So, I have a few questions… how many of you like to eat? How many of you like to eat alone? How many of you in the recent past have sat down with other people at the dinner table and eaten a meal? (Not in a restaurant) Generally speaking we are social beings and meals tend to be one of those times when we gather together – yet – many families no longer have time to sit down at a dinner table together. How many of you regularly eat around a table with other people? Culturally speaking we have lost the holy habit of breaking bread together.
So fun fact – every year that one resides on a seminary campus is completely different. The academic rotation is such that different graduating classes are never on campus for more than one year at a time. This means that every year it is a new community full of new people and the only constant are those people who are in your graduating class. This can be awesome and exciting or it can be frustrating and isolating – depending on the people present.
My second year of seminary was unfortunately – the latter. The senior class of students was predominately made up of young adults in their mid-20’s who functioned on a social level, much like a college fraternity. And much like a fraternity, they recruited and inducted in several of the first-year students of similar ages.
If you didn’t fit into their age demographic or if you did not engage socially in their way – then you were not welcome in their group. Which is fine – different social groups can coexist, even on small seminary campuses – except – that for them it wasn’t fine. When other groups would try to hold social functions this group often sabotaged them. I’m not sure that there was intentional maliciousness of any particular individuals, just a highly self-focused group culture that excluded and isolated many community members. Myself included.
One day over lunch in the seminary refectory the table I was seated at somehow stumbled upon the discussion of how many of us were feeling isolated and lonely because we didn’t fit in. My table was incredibly diverse. Students who were also in their mid-20’s but not part of the “cool group”, second career students, married students, minority students, and several single-parents.
We all realized that our reject status was somewhat unifying. I decided to start hosting a “reject dinner” for those who were feeling left out. (And yes – that was what we called it!) It started out with around 10 people. I made a big vat of pasta, salad, and bread – and we laughed and talked and hung out for hours. It was amazing, it was spirit renewing, it was community like I hadn’t really experienced thus far in my seminary career.
We decided that we would start having dinner together every Monday night. Over time more and more people joined our “Reject Dinner”. Those participating would invite someone new and those people would invite someone new. And so on. Eventually “Reject Dinner” became so popular that the “Cool Kids” asked if they could come too.
Gradually others started offering to contribute to the meal. We had a group Facebook message where people would chime in and volunteer what they would bring. I didn’t have to ask – people just offered what they could. I’ll bring salad this week. I’ve got drinks. I’ve got dessert. It expanded and grew organically – and for us it was so much more than just a meal. It sacramental.
Seminary can be spirit breakingly hard – and sometimes the places we expect to meet Jesus – isn’t where we actually find him at all. In those meals – Jesus’ presence was palpable.
In Luke 5:27-32, we are told the story of how Levi the tax collector is called to be a disciple of Jesus and how he throws a great banquet for him in his house. At this point in time tax collectors were included in rejects of society category. Not only did they do Rome’s bidding and collect tolls along roads, but they often overcharged so that they could, in turn, skim off the top, and increase their own personal wealth.
Prior to his being called as a disciple of Jesus, Levi was a shady dude and somewhat of a social pariah. The only people who would show up to a lavish banquet thrown by him, were other shady dudes and social pariahs. They formed their own “Reject Dinner”.
We are told that the Pharisees and their scribes took note of this and objected to the disciples. Keep in mind that in small villages everyone knew what everyone else was doing and the Pharisees jobs were to make sure people were living into the cleanliness codes that made up much of Jewish Culture and Law. They were the annoying, intrusive neighbor, who spies on everyone and gossips about what they see.
If one dined at a “Reject Dinner” they would become unclean just based on proximity. When asked why he is willing to risk this and dine with tax-collectors and sinners, Jesus responds that he didn’t come for the financially fortunate, socially elite, and culturally secure. He came for those with no status and no voice. Jesus came to combat social norms and to engage in the holy habit of breaking bread with everyone – especially those who are isolated and lonely. He came for the rejects.
Acts 2:42-47 speaks to another community of social outcasts. The early Christian movement wasn’t lush, posh, and steeped in privilege. Christians were the rejects of their society. A persecuted and often martyred group who were desperately trying to live their lives of faith, the best way that they knew how. As a banded community that provided for and took care of one another.
A group that devoted themselves to word, prayer, fellowship, – and who broke bread together communally. This group took care of each other – sharing goods and possessions. Sharing resources and wealth.
Scott Shauf had this to say about this community: “Most of the activities described as characterizing the community’s life are uncontroversial and have often characterized Christian congregational life throughout history. This is especially so with the opening of verse 42. Teaching, fellowship, eating together, and prayer have been common Christian practices for ages. The middle two of these may be especially significant – fellowship and eating together, mundane as they seem, are not activities we just happen to do but are essential acts of Christian life.”
Activities described as characterizing the community’s life – their holy habits… which are also our holy habits. We read the word of God – we pray – and we break bread together every Sunday. We experience Jesus together in wine and wheat, just like the early Christians did. And this is amazing, and how it should be, but I would challenge you all to do more.
I grew up in a congregation that used to hold quarterly potlucks. I don’t know why potlucks went out of vogue – because I love them! Where else do you get to experience a smorgasbord of that many strange and diverse foods? Seriously – we get to play food roulette – such fun! – because there is always a chance that something that looks amazing is really awful! In my home congregation there was one super old lady – like seriously she was about a million – who would put beets in red Jello. You only made that mistake ONCE! Potlucks are a modern day manifestation of what the early Christians did. And they’re easy! And fun!
As we determined earlier – most people no longer eat a meal together at home as a family or with other people. If it’s not Thanksgiving or Christmas, our dining tables sit empty. As we begin to incorporate and live into these holy habits I encourage all of you to have a communal, sit down meal once a week. You could even – read a little scripture and I don’t know – pray while you do! Look – I understand that all of our realities and families look different. We don’t all have children or spouses or whatever – but we all have someone we can invite over. We can all host our own little Reject Dinner.
Because like Scott Shauf said – breaking bread together is an especially significant and essential act of a Christian community.