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)

ubuntu

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.

Talk Is Cheap

(sermon 10/1/17 – World Communion Sunday)

yes no maybe

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

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As a Lenten study series this coming year, Cathy L______ is going to do an educational offering on the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity. I’m sure it’s going to be an interesting and informative session, and I hope you’ll try to attend it when it comes around. Once, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Give me five minutes with a man’s checkbook, and I’ll tell you what he really believes.” Momentarily putting aside the male bias in the words, which just reflect the age he was writing in, and the fact that the youngest generation of adults today has probably never even had a checkbook, I think the point still comes through – that the way a person spends their money, and even more broadly, the things that they actually do, illustrates what they really believe, far more accurately than what they might say they believe.

There’s a lot of that same idea in Jesus’ words in today’s gospel text. In this lesson, Jesus is in the middle of yet another confrontation with a group of religious leaders who aren’t happy with what he’s been teaching. A lot of what he’s said runs counter to their teachings, and in this exchange, they’re trying to pick him apart, to get him to say something that contradicts their official orthodoxy that they can then use to discredit him. And after a brief back-and-forth battle over words, Jesus tells this short story about a man with two sons; the first one says he’ll do what the Father wants, and then doesn’t do it; and the second one says he won’t do what the Father wants, but ultimately goes ahead and does it anyway; and that it’s the second son who was pleasing in the Father’s eyes. He tells the story to make his point clear: having and saying the right words is all well and good, but what really matters – what actually accomplishes the will of the Father, to use Jesus’ terminology – is actually doing the right things, carrying out the intentions behind the words. In this little exchange, Jesus is saying, in essence, that talk is cheap If those words aren’t enfleshed, if their meaning isn’t made real in the world, then the words are meaningless at best, and just weapons used to divide us at worst.

This is an idea that goes to the very heart of our faith. We say that in the beginning, before even the beginning of measurable time, was the Word – the creative power and essence and wisdom of God, and that God knew that the best way for us human beings to understand God, and God’s will, is for that eternal, spiritual Word to become enfleshed – so that we could see, and know, firsthand, what all the written words about God that only partially and imperfectly pointed toward God, actually were trying to say.

Of course, those religious leaders who were trying to trip Jesus up with words were far from the last to go down that path. The divisions across the full spectrum of the Christian faith over words, over theological jots and tittles run deep. We’ve argued, and divided over, issues like what precisely, scientifically, is happening when we celebrate and embrace the mystery of Communion, the Lord’s Supper. Or whether Jesus is divine and eternally coexistent, uncreated, with God the Father; or divine, but still nevertheless created by God the Father. Or whether the Holy Spirit emanates “from the Father,” or “from the Father and the Son.” Or whether, if God is supposedly trinitarian, how that works – are those making up the Trinity “beings” or “persons;” or are they distinct “parts” of God that only together make up God; or if they’re really just like “masks,” or parts in a play, that the same, unitary God just appears through at various points in time.

Did you keep up with all that? Probably not. And yet, we Christians have debated, and divided, and argued, and excommunicated, and tortured, and killed, and fought wars over those exact things. And just as bad, we didn’t limit our awful behavior to just other Christians. We persecuted people of other religious faiths, and those of no religious faith, because they didn’t accept the correctness of our own particular Christian theology – because they had their own “words” for defining how to love and serve God and humanity, and how they fit into the universe. And through all of our division and dissension and especially the violence over words, God must have been disgusted and heartbroken – and must still be when we do the same things today.

Jesus didn’t say in his story that words aren’t important. They are. It’s a good and proper and important thing for us to try to understand and comprehend God as deeply and correctly as we can with our words. But as Jesus points out here, having the right words isn’t enough. What matters most is whether we’re putting our words to use, to advance God’s will for us, and for this world. And taking that one step further, if we are putting our words, our beliefs into practice, and they aren’t really achieving God’s intentions, then maybe we don’t have the right words, the right beliefs, at all.

Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s a time when Christians across a wide spectrum of theologies and beliefs – a wide spectrum of words – all commit to come together to celebrate Communion – the Lord’s Supper – on the same day, as a sign of unity in God’s Spirit. It’s a statement that regardless of the details of our words, we’re committed, together, to do the will of the Father in the world – to love God with all of our essence; to love all people as we love ourselves. To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. World Communion Sunday is a global joint statement that as a tenet of our common faith, talk is cheap without follow-through.

And this Sunday, we need to recognize that while World Communion Sunday is a particularly Christian observance, its message of us turning our words into actions doesn’t stop at the threshold of Christianity. God’s will is that we extend those same loving and gracious and accepting attitudes to all people, because we’re all God’s people, regardless of our particular religious beliefs – regardless of our “words.” In a number of ways, through a number of Springdale’s different mission initiatives funded through our annual general offering – through our “checkbook,” thinking back to C.S. Lewis’ comment – we’re trying to do exactly that.

A man had two sons. Or three. Or three thousand, or seven and a half billion billion. The number wasn’t important. What was important wasn’t what any of them might say, because he knew that at any given time they were likely to say just about anything, and at one time or another, probably have. His question was “Regardless of the words, will they do what I want them to do? Will they love one another? Will they accept one another? Will they treat one another with justice and always strive for peace? Because whatever they might say or not say, *that’s* what pleases me. *That’s* what makes them my children.”

So will they do it? Will we?

Thanks be to God.

Enough.

(Sermon 10/4/15 – World Communion Sunday)

Screenshot-Oregon Shooting CNN 2015-10-01-at-11.10.18-PM

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 he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.  – Isaiah 25:6-8

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I was sitting in a local restaurant the other day, working on today’s sermon – or at least, where I thought it was headed at the time. The television on the wall was full of news about the school shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, where, once again, a mentally deranged young man killed and wounded a number of people in order to redress grievances that we don’t even fully understand yet.

These gun-related mass murders happen so often now that they all start to blend together. We can’t even remember the names of all their locations; we confuse the details about the shooter in Sandy Hook with the one in Aurora with the one in Charleston, and soon enough, this one will blend into that mix, too.

While I was sitting in the restaurant, two women and a man were sitting in the booth next to mine. The man blurted out, “Oh great, I see ‘Comrade Obama’ is already using this shooting to call for more gun laws! I’m telling you, what really needs to happen is for someone to take a gun and take *him* out!” At that point, one of his friends shushed him, but he asked, “Why? You worry too much about what other people think.”

As followers of Jesus, we’re called to live in his way of peace. That includes speaking out against the insane amount of gun violence that plagues our society. I believe that as Christians, we have a moral obligation to work to tighten the ridiculously easy access to firearms in this country that make these tragedies all too possible, and all too common. We need tougher laws, and they need to be toughly enforced. People of good will can certainly debate the details of that, but no one can deny that the current situation clearly isn’t working.

But people who say that changing the laws won’t solve the whole problem are right, too. Our society exhibits a terrible devaluation of human life married to a glorification of violence, and as long as that continues, so will tragedies like Oregon. Gun ownership and gun violence are so widespread in our society because we’ve been brainwashed practically from infancy to believe that nothing is ever fully settled as long as there’s still an unused violent option available.

When tragedies like this shooting occur, we wring our hands and wonder where these unstable people would ever get the idea that such actions could ever be justified. We need look no further than the mindset of that gentleman in the restaurant. When our culture produces supposedly normal, sane, people who can, without a hint of shame, publicly advocate the murder of another human being, President or otherwise, that’s evidence of a deep societal sickness.

So there I was, sitting there writing a sermon for World Communion Sunday, a day emphasizing the unity that we have in Christ, and with one another through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. A day emphasizing global Christian unity and a commitment to living together peacefully despite individual differences. The day that we receive our annual Peacemaking Offering. The dissonance between the theme of today’s service and the words coming from the television and the next booth couldn’t have been any sharper.

As Christians, we believe that God’s nature and will is so intensely infused in the life and words of Jesus Christ that we can say that in him, we see and know God in the flesh. If we’re serious about that, we have to take him seriously when he points us to ways of peace and nonviolence. That becomes an inseparable part of our proclaiming the gospel – God’s good news of hope and love for all people. As a matter of faith, and regardless of political affiliation, we have to take a stand against violence in our society – against both the proliferation of the tools that carry it out, and the moral sickness that glorifies or justifies it to begin with.

We’ll never teach the unstable members of our society that gun violence is a terrible option if we don’t first successfully teach it to the supposedly normal people like that bonehead in the restaurant. If his mindset passes for acceptable, supposedly “normal” discourse, why should we ever expect unstable people to think differently?

Working for peace and nonviolence might seem like wishful thinking to some. For anyone professing the Christian faith, however, we don’t have an option. We can’t reject Jesus’ teachings as being unrealistic or unworkable in the “real world,” a world that we profess he created and that he rules over. To the contrary, it’s exactly what we’ve been called to do.

So today, as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and World Communion Sunday, let’s all understand that. Let’s all recommit ourselves to do whatever we can to work for peace and nonviolence. Let’s recommit ourselves to do whatever we can to make these kinds of shootings a thing of the past – because I’ve grown hoarse, and sick and tired, of offering up yet more prayers, month after month, for the victims of yet another senseless, avoidable mass murder – and I’ll bet you have, too.

Amen.