The Magic of Potlucks: A Sermon

This photo comes from a cookbook my grandmother gave Lisa and me as a wedding present…from a family potluck.

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham

Proper 12, Year B

July 25, 2021

The Magic of Potlucks

I couldn’t read today’s texts without being filled with childhood memories of the fantastic potluck Sunday lunches we had at the little Baptist church where I was raised.  Everyone would pitch in and bring food, spreading it over every countertop.  I remember sitting there in the second pew next to my grandparents during the service, smelling the food from the fellowship hall right next door.  The hymns seemed to drag on forever when I could smell my favorite foods in the next room.  

We kids learned quickly whose dishes were best and which–if we’re honest–were to be avoided at all costs.  We would fix our plates and find a place to sit and eat.  My entire family seemed to go to that church–many still do–from my great-grandmother down to us little ones who would crawl under the pews for fun.  

When the service was over, we would walk in the fellowship hall, amazed at all the food as we gathered to say the blessing.  Later, after everyone had eaten, it was incredible how much food was still left over.  Everyone was stuffed, but there always seemed to be more.  It seemed to multiply!  It was the magic of potluck.

Of course, the story of abundance that we hear in today’s lessons isn’t just in the Gospels is it?  We also see it in the reading from 2 Kings, when Elisha calls for food to be gathered to feed a hundred people.  Some doubt, but the prophet was right: there was abundance, and perspectives were stretched so far.  Ways of seeing and understanding the world were forever changed.

This morning, the collect, or opening prayer, focuses on changing perspectives.  We are called to set our attention on the “passing through things temporal” so that we can experience “things eternal.”  What do we mean by that?

When we speak about “things temporal” and “things eternal” we are really speaking about hermeneutics, to use a theological term.  It is the perspective or lens through which we see and interpret the world.  Do we see or understand reality only within our limited framework, or do we see or understand life within the spaciousness, the infinite potential that is the hallmark of God’s grace?  How do we respond when something happens to us that challenges our specific worldview to change?  What is the sensation of grasping that we might feel as we fear the change?  Or, what is the feeling of release and relief that we might experience as we consent to resting in something that, perhaps, we have waited for?  

Those two sensations, grasping on one hand and releasing on the other, are core experiences for us to wonder about in our spiritual practice.  

In this way, our spiritual practice and this movement is a way to imagine the shift from a perspective of scarcity to one of abundance. In both the Old Testament and Gospel reading, some in the crowd doubted.  They feared that there would not be enough. We can understand that those that doubted were bound or constrained by a temporal mindset, a limited perspective, and they passed through the experience of abundance and had a realization that brought them into an eternal perspective.  It is a fascinating story of conversion of heart.

There are many ways to approach the deeper lessons for us in this text.  I think of how we have all been challenged for the past year and a half.  Specifically, looking at our services, we lost a good deal of the comfort of the liturgy for  a while, that wonderful rhythm that carries us through each week.  If you were upset about not being able to have church the typical way we always had, you were not alone.  You should try to actually manage and lead a service from home with cats interrupting you.  Thank God we were able to expand to our new virtual system to allow for livestreams.

There is a sense in which saying “we have always done it that way” anchors us in times of upheaval and grief.  I need predictability, a pattern, to help ground me when so much around me seems to be changing.  This feeling can be positive.

But, if we’re honest, there can also be a sense where the predictable can begin to bind us, constrain us. It’s a fine line we walk with the perspective of “we’ve always done it that way,” isn’t it?  It can offer comfort, but it can also become too rigid and actually limit us from imagining new possibilities that the Spirit may have in mind for us.  

This perspective of “we have always done it that way” doesn’t just go for liturgy or services.  Absolutely not.  It also challenges each and every one of us to pay attention to our behavior, the particular posture we take as we live in the world.  What is our primary motivation?  How have we always looked at the world?  What have we always thought was true?  How can we be honest with ourselves and say, “I have always done it that way?”

In this story, those who doubted weren’t unfaithful people really.  Perhaps they could just be understood as realists–at least as realists within the current way they understood the world.  They looked in those baskets and saw this much food and that many people and their calculus told them that it simply wasn’t possible for each person to be fed.  

But there seems to be a strange magic in potlucks.  Something powerful happens when our lives are oriented around sharing with others.  No one makes a dish and brings it to a potluck because they want to just eat their own dish.  Have you ever thought about that?  When we share food, we wish for the well-being of someone else.  We want to do something that will nurture joy and fulfillment in their life, if even for a moment.  

I think this is the real miracle in the story, the deeper lesson: that when we are oriented toward the well-being of someone else and seek to share out of compassion, grace enters the equation and the potential is limitless.  Our grasping yields, and we can imagine new ways of living in the world.  When we are oriented only toward what we want, we close the door to grace and fail to thrive.  

If we are only oriented toward what we want, there is simply no room for God’s grace, because God always seeks to bring about the healing of the whole.  

Now, I have to tell you that this story hit me hard this time around, as I sat with it over the past week.  This story cycles through our yearly rotation, but we are in a much different place now than we were the last time we heard this story of feeding the multitudes.  

I am convicted this year, because I see how we continue to struggle to learn this lesson of the difference in grasping and releasing, or sharing.  Are we oriented toward what the community needs, or are we oriented toward what we ourselves want?  What is our primary motivation, if we are honest?  

When I sat with these stories of feeding multitudes, I tried to imagine what those first folks were thinking and feeling.  In that moment when Elisha and Jesus tell them to take this food and feed those people, what did they think and feel?  

I think their initial suspicion and doubt was actually rooted in fear.  Fear is the root of so much of our struggle, if we’re honest.  We have only known this way or that way, and to imagine it changing stirs up fear in us.  And that fear triggers anger and grasping.  And the reaction comes and builds.  

And in those moments of fear and anger, our sinful selves grasp onto what we feel is best for us.  We become totally self-centered, fixated on our perceived needs and wants.  

Friends, this self-centeredness is harming us as a people.  If St. Paul was right–and I think he was–that we need to pay close attention to the ‘powers and principalities of this world,’ it is important that we name this outloud.  In our baptismal covenant, when we stand each time with candidates and families, we have three renunciations that seek to name these powers that we are resisting, with God’s grace.

The first is this: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness which rebel against God?

The second is this: Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

The third is this: Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

We would do well to keep these renunciations in front of our faces these days, my friends.  

These vows are an important way that we strive, daily, to pass through things temporal so that we can rest and live and move in things eternal.  These words–and the spiritual reality they point to–encourage us to move from a posture of fear and scarcity to one that rests in God’s love–and the call to love our neighbors as ourselves.  

In the end, the magic of potlucks shows us what is possible, because we are oriented not toward our own grasping, fearful positions.  We have moved past old patterns that are entrenched in any self-centered idea.  We have rejected living life based just on a “this is what I want to do and I have a right to do it” posture.  

Rather, we have spent time in our kitchens carefully measuring out ingredients as we remembered that this friend or that person always loved it when we made this food.  This dish always made someone smile.  Sometimes people asked for the recipe, and we had to tell them we just made it all up.  

We look forward to times when we sit across from one another and share a meal with portions from five different homes.  We laugh and tell stories.  Sometimes we cry when we need to when we remember someone who is no longer with us.  It is holy, and good, and true.  

And when we look at the long banquet table and prepare to clean up, we are amazed that there is so much food left over.  We have poured ourselves out for one another, and God’s grace has poured in and multiplied our lives beyond measure.

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