Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
The older I get the more complicated Thanksgiving becomes.
When I was a kid Thanksgiving was marked by plates upon plates of delicious food, eavesdropping on grown up conversation, and running around in the cold until one of the aforementioned adults beckoned us back inside.
But as an adult, Thanksgiving often feels more like a powder keg of political positioning where everyone waits for the one person to say the one thing that will set everyone off.
And that’s not even mentioning the logistic nightmare of figuring out who will cook what and how in a tight time frame!
Gone are the days of civil and non-partisan Thanksgiving tables (if they ever really existed). This year we are likely to hear opinions on presidential decrees, gubernatorial soundbites, and judicial rulings, just so that everyone else can know exactly what side of what issue we are on.
Which is remarkably strange, at least from a Christian perspective, considering the fact that Jesus came to destroy the very divisions we so desperately cling to and want to demonstrate around our tables.
Or, to put it another way, Jesus’ table makes what we usually do at our tables unintelligible.
Therefore, this year, I’ve put together a brief Thanksgiving Liturgy to be used by anyone in order to redeem the Thanksgiving table. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may read it corporately with others, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of clarity to an otherwise bewildering experience.
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
Psalm 126: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
Jesus boldly proclaims in the midst of his temptations in the wilderness that, “One cannot live by bread alone.” It is certainly true that we need food to survive, but we need more if we want to really live. When we sit around the table with friends, family, and even strangers, we are participating in a moment that is more than merely sharing food. It is through our conversation and our prayers and our thanksgiving (the action, not the holiday), that Jesus’ presence is made manifest among us. In many ways the table at Thanksgiving is an extension of the Lord’s table to which we are beckoned again and again even though we don’t deserve it and we cannot earn it. So let us rejoice in the knowledge that, through the power of the Spirit, God has done great things for us.
Lord, help us to be mindful of those who do not have a table around which to gather, celebrate, remember, and rejoice in all that you’ve done, are doing, and will do. Work in and through us such that our tears turn into laughter, and our mourning into rejoicing. Let the feast around the table give us a foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb made possible through your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandoned the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defiled. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
It’s rather strange how God does so many ungodly things.
One would think, and perhaps hope, that God in the flesh would know better than to erase the sins held against us, that the incarnate Word would choose to spend time among more respectable persons, that the Holy One of Israel would follow the rules.
And yet, listen: The Pharisees and the scribes, that is: the good religious folk, those who tithed and showed up for worship and prayed their prayers, noticed that Jesus’s disciples were eating their food with defiled hands.
Now, the washing of hands wasn’t about hygiene – it was about pious and sacred preparation and separation – it demonstrated who was in and who was out. At the end of the day it was a public demonstration about who was living properly and who wasn’t.
So the good religious people say, “What’s the deal JC? You can’t really be the Messiah it your people aren’t following the rules!”
These Pharisees have it all together, mind you. They know their scriptures backwards and forwards, they always show up early when the fellowship hall needs some new paint, they never let the offering plate pass by without dropping something in. They want to know how Jesus, the so-called Anointed One, could get away with such irreligious behavior.
How does Jesus respond?
“Y’all are a bunch of hypocrites! You’ve let your religion become a stumbling block to those in the faith – these rules and expectations don’t make people holy and they certainly don’t make life any better, they only go to show that you think you’re better than everyone else!”
And then Jesus motions for all of the crowds to come closer because he wants everyone to hear:
“Listen up! It is not what goes into us that defiles us. It doesn’t matter what we eat and with whom. What does matter is what comes out of us. The heart is a fickle thing and leads to all sorts of suffering. Evil comes from within, and those things are what defile a person.”
It’s as if Jesus is imagining the great banquet table of the Kingdom of God, but there are only place setting for those who think they’re the best of the best and then Jesus mic drops: “There’s a place at the table for everyone but your self-righteousness keeps getting in the way.”
Contrary to how we often talk about it, and even how we live it out, Christianity isn’t a religion – if it is anything it is the declaration of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things human beings have ever thought we have to do to get right with God. Christianity tells us that God in Christ does what we could never do in order to reconcile the world to himself.
Or, as Martin Luther memorably put it, “The law says, ‘do this.’ And it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”
We, the church, don’t exist to wag our fingers at every little sin and indiscretion, we are not here to proclaim the Bad News that God will only think kindly upon us after we have fixed all of our mistakes.
Instead, the church exists to announce the Good News, the very best news, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”
Christianity isn’t an arbitrary set of rules to be followed.
Christianity is an adventure in which we are always on the journey of discovering the Love that refuses to let us go.
And yet, what does that adventure ultimately lead to?
If we’re serious about transforming the world, it’s in our mission statement after all, then it has to start somewhere. Of course there is sin and evil in our corporations and in our institutions. But there’s also sin and evil in us. And its those sins that Jesus seems to be talking about with the Pharisees.
In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” And they asked for readers to submit answers to the question. Hundreds and thousands of people replied with all sorts of responses. GK Chesterton, essayist and theologian, responded with only two words: “I am.”
We are what’s wrong with the world.
Why? Because we are consumed with our own self-interests, because we create communities in which some are in and some are out, because we knowingly and unknowingly contribute to systems that force people to the margins, on and on and on.
How can we fix what’s wrong within us?
Well, the truth is, we can’t. But there is someone who can, and does. His name is Jesus.
Jesus shows up on the scene, eating with outcasts, healing the undeserving, preaching the Good News to those who are drowning in bad news – he offers glimpses of a future not yet seen.
And while some people love it, others hate it.
Jesus warns the crowds, and us, about not becoming obsessed with the external at the expense of the internal. Remember: this is the same guy who tells us to stop looking at the splinter in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in our own, this is the same guy who insists on dining with the wrong people, this is the same guy who, at some point, showed up in your life and my life and said nothing more than, “Follow me.”
It’s easy to point out all the problems with other people – it’s hard to look in the mirror.
Judgment comes first to the household of God, scripture says.
Perhaps we’ve forgotten that.
Basically, it doesn’t do us any good to lament the brokenness of the world if we are unwilling to confront the brokenness that’s right here in our hearts.
The Pharisees don’t like the idea of Jesus’ disciples not following the rules and so they confront the Messiah. Jesus’ rebuke of their hardheartedness, as much as it might make us smirk with religious smugness, it creates a tension for those of us who want to follow the Lord.
The tension is between the commands of God and human traditions. What is the core essence of our faith? What do we have to do to be faithful? How do we know what is what?
The church has always existed in this strange middle space, between the already but the not yet, between what the strange new world of the Bible says, and what it means to live according to those words, or better yet, the Word, today.
And maybe the tension is a good thing – it allows us to wrestle with what we’re being called to do.
There’s a reason we bristle at over-confidence in life, whether its in regard to scripture or not. Total certainty just rubs us the wrong way. There’s a fine line between confidence and self-righteousness.
Bishop Will Willimon, a teacher and friend of mine, was once asked by a newspaper about how he felt regarding LGBTQIA inclusion in the church. His response: I firmly stand by Jesus’ teachings regarding the LGBTQ community.
And, the next day, the front page of the newspaper, right at the top in big bold letters, it said, “Rev. Dr. Will Willimon affirms Jesus’ traditional teaching regarding homosexual persons.”
A small uproar ensued.
And here’s why: After they read his quote, people went looking in their Bibles to see what Jesus had to say about the LGBTQIA community and, lo and behold, he didn’t say anything.
And yet, Jesus does say that if our eye should cause us to sin, we should tear them out and, last I checked, we don’t have any one-eyed members of our congregation.
What, then, are we called to do?
In our little denominational corner of the world we have something we call the quadrilateral. It was developed by a man named Albert Outler who, having read through all of John Wesley’s works, posited that we have four primary modes by which we can theologically interpret what it happening and what we can do.
Those four quadrants are: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.
Scripture says the faithful can’t eat shellfish, and there are moments within the Tradition of the church that it was somewhat prohibited, the Reason was mostly likely to identify who was among the people of Israel and who wasn’t, and my Experience tells me that shrimp tacos are really delicious so… maybe I’ll eat shrimp tacos?
The quadrilateral is, admittedly, a helpful hermeneutical tool. It gives us the means by which we can interpret how to be in the world.
And yet, it is wildly problematic at the same time.
Our Experience is fiercely unreliable, because every person’s experience of the world is different. Some of the most horrific things to happen in history have been attributed to Reason. The Tradition of the church is just as varied as our own individual experiences. And even Scripture contradicts itself all over the place.
The life of faith is always a pilgrimage, a journey, that requires humility. The adventure that is called faith encourages us to let go of the total certainty we think we have over the strange new world of the Bible because it is, in fact, always strange and always new. And yet, it is our world!
When we see faith that way, not as something to be mastered but instead as something to respond to, we will be far more likely to love one another rather than attack one another.
Despite a motto of open hearts, open minds, and open doors, the church has put a whole lot of energy into keeping certain people out rather than doing the hard work of looking inward as to why we keep wanting to draw lines in the sand.
In other words, we haven’t changed all that much over the last two thousands years. We still let petty squabbles get the better of us, we are far too inclined to drop people from our lives the moment they don’t fit into the boxes of our own creation, and the Good News really just sounds like bad news.
There is something wrong with us – we keep hurting ourselves and one another all while God is in the business of reconciliation and resurrection.
It’s really ungodly of God to keep setting the table for all of us, but that’s exactly who God is! The consummate host at the Supper of Lamb to which we are all invited even though none of us deserve it!
In the end, if anything in the Bible disagrees with Jesus, then we listen to Jesus. You have heard it was said, but I say to you… I’ve come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law… I am the way, the truth, and the life…
Think about the Transfiguration – Moses and Elijah, all of the Law and all of the Prophets, are standing to Jesus’ left and right, and what does God say? “This is my Son. Listen to him!”
And that’s exactly what we do when we come to worship. We listen to Jesus. All of this – our prayers, our songs, our silence, our sacraments, our sermons, they are all part of the work God is doing to us and with us.
In other words: There can be no transformation of the world without a revolution of the heart. So be it. Amen.
What happens when a presidential candidate is refused communion at church? Ryan Couch wrote a brilliant reflection on the subject and Jason Micheli and I invited him to join us for an episode of Crackers & Grape Juice to talk about grace, closed tables, and baptizing the town drunk. If you would like to read his original post you can do so here: Joe Biden, The Town Drunk, And The Sacraments
I used to love Thanksgiving: the food, the family, and the fellowship. But now I kind of dread it.
Gone are the days of civil and non-partisan Thanksgiving tables. Now we wear our red hats or bicker about the midterms, we jockey seats to surround ourselves with those of the same persuasion, and we find ourselves replenishing our wine with every passing political anecdote.
Therefore I have created a brief thanksgiving liturgy to be used by anyone in order to redeem the table. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may publicly read it aloud, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of theological clarity to what was once one of my favorite holidays…
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom who have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
Read Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He taketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters; he restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
The Bible is one long and flowing narrative about the goodness of creation, the brokenness that often comes through sin, and God’s work to restore all of creation to its wholeness. The 23rd Psalm reminds us that we will inevitably walk through dark valleys, but we will do so with the Lord by our side. It is therefore at our Thanksgiving tables that we discover the strange truth of what it means to sit at a table prepared in the presence of our enemies; our enemies might not be our families and friends, but our greatest enemy might actually be ourselves. And so, let us take a moment to reflect on our own brokenness and the grace that God has offered, such that we can then go around the table and truly express something for which we are particularly grateful for this year. Or, to put it another way, how have we experienced our cups running over this year?
Lord, help us to be mindful of those who do not have a table such as this one around which we can gather, celebrate, remember, and rejoice in all that you’ve done, are doing, and will do. As we eat and feast together, let the breaking of bread be a foretaste of the promised resurrection made possible through your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Sometimes the more we say something the less we understand what it means. Think about the phrase, “I love you.” Perhaps you can remember the first time your spouse offered those three magical words and how your body tingled with joy and hope and expectation. But then fast-forward 20 years… Do those three words still shake you to your core? Or are they more like the bookends to a conversation?
The same holds true for particular parts of Christianity. We memorize things like the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed to such a degree that we can say them in church, week after week, without thinking about what we are actually saying. We grow so accustom to seeing the same phrases and announcements in the bulletin that we just gloss over them (incidentally, I jokingly told the congregation that I hid a line in the bulletin months ago saying something like “the first person to notice this sentence will receive $20” and that no one found it. Of course I didn’t actually do it, but you could tell that a number of people were disappointed they missed the opportunity to make some quick cash!)
And then you take things like beloved moments in scripture, and we accept them without reflecting on them as well.
The 23rd Psalm might be the most well known passage in the entire bible, and yet somehow it contains a verse that many of us often forget. We like the idea of being lead to green pastures, and lying beside still waters, but having a table prepared for us IN THE PRESENCE OF OUR ENEMIES is another thing entirely.
Now, to be clear, when we think about who those “enemies” might be, we often conjure up people on the other side of the globe. However, sometimes our greatest enemies are actually the people in the pews next to us.
In God’s strange and mysterious wisdom, Christians are regularly gathered together to break bread with both allies AND enemies. We come to the table with the people we love AND hate. The table is prepared for us in the presence of those we love AND fear.
God’s table, where we encounter a little bit of heaven on earth, is the place where we begin the difficult and powerful work of being reconciled with those around us. It is because God is willing to gather us with our enemies that we are anointed for the work of discipleship in this world. Only a people who willingly gather with those we might call our enemies can also faithfully affirm that our cups runneth over.
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
I’ve been here in Woodbridge for about a month and I feel like I’m finally getting my bearings. I know where all of the essential stores are; I know what roads to avoid during rush hour; and I’m even starting to learn most of your names!
“To preach properly you need to know your people.” I heard that over and over again in seminary and it’s so true. You’ve got to know the people before you can just stand up and tell them what God is saying. And so, over the last month, I’ve tried to learn a lot about a lot of you. And not just your names… I know who makes the best food and where it’s kept in the church kitchen. I know that a lot of the real meetings happen in the parking lot and not the conference room. And for a good number of you, I’ve learned what drew you here in the first place. But for as much as I want to learn about you, I also want to learn about the people who are not here yet.
This means I want to know about our community, what makes it tick, and how it transforms the people who call it home.
For instance: I’ve gone to a few local businesses just to ask questions without expectations. I’ve started conversations with total strangers in restaurants just to ask questions without expectations. And a few weeks ago, my wife, son, and I went to the most culturally relevant location in the area: Potomac Mills.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Potomac Mills is one of the largest outlet malls in the country and it is what smaller malls aspire to be. It’s huge. It’s overwhelming. It’s capitalism at it’s finest.
Anyway, we got in the car and drove over to the mall with our stroller. When we parked and strapped Elijah in, we headed for the nearest door and entered the great arena of commerce. Now, some of you are probably wondering what we were looking for at the mall, you’re pondering the specific item we were searching for. But here’s the thing: we weren’t looking for anything. We just wanted to see what the mall was like.
And now some of you are thinking that we’re crazy.
It took a long time to do the whole loop at the mall, particularly with all of the random people and families moving about like fish against the current. And the thing that surprised me most wasn’t how many stores there were, or even how many people there were, but how quiet it was.
It was a strange and eerie experience to be in a place with so many people and have it be so subdued. At first I was worried that my ears were stopped up, but then I realized that it was so quiet because so many people were on their cell phones.
And that’s honestly what made it so hard to navigate, not the number of people, but the fact that most of the people had their heads down in their hands and were completely oblivious to everything else going on. Even the venders in their middle kiosks could have cared less about us as we milled about Potomac Mills.
And I can’t help but wonder if that’s what Isaiah felt like trying to reach God’s people. The prophet of the Lord attempts to interrupt the sensibilities of the crowd with a declaration, but the people were in Babylon, far removed from home, and they had other things to worry about. Like a crowd of people at the mall focused on their phones, perhaps Isaiah struggled to captivate the attention of the passing people with his enthusiasm and excitement. Picture, if you can, a person doing everything he or she can to convey the truth to a group of people who are far happier with a lie.
That’s Isaiah in our scripture today.
Attention! If you’re thirsty, come to the water. And those of you without money, come, buy, and eat! Why do you keep spending your money on things that cannot bring you satisfaction? Listen to the Lord so that you may live. God is making a covenant, a promise, to love us even when we cannot love ourselves. God is blessing us daily, God is glorifying us, and most of the time we completely miss it.
Today many, if not most, of us are so caught up in our gadgets and spider-webs of false connections that we really feel empty inside. Or we are spending our money and our savings on products and commodities that offer no real satisfaction. Or we believe that so long as we ascertain the right car, or the right job, or the right spouse, we will finally find that one missing thing to give meaning to our lives.
But in the kingdom of God, the normal rules of commerce and capitalism do not apply. In fact, they have been completely overturned.
Unlike just about everything else in the world, at God’s celebration we need not bring goods or money in order to procure a place at the table. Instead, water, bread, wine, and food will be provided without cost. Whereas we think that who we are, and what we’ve earned, and what we’ve saved defines us, God only requires that we bring two things: our thirst and our hunger.
Unlike the world, where many of us prefer to fellowship and worship and commune and eat with those whose income and status and skin tone are similar to our own, God’s vision of life in the kingdom is completely different.
On Monday morning we opened our doors to children and youth from the community for Vacation Bible School. I, like a fool, stood by the entrance in my adult size Batman costume and welcomed everyone for a week of experiencing the love of God through Hero Central. Each day the kids learned about what it takes to be a hero in God’s kingdom: heroes have heart, courage, wisdom, hope, and strength. They did crafts and science experiments, they danced and sang, and they feasted around a common table. They learned bible stories about King David, Abigail, Jesus, the Beatitudes, and Pentecost.
On our last day I was sitting at the table with all of the kids, when one of them approached me with a huge smile on her face and all she said was, “I wish church was like this every day.”
I imagine that she wished church could be like that every day because Vacation Bible School was fun and exciting, but I think there was more to her wish than that alone. This week, the distractions of phones and the siren call of social media disappeared. Instead of a mall filled with adults staring into screens, the children experienced a church full of adults who got down on their level to share with them the love of God.
Instead of an experience where everyone looked the same, earned the same, and sounded the same, the children experienced a church full of disciples who could not have been more different from one another.
This week, our children and youth caught a glimpse of the kingdom of God made manifest on earth in a way that so few of us ever get to experience. Because in God’s kingdom, the place that Isaiah beckons the crowds to experience, invitations are made to all people: the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the perfect and the broken. The beautiful wonder and glory of this scripture is the fact that God welcomes ALL to the table. Always.
During the time of Isaiah, and today, so much time is wasted on sustaining existence. We hear about the next new thing and we become obsessed even though we know that when it finally arrives we will be distracted by the next new thing coming down the pike. We ask ourselves questions that are predicated on maintaining the status quo. We go to things like the mall hoping for consumerism to fill a hole that no amount of money, or goods, or experiences ever can.
But God offers us something different. God looks at the shallow nature of our lives, God examines the mistakes and sins of our past, God evaluates what our minds stay focused on, and instead of leaving us to our own devices, God shares with us a new covenant. God makes a promise to be with us in spite of us.
God shows us a life that is based not on blessing the wealthy, but on protecting the poor.
God offers a covenant in which greed is shunned, and humility is glorified.
God presents a promise in which divisions are destroyed and community is congratulated.
Isaiah pleaded with the people of the Lord to open their eyes to the truth that no product could ever offer. Isaiah interrupted the distracted crowds with a vision of the kingdom on earth where those who are different are brought together in unity around a table where God is the host.
Opening up the doors of this church for a week of Vacation Bible School is a radical thing. We gave the children food, and education, and time for no other reason than the fact that God loves them. Compared to the priorities of the world, this place was strange this week.
Gathering together in a space like this for worship is a radical thing. While the world is consumed by the next new thing and a false community you can keep in your pocket, the church stands as a witness to the truth of God’s dominion. We lift up our prayers and we bend our knees because we know that what we believe shapes how we behave.
Coming to the table to feast on the Lord’s Supper is a radical thing. We search daily for products and goods to fill the holes we feel, we spend our time with people who look like us and sound like us. And yet at this simple meal, we are invited to a table with people who are completely unlike us. At this meal we get to taste a little bit of heaven on earth and we receive the only thing that can bring real satisfaction.
Today we live in a world where we are forever asking “Who gets in?” What does it take to earn a spot at the table? What kind of grades do I need to make to get into college? How long will I have to wait before it’s my turn?
But in the kingdom of God, at this table, all are welcome. Always. Amen.
One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
Today marks the beginning of our July Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.
Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. Over the next month we will do our best to recover this sense of strangeness and encounter the power of the parables.
I really didn’t want to go. I’m not one to feel anxious but the entire car ride was white knuckled and nauseating. As we went around the block until we could find an available parking space I came up with even more excuses to why we shouldn’t go into the party but I kept my mouth shut. While walking up the front steps my knees began to wobble but Lindsey put her hand in mine and confidently opened the front door and walked right in.
I really didn’t want to do.
Days before Lindsey had casually mentioned that we were invited to an engagement party for someone she knew from work. We were dating at the time so I was willing to do pretty much anything to keep her interested in me so I agreed to attend. The days passed and finally I decided to learn a little more about this couple before we showed up for their party. I assumed that the bride-to-be was a fellow coworker with Lindsey, that they had spent countless hours together learning about one another, but I was wrong.
She met the woman through work because she was a customer who happened to strike up a conversation one time and casually invited Lindsey to attend her engagement party. They had barely spent 30 minutes together and we were now supposed to join her and her husband-to-be for a celebration of their impending wedding.
“We can’t go,” I declared. “We don’t know them at all! If this was just a casual double date or even a dinner party I would entertain the thought of going, but we absolutely, positively, cannot go to a stranger’s engagement party!”
Lindsey replied, “Oh yes we can, and yes we will!”
The moment Lindsey and I walked through the doorway we were engulfed into a living room filled to the brim with party-goers. Like the proverbial record scratching through a speaker system, most people turned to look at us and when no one recognized who we were they all went back to their prior conversations. To me, it was a nightmare.
Lindsey, on the other hand, was lapping it all up. She thrives on this kind of unexpected atmosphere and quickly began floating through the house to find the happy couple. I remained transfixed just on the inside of the front door watching her disappear into a large community filled with joy. It was only when she completely disappeared from view that it really hit me how even though I was in a room full of people, I felt absolutely alone.
Jesus was surrounded by a group of people at a party when someone shouted out, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “A man decided to have a party and invited many. He sent out his people to those who had been invited to announce that everything was ready, but each of them started to make excuses. One of them said, ‘Sorry, I just moved and I’ve got so much to take care of at the new house; please accept my regrets.’ Another said ‘I just bought a new car and I really want to give it a test spin; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, “We just got home from the honeymoon, and therefore we cannot come.’ So they returned to the party with bad news about the impending lack of attendance. The man throwing the party became frustrated and sent them back out into the streets to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”
I wandered around the party, looking for an opportunity to jump into a conversation with anyone about anything. Lindsey was invited, but I felt compelled to attend and was trying to make the best of it. I literally knew no one in the house and was hoping to find a place to stay put until Lindsey returned. In the den I encountered a group of good looking young couples who were talking about their strong financial portfolios, so I kept walking right passed them. In the backyard, sitting around a fire, there was another group of friends talking about the virtues of libertarianism, so I kept walking right passed them. In the dining room I experienced an air of exclusivism as the group insisted on telling one inside joke after another, and I decided to start the loop all over again. These were not my people.
The crowded house felt like a never-ending loop of diversity and strangeness whereby I found no one like me. Everyone seemed so different and unlikely paired up in conversations and I continued to mingle about without ever opening my mouth.
In the kitchen I saw an opportunity for a small reprieve: a glass of water. My hope was that the act of walking into the space for a glass would give me a brief moment of purpose. With a glass in my hand, I turned away from the sink and was immediately met with an outstretched hand from a middle-aged man with a wide smile.
The servants returned from rounding up the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, and still there was room at the party. The host had enough and he sent them back out once more and ordered them to compel people to come in, so that the party might be full.
The wide smile said, “My name’s Mark. Who are you?”
I returned the smile and attempted to introduce myself without giving away the strangeness of my attending a party to which I did not belong. He asked me about my work, I told him I was a student. I asked him about his work and he told me that he was in sales. We talked for about five minutes before he asked the question I dreaded: “So how do you know the happy couple?”
I briefly thought about lying and making up some intricate story of our long time friendship, but after walking around without conversation for so long I decided to stick to the truth. I explained that I had no idea who they were, that they could be standing with us in the kitchen and I wouldn’t even know which two people we were celebrating. I confessed my discomfort in walking around a house without knowing a soul inside, and laid it all out.
The man looked back at me the whole time with a puzzled look on his face and then he said, “Well, I’m the father of the bride. And in my opinion it’s better to have a house full of strangers to celebrate than a house with no one at all. So I’m happy you’re here.”
Parables are a strange breed. They are heard in a number of ways, even by the same person at different times. They defy explanation and demand proclamation. They should leave us scratching our heads just likes the first disciples, they should jolt us, and they should shock us.
At times we can identify with the party host. We have all spent time preparing for a celebration, filling out all the invitations, only to have people make excuses for not attending. We have known the embarrassment of putting all our energy into something and not having nearly enough people show up for the event.
At times we can identify with the people who have excuses. We’ve all received invitations to something we don’t want to attend, or something that has grown so familiar that it no longer holds the luster it once did. We have known the ease of creating an excuse in the midst of a moment and the hope that enough other people will show up to distract from our lack of attendance.
And at times we can identify with the people compelled to attend. We have found ourselves in an environment we did not deserve to be a part of. We know the strangeness of being surrounded by people who do not look like us, nor think like us, nor speak like us. We have known the joy that comes with being caught up in something bigger than ourselves, and the thrill that comes with being welcomed into a strange and new community.
That’s the power of a parable: it can strike us differently every time we hear it. A new detail will emerge that we’ve never seen before, or we will identify with a character we’ve never thought about before. The power of a parable is its ability to convey a deep and profound truth about Jesus without succumbing to the desire of explanation. We know what it means without anyone telling us what it means, even if it upsets our expectations about what the kingdom will look like. The power of a parable is its ability to show us that God’s kingdom is strange, unexpected, and beautiful.
A man was sitting in church one Sunday when he felt compelled to invite others to attend the following week. Whenever he brought the subject up with coworkers and friends they quickly and politely made excuses for not being able to attend. He couldn’t believe it; he was inviting them to discover God’s grace, not go to an office party. And as Sunday loomed closer, he began inviting complete strangers to join him in worship. He would rather have a church filled with oddballs and strangers discovering the grace of God, than no one at all.
A mother becomes distraught when all of the kids she invited to her son’s birthday party made excuses for not coming. She can’t bear to picture her son’s face while she places a birthday cake down at a table surrounded by empty chairs. So she gets onto Facebook and makes a plea for anyone, anyone, to come to her son’s birthday party. She would rather have a house full of strangers to celebrate her son, than for him to sit at that table all by himself.
A father rejoices when his daughter meets the man of her dreams and they plan to get married. In order to properly celebrate he sends out all the invitations he can afford to fill his house to the brim. And in the middle of the party he meets a complete stranger in the kitchen and believes that it’s better to have a house full of strangers to celebrate than a house with no one at all.
Partying with Jesus is a strange, unexpected, and beautiful thing; precisely because Jesus loved filling places with people who by all other accounts did not belong together. He was the original melting pot for diversity. He compelled his disciples to go out into the streets to share the good news. He knew that what he had to offer would radically transform the lives of the people who received it.
All of us are here, not because we received an invitation in the mail, but because someone once compelled us to come. They believed that bringing us in to this party was worth it because it would transform our very lives. And now we are compelled again to come to the party and to the table. Here we will feast and rejoice with the bread and the cup and Jesus is the one who looks at us in the middle of the party and says, “I’m happy you’re here.” Amen.
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Jerusalem. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.
“Would you ever prevent someone from receiving communion?” The probing question was asked during a clergy-training event I attended a few years ago. The discussion leader pushed the question back to each of our tables for debate before offering his answer. At my table an older woman made it clear to all of us that children should not be able to receive communion because “they can’t understand it.” A middle-aged man declared that he would not give communion to anyone living in sin, particularly if they were gay. And a younger man shyly offered that he didn’t think it was his responsibility to allow, or prevent, anyone from coming to God’s table.
Each of the tables debated who should be able to receive communion, and the longer we discussed… the louder the room became. Theological and scriptural references were flung back and forth regarding the power clergy hold over God’s table; stories were shared about the merits of refusing to serve communion and the power of offering it to everyone; relational bridges were broken and walls were erected.
The leader let us duke it out amongst ourselves for some time before patiently raising his hand for silence. After waiting for a moment for our attention to move from our argumentative vantage points he said, “Remember this: Even Peter perjured and Paul murdered. God’s love knows no bounds.”
Do we get so caught up with Paul’s letters and his travels that we forget how horrible he was before he encountered Christ on the road? Do we respect his theology so much that it blinds us to the vital narrative of his life?
In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul specifically addresses his sordid past in order to demonstrate the power of God’s revelation. Only in the transformative and redemptive power of God’s divine love could a man like Paul be moved from murdering Christians to baptizing Christians.
All of us are broken by the powers of sin and selfishness; no one is free from the temptations to take the easy path and neglect to follow the road that Jesus prepared for us. Therefore, it is vital for all of us to remember that church is meant to a hospital for sinners. No matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done, there will always be a space for us at God’s table. The challenge is to remember that beautiful and graceful truth when we encounter people we deem less than worthy.
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Favorite Thanksgiving food? Mashed Potatoes (or as we call them in my family: Mashed-for-Taylors). Favorite Thanksgiving tradition? Getting together with a number of friends and family the day after thanksgiving for a giant kickball tournament (Kids vs. Adults, and I’m still young enough to be considered for the kid team!). Strange Thanksgiving memory? The year my grandmother kept praying for God to take care of the people in Siberia, when she really meant to say Syria, and none of us could figure out why she was so adamant with her prayers. Favorite Thanksgiving pastime? Standing outside with my Dad in the cold while he prepares to fry one of our turkeys.
I love Christmas and I love Easter, but Thanksgiving is equally wonderful in my opinion. There is just something so special about all the traditions coming into focus with incredible people on an annual basis. I look forward to this week with eager anticipation because I will get to see family for the first time in a long time, I will get to laugh with my sisters at the expense of our parents, and I will get to enjoy my mother’s incredible cooking.
Of all the Thanksgiving traditions, my favorite is the moment after the prayer, once we have finally sat down in our seats, when I have the privilege of inviting everyone to go around the table and share what they are most thankful for this year. At our house, tears are always inevitable. During the time of thankfulness I witness my cousins maturing to an age when they can truly appreciate some of the blessings in their life, I witness family members break down in the recognition of how wonderful their lives really are, and I witness friends and acquaintances truly become part of the family. Expressing our thankfulness at the table is, without a doubt, my favorite moment during the Thanksgiving experience because you get to share in God’s glory made manifest in the lives of those gathered together.
Over the last few months we have had too many funerals at St. John’s. Too many times have I stood in the pulpit and proclaimed the life, death, and promised resurrection of someone in our community while friends and family wept in the pews. For every funeral I have used the words from Paul: “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Even in the midst of horrendous suffering and loss we give thanks to God for the gift of those persons we have lost, we give thanks to God for His continual and abiding presence, and we give thanks to God for the great victory over death through Jesus Christ.
No matter who we are and no matter where we are, we have something to be thankful for this year. It might not be a new job, or a loving spouse. It might not be a lucrative career, or perfect children. But there is one thing that we can all be thankful for: the gift of God in Christ.
May God’s grace and presence be with all of you this week as we give thanks back to God for our blessings.
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this is remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
After the worship service ended, a number of us were standing around and enjoying the fellowship when I overheard a grandson talking with his grandfather. The young boy looked puzzled about something when his grandfather finally inquired as to what had happened. “So let me get this straight, when we have communion, everybody is invited?” the boy asked. “Of course” answered the grandfather. “And did the pastor really say that when we do this we are eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood?” The grandfather heisted for a moment but then confirmed the question. The boy stood silently for a moment, when all of the sudden a huge smile broke out on his face and he declared, “being a Christian is awesome!”
That, my friends, is sound sacramental theology.
How strange is it, when you take a step back, that for the last two thousand years Christians have been regularly gathering around Christ’s table to partake in his body and blood. We are invited up to the altar to consume Christ just as Christ offered himself to the disciples in their last meal together, and as he offered himself on the cross. This really is an awesome thing that we do, because in doing so we remember and act into the life of Christ, committing ourselves to discipleship here and now.
For years I worshipped with a family that could’ve come from a Norman Rockwell painting. They always sat together in church, the kids dutifully listened to the sermons, and they were regarded with respect by nearly everyone in the community. Everything about the family made them seem perfect, particularly when it came to their first born son. Having cerebral palsy meant he was pushed in his chair into the sanctuary every Sunday morning. His parents were responsible for feeding him, clothing him, and changing him. And though he sometimes gathered stares from others in the congregation, to the family, he was just like everyone else.
I used to love seeing them enter church, I loved how they involved all of their children in everything they did, regardless of differences. It wasn’t until years later that I learned why they started attending our church.
They were a military family, and were moved every few years. This meant that whenever they arrived in a new place they had to lay the foundations for new relationships and social connections. After every move they would begin by finding a local church and would start participating in its ministries. They had been attending their church for sometime, creating new bonds with fellow parishioners, when the church had a communion service for the first time in a while. The family, like all the others, gathered in the center aisle and made their way toward the altar. Each child went forward and received the body and blood, but when the father pushed his eldest son forward in his wheel chair the pastor refused to serve the young man communion. “If he cannot understand what this means, I will not serve him,” was the response from the minister. That was enough for the family to never reenter that church ever again.
On Jesus’ final evening with his disciples they gathered in the upper room and shared bread and wine, Jesus’ body and blood. Ironically, this sacramental meal which was intended to celebrate the unity of Christians with their Lord and one another has become the source of such division within the church.
Just imagine for a moment, that final evening the disciples had with one another; they had come so far together. From their humble beginnings, called from their fishing boats and families in Galilee, these ragtag disciples had followed their Lord all the way to Jerusalem. They were the least likely candidates for the kind of mission that God would accomplish in the world, yet they were the ones called and invited to a new life with Christ. Around that table sat fishermen and tax collectors, men who had abandoned everything they knew for a life of uncertainty following the light of the world. Even Judas, the one who would betray him in a number of hours was invited to the table and was given the body and the blood.
There is a place at this table for you.
It does not matter where you’re from, who you are, what you’ve done. It does not matter how strong or weak your faith is. It does not matter whether you understand what happens here or not. Surely the disciples did not understand that first time, or they would not have abandoned their Lord the next day as he mounted the hard wood of the cross. I stand on this side of the table, and not even I completely understand what happens in the Eucharist.
It is truly an awesome thing to share this meal because it is mysterious. Somehow, in gathering together, the Holy Spirit is poured down upon us and these gifts of bread and wine so that they become for us the body and blood of Christ.
But even more mysterious than what happens here at the table, is the fact that people like you and me are invited to it. That regardless of our failures and short-comings, in spite of our desertion of Jesus at different times in our lives, and precisely because of our lack of faith, Jesus meets us here at the table.
I have to agree with my young friend from church; being a Christian is awesome.