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Mark 10.35-45

John 21.15-19

Aprons & Bibs

Seventh Sunday of Easter

The Rev. Don Remick has the distinction of being the final Conference Minister for the UCC’s erstwhile Massachusetts Conference before the formation of the Southern New England Conference.  I know Don well, because at the start of his career he was the Associate Minister in the church I served in Beverly.  About ten years ago Don wrote a fascinating essay titled, “An Apron or a Bib:  The Changing Landscape.”    It is only a page long, and I’m going to read it this morning because it has some rather provocative ideas for the church and its ministry:

“An apron or a bib:  think about it.  Which is more typical in your church experience?  We wear a bib when we want to be fed.  We wear the apron to feed others.  Of course, with all such dichotomies, it is easy to say that we have both.  But that could be ducking the question and the observation.  Here are some of the observations:

  1. We are living in a post denominational version of Christendom. Our culture in this changing landscape is not enamored of institutions.  They see them as bib wearers, primarily interested in maintaining their status, influence and resources.  People, if they are interested in institutional church at all, are interested because of the theological stance or the mission/justice/service involvement, but not in serving an institution.  As such, denominations are becoming less of an organization and more of a movement.
  2. People come to church with both (or either) a bib or an apron. Some come as consumers seeking a transforming experience of worship where they encounter God, a place to make social connections, good programming for themselves and their families, and a sanctuary from the problems in their lives and world. Some come with an apron.  They want to be part of something that is changing the challenging world around them.  They want to be part of something that helps them make a difference in the world.  But, they don’t come to be members.  They are not interested in joining the club and climbing the hierarchical ladder from flower committee to Deacons (or Trustees, or whatever).  In fact they may not be interested in ‘joining’ or ‘pledging’ at all.
  3. The story of church is no longer controlled by the church. Media, from cinema to sound bites, either defines the church to suit their story, or portrays the most extreme of voices yelling slogans of doom, anger and fear, waving placards or burning something. And (though I may be a little cynical here) people readily put on the bib and swallow this message whole.  Our historic message in the United Church of Christ of extravagant welcome, a compassionate Christ, and an emphasis on human dignity and justice is counter to the message most of culture hears or proclaims about church.  And, our churches too rarely take off their bibs and step outside their walls to show a different face of Christ to the hungry world.  Instead we are putting on our bibs and waiting for (or hoping to ‘attract’) them to come in and serve us with more people in the pews and [more] pledges in the pot.

As a people of faith we are a people of hope.  And our scripture reminds us that God gave us both a bib and an apron.  Jesus miraculously fed the five thousand with a few fish and loaves.  He also sent them out two by two without a purse to share the good news and transform the world.  And I suspect that a denomination that understands a Still Speaking God has a fluidity to step outside the rigid structures of an institution to enable the Holy Spirit to come alive in our unique expression of God’s movement in the world.

There is a lot of food for thought in here, isn’t there?  And while I believe the overall trajectory of Don’s piece is valid, there are some pieces of it I would challenge, particularly that last part about the UCC as being all that different from the rest of mainline Protestantism.  But I don’t want to debate Don’s points, just chew on them a bit and see how they digest.

But think about his basic question:  when we come to church on Sunday morning, are we dressed with an apron or a bib?  Is our primary purpose to get something out of it for ourselves, or our families which are in essence an extension of ourselves; or do we come to church looking for ways to put ourselves into the mix for the benefit and betterment of others?  Now let’s flip the perspective and try to ask the same questions from the point of view of someone who doesn’t really understand what the church is all about, and doesn’t particularly care:  do they see us, whether the church as a whole or the United Church of Chester in particular, as a place where people go to sustain and maintain the church and its membership, or as a place where people come in order to build a better world?  And which church, do you think, would appeal more to you?

I purposefully chose three scripture passages this morning which clearly wear aprons.  And the first passage actually makes the distinction between aprons and bibs.  In Mark’s gospel we heard how two of Jesus’ greatest disciples, James and John, came to Jesus and wanted to get something for themselves:  “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  And the irony is that neither knew what he was asking:  when Jesus said they could drink the same cup as he, and be baptized into his baptism, he meant they would somehow join him in his suffering and death.  But they were so self-centered they could not see past themselves and declared themselves perfectly ready for both.  So the passage ends with Jesus’ admonition about true greatness:  “whoever wishes to be great must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave to all.”  You come seeking a bib, he told them; your bib shall be your shackles and your lash.

This is a harsh passage, isn’t it?  Even in its earliest days the church recognized exactly how harsh it sounded, because with each retelling, the story got watered down.  In Mark, who told the story first, we heard it was two of Jesus’ greatest disciples, James and John, who came to him wanting to be elevated over all the rest.  But it was rather unseemly for James and John to be portrayed in this way, so when Matthew told the story, well, listen:  “Then the mother of [James and John] came to Jesus and asked a favor of him... ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’”  See, it was easier for the church to blame the disciples’ mother for their conceit, rather than the disciples themselves, a rather unmotherly tale for Mother’s Day, don’t you think?.   And by the time we get to Luke, the offending parties’ names are expunged entirely.  “A dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.”  And thus the church made this difficult passage easier to swallow.

And there is a lesson in here to Don Remick’s point.  It is easier to wear a bib than an apron.  It is easier to come here looking to gain something for ourselves than to come here looking for something to offer other people.  It is easier to think that the disciples got into a disagreement among themselves than to think to pillars of the original church, James and John by name, were basically self-serving and self-seeking.  There was a cartoon in the New Yorker not too long ago that pictured two thirty-somethings sitting over coffee, and one says to the other, “I’m in the market for an easier religion.”  Well, there probably are easier religions in the world, but Christianity is not one of them.  When Jesus granted James and John’s request, he basically granted them suffering and death.  And after he said to Peter, three different times, “feed my sheep,” Jesus predicted the manner in which Peter would die, and then he said “Follow me.”  Follow me?  Follow me to a place where someone will stretch out my hands and bind me with a belt and take me some place I don’t want to go?  Are you serious, Jesus?  Surely there has got to be an easier religion, hasn’t there?

Much of what I’ve been saying this morning focuses on the importance of putting on the apron.  But as we saw last week, we need both.  We know that the bib without the apron – serving ourselves without serving others - leads to a self-interested church that is little good for anyone outside its own four walls.  But you really can’t wear the apron for very long without putting on the bib either.  If we are going to have something to give to others, we ourselves need to be strong enough to give it, to be fed with the nourishment of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  If we don’t put on the bib from time to time, if we don’t come to the well and be refreshed, then at some point we will run out of the spiritual energy it takes to put on the apron.  We can only be good for others when we are good for ourselves as well.

How many Deacons are here this morning?  How many of you have ever been a Deacon?  The reading from Acts this morning tells the story of the very first Deacons:   as the church began to grow, they saw there were too many people with too many needs for the twelve apostles to minister adequately.  When they said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables (and remember that phrase for a moment, “waiting on tables),” what they meant was, “We just don’t have the time to preach the gospel and to take care of our community’s needs, our widows and our orphans and our shut-ins and our sick.”  So they chose the seven people to do the caring for the community.  And do you know what they called Stephen and Philip and Prochorus and Nicanor and Timon and Parmenas and Nicolaus?  They called them Deacons because the Greek word for waiting on tables is diakonos - Deacon.  The Deacons are the ones who put on the aprons and waited on tables, who cared for the needs of the community.  But before they put on the aprons they had already worn the bibs, they drank from the well, as the Bible says, they were “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.”  You and I can best serve each other, and serve the community around us, when we have been nurtured by the Spirit of God in each of us.

There is a lot more to Don Remick’s thoughts that bear consideration.   What does it mean for the church that today’s culture is not a culture of joiners?  Does the media really control the way people view the church, or can the church still determine its own identity and character?  Is the UCC’s notion that God is still speaking really the antidote to what ails the institutional church?  Is there even a future for the institutional church, or are we really becoming more of a movement than an organization?  Don points out that the landscape is changing.  The church is changing.  We do not necessarily know what we will look like in another generation, but we do know that if we wear our bibs for this hour and our aprons for the next, we will at least be dressed for the occasion.

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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697

 

From the North: Take CT Route 9 South to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn left; we are 1 mile on the right.

 

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