One of my first culture shocks as a Roman Catholic exploring the Episcopal Church was this thing called “coffee hour”: “Are you coming to coffee hour? Please join us for coffee hour. We will gather for coffee in the parish hall/undercroft, etc., etc.” As a Roman Catholic who took his Sunday Mass obligation pretty seriously, this coffee hour thing seemed a bit overmuch, sometimes even feeling more like an obligation than an invitation. Wasn’t celebrating Eucharist enough? And why couldn’t be it “coffee 20-minutes-or-so”? I mean, really: What does coffee hour have to do with salvation, whether mine or the world’s?
“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers?” asks the Baptismal Covenant. The apostles’ “fellowship” is evidently as important as their teaching, along with the breaking of the bread and the prayers. Is coffee hour or its equivalents part of that covenant? And what kind of “fellowship” are we talking about? Because if it is, coffee hour is indeed important for salvation, both ours and the world’s. But that seems to promise a lot in a cup of coffee.
Not that I don’t get the importance of Christian fellowship to address that basic human concern: the desire to be known, to have a community in which we can express and share what is dearest to us or what concerns us most, whatever is at the heart of who we are. Believe it or not, I even hear that need in today’s first reading. If I listen for the deep human need that Abram shares with God, underneath all that covenant stuff and animal sacrifice, it’s the basic unfulfilled desire for a child of one’s own: one to love and cherish, one who will remember that child’s parents, one who will carry on a family legacy. Abram wants that desperately, and the lack of an heir, if you read the whole story, causes a lot of trouble in his marriage and his family. (See the story of Hagar and Ishmael, innocent victims of that marital trouble.)
I can imagine a present-day Abram or Sarai needing a certain kind of fellowship. It’s the kind in which the question, “How are things going for you?” is sincere, no matter what the answer; it’s the kind that has space both for “We’re expecting a baby!” and “Things aren’t going very well at all, and sometimes I feel like it’s never going to get any better. Sometimes I feel like giving up.” That is indeed the kind of fellowship that could contribute to a person’s salvation. Is that the kind the baptismal covenant is talking about?
Jesus, too, in the gospel today, could use a kind of fellowship. At some point he must have felt like everyone was out to get him, both Herod and Jesus’ religious opponents who suggest Jesus leave town before Herod does him in. Jesus has a response both smart-alecky and tender, but I wonder what it was like for him, not only to feel like somebody, or a lot of them, was out to get him, but also to know that there really were people out to get him!
Nowadays I wonder what that’s like for other people in similar situations, for an African American teenage boy, for example, who might justifiably feel like the world is out to get him, constantly blaming him for problems not of his making, and seeing examples in young men that look something like him—LaQuan McDonald, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown—that suggest a combination of some people and a whole society may indeed be out to get him just because he is a Black male of a certain age. What kind of apostolic fellowship might he need? Is that the kind the baptismal covenant is talking about?
I understand that last week the Lenten conversation after church turned to racism and its effects on all of us, and there was hunger for more conversation like that. What kind of fellowship makes that conversation possible? Is that the kind the baptismal covenant is talking about?
For me it’s the kind in which I know I am loved enough that I can risk revealing my ignorance as a White person about what it’s like to be African American or any person of color in a White majority or White dominant society, knowing that inevitably I will also reveal the way racism still operates in me, and how being White brings me so many unearned benefits—just because I look like I do.
I can only guess at the kind of fellowship an African American person might need for that kind of conversation. But in light of what friends and colleagues who are African American have shared with me, I wonder if it might be at least the kind in which it’s OK to express and share the justifiable anger and frustration that comes from having to explain for the umpteenth time how hard it is just to drive while Black in Chicago or on the North Shore, without even mentioning the other forces that make life as an African American difficult in our society, or adding the complexities of being African American and transgender, or African American and a man, or a woman, or gay, or African American and successful, or African American and poor.
Is that the kind of fellowship the covenant is talking about? If it is I’d have to say that it is indeed the kind that might save the world. And if you need a little proof for that, look to the apostolic fellowship of the historically Black churches, which not only have sustained many African Americans through this centuries-long struggle, but also spilled out into streets and up to lunch counters, and marched across bridges in Montgomery, Alabama, finally to win a single step on the long path to justice. Apostolic fellowship can be powerful force to reckon with. Is that the kind the baptismal covenant is talking about?
So what does coffee hour or its equivalent have to do with salvation? It looks like it could have a lot to do with salvation, especially when it bridges the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of the bread and the prayers, which we make present in ritual in here, with our everyday lives of faith in the world out there. It may do that by fostering real, authentic relationships of love and justice and mercy and understanding, of which this world is in desperate need.
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers? I admit, the “coffee hour” part was a stretch for me, but upon reflection, I can honestly respond wholeheartedly: “I will, with God’s help.”