find it. I’ve even been known to ask Jan to draw upon her ancient family recipe to prepare this queen of comfort foods for Thanksgiving.
That said, while we are occasionally blessed with green bean casseroles here at our First Unitarian potlucks, that isn’t our standard fare. In fact, let me say for anyone who cares to hear, Baptists have nothing on us in our congregation when it comes to potlucks. I admit this isn’t a universal truth for UUs. But, here, not only do our potlucks rival the best I recall from my childhood, but almost always vastly exceed my memories of those years of yore. Now, American cooking has advanced since the nineteen fifties and sixties, so I admit today maybe some Baptist churches might put on feasts of the like we do, but somehow I doubt it. If you haven’t been, you have to come. Jim is ready to sign you up.
The potluck is for me the great symbol of spiritual community within the western tradition. So, I’m more than pleased we’re so good at it here. Food is the most amazing symbol of our humanity, so basic, so fundamental. The Christian communion, a divine meal based in the Jewish Passover meal, echoes ever more ancient gatherings to eat in celebration of the divine. From the same ages I think of Mithraism and various Norse and Hindu communities all with sacred meals. I find myself thinking of the notorious early twentieth century religious leader Father Divine who found an enormous following among the poor and disenfranchised, and who presided at sacred feasts where all were invited and none turned away. I also recall the remarkable spiritual teacher Krishnamurti who sat with friends at dinners, which could go on for hours. Truthfully the list of spiritual communities that see food as central is perhaps identical to the number of religious communities.
I think there’s a deep reason our principal program within the range of social justice and service activities here is our monthly food share pantry, where thirty or forty of us gather to provide a dignified setting and a generous range of food for people who would otherwise go without. If you haven’t participated, I guarantee you it is impossible to miss the sacred element in providing a hungry person with something to eat. Sign up sometime. There’s always room for another helper. And, I want to add, particularly in these hard times: If you need some extra food. Come. There is no them and us in this. And there’s enough for all.
This past Thursday I joined our monthly Mobile Loaves and Fishes ride out into Providence. If you’re unfamiliar with the project we are one of a half dozen congregations that share the use of a food truck that we stock up with sandwiches, drinks, and some clothing and then take out into the night swinging by shelters and others spots where homeless people congregate. It’s something amazing, and if you are even slightly interested you should consider signing up sometime to help prepare the food and clothing or help distributing it.
Anyway I was tasked with making coffee and hot chocolate for our patrons. However when that first person asked for coffee I realized I don’t actually know how to make instant. But, I’m game. And as I am used to a strong cup, I put three heaping teaspoons into the sixteen-ounce styrofoam cup, even as my patron and more experienced workers looked on in horror. I was quickly relieved of my duties and given napkins to hand out, while Lorena was put in charge of hot drinks. Mildly disappointed, I took comfort in knowing even those who simply hand out napkins, are serving.
And I have to admit as I watched her whip up steaming hot cups for people that it was a little like watching a tea master, but much faster. And, as I watched people on line and the way our crowd engaged everyone, and particularly the centrality of the food itself, I felt this amazing sense of recollection, an echo of memories of my childhood Baptist church potlucks, with their green bean casseroles, fried chicken, and for some reason principal in my memory, pies, many different pies.
And, frankly, this can be a way of separating people. I recall the hurt when I was first told by a lesbian couple that they knew the religious community they thought was theirs wasn’t when they learned each was expected to bring a separate dish to its potlucks. Food and the rites associated with food is so powerful we need to approach this whole thing with respect and a knowing that food is power, it is a sword, and that sword cuts in many ways. At the smallest edge of this, I think of my own struggles with weight. There’s enormous power here.
Well, back to that truck and a bunch of us feeding people at various spots in Providence, where the chronic poor, those haunted by addiction and mental illness, and those who’ve just slipped past that couple of paychecks into the abyss, people who look just like many here in this Meeting House today - and sharing for a moment with care and respect, some food. Anybody who thinks about it knows that there are issues around access to food that call for actions larger than making a sandwich and giving it to someone. And anyone who has made a sandwich and given it to someone who needs it knows how in that moment there is nothing more important.
Food. Sharing. Powerful forces coming together, and in that coming together some real truths are revealed, truths about community and truths about us, each and every blessed one of us.
Here’s one. While sharing food may be the most powerful of symbols, when it is part of a larger package of coming together into a spiritual community, of sharing, of being present, we find mysterious things happening, alchemies of the heart that make the creation of a green bean casserole very much the least of what is happening. The marinade of our coming together changes us, changes you, changes me at some molecular level. We become new.
Now part of the deal for us is that this gift of transformation isn’t in the hands of some select few. Yesterday evening Jan and I drove up to the Boston area where someone we know and feel a real fondness for was ordained into a gnostic priesthood. They look a lot like Catholics, with bishops and priests, and a powerful and compelling communion service at the center of it all.
The commitment to a deeper caring that I saw among that crowd was genuinely moving. And, that centerpiece of sacred meal was powerfully present. But, in the story they embraced the power was held by the priests, who alone could spark the alchemy. That’s not how we do it. That’s not how we celebrate it. That’s why, even though our particular congregation cerebrates the ancient western communion a couple of times a year, as we have since our gathering together as a church some three hundred years ago, the real juice, the activity which draws us together and is the true symbol of our deeper lives is that communally made communion, the potluck.
I think a lot about the power of our coming together, so dangerous, so important, is found in our individual choice to reclaim the web of relationship in a regular and concrete way, in our coming together, in our being together, friends and people not so close, even folk we may have spent years not liking, but we keep coming back, and being present, and sharing – ourselves as we are, and as we can become.
All those many years ago my internship supervisor the Reverend Lindi Rasmden, who now runs the amazing Unitarian Universalist legislative ministry project in California, was in those days fond of saying a UU church was a spiritual co-op. And, I believe that. We’re not a hierarchical institution. We are as they say, a barely organized religion. In our approach to spirituality and community as Unitarian Universalists, it is all about throwing our lot in with each other, sharing food on occasion, sharing time with some regularity, doing things together, and sometimes doing nothing together. There’s a lot in doing nothing, alone and together. But, that’s for another reflection.
Here, as we gather in covenant to be present, before the deep mystery of intimacy, we find the doors of the realm of heaven are thrown wide open. And what is it that we find as we look through those doors? What is going on, on the other side?
Well, every religion has a myth or a story or a description of what it looks like. Streets paved with gold, and many mansions. Meade and feasts and warriors drinking into the night. Choirs of praise. An endless spring.
For me, it is a potluck. Each of us bringing our own covered dish. Green bean casserole. Deviled eggs, oh my goodness don’t get me started on the delight of deviled eggs. Eggplant in a black bean sauce. Pies. Did I mention pies? Each of us bringing our hearts. Each of us bringing ourselves. And in some wondrous mystery, we get just the right amount of green bean casseroles. Here it all comes together just perfectly, and everyone gets what they need, and no one is ever turned away.
This is Heaven.
The Promised Land.
The Pure Land.