Come to the Table

(sermon 10/6/19 – World Communion Sunday)

dinner-food-meal-8313
Photo used with permission – pexels.com

Isaiah 25:6-8

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And the Lord will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations, and will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and will take away from all the earth the disgrace of the people, for the Lord has spoken.

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There’s just something special about the idea of sharing a meal together. When we’re happy, we throw a feast, a party. When we’re in mourning, we share unspoken love and compassion through the sharing of a casserole or some other comfort food. Every holiday, every milestone, every major occasion in our lives, is usually marked by sharing some special food. It’s universal, something that’s common to every human culture and across all times, and it’s something that goes far beyond simple biological sustenance. And just as a particular smell can instantly take us to another time and place and memory in our lives, a particular food can immediately transport us to some other time and place in our lives, too. It can remind us of where we’re grounded, what are our roots, and where we’ve been along our life’s journey. Speaking for myself, I grew up in an area where there were many Polish and other eastern European immigrants, so even though I don’t think I’ve got a bit of Polish heritage myself, a lot 0f that special food for me is Polish – pierogi, and halupki, and kolachi, and so on. And I’m sure that all of you have your own particular “soul food,” too, that you might be thinking of right now. It doesn’t really matter if it’s the finest Japanese beef, or a humble bowl of chili, the taste is important, of course, but what makes it really special, what makes it deeply meaningful, even sacred, holy, it that we’re sharing the experience, preparing it, eating it, even cleaning up afterward, with other family, friends, people who we love and care deeply about. Sharing that common meal at a common table draws us together and creates a special bond among us.

Given that universal reality, it shouldn’t be any surprise that one of the defining sacraments that Christ instituted within our faith is the reenactment of a shared meal. Really, what better way could there be to illustrate the kind of relationship, the bond, the unity, that God has made with humanity, and that God wants all of humanity to have among itself, than to use a common meal at a common table? In both of the testaments in the scriptures, God uses the imagery of an eternal banquet, a feast, to represent eternal life in God’s presence. It makes perfect sense that in order to remember and live out this common bond, this unity, that we have with God and one another, we come to the Lord’s Table for the Lord’s Supper; Communion.

Of course, this is World Communion Sunday, when many Christian denominations and traditions serve Communion on the same day as an even greater sign of this unity and common bond. And most of us have heard on previous World Communion Sundays that the whole thing got started by a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh, and that the idea really gained traction when then-President Truman plugged the idea in a radio broadcast. It’s a nice bit of Presbyterian trivia that we can all take some pride in, I guess.

So it’s a good thing to observe World Communion Sunday, to take a stand for unity within the church, and to observe Communion in general. But it’s only a good thing if we’re using it to represent and participate in the kingdom of God as God sees it, and not the way we see it. If we understand that we come to this table as deeply flawed individuals, all of us, and as people who, no matter how much we might try to sincerely understand and follow God and God’s ways, are going to get at least as much of our understanding wrong as we get right. If we come to the table realizing that we haven’t done anything to have earned or deserved our being at the table any more than the person sitting next to us – if we recognize that we’re just as flawed and imperfect and undeserving as they are. If we recognize that  everyone at this table – at this eternal banquet – has been invited by God, on God’s terms, using God’s logic, and not ours.

Observing the Lord’s Supper that way is a very good thing. But it isn’t a good thing at all if we see it as something used to exclude. Something to limit. Something that says that we think we’re better than others, or that we’re God’s favorites or God’s chosen people over against everyone else. It isn’t a good thing if we use this sacrament intended to enact divine and human unity,  and to represent God’s vision of that eternal banquet, eternal life, as a club to beat other people over the head with to say that we’re part of God’s in-group, and they aren’t.

In Isaiah, God says that all people, all nations will participate in the eternal banquet of God’s kingdom. In the gospels, Jesus tells his disciples that he has “other sheep” that those disciples didn’t know. And his teachings about the nature and basis of the final judgment make a pretty bold statement that when considering what will be important in that judgment of whether or not we’ll be welcomed into that eternal banquet, the question of whether a person was or wasn’t a professing Christian never seems to come up. I have to think that John Calvin had these and other scriptures in mind when he wrote about what he called the “visible church” and the “invisible church” – that the visible church was the institution and its people that we see in the world and think of as the church; but the invisible church was the actual, true church, known only to God – and that many in the visible church weren’t really a part of the true, invisible church, and that many not in the visible church actually are part of the invisible church.

That should keep us very humble. It should also keep us very mindful of who we might or might not welcome to participate in the Lord’s Supper. In the past, and in some cases in the present, the church has been very restrictive about who is welcome to participate in the sacrament of Communion. Here, we practice what the church calls an “open table” – that is, any person from any Christian faith, regardless of whether they’re Presbyterian or not, are welcome to participate in this sacrament with us to the fullest extent of their own conscience. We don’t have to hold the same theological beliefs about what, if anything, is happening within the sacrament. We don’t have to hold the same beliefs about how, or even if, Christ himself is present in the sacrament. We hold this view of Communion in large part because Christ said simply “Do this in remembrance of me.” He didn’t say “Only do this after you understand it perfectly, and everyone agrees on that,” and it’s a good thing, because frankly, we never will. He simply said to do it. And so we do.

But I will share with you that personally, I also believe something else about this. I am a firm believer in the visible and invisible church. And I believe Isaiah’s imagery of all people being a part of the eternal banquet, and I believe Christ when he teaches about the nature of the final judgment and welcome into the kingdom.  And because of that,  my own view of the “open table” is this: If you feel God drawing you to participate in this sacrament; if you understand that the good news from God that Christ proclaimed in the world was the message proclaimed by the angels when Jesus was born, a message of God’s favor and love for all of humanity; if you understand the importance of living out love of God in your life, and extending that love to your fellow human beings – then to me, you understand the gospel as well as anyone. You are a part of that invisible church, and you are just as welcome at the Lord’s Table as anyone else. Not only that, but, as the apostle Peter said in the Book of Acts, if God has given you the same Spirit that was given to me, then who am I that I would be an obstacle to you taking your place at the Lord’s Table? To be frank, I believe that I would actually be sinning if I obstructed you or in any way discouraged you from participating along with everyone else.

So today, whether that special food you love to share with loved ones originated in Scotland, or England, or Italy, or Poland, or Iran, or Taiwan, or Korea, or Puerto Rico, or Mexico, or anywhere else, today, we come together to share a simpler common meal – a little bit of bread, and a little bit of wine or juice. But in reality, it is so much more than that. It’s the physical manifestation of God’s love itself. It’s the physical taste of the joyful sharing of our lives together with God, and with one another. So today, on World Communion Sunday, let’s enjoy this meal, this sacrament, and let’s enjoy it together with love.

Thanks be to God.

Ubuntu

(sermon 10/7/18 – World Communion Sunday)

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Luke 22:14-30

When the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this. A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. “You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

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Presbyterian. Baptist. Methodist. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and on and on and on. All the different traditions, branches, and denominations under this one umbrella we call “Christian.” One often-cited source identifies 33,000 of them worldwide.  Other people scoff at that number, disputing that group’s methodology, saying that the real number is really only about a third of that, but 11,000 is still an awfully big number. And today, World Communion Sunday, this observance that first started at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh in the 1930s, is the day we especially set aside to proclaim and profess the unity that all 33,000, or 11,000, or however many groups there are, have through profession of faith in our common Lord Jesus Christ.

On one level, it’s nonsense, of course, since anyone with two eyes and three brain cells can see that Christians and Christian groups exhibit all kinds of characteristics, some wonderful and some atrocious, but unity doesn’t even seem to make it into the list of the top ten. In fact, we can’t even get out of the month of October, which starts with celebrating our unity today, without recognizing Reformation Sunday on the 28th, which, while we’re thankful for much of its theological progress, precipitated one of the two largest splits in church history. Some days it seems like we Christians can find a way to disagree about anything, from atonement theory to the dual nature of Christ’s personhood to the meaning of baptism to the color of the sanctuary carpet. I’ve wondered if in retrospect, Jesus wishes he’d have said “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there will be an argument.”

So on one level, the idea behind World Communion Sunday might seem a little silly, if not downright hypocritical.

But still, on another level, it’s a very good and important thing. Good because it reminds us of the hope that we’ve all been called to through Christ. Good because it reminds us of the unity that Christ wants us to have, not necessarily in every thing, but in the important things: in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. In loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength; and loving others as we love ourselves.

And it’s good because it reminds us that this unity that we, the church, are supposed to exhibit is meant to illustrate to others the kind of unity and connectedness that God has designed us all for. It’s a reminder to the church, the world, and ourselves, that it’s absolutely impossible to be truly human as an individual. We’re wired within our DNA to be connected with, to be in relationship with, to understand and be in unity with, others. Given the news of the past 48 hours or so, and the divisiveness, and the pain and suffering and disconnectedness and separation being felt by so many people this morning, I can’t think of a more timely, and important, and good thing for us to celebrate and call for in church and world. The message of World Communion Sunday, and Communion in general,  is this message of hope that, even if we proclaim it imperfectly, we need to proclaim it louder than ever, and to model it in our own lives.

The Zulu term Ubuntu captures what I think is at the heart of what World Communion Sunday is all about. Literally, the term translates as “I am because we are,” and as a concept, it refers to the belief in a universal bond of sharing and connectedness that unites all of humanity. A big part of the gospel that we believe and that we’re called to proclaim is this very same idea.

The playwright Del Shores has written several plays; they’re all insanely funny, wildly irreverent, and always carry a deep message. In one of his plays, there’s a character named Benny, a wild, brash, over-the top young man who had suffered terrible bullying, abuse, and brutality growing up in a strict fundamentalist church. He carries a lot of bitterness and resentment about that, and he spews a lot of it in one scene – but after some reflection, he gets philosophical and makes a profound, deeply theological observation – that everyone, the good and the bad, even those who had hurt him so badly, were all like individual bits of colored glass in a big stained glass window; all interconnected, all needing one another for support; and that the light of God shines through each one of them to tell us something that God wants us to know, and to make the world what it is. Everyone.

One of the hymns we sang last week captured this idea too, in a particularly Christian sense. For everyone born, a place at the Table. Woman and man; young and old; just and unjust; abuser/abused. Everyone.

This faith, this Table, this sacrament, proclaims that by God’s design and through Christ who strengthens us and reconciles us, we are to lift up one another. To share in one another’s lives, to bear one another’s burdens, to rejoice with one another in our joys, to mourn with one another in our mourning – and most importantly, even recognizing our differences –  even sometimes profound differences – to celebrate the new life that we all have in common through our one common Lord,  Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.

Eugene Carson Blake, Where Are You Now?

eugene carson blake arrested 7-4-63 baltimore

This photo depicts one of my favorite moments in Presbyterian history. I’ve shared it before; the events of recent days have made me think about it again.

This is the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, who was the Stated Clerk – the top church executive –  of the Presbyterian Church from 1951 until 1966. This is a photo of Blake being arrested while protesting a segregated amusement park in Baltimore in 1963.

During his time as Stated Clerk, Blake was a strong advocate for Christian unity, being a major voice of the ecumenical movement and calling for a merger of ten mainline denominations into one body. His focus on church unity led him to also serve as the President of the National Council of Churches while serving as Stated Clerk, and later, as the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.

But his focus wasn’t exclusively on Christian unity, and it certainly wasn’t on unity at any cost. Blake was head of the denomination during the civil rights movement, a time of intense division in the church.  He knew all too well the differing, and often heatedly debated, opinions within the denomination’s membership over matters of racial equality and justice. These were explosive issues, and any statements about them coming out of the head office – regardless of content – had the potential for further division, and possibly even denominational schism.

And yet, fully aware of that reality, Blake took a strong, uncompromising stand in favor of social justice. He wrote and spoke powerfully against racial discrimination and segregation, and calling for civil rights and equal justice under the law for all people. He stood up for racial equality and non-discrimination in the church as well, against many who appealed to wrong-headed interpretations of scripture to defend their impassioned arguments supporting the racist status quo.

It’s funny; I remember being a young boy in the 1960s and hearing my own Presbyterian relatives bemoaning the “radicals,” who were probably even closet Communists, who had gotten control of the church and who were turning it away from God and toward the very gates of hell itself. Only years later would I do the math and realize they were actually complaining about Eugene Carson Blake and his unabashedly progressive anti-racist theology.

It was precisely that theology that led him to protest racial discrimination, and yes, to even be arrested for his beliefs. It was that strength of character that led him to help organize, and to participate in, Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. It was that clarity of prophetic witness that caused him to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day, just a short while before Dr. King gave his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. He participated in that march, and gave that speech, all the while worried in the pit of his stomach that his participation would lead to further strife and division in the church – and yet, he was convinced that this was where God had called him, and what God was calling him, and the church, to do. There he stood; he could do no other.

For the most part, Presbyterians today are on the forefront of matters of battling racism and white privilege. In fact, our current Stated Clerk and our two Co-Moderators – the top three officers in the denomination – are all direct beneficiaries of Blake’s forward-thinking and uncompromising stance against discrimination based on race or gender.

However, the denomination still has internal divisions, these days largely over the matter of the place of LGBTQ individuals in the church. I don’t have polling data from Blake’s time regarding civil rights to use as a comparison, but with the church membership currently supporting LGBTQ equality in church and society by an approximate 2 to 1 margin (and trending upward), I suspect the division is significantly less than Blake had to navigate. We have, thanks be to God, amended our constitutional documents to permit the ordination of LGBTQ Deacons, Elders, and Ministers of Word and Sacrament, and to permit our ministers to officiate – and be part of – same-sex marriages.

As wonderful as all this is, it’s still only a partial victory. While our constitution allows LGBTQ equality in pulpit and pew, that same constitution permits presbyteries (regions) and congregations to decide for themselves whether to accept it. That means that there are many places within the denomination where LGBTQ people remain unwelcome. This compromise, made in the name of denominational unity, has resulted in a situation within the church where LGBTQ Christians are something akin to the 3/5 of a person that the U.S. Constitution originally considered slaves. Our memberships and ordinations all come with an asterisk – our acceptability for membership or ordination changes not by virtue of our profession of faith, or our preparation and qualifications, but simply by virtue of having crossed a geographical boundary. We are the only group that the denomination allows to be discriminated against by reason of a biological characteristic. To use another historical parallel, we’re living a supposedly separate-but-equal Plessy versus Ferguson existence in a Brown versus Board of Education world. In trying to save the denomination from splitting in two, this compromise has merely established two under one roof.

Would Eugene Carson Blake have supported acceptance of LGTBQ Christians openly participating in the full life and leadership of the church? I’m pretty certain that, in his own historical context, he most assuredly wouldn’t have – in fact, I’d be surprised to learn otherwise. But as firmly as I believe that, I’m just as convinced that if he were alive today, and knew what we now know, that he would be working, and writing, and speaking as courageously for us as he did for others in his own time.

A few days ago, Rev. Dr. Blake’s denomination – my denomination – issued a response to the “Nashville Statement,” the vehemently anti-female and anti-LGBTQ document issued by a number of conservative Evangelical Christian personalities. I’ve addressed the Statement in an earlier post.

Since its release, non-Evangelical Christians, as well as people outside the church, have been issuing an unending flood of denunciations of its backward, hateful content. Really, opposing the content of this theological train wreck is as close to a slam-dunk, no-brainer as things get in the church world – or at least, you would think so. After a couple of days of thoughtful deliberation (we Presbyterians don’t rush into anything), the denomination released a response. Unfortunately, it was an intensely disappointing, dull thud of a response.

There were a number of positive elements in the statement, which can be read here. And it does refer and link to the “Denver Statement,” an excellent and sometimes witty response to the Nashville Statement. But overall, it ended up being just a timid document that shied away from a bold stand for social justice in order to not offend the denomination’s most conservative members, while apparently being less concerned with offending and hurting a large number of others who found themselves once again somewhat under the bus. This was not, you might say, a Eugene Carson Blake moment.

Yes, I hope that someday, we have a courageous, denomination-wide affirmation of LGBTQ people in the full life and leadership of the church in the same manner the we’ve done with women and persons of color. But at very least, the statement could have strongly defended our position that one can be a faithful Christian while holding LGBTQ-affirming views – a position that the Nashville Statement pointedly denies in its Article 10. The Presbyterian response makes ambiguous mention of the Nashville Statement staking out positions “that go beyond anything the PC(USA) has officially taken a stand on.” But this is not one of those things. By our decision to consider both positions equally faithful, we have indeed taken a stand on this particular matter and consider the claim made in Article 10 of the Nashville Statement to be sinful nonsense. The fact that the denomination couldn’t even make a strong denunciation of this point – that it opted for a unity-over-justice position – was hurtful and insulting, and shows that despite the progress we’ve made in the denomination, we’ve still got a long way to go.

I would willingly be arrested defending the civil rights of the current leadership of my church. Given this less than enthusiastic response to the Nashville Statement, I have to wonder if they would they do the same for me.

I have tremendous respect for our denominational leadership. I’m proud of them. I love them. They hold exceedingly difficult jobs, and I’m convinced that they try to do their best to lead wisely, to find the right balance between Christian unity and prophetic witness. And on a personal level, J. Herbert Nelson, our Stated Clerk, rocks an awesome bow tie; not everyone can pull that off. Beyond that, I am genuinely, personally grateful for the strides made in recent years, even if I’d wish for more, which allow me to serve as an out gay ordained minister. But in this case, by way of an overly timid response to this ugly scar on the faith called the Nashville Statement, our denomination has blinked. We’ve missed a major opportunity to do the right thing – to decisively, boldly defend social and ecclesiastical justice for LGBTQ Christians both within the denomination and beyond, against forces within Christianity that would reject and harm us. I grieve over this lost opportunity. Somewhere, I believe Eugene Carson Blake does, too.