Lord, may the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Know what I love about Luke? He totally gets why I love living in JP. He totally agrees with me that Jamaica Plain is the best neighborhood in Boston.
JP, say “Amen.” (Amen!)
It’s true! He wrote a whole story about it! I mean, OK, he calls it “Emmaus,” but he’s obviously talking about JP.
Listen to the story again. It’s Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. Now, the way Luke tells it, nobody has seen the risen Jesus yet. The way Luke tells it, the women go to the tomb and find it empty. They talk to some angels, who tell them that he is risen, but they do not see Jesus. Peter runs and looks in the empty tomb, but doesn’t see anybody at all.
So these two disciples are on their way home, and they are not in a good mood. All they know is that not only has their leader been crucified, his body has disappeared as well, and some of their friends have told them an impossible thing that they do not believe. So they are headed from Jerusalem home to Emmaus. On the way they meet you-know-who, who does some fairly exasperated Bible study with them as they walk. And then—now pay attention here, because this is the money part—then they get home and they invite him to stay with them at their place. They eat a meal together, and as they do, they suddenly realize that Jesus Christ, which is to say the creator of heaven and earth herself, is sitting right there at their table.
Did you catch that? Did you hear what I’m saying? The first time that anybody meets the Risen Christ, the first time after everything died and everything came back to life that God reveals himself to the faithful, is not at the tomb, is not in the Temple, is not in Jerusalem. It’s in their kitchen.
Much ink has been spilled and many sermons preached about that line, “He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” It’s a good line, and of course it’s just too perfect to not use it when we have communion. It implies that eating together, that shared meals have the power to reveal God in a special way. But I’d like to suggest that an equally important ingredient in this revelation story is where the meal happened. It didn’t happen at some vendor’s stand in the middle of Jerusalem, far from home. It happened where they lived.
It happened in JP.
Well, at least the way I read it. Maybe when the story says “Emmaus,” you hear “Cambridge” or “Wellesley,” “the South End,” or even “Providence.” Which, of course, is as it should be, because according to Luke, Jesus is revealed first, foremost, maybe even best right in the middle of your neighborhood.
Here’s why: your neighborhood is the place where individual humanity and local color are at the height of their powers and on fullest display. The City of Boston may plow the roads, but it’s the neighborhood that organizes the block parties. City Hall might provide emergency services to get you to the hospital when you need it, but it’s the neighbors that will notice the “It’s a girl!” sign on your lawn when you get back. The mayor might provide incentives for small businesses to come to town, but it’s the people that share your little patch of the city with you that know the best place to get coffee on Saturday morning. The neighborhood is where the daily holiness of your life is lived out and shared.
Luke says that’s where God shows up first. On the street outside your house. In the kitchen with your friends. Not in the Temple, not in the halls of government. Luke says God loves you in your Sunday best, God loves to see you at worship. But Luke says God’s favorite place to meet you is in your comfies on the couch with your husband, barefoot in your backyard, sweaty at your community garden’s spring clean-up day. Why? Because Old South isn’t where you spend your life. JP is. The South Shore is. Brighton is. God doesn’t just want in on your Sunday morning best; God wants in on your life.
Our forebears had a name for this kind of thinking. They called it Congregationalism.
The Pilgrims and the Puritans believed that the best place to meet God, the best way to discern the mind of Christ, was among groups of people who not only worshiped together and shared similar beliefs, but who shared their daily lives, who entered each others’ kitchens and walked each others’ streets, who shared both geography and facetime. “What does Rome know about Amsterdam?” they asked. “What does the Archbishop of Canterbury in Old England know about the wilderness outpost of Boston in New England?” Central authorities, they said, could not possibly take full enough account of the particularity of their lives. And so they set up a system of being church that assumed that God would always reveal herself first and best among those who shared stomping grounds and knew each other well.
It’s not that central gathering places like Old South don’t matter; rather, it’s just that you can’t be here every day. We can’t be with you every day. And while we as a body try to learn and know as much as possible about the lives and neighborhoods of everyone here, we just never will know as much as your next door neighbor does. Your neighbor will always know better than us what gift certificates to get you, what events will delight you, what local concerns exercise you. And if it sometimes seems that all your neighbors actually know how to do is annoy you, the same proximity that makes that possible is exactly what makes it possible for them to bless you better than almost anyone else.
But don’t take my word for it; ask the lady sitting next to you. Seriously. Think of the best thing a neighbor’s ever done for you. Could be where you live now, could be something from when you were five. What’s the kindest or most generous or bravest or sweetest, what’s the best thing a neighbor’s ever done for you? Now, turn to someone near you, preferably a stranger, introduce yourself, and preach my sermon for me.
To this day, my partner Terry’s mother still talks about the boxes and boxes and bags and piles of baby clothing that kept showing up on our front porch after we adopted Asa. Terry’s mom says our neighborhood put her small town to shame for generosity. And that’s not to mention the casseroles and the dinners. And that’s not to mention the nursing mother—incidentally also a member of this church—who showed up on the doorstep with a full bottle in hand saying, “I’m producing more breastmilk than my son needs; can I offer some to yours?”
I want to tell you that if Jesus is revealed when neighbors share bread, then when neighbors offer the produce of their own bodies to feed each others’ children, Jesus isn’t revealed. He does a round off back-handspring into the middle of history and saves everything.
I heart JP.
The vision adopted by the Congregation last December calls, among other things, for this congregation to double in size from about 600 to about 1200 members by our 350th anniversary in 2019. It is a tall order, but not impossible. But as Liz Myer Boulton is fond of saying, in order to get big, we have to get small. We will have to become a church that does the work of the church—worshiping, studying, praying, serving, giving—not just in large gatherings like this, but at least as much in small groups and small gatherings where people can come to know each other deeply and well.
To that end, two separate but related strategies, both sponsored by the Congregational Care and Support committee of the Board of Ministers and Deacons, are being launched today. The first you’ve already experienced: new nametags, designed by church member Jim Hood and executed by staff, especially Acting Executive Assistant Minister Brent Damrow, who would just like me to point out that much time and confusion would have been saved on the Road to Emmaus if Jesus had been wearing a name badge. These nametags are color coded by neighborhood in the case of Boston residents, or region in the case of suburbanites and beyond, so that you can recognize, from across the room, people who you’re likely to see at your favorite coffee shop. For those who live outside Boston, they also bear the name of your town, so you can know each other still better. There are eight groupings; you can see them on the map by the badge boards in the Narthex. Newcomers and first timers are invited to hand-write a bright red nametag, and everyone is to watch out for those people and be over the top in your welcome. First timers, if you tell us where you live, we’ll be happy to make a nametag of the appropriate color for you.
It was a huge task to convert our old nametags to these new ones, and we’re quite sure we must have made some errors along the way. So if you’ve noticed one, please just stop by the badge boards after the service. Brent, plus members of the Membership Committee and Congregational Care and Support Committee, will be there to help. Be kind.
The second initiative we’re launching today is this: periodic regional fellowship hours. Twice per program year, each of the regions will gather after Festival Worship in a special separate fellowship hour in Mary Norton Hall on the second floor. There, you will be invited to get to know one another better, learn from the Congregational Care and Support Committee about needs and services in your area, as well as explore (or maybe even start) small groups in your neighborhood. This will have the secondary benefit of relieving the increasing congestion in our regular Fellowship Hour.
Our hope is that you then won’t wait for us, but will take it from there. Sign up for existing opportunities, volunteer to start up new ones you know your neighborhood needs, and most importantly of all, do stuff the rest of us may never know anything about: invite each other over for dinner, drop off baby clothes on each others’ doorsteps, carpool to church, go to each others’ barbeques, and do together whatever it is that people from your neighborhood do. We know you are already doing this kind of thing. We want more.
The first of these gatherings is today: people from JP, Dorchester, Roslindale, and West Roxbury are invited to go straight up to Mary Norton Hall after worship. Next week is Cambridge, Somerville, Belmont, and Arlington. You can find the full listing in the May Calendar, on the Website, or just ask the people at the badge boards.
Luke says two disciples head home and Jesus reveals himself to them in their neighborhood. But the story doesn’t end there. Luke says that as soon as they meet Jesus, as soon as they meet him, they turn around and go back to the center of town. And they tell the gathered body what has happened. And the gathered body? They say, “It happened to Peter, too!” Apparently Peter has gone to some other neighborhood and met Jesus there. The book ends, just a few verses later, with the Disciples all gathered together in the Temple, blessing God for what God has done.
Our hope is that the same thing will happen to us. That you will gather in your neighborhood or your town in small groups and informal meetings, on the street and in the coffee shops, and that there you will find the risen Christ revealed among you. And that when you do, you will return to this place from far and wide saying, “The Lord is risen indeed, and he has appeared to Betty Pitcher. The Lord is risen indeed, and he has appeared to Ben Gildehaus. The Lord is risen indeed, and he has appeared to me!” We hope—no, we believe—that you will come back here with story upon story upon story of the ways God was made known to you in the planning of the block party, in the gathering of the Bible study, in the visiting of the neighbor, in the delivering of the casserole, and yes, in the breaking of the bread. And when you do, we will gather in the Temple and praise God.
If you believe that’s true, say Amen.