Love Rather Than Vengeance
SLIDE 3: GO AHEAD, MAKE MY DAY!
“Go ahead, make my day!” “Don’t get mad, get even!” So much of our popular media celebrates revenge. The historic popularity of the death penalty in America is somehow bound up with our love affair with revenge. Conservative fundamentalists of most religious stripes are fond of quoting: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Get even! Israel’s policy of retaliation, the fundamentalist Islamists’ calls for mutilations and beheadings for any number of imagined offenses, and the overwhelming support for the death penalty among America fundamentalists, make it appear that revenge is some kind of religious necessity.
SLIDE 4: SELF-RIGHTEOUS VENGEANCE
I think self-righteousness is at the root religious fundamentalism’s attraction to revenge. If I’m right and your wrong then killing you isn’t revenge, it’s just right. How people can believe they are so right as to justify killing other people is beyond me. I guess allowing ourselves to experience doubt is one of the things that separates faith from self-righteousness. Doubt should also warn us that capital punishment is just too final.
SLIDE 5: BEST SPIRITUAL TRADITIONS OPPOSE REVENGE
The very best spiritual traditions of all religions oppose revenge in favor of forgiveness, love and peace. Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind.” Joseph, in Genesis, forgiving his brothers, when they were in his power. Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek turn to him the other also. . .” And from the literature of Islam the Sufi poet Rumi:
Open your heart like a tray Vengeance wash away and pray The wine of love, when down you lay Your cup of grace, your cup of grace.
SLIDE 6: MOST THREAT DISPLAYS NEVER PROCEED TO VIOLENCE
So if our very best spiritual traditions speak of grace, mercy, forgiveness, peace and love, then why is the notion of vengeance so persistent in the human soul? Deep within the reptilian portion of our brains is our natural fight-flight response. When we are faced with a threat our first reaction is to run away, and when necessary we fight to defend ourselves. Most confrontations between animals are resolved through overt threat displays that never proceed to violence.
SLIDE 7: COMPETITIVE AGGRESSION
Complicating the fight-flight response, however, is the competitive phenomenon of aggression. For predators aggression plays a fundamental role in obtaining food. Other living organisms are killed and consumed. From bacteria to insects to fish to mammals life feeds on life.
SLIDE 8: REVENGE MIXES AGGRESSION AND MEMORY
Aggression is not confined to the hunt for food. Even among herbivores violent behavior can arise as a result of sexual competition. In many species males fight for the privilege of mating with the available females and in many other social species females compete for status and dominance. Aggression alone does not result in revenge. A settling of scores implies memory — the fermentation of anger into resentment and bitterness. The prophet Jeremiah expressed this concept poetically in chapter 31:29 ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ In the Letter to the Ephesians the author advises: Ephesians 4: 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. Revenge then is a complicated behavior that involves calculation and memory and not just a reaction. Like the Arabs and the Israelis where every hurt, every anger is harbored, every grudge is nursed until the two sides can no longer talk to one another about issues in the present without citing a long list of hurts and injustices from the past.
SLIDE 9: PAUL WAS TALKING TO GOOD CHURCH PEOPLE LIKE US
Paul in his Letter to the Romans, however, wasn’t talking to the Arabs and the Israelis, he was addressing good church people like us. Because even in the First Century the people in those early churches were no saints. Paul pastored some very naughty congregations. They shared all of the failings and peccadilloes with which we struggle. Churches are social groupings where human beings exercise their needs for aggression and dominance, people share their needs for acceptance and love, and individuals sometimes get their feelings hurt.
SLIDE 10: THE PROBLEM OF PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR
If all aggression in the life of the church was overt, we would be able to address our problems more directly and above board. But church people tend to specialize in passive aggressive behavior. A good example of passive aggressive behavior in a marriage was shared by a sales clerk.
“Cash, check or charge?” The sales clerk asked, after folding the items the woman wished to purchase. As she fumbled for her wallet, the sales clerk noticed a remote control for a television set in her purse. “So, do you always carry your TV remote?” The sales clerk asked.
“No,” the shopper replied, “but my husband refused to go shopping with me and I figured this was the most evil thing I could do to him legally.”
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) describes passive-aggressive personality disorder as a “pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to requests for adequate performance in social and occupational situations.” Now most of us do not rise to the level of a personality disorder, but we do see an awful lot of passive aggressive behavior in churches. People want their egos stroked, people get their feelings hurt, and the hostility grows underground, and rather than confronting the problems and clearing the air, because after all we are “nice,” it festers.
SLIDE 11: AFTER ALL WE ARE NICE
And churches are not unique. It happens in families and work places, but because in church we are supposed to be “nice,” we let it fester until it clogs up the works and people just kind of go away. And the great tragedy is that our niceness and inability to confront our conflicts and problems result in communities of faith that fall short of what Jesus has called us to be.
SLIDE 12: JESUS WOULD BE DISAPPOINTED IN THE CHURCH
Beth found a poll on the internet, and who knows how accurate it is, but people were asked the question, “If Jesus suddenly came back to earth today, would he approve or disapprove of modern Christianity?” And the results are striking. Every demographic group in the study overwhelmingly reported about 90% that Jesus would disapprove of modern Christianity, and this is in a time when the figure of Jesus is actually becoming more popular.
SLIDE 3: LIKE POURING POISON IN THE COMMUNITY WELL
No doubt there are many reasons people perceive the church falling far short of the way of Jesus. I believe one of the important causes of this disapproval is the church is crippled by our passive aggressive behavior. If our life together in the community of faith really reflected the love of Jesus, people would be attracted. If our churches were really places of healing and grace, people would come.
So let’s just address one of the most common forms of passive aggressive behavior in social groups, whether it is families, work places, churches or Facebook – gossip. Did you hear what he or she did or said? Gossip and slander are like pouring poison in a community well. We all have to come and drink, but if we locate the latrine upstream of the camp pretty soon the water isn’t fit to drink. Jesus said, “I offer you living water,” but too often our passive aggressive behavior in the life of the community of faith fouls the spiritual water in the well. People come thirsty for new life, but then they discover poison in the water.
SLIDE 14: IS IT TRUE, IS IT NECESSARY, IS IT KIND?
Now as Bill Tucker says, “There is a fine line between sharing news and gossip, and it often comes down to intent.” Or as the old rule of thumb says, “If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?”
SLIDE 15: THE TONGUE IS A FIRE
Love rather than revenge – let’s remember Paul wasn’t talking to the Israelis and Palestinians, he was addressing church people like us. We need to be forgiving and don’t beat up on ourselves. We have all found ourselves in unguarded moments when we have spoken unkindly. The third chapter of the Letter of James: It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.
This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue – it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Creator; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women God made in the divine image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!
SLIDE 16: REPAY NO ONE EVIL FOR EVIL
So let us take to heart Paul’s admonition to the Romans: Romans 12:16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Amen.
Forgiveness Brings Goodness
In 21st century America we live relatively autonomous lives. We do belong to families, but we are free to leave our families of origin and form new relationships and make a life of our own with the assurance that our citizenship will afford us basic rights and opportunities. In ancient times and even in much of the rest of the world today your tribe is your sole protection – your life.
SLIDE 4: I WANT TO LEARN TO PAINT
Beth shares a story of when she was a counselor at a community college. A young Arab student came in and said he was “supposed” to sign up for courses that would lead toward an engineering degree. Beth coming from our more autonomous culture of self-fulfillment asked the kid, “What do you really want to study?”
“Oh,” said the student wistfully, “I would really like to take courses to learn to paint.” So Beth helped him to sign up for some art classes.
SLIDE 5: FATHER’S ORDERS
The next morning the student and his older brother were in Beth’s office explaining that the father from the old country had called and issued orders that the kid was supposed to sign up for pre-engineering courses no questions asked. In tribal cultures a persons’ identity and future are determined by the family not the individual.
SLIDE 6: NOBODY — SLAVE
When Joseph lost the protection of his family he was vulnerable to being killed or sold as a slave. He changed from the status of favorite son to becoming a nobody, a slave, who could be used, abused, and only given enough food to keep him alive to serve the whims of others.
SLIDE 7: RAGS TO RICHES
Of course Joseph is the classic rags to riches story. Despite suffering hardship, false accusation and imprisonment Joseph’s uncanny ability to interpret dreams helps him to rise to the position of Prime Minister of all Egypt. And then the great famine of the 12th Dynasty brought Joseph’s brothers to Egypt to buy grain. We should note that foreigners were allowed to cross borders for purposes of trade, but there was always a risk. As undocumented aliens, foreigners were at the mercy of governmental officials. And here were Joseph’s brothers now in his power.
SLIDE 8: JOSEPH’S BROTHERS IN HIS POWER
In truth he plays with them a little bit, a little karma pay back, but in the end Joseph forgave his brothers. He let go of his anger, his pain, any desire for pay back, and he welcomes them, and even uses his power to provide land and food for them and their families.
SLIDE 9: DON’T FORGET TO PLAY
Forgiveness, love, goodness, play remind me of a post Dana Bright made on Facebook last week. “In the last 48 hours, both my Uncle Paul and my cousin’s wife have passed away. I am reminded once again of the fragility and brevity of our lives on Earth. There are no days to waste, no dreams to squander. Forgive, love, dance and laugh….while there is still the chance to do so. Don’t forget to play!”
SLIDE 10: CHILDREN LEARN THROUGH PLAY
Play is very important for children, for adults and in the life of communities. Children learn about their world through play. They develop their imaginations and creativity through make believe, and their bodies grow and develop with recreation.
SLIDE 11: ADULT NEED PLAY TOO
Adults also need play to keep the creative juices flowing. There is nothing more miserable than an adult who has dried up, because they have lost the ability to imagine and take part in make believe. We also find as we grow older that mental play helps to stave off dementia. We need cross word puzzles and math challenges, scrabble, and geography challenge to keep our brains exercised. If everything is work and drudgery we become hard, and we crack like old leather.
SLIDE 12: PLAY KEEPS COMMUNITIES CONNECTED
Play is also important in communities. Games, pretend, mystery dinners, dancing and parties help to keep relationships elastic and inclusive. Having fun together keeps acceptance and forgiveness flowing. Playing is how we connect and stay connected with one another. This is true in families and in churches. Congregations who take themselves too seriously and never play will end up folding in on themselves. The problem with introducing games into churches is we are very competitive and when communities get caught up in win – lose activities pretty soon it is no longer play.
SLIDE 13: STORY FROM ROBERT FULGHUM
“When I taught philosophy, I began the course by walking into the room after the students were seated and announcing, ‘We are now going to play musical chairs.’ The only further instruction was, ‘Please arrange your chairs and get ready to play.’
“No student ever asked why. Ever. And no student ever asked how to play. They knew the rules as surely as they knew hide-and-seek.
SLIDE 14: MUSICAL CHAIRS
“All I had to do was punch up ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ on the tape machine, and the students marched around the chairs. Mind you, these were seniors in high school. They hadn’t played musical chairs since second grade. But they still knew how, and jumped into the game without hesitation. Musical chairs! All right!
“After removing a few chairs, I stopped the music. There was a mad scramble for the remaining chairs. Those without chairs were stunned. They knew how the game worked – music stops, get a chair – how could they not have a chair so soon? They had ‘How dumb can I be?’ written on their faces.
SLIDE 15: GIRLS WON’T FIGHT JOCKS
As the game goes on, the quest for chairs turns serious. Then rough. Girls are not going to fight jocks for chairs. Losers to the wall.
SLIDE 16: TWO MEMBERS OF THE WRESTLING TEAM
Down to two members of the wrestling team, who are willing to push, knee, kick, or bite to be the last person in a chair. This is war! STOP! And by jerking the chair out from under his opponent, one guy slams down into the last chair – a look of triumph on his face – hands raised high with forefingers signaling NUMBER ONE, NUMBER ONE.
SLIDE 17: CONTEMPT FOR THE WINNER
“The last student in the last chair always acted as if the class admired him and his accomplishment. He got the CHAIR! ‘I’m a WINNER!’ Wrong. Those losers lined up against the wall thought he was a jerk. Admiration? Hardly. Contempt is what they felt.
“This got too serious to fast – like high school life – and real life. Did they want to play again? A few of the jocks did. But not the rest of the class.
SLIDE 18: ONE RULE CHANGE
“I insisted. Play one more time. With one rule change. Musical chairs as before, but this time, if you don’t have a chair, sit down on someone’s lap. Everybody stays in the game – it’s only a matter of where you sit. The students are thinking – well . . . OK.
“Chairs are reset. Music starts and they march. Chairs are removed. STOP! There is a pause in the action. The students are really thinking it over now. (Do I want a chair to myself? Do I want to sit on someone’s lap or have someone sit in mine? And who?) The class gets seated, but the mood has changed. There is laughter – giggling. When the game begins again, there is a change of pace. Who’s in a hurry?
SLIDE 19: A DIMENSION OF GRACE
“When the number of chairs is sufficiently reduced to force two to a chair, a dimension of grace enters in as the role of sittee or sitter is clarified – ‘Oh, no, please, after you.’ Some advanced planning is evident as the opportunity to sit in the lap of a particular person is anticipated.
“As the game continues, and more and more people must share on chair, a kind of gymnastic dance form develops. It becomes a group accomplishment to get everybody branched out onto knees. Students with organizational skills come to the fore – it’s a people puzzle now – ‘Big people on the bottom first – put your arms around him – sit back – easy, easy.’
When there is one chair left, the class laughs and shouts in delight as they all manage to use one chair for support now that they know the weight can be evenly distributed. A triumphant moment for all, teacher included.
SLIDE 20: ALL SIT DOWN IN A LAP
“As a final step to this process, I would tell the class we would push on one more round. ‘The music will play, you will march, and I will take away the last chair. When the music stops, you will all sit down in a lap.’
“So once more they marched and stopped – what now? ‘Everyone stand in a perfect circle. All turn sideways in place. Take a single step into the middle so as to have a tight circle now, with each person in the group belly to backside with the person ahead of them. Place your hands on the hips of the person in front of you, and on the count of three, very carefully guide the person onto your knees at the same time as you very carefully sit down on the knees of the person behind you.’
SLIDE 21: EVERYONE WINS
“They all sat. No chair. I have played the chair game with many different groups. The experience is always the same. It’s a problem of sharing diminishing resources. And the questions raised by musical chairs are always the same: Is it always to be a winners – losers world, or can we keep everyone in the game?
“Do we still have what it takes to find a better way?”
SLIDE 22: FORGIVENESS BRINGS GOODNESS
Forgiveness brings goodness. Love, play and sharing are better than hate, competition and win-lose. At the Sharing Table of Jesus we welcome everyone to stay in the game. We need to have fun together and then we will discover forgiveness, acceptance and community.
God Overcomes Our Fear
SLIDE 3: GOD KNOWS THE LIMITS OF OUR COURAGE
SLIDE 4: THEMS WITH THE GOLD MAKES THE RULES
Elijah was a prophet called by God to oppose the religious idolatry and the political and social oppression of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Ahab and Jezebel worshipped Baal who was the god of power and wealth. Though seldom worshipped by that name anymore Baal is still popular today. You may have heard of the Golden Rule: “Thems who has the gold makes the rules.”
Anyway the followers of Yahweh opposed the idolatry and oppression of the Crown, and the King simply had his opponents executed. So Elijah predicted there would be a drought. And since Baal was also god of the rain, this was a direct challenge to the royal idolatry. In fact Elijah said Yahweh would prevent the rain, until people stopped worshipping Baal, then he went into hiding for fear of his life.
SLIDE 5: CONTEST ON MT. CARMEL
For three years, maybe an exaggeration, there was no rain. All of the crops dried up, the grass disappeared and the animals were dying. Then God told Elijah to come out of hiding and challenge the King and his 450 prophets of Baal to a contest. They were to gather all of the people on Mt. Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal were supposed to build and altar and make sacrifice and Elijah would do the same, and the God who answered with fire, that was the God everyone should worship.
Given the distress of the drought and the public nature of the challenge King Ahab felt he could not back down. So the contest went forward, and Elijah won. Yahweh not only answered with lightning from heaven, there was also rain, blessed rain that broke the drought. And all of the people gathered on the mountain bowed down to Yahweh and then executed the 450 prophets of Baal. Elijah had won.
SLIDE 6: JEZEBEL PROMISED TO KILL ELIJAH
Confident in his victory Elijah ran from Mt. Carmel to the royal palace to engage in a little na-na-na-boo-boo with Queen Jezebel over her 450 prophets of Baal. But Jezebel was not about to cringe before some prophet. She was made of sterner stuff than that, and she looked Elijah in the eye and said, “Before this time tomorrow may the gods strike me down if you aren’t as dead as one of those 450 prophets of Baal.
SLIDE 7: ELIJAH RAN
And Elijah’s courage left him. His knees started to quake, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, and he turned tail and ran. He ran and he ran and he ran until he couldn’t run any more, and then he laid down and prayed to die. But God sent him an angel with food and water, so Elijah got up and ran some more all the way to Mt. Sinai, where he hid in a cave. And then the Holy Spirit showed up. There was a mighty wind, an earth quake, a fire, and finally a still small voice. And God spoke to Elijah, “What are you doing here Elijah?”
And Elijah complained, “Ahab has killed all of the other prophets of Yahweh, and I did what you asked me to do, and now Jezebel is seeking to kill me.”
SLIDE 8: PERSPECTIVE AND SPECIFIC MEASURABLE TASKS
And here I want to stop to look at Elijah and his courage. God gave Elijah the courage to challenge Ahab and his 450 prophets of Baal. Elijah stood up to them. He made fun of them and called down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice in front of all Israel. But when he was confronted by the threat of death from Jezebel, he ran. God gives us courage to face challenges, but God also understands the limits of our courage. When Elijah started to run, God didn’t try to stop him. God even sent an angel with food and water to help him run a little further. And when God finally caught up with Elijah, God didn’t order the prophet to go back and confront Jezebel. First God comforted Elijah with the divine presence in a still small voice. Then understanding the limits of the prophet’s courage God gave him three specific measurable tasks to perform. “Go anoint Hazael to be King of Syria, anoint Jehu to become King in Israel, and anoint and mentor Elisha to become prophet in your place.”
SLIDE 9: FOR ME FEAR IS OFTEN DRIVING THE BUS
I find comfort in the story of Elijah. So often my own courage fails me. That is why I often ask the question of myself and others, “What would you do, if you were not afraid?” So often our fear is driving the bus.
SLIDE 10: DARK IMAGININGS, FATIGUE AND LONELINESS
Most of our fears are irrational. The famous poem Desiderata advises us: “Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.” Dark imaginings, fatigue, loneliness, doubt can haunt us until we run away from worries and the shadows of our fears. We can imagine almost any problem to be so large, so difficult and so complex that it will eat us for lunch.
SLIDE 11: PRAYER ESTABLISHES PERSPECTIVE
If, however, we pray, God can help us find that still small place inside of ourselves, where we can establish perspective. That is what happened with Elijah in that cave on Mt. Sinai. After running away and hiding Elijah finally found that still small place inside of himself, where he could hear the quiet voice of God. And then he realized he didn’t have to do it all by himself. (“I have left yet 7,000 in Israel who have not bowed their knee to Baal.”) (“Go anoint and mentor Elisha to become prophet in your place.”)
SLIDE 12: RESIZING OUR PROBLEMS
Yes our lives do have dangers and difficulties, but in perspective our fears are not nearly as large or as scary as we imagine them to be. Most of the time when we are confronted by a problem, if we can resize the difficulty into specific measureable tasks, we can take one step at a time until the challenge has been managed. And in confronting our fears we can remember we do not need to be alone. God does not demand we stand all by ourselves against all that terrifies us. Like little Robert who is afraid of the dark we can ask someone else to take us by the hand and walk into the dark with us. That is why God gives us good spiritual friends, why God calls us into the life of the community of faith.
SLIDE 13: DESMOND TUTU A STORY OF COURAGE
I was inspired this week by a story about Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. During the deepest, darkest days of apartheid in South Africa, when the government tried to shut down opposition by canceling a political rally, Archbishop Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead.
St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa was filled with worshippers. Outside the cathedral hundreds of police gathered, a show of force intended to intimidate. As Tutu was preaching they entered the Cathedral, armed, and lined the walls. They took out notebooks and recorded Tutu’s words.
But Tutu would not be intimidated. He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. At one extraordinary point he addressed the police directly.
SLIDE 14: YOU ARE POWERFUL. COME JOIN THE WINNING SIDE!
He said, “You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”
With that the congregation erupted in dance and song.
The police didn’t know what to do. Their attempts at intimidation had failed, overcome by the archbishop’s confidence that God and goodness would triumph over evil. It was but a matter of time.
SLIDE 15: IN LIFE, IN DEATH, IN LIFE BEYOND DEATH, GOD IS WITH US. WE ARE NOT ALONE. THANKS BE TO GOD.
Our courage comes from a faith that God is with us, and nothing can separate us from God’s love. God helps to give us the courage to overcome our fear, and God also knows the limits of our courage. When we fail, when we chicken out, God is still with us and loves us seeking to help us find those specific measurable tasks we can perform that will overcome our fear. And even when the night of death closes in God is still with us. As it says in the last three lines of the Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada, selection number 887 in your hymnal: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”
SLIDE 16: COURAGE IN THE STRUGGLE FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE
You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.
You promise to all who trust you forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, your presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in your realm which has no end.
SLIDE 17: HOLD HANDS WITH EACH OTHER
God does indeed call us into God’s church to give us courage and hands to hold, when we step out into the dark. A symbol of our commitment to one another is holding hands, when we sing Shalom. A little later this morning when Rhonda Potts and Mitch Hayles come forward to be received into membership we will promise them that in the face of life’s difficulties we will walk with them, we will hold hands with each other, we will pray with and for them, and together we will find the courage to overcome our fears. In this we can rejoice.
Sharing Table on Steroids
SLIDE 3: YOU GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO EAT
Bible Scholar John Dominic Crossan points out that the two undeniable marks of the ministry of Jesus were his healings, and his practice of “open commensality,” common eating. Jesus’ willingness to eat with anyone. Both healing and common eating are featured in our scripture this morning. “As Jesus went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
SLIDE 4: JESUS: A REVOLUTIONARY BIOGRAPHY
I believe this story is symbolic of the whole of Jesus’ ministry, and the task of those of us who wish to follow in the way of Jesus. In trying to figure out what the historical Jesus was about, I am impressed with the insights of the New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan. And sometime later this year I would welcome a discussion of his insightful book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. This morning I want to lift up Crossan’s insights into the purpose of Jesus’ ministry revealed in his practice of eating.
SLIDE 5: OPEN COMMENSALITY
One of Jesus’ primary methods for teaching his vision of the Kingdom of God was through “open commensality” – that is, through sharing egalitarian meals with his listeners. In the first century, the banquet table was the chief place of sustenance, the principle form of entertainment, and an apt symbol of society in miniature. First century Jewish society was structured with an unassailable hierarchy, and this hierarchy could be seen during meals when women served men at the table and never vice versa, lower classes and slaves never shared a meal with the powerful, and sinners never ate with the pious. The banquet table, then, contained all the same oppressive barriers as society at large. Crossan suggests that Jesus symbolized his message of radical egalitarianism through eating with slave and free, male and female, sinner and pious, sick and healthy. He brought every class of person to his table. Crossan states: “… healing and eating were calculated to force individuals into unmediated physical and spiritual contact with God and … one another.”
SLIDE 6: UNMEDIATED PHYSICAL AND SPIRITUAL CONTACT
Unmediated physical and spiritual contact with God and one another is still the mission of the followers of Jesus. In our world, however, we have gated communities, private clubs, VIP sections, and Sunday worship is still the most segregated hour of the week. And not just segregated by race but by income and social class. We tend to hang out with people who are like us. Even in church our friendship groupings the people we go out to eat with and invite over for dinner tend to be homogenous. We feel comfortable that way. But that was not Jesus’ vision. Check out Luke 14 beginning verse 12: “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be — and experience — a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned — oh, how it will be returned!”
SLIDE 7: WE BECOME THE BODY OF CHRIST
The Sharing Table is the way of Jesus. I have persisted in trying to provide a meal once a week where everyone is welcome and anyone who shows up is fed, because when we sit down at table with one another, we become the Body of Christ. At the Sharing Table we have tried to accommodate food allergies, vegetarian and vegan diets, to be sure that everyone is welcome. While not following a vegan diet myself, I have come to even appreciate vegan humor.
SLIDE 8: VEGAN HUMOR
“The standard diet of meat-eaters is blood, flesh, veins, muscles, tendons, cow secretions, hen periods and bee vomit. And once a year during a certain holiday in November, meat-eaters use the hollowed-out gastrointestinal system of a dead bird as a pressure cooker for stuffing. And people think vegans are weird because we eat tofu?”
SLIDE 9: NO MATTER WHO YOU ARE OR WHAT YOU EAT
No matter who you are or what you eat, you are welcome at the Sharing Table. Now a suggestion was made that the pastor should seek out a church closer to the homeless camps and hold the Sharing Table there. But I think that misses the point. The purpose of the Sharing Table is not to go someplace else and feed hungry people as a mission, the Sharing Table is the mission to bring all people, rich and poor, male and female, black and white, gay and straight, to sit down together and enjoy God’s blessing of food and each other’s company. I know that is hard, but Jesus didn’t ask us to do easy stuff.
SLIDE 10: PLENTY OF MISSION AWAY FROM OUR BUILDING
Let me acknowledge there is plenty of mission we can engage in away from our church building. Alix is taking water, food, books and other good stuff to the homeless camps. I want to thank the folks who took lunches to the workers at the Habitat site, and all the people who have worked to help build the Habitat house this Spring and Summer. Foodline offers food for the hungry, and the Huntsville Assistance Program provides monitored assistance to the poor. Delivering meals on wheels is a wonderful ministry, and our contributions to NAMI have been important for the mentally ill in our community.
SLIDE 11: SHARING A MEAL
Sharing a meal may not seem like much, but it can be the first step in reaching across social barriers to nurture others with the love of Jesus. Sitting down and sharing food is the most effective means of offering friendship. And much of the dis-ease in our culture is the result of loneliness, stress, and a lack of social connection. Spiritual healing begins at the Sharing Table. And our mission as followers of Jesus is to invite people to come, sit down and eat with us. Maybe we can have invitation cards we hand out to people to invite them to dinner.
SLIDE 12: SHARING TABLE ON WEDNESDAYS?
Now John Barber has suggested that we move the Sharing Table to Wednesday evenings, so the choir can participate. I am open to that idea, but I want to make sure that we don’t get in the way of choir either. If people come eat and run, we miss the point of spiritual sharing. So let’s think about it, talk about it, and figure out how we might make it work.
SLIDE 13: HOW SHOULD WE MEASURE SUCCESS IN THE CHURCH?
Allow me to recommend an article on the internet entitled “Open Commensality in Practice,” by B. Scott Christmas. Here are his conclusions:
“A lot of people warm a seat in the pew every week inside expensive, ornamental buildings, listening to grandiloquent words, and singing hymns of faith and devotion, but it’s all blithering and meaningless without genuine outreach. For a church, success should not measured by how many rear-ends are warming the pews on Sunday morning, how much cash is dropped piously into the plate, or how many souls have been “won to Christ.”
SLIDE 14: THIS IS THE KINGDOM OF GOD
Instead, success should be measured by how many mouths have been fed, how many souls have been nurtured with love and genuine attentiveness, and how many lives have been enriched with the abundance of compassion, self-worth, empathy, and unconditional acceptance. And the way to start, the way to put this philosophy into practice, is the same way that Jesus himself did it – through open commensality. Sharing a meal, sharing your time, sharing your attention. This is salvation. This is the Kingdom of God.”
SLIDE 15: LOVING WASTEFULLY
“Instead of a church that posts its Sunday School attendance in the bulletin every week, I want a church that posts how many people volunteered to house the homeless, tend the sick, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. I want to know who strived to spread love, tolerance, and compassion; I want to know who worked for peace and equality; I want to know who fought injustice, judgmental attitudes, and oppression; I want to know who shared the gift of abundant life through living life to the fullest, being all that they could be, and loving wastefully.”
Loving wastefully. I like that. So often in a small church with what feels like too few resources we tend to pinch pennies and think small, rather than remembering to share the extravagant love of Jesus. We should be good stewards, but we can love and welcome others extravagantly.
SLIDE 16: JOIN JESUS AT THE TABLE
Large crowds came to Jesus – five-thousand might have been an exaggeration, but a lot of people shared food that day and everyone was fed. He did not turn them away, but rather opened his heart to them and told his disciples, “you give them something to eat.” We are living in a world of loneliness and spiritual hunger today, and Jesus is still saying to us, “you give them something to eat!” Jesus wants us to become the Sharing Table on steroids welcoming extravagantly, loving wastefully. Join Jesus at the Table.