Fifteen years ago Elizabeth Gilbert found herself in a pivotal moment. In her mid-30s, by many measures, she was a success. Elizabeth was married, a homeowner, and a published author. Her books were well-reviewed, with good sales, and had even won some awards. But in the middle of all this worldly goodness her marriage failed. And she found herself questioning most everything that had led up to this place.
Feeling lost, confused, and searching for purpose Elizabeth did something drastic. She took a cash advance from her publisher, dropped everything she knew, and embarked on a year-long journey from America to Italy, India, and Indonesia.
In Italy she learned to speak a new language, and quickly made friends; sharing, laughing and crying with them like she’d known them her whole life. She ate gelato with nuns, drank good wine, and feasted on figs and salmon. She dove into authentic Sicilian pizza and exotic pasta dishes with wild abandon. She put on a few pounds from these great meals and, perhaps for the first time in her life, decided not to worry about it.
One of the Italian phrases she picked up was Dolce far Niente, or the sweetness of doing nothing. Elizabeth now understood, and could embrace, a personal sabbath. Far away from her problems, in both space and time, she began to heal.
Elizabeth then went to India to spend some time at a Hindu temple. It was there she learned how to build spiritual practice into daily routines. She clapped and swayed and embraced the temple liturgy, right alongside hundreds of others. She meditated. She scrubbed floors, practicing selfless devotion. She stopped trying, and surrendered, finding herself surrounded by grace. Most importantly she learned how to forgive others. And to forgive herself.
Elizabeth had found something that had eluded her for years.
She was now at peace.
Elizabeth’s last stop on this spiritual journey abroad was in Bali. Somewhat predictably, she fell in love. But it was her friendship with a local single mother and her daughter where the best love story begins.
Elizabeth’s birthday was coming up soon. And instead of planning an expensive birthday party for herself, with friends bringing gifts and bottles of wine, she decided to do something different. So she emailed friends back home, explained the plight of the single mother and young daughter Elizabeth had grown fond of, and explained that they needed a home. Her friends responded, and before you know it $18,000 came in. It was enough for a modest home for this small family in Bali. Elizabeth, while there, had learned how to love others.
After heading home from her travels Elizabeth wrote a book about her year abroad, which later became a major motion picture. You may have heard of it; both the book and movie go by the title Eat, Pray, Love. This title served as an abbreviated set of cliff notes for how she found herself, in those three little words. Eat. Pray. Love.
Two millennia ago the early Christian church found themselves in a pivotal moment too. After his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus’ time on earth was now complete. And that created some anxiety, unknowns, and uncertainty for his followers.
Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit, the active presence of God in our world, would be with them. As the disciples gathered in the upper room that day the Holy Spirit did just that, descending on the 120, giving them new tongues, new boldness, new purpose.
Peter, the Rock upon which Christ would build his church, then preached. And it must have been a pretty good sermon, because 3,000 were baptized into the community of believers that day. Aka enough to make many a modern-day preacher, including this one, downright jealous.
With Jesus no longer with them, the Holy Spirit now here, disciples preaching, numbers being added daily, change was in the air. The first congregation had been formed. But what now? How then shall we live?
Before the creeds, crusades and colonialization, before the bloodshed Christianity would later cause, before all this there was, in all its beauty, the early Christian church. An early church documented really well in Acts 2.
An early church, complete with high ideals, that is really is something to behold.
Verse 42 from today’s passage gives this neat little summary of what an ideal church is to be. Early Christ-followers were all about four things – teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. And without too much effort those four traits of the early church could be rephrased into something that more resembles that Elizabeth Gilbert book title, albeit with one more.
Eat, Pray, Love, Learn.
Fellowship is, after all, loving one another through the bonds of shared community.
Those four words, summarizes verse 42, and serves as an abbreviated set of cliff notes as well. It’s how God finds us, in our daily lives, through our local congregation. And it comes from the very earliest list of the marks of the church – characteristics beyond confessing Jesus as Lord that identifies the church as, well, the church.
Eat. Pray. Love. Learn.
Today begins a short three-week stewardship sermon series, Blessed To Be a Blessing. Each week we’ll delve into stewardship as seen through the lens of our mission statement to Gather, Grow, and Go.
And yes, this series lines up with our annual stewardship campaign launching later this month.
Today we focus on what it means to Gather all people into relationship with Jesus.
So what I’d like to do for a bit is to reflect on how Bethesda models this idyllic Acts 2 faith community. And share what that looks like for us, in the flesh. Oh we don’t always get it right, we are merely human after all. Tho we do share these basic building blocks of Christian community with the early church.
And that’s kind of fun to reflect on.
So what does that look like for us? Something like this…
First, we eat. Oh, do we eat here. From Café Bethesda to Sunday coffee to food on a stick to Oktoberfest brats to Scandinavian kringle, whew, we eat! Gathering, over food, is a central part of what we do. If there’s churchy happening you better believe there will be food.
But it’s more than that. Today’s scripture says the early church devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. That’s a not-too-subtle reference to the Eucharist. This is my body, Christ says, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you. Do this, in remembrance of me. And we do that here, during each of our weekend services. In this way we take Christ into us, becoming one with our Lord.
Next, we pray. You’re probably most familiar with our prayers during service. Prayer is baked right into liturgy, around our offerings, communion, and during the prayers of the people. But we pray, in so many other settings, together, throughout the week, as well. We pray before meals, and before and after most church meetings. We pray during church council, asking God to guide us to where this congregation should go.
My favorite prayer-time is something unseen by most; we pray in person at hospitals and assisted living communities and hospice settings; we pray for people experiencing all kinds of physical and mental challenges. We make sure people know God is with them, as are we, no matter their needs. This prayer is intimate, often private, and filled with sacred beauty.
We churchy types of course know how to love. Or at least we aspire to in all we do. We love through simply gathering together in fellowship, becoming part of each other’s lives. We do that over coffee hour, and during special events like the Splashfest this past Wednesday, where many of you attempted to soak one of your pastors by dropping them in the dunk tank.
We love, through fellowship, during all sorts of funky gatherings across the year, during Trunk or Treat, Beer & Carols, and the Egg Hunt too. Where two or more are gathered, Christ reminds us, I am with them. At Bethesda we aspire to bring people together, as much as we can, as a visible reminder of how Christ is present with us. A quick look at our church calendar reveals we do an awful lot of that.
Finally, we gather together to learn. We learn through preaching, through bible study, through the many small groups that meet here. We learn through our Sunday Splash for Elementary kids, Oasis Confirmation for Middle Schoolers, and our Flood High School group too. We learn, together, how to apply ancient biblical tenants into our modern daily lives.
And we learn through our Voyagers Adult forum that meets most Sunday mornings, right after service. The forum explores all sorts of current topics, the first one of the fall is next week; I’d encourage you to check them out.
You may have noticed, that for a stewardship message, we haven’t even talked about money once! That, my friends, is now about to change.
For in the midst of today’s text is this other, fifth mark of the early church.
“All who believed were together, and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods, and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
And there it is: a community that takes care of itself financially, and cares for others, as any had need.
Today’s text suggests this financial giving, this shared sense of caring for one another, is a natural response to being fully immersed in the life of your faith community.
As we begin our Fall stewardship season let me encourage you, people of God, to reflect on this ancient, biblical model of gathering for church.
Eat, Pray, Love, Learn, and Give.
While Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray Love is considered by many a really good book, and at least a decent movie, you don’t have to spend a year in Europe or Asia to find your purpose.
That’s because your purpose, as a beloved child of God, begins locally.
Your purpose, as a beloved child of God, begins with gathering alongside other Christ followers. And you can do so, with great frequency, right here.
We eat, together, sustaining both our earthly vessels and our spiritual souls through the rite of communion.
We pray, in service, in groups, as families, and alone, connecting with God for all our needs.
We love, through fellowship, though joining others in community, through modeling how Christ loves us.
And we learn, through preaching and the study of scripture; applying those insights to our daily lives.
For it is in the eating, and praying, and loving, and learning, that we do through this congregation, that we are led to this next most important of spiritual practices.
With hearts and minds and stomachs and souls now full, we then give back. For it is in this act, of giving, we show thanks to our Creator God, and Savior Christ, acknowledging all that has been done, for us. Amen.