In the name of God. Amen.
I’ve lived in northern New Jersey longer than I’ve ever lived in any one place in my entire life. Even after these eight years, however, I continue to experience culture shock. No matter where I go, or how long I’m away, I’ll always be a kid from Louisiana out on a wild adventure in a strange land.
Culture shock presents itself in some unusual ways: being chastised for holding a door for a lady or saying ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘yes sir’, not finding the spices or coffees or foods that I require in my local grocery store, driving…
But over the years I’ve been noticed another kind of culture shock you might not expect: Potluck Dinners. They’re a staple of church life in the South. We call them ‘Covered Dish Dinners’, but the principle is the same: everyone in the community agrees to come together to share a meal. Everyone brings a little something and it adds up to a feast. Perhaps there’s some programming or event around which the meal is centered, but not usually. Usually, it’s just about the meal and the community and the miracles that abound when the two are allowed to blossom into a celebration.
I guess the primary difference between ‘Covered Dish Dinners’ in the South and ‘Potluck Dinners’ in the North is that y’all seem to feel the need to plan it all out. Potluck Dinners, as least as I’ve experienced them in New Jersey, tend to involve sign-up sheets and pre-planned commitments about who will come and who will bring what and – God forbid – sometimes even a collection basket for those who didn’t bring anything.
Covered Dish Dinners, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more informal. Sure, we all know Miss Eula Mae is gonna bring her 7-layer coconut cake, so we don’t bring that, but everything else just kind of happens. Yeah, there may be two trays of deviled eggs, but everyone’s deviled eggs are a little different, so it can’t hurt. And it’s true, tuna casserole with that corn flake topping doesn’t really GO with pot roast, but who cares?!
Covered Dish Dinners aren’t about planning a meal; they’re about making space for grace. It doesn’t work out as neatly as if it had all been planned ahead of time, but works out all the same.
It never really adds up. Everyone is asked to bring enough for themselves. Some people don’t bring anything. Everyone eats more than their share, and there are always leftovers. It just doesn’t add up. We can’t know how it works, but we know it works.
This is Paul’s prayer for the church: that we might “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge”; that we might know the unknowable.
For me, this is the function of the miracles in the story of Jesus: they remind us not just that there are unknowables in this world, but that through the grace of Christ, they can be known. In our post-modern, western culture we compulsively try to explain away the unknowables in our lives. We can be pretty imaginative in our attempts – explaining how the parting of the Red Sea might have been a drought followed by a flash flood, or explaining away the empty tomb by saying either that Jesus didn’t really die or that his body was stolen.
We do this because miracles make us uncomfortable. Miracles are unknowable and nothing makes us quite as uncomfortable as those things that surpass knowledge.
Last week we talked about one of the greatest miracles of the human experience: working together.
Remember that Jesus and his disciples worked at different times, and covered for one another during the others’ times of rest. The end result was that each member of the team had a bit of rest, and each individual in the pressing crowd had their needs met. They were each taught, or healed, or fed according to their needs.
The Gospel of Christ is a gospel of community. While ‘working together’ may seem like one of the greatest ‘miracles’ that could happen among people, the reality is that it’s the minimum standard expected of those of us who follow Christ.
This morning we hear another account of working together.
When the disciples saw the crowd gathering in, they knew that their resources were too insignificant to handle the needs of all of those people. But Jesus took what they had - the simple rations that they could find, gave thanks for it, and began distributing it to the people.
I always imagine that as the baskets got passed around, people took from it as they had need of it, but that they also added to it as they had the ability. When people give themselves over to the possibility of thinking not just of themselves, but of their place in the larger community, these things tend to happen.
Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a way of explaining away the miracle. It’s a way of understanding the possibility of the same kind of miracle happening in our own lives all the time.
And it does happen, doesn’t it? Think about our life here as a congregation. Giving isn’t just about the money that you put into the offering plate every Sunday - though that’s clearly one example of the same kind of miraculous power of a united community. But in every aspect of how we operate as a community, we give where we’re able, we take where we have need, and in the end, the community thrives through mutual support.
You may not have the gift of singing or playing an instrument, but you help the music program by distributing fliers for concerts and offering your gratitude for those who have the gift of performing. You may not have the gift that many other people in the congregation have of preparing and presenting a delicious meal for potluck lunches or hosting coffee hour, but perhaps you help by setting up or cleaning up afterwards.
We all have our gifts that we bring to this community. None of us simply receives what the community has to offer - we all take a hand in making the offering. No one offering is sufficient to meet all of the need.
Our doubt can sound like Andrew’s: looking at the five loaves and two fish available for the feeding of the five thousand, he said to Jesus, “What are they among so many?” Or as one commentator paraphrased him, “How can the tremendous need we see be met by so small an offering?”
Who among us does not often feel that our offering is too small and insignificant to meet the needs of our own lives, much less those needs of the world?
But here is the secret: our offerings are always small. The needs of the world are always great, and our offerings to meet them are ALWAYS small in comparison. But through God, as revealed in community, our offering, though seemingly insignificant, is sufficient. It doesn’t quite add up, but the unknowable becomes known.
Like a proper Covered Dish Supper, we don’t need to plan out all the details. The end result almost certainly won’t be perfect, but it will always be sufficient and even abundant. And sometimes it will even be perfect.
Like the abundant love of Christ showered on all of us who don’t deserve it even a little, life doesn’t always add up right, but it divides up just fine. Amen.
(this sermon is reworked from a previous version, posted here)