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Saturday, March 31, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: Did Jesus Have to Die?

Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

"Mythbusters," on the Discovery Channel, features two ex-Hollywood stunt men and their team of helpers, who every week test the truth of urban legends, popular beliefs, internet rumors, or other myths.  They've tested whether using a cell phone will cause an explosion at the gas pump, whether someone with a tongue piercing is more likely to be struck by lightning, and whether you can actually find a needle in a haystack.  One episode tested a story about a driver who left the cement in his cement truck sit too long and it hardened.  The driver supposedly loosened the cement by throwing a stick of dynamite in the drum.  Mythbusters proved a stick of dynamite wouldn't do the job, but they kept increasing the explosives until they completely demolished the truck.  Cement left in the truck is useless:  it's only good when it's poured out.
The highest price ever paid for a bottle of drinkable wine was for a bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild bordeaux:  $ 114,000.  The most ever paid for a bottle of any wine was $ 160,000 for a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite bordeaux that is certainly vinegar now, but the bottle was from Thomas Jefferson's wine cellar and had his initials scratched on the glass.  No matter how old the vintage, wine is only good if it's poured out.
Hetty Green only owned one dress and wore it every day until it wore out.  She never turned on the heat and never used hot water.  She did not wash her hands and mostly ate pies that cost fifteen cents.  When her son, Ned, broke his leg as a child, she took him to a charity hospital.  When the hospital staff recognized her and refused to treat him as a charity case, she took Ned home and vowed to treat him herself.  The boy's leg developed gangrene and had to be amputated.  When Hetty died in 1916, her estate was valued, in today's dollars, at approximately three billion dollars.  All the money in the world is of no use unless it's poured out.
Jesus had it all.  He was adored by the common people, he could raise the dead, heal the sick, feed the hungry, change water into wine.  The nation was looking for a king and wanted to make him that ruler.  More than that, before his birth, he had been enthroned in heaven at God's side.  He had been present at the birth of the cosmos, he was surrounded by angels to do his bidding, he enjoyed unbroken fellowship with his Father, he existed in glory and honor and majesty.  Literally, he had it all.
But, like billions in a bank account, like cement stuck in a mixer, like wine on the shelf, it made no difference.  What does the glory of God mean when God's Creation struggles, suffers, and dies?  Jesus needed to be poured out.
So, says St. Paul to the church in Philippi, Jesus pours himself out.  Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God as something to be held on to.  Instead, he emptied himself -- poured himself out -- taking the form not of a master but of a slave, born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he lowered -- humbled -- himself, and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.
Jesus is poured out into a manger in Bethlehem, born among the poor of the world.  He is poured out into the streets of Nazareth and Capernaum and Tyre.  He is poured out weeping for his friend Lazarus, poured out restoring dead children to life, healing lepers and paralytics, exorcising demons, feeding thousands of people.  He is poured out explaining the love of God to people who cannot understand what he means.  Jesus empties himself, over and over and over.
That's a crazy way to live.  Life is supposed to be about gathering in, not pouring out.  We go to school so we can gather knowledge, so we can go to work and gather money, so we can go to the store and gather food and furniture and clothes and toys.  We accumulate friends, we acquire property, we increase in fame and reputation.  Yes, we are willing to part with some of our accumulated money and knowledge and time, but only so we can trade it for something else we'd rather have.  Even our time is traded for something else that we want, probably something that promises, in the long run, to save us more time.  We work hard now so we can retire earlier and better, and have more time.  We save and invest now so we will have more later. 
It's all a matter of balance, we like to preach to each other.  Balance your time, your energy, your money, your desire, your gifts.  Don't spend more money, time, or energy than you get in return.  Don't empty yourself.  Keep the wine in the bottle, the cement in the mixer, the money in the bank.
Jesus, it seems to me, lives an utterly unbalanced life.  He is always giving away infinitely more than he receives.  And today, Palm Sunday, begins the final draft on Jesus' life, taking it down far past bankruptcy.  This week Jesus will pour it all out, in the Temple, in the Upper Room, in Pilate's palace, in the court of the Sanhedrin, and, finally, on a cross.  There's nothing balanced about this week.  Jesus' blood flows like an overturned bottle of wine, and his life is demolished like an exploded cement mixer.  By three o'clock Friday, there's nothing left.  There's no glory, no peace, no praise, and no breath.  Jesus is empty.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, Paul writes, who, though he was in the form of God, did not hold on to his equality with God, but emptied himself. 
Agnes Bojaxhiu was a young Albanian girl who felt called to become a nun.  She went to Ireland to learn English, so she could then teach in India.  After teaching in Calcutta for seventeen years, she went on a retreat in Darjeeling, and was overwhelmed by a call from God to serve the dying poor.  Begging in the streets, she raised money to found a hospice.  Beginning with 13 nuns, by the time of her death the Missionaries of Charity numbered 4,000 nuns operating hospitals, schools, and refugee centers.  Agnes poured herself out into the streets of Calcutta:  you probably know her by another name:  Mother Theresa.
Butch Nottingham is a farmer on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  In 1982 his pastor invited him to hear a program on responsible lifestyles and hunger issues.  When the leader of the program said that millions of pounds of food were being thrown away and could be used to feed hungry people, Butch questioned the figures.  Butch told the leader that if he got a group of people together with bags, they could walk behind his potato harvester and have all the potatoes they wanted.  Ray Buchanan, the leader, took Butch's bet, and they gleaned behind Butch's tractor that fall.  In the twenty-seven years since the Society of Saint Andrew began their gleaning network, 400,000 volunteers have gleaned over 152 million pounds of food to be distributed to the poor.  All it took was one farmer willing to give away what was left behind his tractor.
All the glory in heaven cannot save the world from its sin.  But Christ surrenders his heavenly glory to be born and to live among the poor and forgotten people of the earth.  He pours out his life, emptying it on the hill of Calvary.  And, not from his glory and power and equality with God, but from his emptied life, come love and hope and resurrection.  His Lordship comes not from his authority but from his servanthood.  His power comes from his obedience.  His life comes from his death.  His fullness comes from his emptying.
Hetty Green, who died with billions in the bank, is remembered only for her eccentricity; Mother Theresa, who died a pauper, changed the world.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on undrunk wine make headlines; food rescued from behind tractors feeds millions.  Cement left in a mixer gets dynamited; lives poured out for God and for neighbors build the New Jerusalem. 
Like wine, money, and cement, life is meant to be poured out. Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus . . . who emptied himself.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: What Happens When I Die?

1 Corinthians 15:1-27, 35-57

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him.

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 22:23-33

The same day some Sadducees came to him, saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.” Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching.

Our Wednesday morning Bible Study group was talking this week about one of the strange phenomena of our time – that, according to newspaper death notices, no one dies any more. People pass; they claim the promise of the resurrection; they went to be with the Lord. I want to ask people who use those terms whether all of us who haven’t passed are failing; or where the Lord was before they died. I claimed the promise of the resurrection at my baptism. When the garbage truck runs over me while I’m riding my bike, I want you to say I died. It’s a perfectly good word.

The constant use of euphemisms usually indicates discomfort or outright denial. Years ago, we didn’t talk about sex -- we had dozens of euphemisms for that, too. Women didn’t get pregnant – they were in a family way. The sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther said that a bad theologian calls things true that are not true, but a faithful theologian tells it like it is. Christians ought to get used to death and everything about it, because the Apostles’ Creed says we believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. We’ve got pass through dead to get to life everlasting.

What does the Bible teach us about what happens when we die? The Old Testament isn’t much help: it doesn’t talk very much about the afterlife. The Psalms talk about going down to Sheol, which was a kind of shadowy place where people went when they died. Mostly, the Hebrew Bible says that when people died, they slept with their ancestors. Ezekiel has a vision of the valley of dry bones coming back to life, but that’s more about the restoration of the nation of Israel than it is about individuals reviving in eternity.

Jesus talks about the afterlife mostly in parables: the great banquet, the judgment of the sheep and the goats, the rich man and Lazarus. In the Gospel of John, he tells the disciples he is leaving them to prepare a place for them, and that in his Father’s house there are many rooms. I remember a woman who didn’t like that translation – she preferred the King James Version, because she said she didn’t want a room, she wanted a mansion.

In today’s Gospel lesson, the Sadducees, who were the rich and conservative religious elite who only believed in the first five books of the Bible and therefore didn’t believe in an afterlife, try to trap Jesus by asking him a question about a woman who had been married seven times. “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” they ask. Jesus’ response tells us volumes about what happens in eternity. Eternity is not an extension of mortal life and mortal relationships. All of us who are hoping for perfect golf fairways or golden bicycle paths or sparkling beaches or even – dare I say it – immaculate baseball diamonds are going to be sorely disappointed. Human relationships – marriage, family, friendship – are parables of intimacy, dependence, and friendship with God and God’s people. They are like appetizers preparing us for the main course. Further, Jesus says, the dead are like angels. Note the wording: like. You and I are never going to be angels. Angels are not dead people – they are part of God’s heavenly court, and surround the throne of God singing eternal praise. In the Book of Revelation, heaven is one forever symphony of praise and thanksgiving. That’s why worship here is so important – like angels, worship is what we’re going to be doing forever, so we’d better learn to do it well now. Years ago at Annual Conference, after a long morning of argument over some issue, the bishop stopped the debate so we could have our mid-day worship service. As we creaked to our feet for the opening hymn, I said to my seatmate, best friend, and singing partner Jim Hewitt, I certainly hope heaven is not like THIS! Jim turned and said to me, I wouldn’t mind spending eternity singing next to you. And I crawled under my chair. But Jim was right – eternity is going to be about worship. If you don’t like it here – well, think about what that means for your future.

In the first letter to Corinth, St. Paul gets more explicit. Jesus is the model for us both in life and in death. Jesus died – he didn’t pass or go to be with the Lord. Then God raised Jesus to a new life. He wasn’t a ghost or an angel. He had a body. The disciples could touch him, he asked Mary not to hold on to him in the garden, and he cooked and ate fish with the disciples on the beach. He bore the scars of his crucifixion. But, he came and went through locked doors. He wasn’t recognized by two disciples on their way to Emmaus until he broke bread with them, and then he disappeared. He ascended up – and out – forty days after Easter, but then appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. So, Paul says in this morning’s lesson, who and how we are in this life resembles what is to come, in the same way that the mortal Jesus resembles, but is not identical to, the resurrected Jesus. It’s not clear what we’ll be, Paul says, except that we will be like Jesus. And that ought to be good enough for us.

It seems more and more to me that we don’t do ourselves, or others, or God any favors by talking about pearly gates or streets of gold or angel wings or beaches or golf courses. If, as St. Paul says, eternity is being like Jesus, what does that mean? Jesus is one with his Father. Jesus surrenders his will to the will of the Father. Jesus pours himself out in love for God and for the world. Jesus forgives all who have hurt him. Jesus lives to glorify his Father in everything he does and says and is. So, after death, it looks like Jesus. It looks like never having to think or worry about what I want, what I need, what I prefer. It looks like never ever thinking about what anyone else thinks about me. It looks like surrendering completely to love, to praise, to adoration, to God. It looks like never using the word “I” again. The closer I get to God, the more tired I get of me. To spend eternity in love, never thinking about myself, sounds pretty heavenly to me.

The Scottish-American Presbyterian clergyman Peter Marshall once told a story about falling asleep as a child in the living room of his house, and, when he woke up the next morning, found himself in his bed in his pajamas. He couldn’t figure out how he had gotten there, but then he realized that while he was asleep, without his knowing or remembering the in-between, his father had picked him up, carried him to his room, changed his clothes, and put him to bed, where he woke up in a new day, in new clothes, refreshed. That’s what will happen when we fall into that sleep. When we wake up, it will be in a new world, on a new day, and we will be wearing new bodies that look like Jesus’. Then, without any thought about ourselves, we’ll gather around the throne with all the new Creation to sing well and loud.

And we’ll all clap on two and four.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: Can I Be Forgiven?

Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Luke 23:32-43

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


When we were getting ready to build the new addition at Franktown Church – a project that we knew was going to be bigger and more expensive than anything the church had ever done before – I invited Peter Vaughn, then the Director of Development for all the United Methodist Churches in Virginia, to come and talk to us about how to do such a thing. One of the first things we needed to do, Peter told us, was conduct a strategic analysis of the giving patterns of the congregation, so we’d know how much money we could raise. As Peter explained how to do this, he talked about how, on the average, American churches give according to a consistent formula – such and such a percentage of the congregation gives the top twenty percent of money, another percentage gives the next twenty percent, and so on. After peter had laid out the pattern, the chair of the church Trustees, who was also the retired Superintendent of the County Schools, literally snorted and said, “Well, Reverend, that might be the average elsewhere, but that’s not what’s it’s like on the Eastern Shore, and it’s certainly not the percentages in this church.” Peter, without blinking, said, “Well, maybe not, but that’s pretty consistent pattern across all churches in this country.” We turned to the Financial Secretary and asked him to do an analysis of the giving patterns of our church. A few weeks later he brought us the report, and it was, to the decimal, exactly what Peter had told us the national average was.

As a part of that process, I also took the church leadership to two workshops, featuring nationally famous church consultants, about how to grow from a small church to a middle sized church. The consultants talked about the struggles involved in changing the thinking and patterns and culture of a small church, and how church members react to the stresses of that change. During the first break, my church leaders turned en masse to me and said, “Did you talk to him before this meeting? Everything he’s said that people in the church say is exactly what we’ve heard our church members say. You talked to him, didn’t you?” I answered, “You keep thinking you’re unlike everyone else in the world, but I keep trying to tell you that what we’re going through is what every church in our situation goes through. So, if we have the same issues as other churches, do you think that the way they solved their issues might work for us, too?” That was a breakthrough for Franktown Church. The Eastern Shore thinks it’s unlike anywhere else in the world, and the rules elsewhere don’t apply to them. But the Shore has the same issues every rural area has. Small churches have similar issues, middle size churches have similar issues, big churches have similar issues. We all thing we’re exceptional – that no one else in the world is just like us. But the hard truth is that when we get down to talking about what’s really going on in the depths of our lives and our hearts, we’re not exceptional at all. Our hurts, our shames, our fears, our hopes, our loves aren’t exceptional – we share far more than we differ.

One of those phony exceptions we cherish about ourselves is our ability to be forgiven. Every one of us here believes that, in theory and principle, God forgives. That’s God’s job, after all. God forgives you and you and you and you. And God forgives a whole lot of the rotten stuff I’ve done, too. Except. Except that – well, you know. That’s different. I’ve asked God to forgive me, and I guess God has, But I really can’t forgive myself. Because it’s – well, you know. It’s – different. And that’s just something I have to live – and die – with. I guess I’ll just have to settle that with God when I die, because, well, that’s different.

That’s not the way God works, says the writer to the Ephesians. You were all once dead because of our selfishness. We were cut off from God. But even when we were dead because of our self-centeredness, God did an amazing thing: he made us alive with Christ. When Christ died, he entered into our deaths from sin and selfishness. But God took that sin-death, and, just as God did at Creation, made life out of nothing. So, when Jesus rose from the death of sin on Easter morning, he carried us with him. This has absolutely nothing to do with your own goodness or anything else we do, Ephesians says. It has nothing to do with our ability to forgive ourselves for – you know. This is God’s action, and we are saved by God’s gracious gift. All we have to do is receive it, trusting that God can do something we can’t do for ourselves.

Yes, I heard someone just say, that’s true for everything except – you know. I’m exceptional. Really? Look at the gospel lesson. Jesus is dying on the cross, bracketed by two criminals. The religious folks have framed him, the Romans have crucified him out of expediency to placate the mobs, his disciples have deserted him, and the crowd is mocking him. And what is Jesus’ response to this horrible thing that all these people are doing to him? Father forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing. This horrible, excruciating, unjust murder is taking place, and the victim forgives everyone involved, and even offers redemption to the criminal at his side.

Now, I don’t know what you’ve done. I don’t know what eats at your soul. I don’t know what anger you hold against someone else, what terrible thing you did to someone else or to yourself, I don’t know what failure of nerve or character or faith or life you’ve committed that makes you say, Yes, I know God forgives, except . . .

Is there anything you have ever done, or could ever do, that tops killing the Son of God? Tell me your big bad secret that trumps that one. You’re Adolph Hitler or Josef Stalin or Pol Pot and you killed millions of people. You cheated on your spouse. You betrayed your friend. You cursed God. You had an abortion no one knew about. You have an addiction. You stole. Tell me, great criminal of the universe, what have you done that’s worse than killing Jesus? What is the monstrous thing you’ve said or been or done or not said or been or done that is so terrible that Jesus’ prayer, Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing doesn’t apply to you? Who do you think you are?

We’re not exceptional, no matter what Mommy told us. Our sins are not exceptional, and neither is our ability to be healed and reborn and forgiven. If you can’t be forgiven, then your sin is bigger than God. And not only is that impossible, it’s just stupid. Get over yourself.

By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. Your sin is not exceptional. Neither is God’s grace.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: What’s With Communion?

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

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 in 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. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.

Luke 14: 12-24

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

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.’”


The small town/suburb of Baltimore called Parkville, where I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s was white. It’s hard now, given the world we live in, to imagine what that was like, but that’s the way it was. There weren’t any laws that said black people couldn’t live in Parkville or go to its schools, but that’s just the way it was. So, I went all the way through childhood and teenagerdom without a single black – or brown, or yellow, or red – friend.

The scenes we watched on the television news in those years – of governors of Arkansas and Alabama and Mississippi standing in schoolhouse doors to prevent black children from entering those schools – were foreign to us. Stories about massive resistance in Virginia, including the 1968 Green vs. New Kent County Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court ruled that New Kent’s system of segregated schools was illegal, didn’t make sense to us. They weren’t foreign because we had black classmates, but because nobody black lived in our school district.

My Uncle Don and Aunt Helen lived on a farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Also living on the farm was Jake, a black hired man, and his wife Peggy. Jake and Peggy lived in the tenant house just down the lane from my Aunt and Uncle’s house. Jake and Uncle Don worked side by side every day, and one day, when Uncle Don was stung on the ear by a bee out in the field and collapsed from anaphylactic shock, Jake fell to his knees, sucked the stinger out of Don’s ear, picked him up and carried him to the house and called the rescue squad, saving his life. And, in the middle of the day when all work stopped for what farmers called dinner – not lunch – Peggy came from her house and she and Jake sat at the kitchen table with Don and Helen and everyone else and ate. Those dinners at Don and Helen’s were my first experiences eating with people of color. Years later, at Aunt Helen’s funeral, Jake stood weeping with my cousins and their children as the family said goodbye at the casket. My cousins’ children always referred to Jake as Uncle Jake – their parents’ brother.

To be invited to table is the most intimate act of friendship and family we can bestow. I have friends that I work with and meet with, but we don’t eat at each other’s houses. Schoolchildren have certain friends that they sit with at lunch, and others they avoid: with whom a new student sits at lunch is a very big deal. When I was in the Bishop’s Cabinet, meeting at the Conference office building, during a dinner break it was telling who went off to eat with whom. It’s a huge moment when children graduate from the children’s table at Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter to the grown-ups’ table. There is a pecking order at formal banquets for who is seated with whom at which table. To eat with someone is an indicator of friendship and intimacy. To continue the theme of Uncle Jake at table, I will never forget my first invitation to dinner in a black household in Charlottesville when I was in college. I was incredibly aware that I had crossed an important bridge in my life, and felt so honored and so grateful for the hospitality and warmth of the Wells family who fed me.

There are a hundred ways to talk about how important Holy Communion is – or should be – for Christians. One way would be to talk about how Roman Catholics believe that during the priest’s prayer, bread and wine are miraculously changed into the literal body and blood of Jesus, even though they continue to look and taste like bread and wine; and how Baptists believe that Communion is a memorial meal in which we remember what Jesus did for us but nothing else miraculous happens; but we Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians believe that it’s still bread and wine but also the body and blood of Jesus, in the same way that Jesus is both 100% human and 100% God at the same time. Or we could look at the three essential parts of the prayer at the table: thanksgiving – in Greek, eucharist – where we thank God for all the ways God has shown love for us; re-membering -- in Greek anamnesis – when we recount the story of Jesus at the Last Supper; and epiclesis, when we invite the Holy Spirit to make the bread and the wine to be the Body and Blood of Christ, and us into Christ’s Body united by his Blood. Those are all good ways to talk about Holy Communion.

But this morning I want to present an image I’ve been wrestling with for a couple of years now – it’s the image you saw in the Called to Step Outside video (
 you saw a few minutes ago. It seems to me that in both our lessons this morning God is telling us that the church is to be a place of radical hospitality, demonstrated by our invitation to the whole world to come to dinner. 

Not too long ago – indeed, when I was a child – the church believed that communion was only for a few people. In the Methodist church in which I grew up, one did not receive (you do not take communion – you receive it) communion until confirmation as a youth. You were supposed to understand or appreciate communion before receiving it. And I remember being left behind in the pew as my parents and other grown-ups went forward for communion. That message – that I wasn’t welcome – was clearly communicated to me. Other denominations still say that if you don’t belong to that denomination or perhaps even to that congregation, you’re not welcome at the Lord’s Table.

In this morning’s reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing the practice in the early church when the congregation would meet at the houses of the wealthier members, because those houses were larger. The friends of the wealthy would arrive first for what was a covered dish dinner, and they would start eating and drinking the good food before the poorer members arrived. By the time the other brothers and sisters arrived, the rich would be well fed and well lubricated. So, when Paul talks about the sin of eating and drinking without “discerning the body,” he’s not talking about some mystical understanding of how wine and bread are really Jesus: he’s talking about not discerning that the whole congregation is the Body of Christ together, and one part of the Body can’t say to another part they have no need of them. Paul is saying that the Holy Table must be absolutely inclusive, else it’s a sin.

That’s the same message as the gospel lesson, in which the friends of the rich man – and here Jesus means those who consider themselves the friends of God – make excuses for why they can’t feast with him, so the rich man – God – sends his servants – apostles and prophets – out to invite the poor, crippled, blind, and lame to take their place. As I say every time we celebrate Holy Communion, this is not our congregation’s table, it’s not our denomination’s table – it’s the Lord’s Table, and he invites you to feast with him.

The conversion I’ve had about Holy Communion isn’t about who’s welcome at the Table – I’m so glad we now understand that children, or special needs people, or outsiders are welcome, because they may be the only people here who really understand it. My conversion has been about my role at the table. I have come to understand that my job is to proclaim God’s radical hospitality at this meal in two ways. First, it is to make sure that we invite God into the meal. The most egregious failure I’ve seen over the years by clergy is not to pray the epiclesis: Send the power of the Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts. Make them be for us the Body and Blood of Christ, so we may be the Body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. If we don’t include God, then this is just a Baptist memorial re-enactment, not a sacrament in which God is present in outward signs with an interior and spiritual gift.

The second role of the celebrant at the Table is to make sure that the Table is open to everyone. There can never be any such thing as a private and closed communion. If a bride and groom celebrate communion at their wedding, as Grace and Mark Fulcher did at theirs last year, then everyone has to be welcome to Table as well. If we have communion at a funeral, which is a powerful and wonderful thing to do and you must do at mine, then everyone has to be welcome. And on Sunday mornings strangers, children, and the physically and mentally challenged must be included.

A few of you have asked what happened to our fifth Sunday covered dish dinners. The answer is nothing – it’s just that no one has assumed leadership for them and no one has explained how they help us Love God, Follow Christ, and Serve Others. So let me propose that yes, our church needs to eat together more often. A very few people – not enough -- have told me they liked and miss our Wednesday night dinner experiment from last fall. But let me suggest that we connect Holy Communion and these lessons from Scripture and radical hospitality and covered dish dinners. When we eat together, Jesus said, we need to invite the people around us, especially the poor, the crippled, the bind, and the lame. Not just our church friends, but those not like us. Jesus said that the way he wanted us to remember him was to eat together. That means that every meal we eat with someone else – at home, at school, at McDonalds – is a communion meal we eat with Jesus. That’s why we pray over the food – to invite Jesus to be present and thank him for showing up.

But what if we decided to have meals here on a regular basis and specifically invited the poor? Not have a soup kitchen so poor people can come and eat while we watch, but invite them to sit at table with us, as part of our family? That would be Loving God, Following Christ, and Serving Others. It would also be a lot of work, and it would change our lives.

What’s with communion? Why is it so important? It’s the primary way that Jesus said to remember him. Last year when Rabbi Arian and his wife, Keleigh, stayed at our house, on Friday night at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath they asked us for two candles – the candles of observance and remembrance – for a roll of bread, and a glass of wine. Keleigh lit the candles, then Charles took the bread, thanked God for it, broke it, and gave it to us to share. Then he took the glass of wine, prayed over it, and shared it with us. For the first time, I saw that Christian Holy Communion is not rooted in the Passover Seder, but in the Jewish Sabbath dinner. Jesus is saying whenever you gather with loved ones to remember and observe, I will be with you when you break bread and drink together. Now, he says, invite the poor and the broken to your family dinner, because that’s where you’ll find me, with them.

What’s with communion? If you want to understand what it means to follow Jesus, the answer is at the Table.