Sunday, 15 September 2019

The Little Way (Leviticus 2:1-16)

(Meditation for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on September 15, 2019, Proper 19)




The Problem with Ritual

Many a resolution to read the Bible from front to cover has foundered on the rocky, ritualistic banks of Leviticus.

Leviticus is full of ritual.  Whether it’s talking about sacrifice, diet, childbirth, or death, Leviticus consistently prescribes particular, precise, repeated actions.  Today’s scripture in particular reads a little bit like a cookbook.  Addressing the cereal offering, it specifies the ingredients: the finest of your flour, along with some oil and frankincense.  The text describes the different methods of preparation and the equipment.  You can prepare it uncooked, bake it in an oven, cook it on a griddle, or fry it in a pan.  And the text repeats itself.  When you do this, the priest will do this, and all of this will be “an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord” (vv. 2, 9; cf. v. 12).  Again and again in the opening chapters of Leviticus, we hear that the sacrifice is a “pleasing odor to the Lord.”

Throughout history, Christians have had a tendency to dismiss all this ritual as what is mistaken or misguided in Judaism.  Doesn’t this obsession with detail and repetition just drain life of its spirit?  Isn’t that what Paul’s talking about when he says that the letter kills but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:6)?

In fact, the problem for Paul is not law or ritual.  The problem is when people forget its meaning—the Spirit behind it.  The problem is empty law and empty ritual.  When Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, he likely meant that he came to show us the Spirit behind the law, what the law was all about in the first place.

The Spirit of Ritual;
Or, Constitutive Law

So what is the spirit behind the sacrifices we have read about so far?

To begin to answer that question, it is helpful to make a distinction between two kinds of law.  First, there is regulatory law, which regulates the world as it already is.  Laws about trade, theft, and murder are regulatory laws, because trade, theft, and murder are things that already happen in our world.  They need to be regulated.  But there is also constitutive law.  Constitutive law does not address the world as it is.  Instead, it creates—it constitutes—a new reality.

The laws of any sport or game are constitutive law.  They create a new reality.  Before people created law about goals and sidelines and fouls and free kicks, there was no such thing as soccer.  But because of these rules, soccer now exists.

Of course, reading the rulebook to a game would be boring, which explains why reading Leviticus can be quite boring.  We’re basically reading a rulebook.  But to play the game is an altogether different proposition.  When you really get into a game, you’re not thinking about a bunch of rules.  A good game will almost possess you, filling you with its spirit.  A good game draws you into the world it has created.  When I play soccer, I often forget this world—for the simple fact that I’m living in a new one.

Sports and games are not the only constitutive laws of our lives.  You might also consider certain rituals that make up a beloved holiday.  Cooking a turkey and gathering around a table with family and watching football and taking a walk in the park.  These are all rituals that are meant to fill us with a spirit of gratitude and fellowship and rest.  Perhaps just as I forget the world on the soccer field, you find yourself forgetting the world while you cook in the kitchen or play a game with your grandchildren.  Rituals are constitutive laws.  They create a new world.

Ritual as Recovery

If you’ll remember from last week, the ritual of sacrifice has at its foundation a very simple meaning: everyone can draw near to God.  For a people who had lived their whole lives trapped in a world of hopelessness and helplessness and humiliation, the ritual of sacrifice created a new world, one where the God who liberated them wanted to be near them and to dwell with them.  The ritual of sacrifice created a new world where they were precious and beloved, not debased and demeaned, a world open to new possibility, not closed in a circle of misery.

In more than one sense, ritual was the road of recovery.  It gave new meaning and order to a life that had previously been ordered in a very hurtful way.  Imagine if a friend of yours were recovering from a bad relationship or a toxic workplace environment or a debilitating addiction.  You might indulge them for a little while in their “woe is me” wallowing.  You might down a tub of ice cream with them and rewatch a few old favorites on television.  But you wouldn’t stop there.  The last thing a friend in recovery needs is empty space or unstructured time.  What your friend needs is a plan.  They need boundaries and rules and tasks and projects.  They need to relearn how to live, starting with waking up on time and brushing their teeth and making their meals and planning to meet people and do new activities that they enjoy.  In a word, they need good rituals, rituals that tell them a different story than their past disorder.  Seemingly insignificant things like washing your face or preparing a wholesome meal or committing to a daily practice—these things actually create a new world, one where you care about your health, where you enjoy the gifts of life, where you are growing and have a purpose.

The Grain Offering:
What Matters Is Not What It Does, But That It’s Done

The ritual of grain offering that we read about today, was a small but significant part of Israel’s recovery.  What was the purpose of this ritual?  There’s no mention of sin or forgiveness or atonement.  There’s no prescribed reason to do this.  While other sacrifices have a very specific purpose, this one has none.  I wonder if this sacrifice is not unlike the new hobby that a person undertakes who is recovering from addiction or a bad relationship or a toxic workplace.  What matters for that person is not the precise hobby.  She chooses ceramics or gardening or hiking not because ceramics is an essential part of recovery, or gardening has innate qualities of restoring your soul.  She chooses one simply because she needs a hobby; she needs something to do.  What matters is not so much what she’s doing as that she’s doing something.

The grain offering in today’s scripture has a distinctly daily, run-of-the-mill character.  For one thing, these grain cakes resemble the people’s common meal.  (It is not coincidence that one Israelite named Jesus would pray for his “daily bread.”)  The grain offering also was part of the tabernacle’s daily regimen, apart from whatever else individual worshipers would bring.  Every sunrise and every twilight, a grain offering would be made by the tabernacle priests. 

It’s almost as though what matters most about the grain offering is not what it does but rather that it’s done regularly.  What the grain offering accomplishes is not an instantaneous result but rather a sustained growth.  Its effect is cumulative.  Day after day, week after week, the people draw near to God and offer what looks like a common meal—as though to say, as often as I eat this bread, I do it in remembrance of the God who delivered us.  Indeed, in our translation there is mention of the “token portion” which is burned on the altar, but in the Hebrew the root from which this word comes is zkr, “to remember.”  The salt that is an essential ingredient builds on this idea of remembrance, reminding the worshiper that what God did, God does still.  In the ancient world, salt was thought to be nearly indestructible.  It could withstand fire and time and the elements.  Thus it was a symbol of covenant and continuity.  The salt declares that God will never forsake the worshiper, even as it calls the worshiper never to forsake God. 

The specific ingredients of the grain offering suggest one thing more about its character.  As the writer of Proverbs would say, “Oil and perfume make the heart glad” (Prov 27:9).  The oil and the frankincense that regularly accompany the grain offering suggest, then, that this is a happy, hopeful sacrifice.  Remembering God’s goodness in the past, gives the worshiper hope for the future. 

Our Rituals Today

Every day grain offerings went up in smoke at the tent of meeting.  Regularly people like you and me prepared what looked like lunch, and then took it to the altar.  What did this sacrifice do?  In the moment, perhaps nothing at all.  But over time, it was a ritual that created a new and good world, a world where people daily drew near to God, a new world where the past had a meaning and the future held new possibilities, a new world full of gifts and growth and life.

Last week in Sunday School, the question was raised: what rituals have replaced the sacrifices of old in 2019?  Traditionally Christians have answered this question with the ritual-averse response that Jesus is our sacrifice and we need no more rituals.  While this answer contains within it a kernel of truth—Jesus has indeed shown us that sacrifices themselves do not accomplish what a living sacrifice of love does—I fear that it throws the baby out with the bathwater.  Ritual is not a bad thing.  Performed in the right spirit, it is a creative, constructive thing.  It is how God recreates our world.

So what rituals do we perform today?  In our gospel text, Jesus gives us a hint.  The kingdom of God, he says, is not found in the spectacular or in grand gestures.  It’s not the kind of thing that people point to and say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!”  For in fact, it’s already here among us (Luke 17:20-21).  It’s already here in the daily and the run-of-the-mill.  The rituals of the kingdom are the little way.  They’re the little things we do repeatedly, regularly, the little things that remind us and others of what we tend to forget—that, in fact, Christ is with us in all things, that the past has been redeemed, that the future holds great promise, that this world is full of God’s grace and glory and growth and life. 

I’d like to propose that Gayton Road already practices three such rituals, three little things that constitute or create a new world.  The first ritual is the simple celebration of tables.  Not just the table here in the sanctuary, but tables everywhere—at diners and Mexican restaurants and cafes.  Tables serve as a reminder that Christ is always with us where we gather in his spirit of sharing and selflessness.  The second ritual is the gathering in small groups and the appreciation that Christ needs no special ceremony to be present, only honest and sharing hearts.  The third ritual is the outreach to the needful and the comprehension that Christ is with us in a special way when our eyes meet theirs and our hands touch theirs. 

Perhaps the kingdom of God is not so much a new world out there that will one day overtake this world here but is rather a new way of living in and seeing this world here.  Perhaps the kingdom of God is the same new world that God began to create with the Israelites in the wilderness.  Perhaps it is created or constituted by little deeds that tell a new, different story—that God draws near to us, that Christ is always with us, that love no matter how weak or foolish it seems is stronger than any force in the world. 

Oil and frankincense and salt.  Tables and small groups and the needful.  Both are rituals that, when done in the right spirit, draw us into the goodness and life of God’s new and well-ordered world. 

Prayer

Dear Christ,
May tables,
Small gatherings,
And encounters with the least and last
Be for us
Rituals of recovery.
Like the grain offering
Regularly offered at the tabernacle,
May these little things we daily do
Where we encounter you
Constitute a new and good world.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done.
Amen.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Everyone Draws Near (Leviticus 1:1-9)

(Meditation for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on September 8, 2019, Proper 18)



Hocus Pocus

As a child, I was fascinated with magic.  My family once recorded a David Copperfield magic show on television, and I would watch the show over and over again on sick days home from school. 

I learned soon enough, of course, that magic words were not enough to perform magic.  “Hocus pocus” alone wouldn’t get the job done.  Magic relied on sleight of hand and movements that I could not see.  There was a secrecy and a privilege involved in magic.  Only a select few knew all that was happening.

Interestingly enough, the words “hocus pocus” tell the story of magic’s inner circle, how only a few fortunate persons know the secret.  Historians explain that the words “hocus pocus” derive from the Latin words “hoc est corpus meum,” or “This is my body.”  In other words, long ago when the church worship service took place in Latin, a language that most churchgoers did not speak, the words that the priest spoke at communion “hoc est corpus…” were like magic.  They were the secret that only the clergy knew.  They were the magic words—the words that transformed bread into body, that made an ordinary meal into communion with God.

Historians tell us that this is not the only case where a few religious insiders held secret knowledge apart from the masses.  Rewind a couple thousand years, and the situation was similar among ancient Israel’s neighbors.  If among the Canaanites a person or a house became possessed by a demon, the priest may come and utter an incantation.  If there were a drought or a natural disaster needing remedy, the priest may pronounce certain privileged words that only priests know.  Naturally this contributed to the idea that some people were closer to God (or the gods) than others.  The more you knew, the nearer you could draw to the divine.  And so it was that the priests, who knew the most, became the inner circle.

But in ancient Israel, we see a different picture begin to emerge.

God’s First Order of Business

When the Israelites escape Egypt, they are a mess.  They have only ever known the chaos of slavery.  They don’t know what a well-ordered life looks like.  They don’t know what goodness is. 

But then amid this chaos comes the voice of God.  There in the wilderness God speaks to the Israelites.  Specifically God gives seven speeches, instructing the Israelites to build a special tent.  This seven puts us on notice that God is not just making casual conversation.  What God’s doing here is cosmic.  Just as in seven days God ordered the original chaos of the world (the tohu wa-bohu) into goodness and life, so now in seven speeches God begins reordering the world of the Israelites.  This tent represents a new order, a new chance at life.  We might call it a microcosm of the larger order of goodness and life that God intends.  If you’re going to begin reordering chaos, you have to start somewhere.  That somewhere is this tent.

That brings us to the start of Leviticus, where the first thing that happens is God speaks from the tent.  We are on the edge of our seats, wondering just how God will begin reordering the Israelites’ world.  What comes out of God’s mouth first will represent literally the first order of business in this new creation.

God with Us

Here’s what God says: “When any of you bring an offering…to the Lord” (1:2).  That sounds pretty mundane to our ears, or even primitive if we’re inclined to write off sacrificial offerings as a barbaric exchange where God’s help is bought by sacrifice.  In the Hebrew, however, it sounds revolutionary.

The first word in the Hebrew here is adam, which is the most basic word for human.  It’s a word from the creation story, when God creates adam in God’s image, male and female God creates them.  Adam is as democratic a word as you can find.  Adam means male and female, young and old, this people or that people.  Any human that walks this planet is adam.

So God’s first order of business concerns adam, or anyone.  “When adam of you”—that is, when any of you, male or female, rich or poor, Israelite or not—“brings an offering.”  And it’s here that we come across another crucial Hebrew word.  The word “offering,” qorban, derives from the Hebrew root qarav, which means “to draw near.”  In other words, an offering is fundamentally linked to drawing near to someone.  An offering means you are entering into another person’s presence.

So the very first thing God does to reorder the world of the Israelites is to say that adam, anyone, everyone, can draw near to God.  Everyone can enter into God’s presence.  The first order of this new world is that God wants to be with us.  Every year at Christmas, we celebrate Jesus with that special word Immanuel, which means “God with us.”  We see the same idea here at the beginning of Leviticus.  Before we get into all the rules and thou shalts and thou shalt nots, we hear the basic building block of this new world order: God wants to be with us.  It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done, what you look like.  God wants to be with you.  You can draw near.  And it’s an open invitation.  Everyone can draw near.

Common Worship

Now what follows next is a little gruesome to our ears.  The offering that you bring is offered as a sacrifice.  It is slaughtered, its blood dashed against the altar, its flesh cut up and arranged on the fire and burnt until nothing is left but smoke.  We won’t get into the logic of sacrifice today, but there is one critical detail in the process of sacrifice that I’d like to point out.  Who makes the sacrifice?  I always thought it was the priests.  I thought the worshiper brought the animal and then the priest did all the dirty work.  So I was surprised to learn that in fact the worshiper does almost everything.  The worshiper selects the animal, brings it to the tent, slaughters it, and cuts it up into parts for the fire.  (All I could think when I first realized this, was thank God I don’t live in ancient Israel!)

But all of this is huge, and especially in a book like Leviticus.  Leviticus gets it name from the word “Levite.”  The Levites were the tribe of Israel from which the priests came.  So Leviticus is a book that focuses on the priests and their duties in this special tent of God.  Now remember what’s happening among Israel’s neighbors.  In many other cultures, only the priests could draw near to God.  Only the priests knew the words to say and the deeds to do.  Only they had access to the “hocus pocus” of sacred moments.  But here in Leviticus, which itself focuses on priests, we see nonetheless from the very beginning that everyone draws near to God.  This truly is “common worship.”  God wants to be with everyone.  That is the first word of this new creation, the first order of business.

By the way, that reminds me of a little detail later in chapter 1, where provision is made for the persons who cannot afford an animal from the flock.  They may instead offer a turtledove or a pigeon.  The guidelines go out of their way to make sure that everyone can draw near.  (Fascinating footnote: we know Mary and Joseph must have been poor, for when they offer a sacrifice after Jesus’ birth, they choose which animals for sacrifice?  The turtledove and pigeon.  It’s as if Luke in the New Testament is making the same point.  Immanuel.  God with us.  All of us, even the poor.)

Everyone a Minister

Today our practice of faith looks rather different than it did two thousand years ago.  But underneath the obvious differences, there remains the same fundamental fabric: everyone draws near to God.  This is essentially what Jesus taught and embodied when he transformed the table into a place of communion, where the lowly were welcomed and lifted up, and sinners were welcomed and forgiven, and the broken were welcomed and blessed with healing and wholeness.  Everyone—adam—is welcome at the Jesus table.

One of the blessings and gifts of a small church, I believe, is that everyone plays a part.  I still remember the words of wisdom I received from Richard, a former Methodist minister who lived in the memory care unit at Symphony Manor.  When I asked him for advice, he said, “I always tried to find something for everyone to do.”  Which is a way of saying what Gayton Road already says: everyone here is a minister.   We all draw near to God.  And we all have gifts that draw others near to God too.

You’ll see in your bulletin today an insert about Gayton Road’s Ministry Teams.  I hope you’ll spend some time pondering and praying about your involvement in one or more of these teams.  Some of us draw nearest to Christ at tables, others in the close support of small groups, and still others in reaching out to the community.  Wherever it is that you draw near to God, I hope that it will sustain you and give you life and inspire you to share the good news of God-with-us.  I hope that it will be the first order of business in your world.  Because according to Leviticus, it is the first order of business in God’s.

Prayer

God with us,
In Christ
Who invites everyone to draw near,
We have come to know
Your unconditional welcome and love.
This communion is the first order of business
In your world.
May we so order our lives,
Sharing with others
The welcome and love we receive from you.
In Jesus, friend of sinners.  Amen.


Sunday, 1 September 2019

From Chaos to Goodness (Leviticus 1:1-2a)


(Meditation for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on September 1, 2019, Proper 17)



A Voice That Changes Everything

Our culture loves a redemption story, a story where chaos is transformed into goodness and life.  Remember the Titans, The Mighty Ducks, Mr. Holland’s Opus, even Jack Black’s School of Rock—these are just a few titles from Hollywood that reveal our love for redemption stories.  Take Remember the Titans, for instance.  When two high school football teams in Alexandria, Virginia are first integrated, they are a mess.  Players fight.  Positions on the field are contested and confused.  Everything is chaos.  But in steps coach Herman Boone, played by Denzel Washington, and his voice changes things.  In preseason, he starts with the simplest instructions.  You stand here, you stand there.  When this happens, you run this way.  When that happens, you run that way.  Like any good coach, he always encourages. “Good, very good!” 

The rest of the story is history.  This mess of players becomes a well-ordered team of champions—and all because of the voice of their coach.  Herman Boone can’t do a single thing himself.  He can’t step onto the field and catch a ball or make a tackle.  It’s all in his voice.  His words take on shape—take on flesh—in his players, who know where to stand, who know when to run, who know that their coach believes in them no matter what.

Chaos into Goodness

This classic story of chaos into goodness is as old as time itself.  Although theologians proclaim that God created everything out of nothing, that’s not quite the picture that we see in the Bible itself.  In the first verses of Genesis, this is what we hear: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was tohu wa-bohu, and darkness covered the face of the deep” (Gen 1:1-2).  Tohu wa-bohu is the Hebrew way of saying that things are a mess—“formless and void,” as the English often puts it.  The “darkness” and the “deep” attest to this chaos.  They give us the picture of a cosmic storm at sea, which is about as chaotic a situation as you can imagine.

But then there is a voice that changes everything.  God speaks.  God starts with the simplest things.  God divides light from darkness, the waters above (the blue sky) from the waters below (the blue sea), the land from the water.  Like a cosmic coach, God orders the elements into their proper place and function.  By the way, I’d like to point out that this isn’t God the dictator as much as it is God the conversation partner.  Like coaching, creation is a two-way street.  God calls out, and then the players respond.  So when God says, “Let the earth put forth vegetation” in verse 11, we hear in verse 12 that “the earth brought forth vegetation.”  The earth listens to God and respectfully responds.  And there is always the encouraging word at the end of the day, “And God saw that it was good.” 

So it is that chaos slowly becomes goodness and life and diversity and collaboration.  Not through God intruding and doing it Godself, but through a voice.  “In the beginning was the word” (John 1:1).  God’s word takes on flesh in the elements of creation.

At the Beck and Call of Pharaoh

If you’ve ever coached before, or taught or parented, you know that chaos is a wild and unruly thing.  You may be able to instill order for a day, but there’s no guarantee that tomorrow your players or students or children don’t rebel.  There’s no guarantee that chaos will not return.

The same goes for creation.  Through God’s voice, God has transformed chaos into goodness and life.  But those unruly elements—that tohu wa-bohu—are not gone.  In time, chaos returns.  We see this in stories like the flood and the tower of Babel.  When the creatures of the earth transgress the limits that have been set for them, when they do not stay in their proper place and fulfill their proper function, chaos threatens to return and undo the goodness and life for which God has called.

At the beginning of Leviticus, the Lord “summons” Moses.  That word “summons” contains within it a dark history.  If we explore its similar usage in previous stories, we find that there is another character who regularly summoned Moses: Pharaoh in Egypt.  The word “summons” reminds us that Moses and the Israelites were not long ago living in slavery.  It reminds us that their history is one of chaos.  When you live at the beck and call of an oppressor, your life has no real order: your time, your space, your actions are all subject to the whims of another person. 

The word “summons” reminds us that Moses and the Israelites have only ever known the chaos of slavery.  They have lived in one of those times when God’s good creation has unraveled and chaos has reigned.  They don’t know what a well-ordered life looks like.  They don’t know what goodness really is.

A New Creation

That brings us to the start of Leviticus.  Moses and the Israelites are in the wilderness.  Behind them is the chaos of Egypt.  In front of them is a new possibility.

You might recall that when God delivers the Israelites from Egypt, he separates the waters of the sea so that they might escape.  That separation of waters is an image that recalls the creation of the world, when God separated the waters above from the waters below and the sea from the dry land.  We might say, then, that the splitting of the sea foreshadows a new creation.

Just a little while later, the Israelites construct a special tent called the tabernacle.  God gives them instructions how to build it.  Not only that, but God’s instructions occur in seven different speeches and his final speech concerns the Sabbath day of rest.  If you’ll remember, that’s the same pattern we see in creation: seven days of speech; the final day, a day of rest.  Again we have a hint that God is working on a new creation.  This tabernacle is the start of something new, a reordering of the Israelites’ lives.  It is a step away from the chaos of Egypt into the goodness and life that God desires.

This helps to explain some of the oddities and strangeness of Leviticus.  When most people think of Leviticus and all its laws about what happens in and around this tent, they think of blood and animal sacrifices, laws about cleanness and uncleanness, about what you can and can’t eat, what you can touch and what you should avoid.  It seems outdated and barbaric.

And in some ways, it is.  Of course it is.  It’s a text written over two thousand years ago.  But if we read it in its context, we see that God is addressing a people who have lived in chaos.  Just as a coach’s voice instills order in his team, so here in the tent God speaks to these former slaves about the basics of life, like how you eat, how you treat your neighbor, how you speak, how you organize your time and space.  That’s essentially what all the instructions in Leviticus are about.  It’s the basics that are important to God when shaping chaos into order and goodness and life.  (Remember creation?  It begins with the simplest of distinctions: light and dark, sky and earth, land and water.)  If you’re familiar with the process of addiction and recovery, you’ll see a strong parallel here.  Establishing boundaries and habits and routines can be the difference between life and death.   Or we can return to the coaching metaphor.  It’s the little things that matter: where a player stands, when they run, what direction they’re facing.

The Gospel of Leviticus

The beginning of Leviticus is gospel.  It’s good news.  It proclaims that creation is not just something that happened in the beginning, and God’s left things to run their course for better or worse.  Rather, the God whose voice drew goodness and life from the chaos of tohu wa-bohu, still calls today in our world.

I mentioned last week the idea that you and I are both entering a sort of wilderness.  If life feels a little messy, a little confused, then at least we’re in good company.  That’s where the Israelites were.

What they heard in that mess was a voice speaking to them about the basics.  Food.  Family.  Neighbors.  Finances.  The little things that make a big difference.

I wonder what the basics are for the church.  I wonder what the little things are that make a big difference.  I wonder how God is calling the church.  (Personally, as I ponder this question, I wonder if God’s call to the church has to do with the same Word God spoke from the beginning: if it has to do with Jesus the friend of sinners and a table and a scandalously diverse fellowship.)

Whatever the call is, we may trust that it is ordering the chaos of our world into a new creation.  And we may trust that responding to it will draw us into God’s order of goodness and life.

Prayer

Creator God,
Whose word went out
Into chaos
And drew forth
Goodness and life:
Help us to hear your word today.
Where life feels like a mess,
Help us to begin with the basics
From which your blessing flows.
In Christ, the living Word: Amen.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

A Simple Way (Luke 24:13-35)

(Meditation for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on August 25, 2019, Proper 16)



What Is a Christian?

A pastor friend of mine, David, shared with me recently a story about an event early in his ministry.  He was the director of a L’Arche community in India.  A L’Arche community is where folks with and without intellectual disabilities live and grow together in friendship as peers. 

One year while he was director, David had a handful of persons at the community who wanted to become followers of Christ.  He dutifully led them through a year of training.  They read Bible stories together.  They prayed together.  They worshiped together.

After a year, the bishop visited to meet with the candidates for baptism.  He was there to determine whether they were ready to become Christian.

Now the persons whom David had been training all had intellectual disabilities.  Their social mode of interaction was not verbal but more fundamental.  It had to do with things like eye contact and touch and bodily gestures.

So when the bishop met with them and asked the question, “What is a Christian?” they did not respond with answers that the bishop was used to hearing.  They did not respond, “A Christian believes that Jesus is the son of God.”  Nor did they say, “A Christian is one who is saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.”  They did not respond with words at all.

My friend, David, confesses that he was nervous when the bishop asked this question.  Would his candidates fail this test because they could not verbalize their faith in the traditional way?

But what happened next left David and the bishop speechless.  One of the candidates left the room.  In tense silence, everyone waited. 

Then a moment later he returned carrying a basin of water and a towel. 

He knelt down before the bishop.  Untied his shoes.  Washed his feet.  And dried them with the towel. 

Then he looked up into the bishop’s eyes and smiled—as if to say, that is what a Christian is.

Start at the Table

What surprises me most from today’s scripture is how the two disciples recognize Jesus.  It’s not by his appearance.  They walk beside him for nearly a full day but do not recognize him.  It’s not by his words or his theology.  He talks to them and interprets scripture to them in a way that is surely unique and authoritative.  Yet still they do not recognize him.

What opens the eyes of the disciples to see Jesus is something simple and wordless.  It’s when Jesus takes bread, blesses it, and breaks it.  Suddenly they know.

It’s worth noting that these two disciples are not of the original twelve.  They did not sit in on that last supper when Jesus broke bread.  But in the world of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is so closely identified with the table that that is how everyone recognizes him.  This is the man who broke bread and split the fish among five thousand.  This is the man who ate with sinners and tax collectors.  This is the man who ate with Zacchaeus.  This is the man who ate with the prostitute and forgave her.

That these two disciples recognize Jesus not on the road nor in his theological discourse but in the breaking of bread, is almost as if Luke is saying, Jesus is found not in a familiar and comfortable face nor in the correct doctrine and theology.  Jesus is found in bread broken and given for all, a body broken and given for all.  If you want to know who Jesus is, if you want to follow him, then start at the table.  Because that is where we see him clearest.  That is where we recognize him.

Eating in the Kingdom

As I meditate on this moment in Jesus’ life and on the story I shared previously from my pastor friend David, I can’t help but wonder if church is much simpler than we sometimes make it out to be.  In today’s world, there is a lot of conversation about how to revitalize church.  Some people advocate for more programs that appeal to the surrounding neighborhoods, or for a more attractive worship style.  Other folks say the church needs to be more rigorous in maintaining the correct doctrine. 

Today’s scripture suggests it’s simpler than all that.  To be followers of Christ is to break bread and share it. It is to break bread with fellow sinners—no matter their creed or color, orientation or otherwise—and to celebrate the good news that God loves us and has reconciled us and is stronger than all the forces of death. 

I’m fascinated by the gospel of Luke’s insistence that the resurrected Jesus shared meals with his followers, as in today’s scripture.  This fascinates me because at the last supper Jesus makes a promise.  He says that he will not eat at the table again nor drink of the fruit of the vine until he does so in the kingdom of God (cf. Luke 22:14-23).  Which is to suggest, these meals he shares afterward are in fact a fulfillment of his words.  The kingdom of God has arrived.  And that’s precisely what Jesus preached earlier when he told his disciples that the kingdom of God would not come with “things that can be observed”—with great spectacle and pageantry—but rather that it’s already here among us (cf. Luke 17:20-21).

The kingdom of God is already here, wherever bread is broken among sinners and love is shared and life prevails over the forces of death.  I wonder if it’s more than coincidence that the sense of call we shared a couple of years ago—to share the life of faith around tables, in small groups, and with the needful—is on full display in today’s scripture, where the risen Christ appears with a small group of needful travelers at the table.   For it’s in these three places (and they often overlap) that we encounter the risen Christ.  In these places, we experience the kingdom of God. 

How Can We Share?

In the end, I believe that the conversation should not be about what the church needs, but about what the world needs.  And I believe that what the world needs is what we see in the Jesus whom we follow.  It’s not programs and things to do.  It’s not proper theology and doctrine.  What the world needs is simpler: a table where fellow sinners are welcome, bread is broken, God’s love is shared, and life prevails over the forces of death.

I wonder how many people really know about this Jesus.  I wonder how many people know about his table.  I wonder how we can share the good news.

Prayer

Companion Christ,
Who shows us
What love looks like:
Inspire us
To walk
In your simple way,
That we  and others
Might break bread together
And share with you
The everlasting life of God’s kingdom
Here and now.
Amen.


Sunday, 18 August 2019

A Stranger in His Own House (Luke 15:1-2, 11-32)

(Meditation for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on August 18, 2019, Proper 15)



A Homecoming Story

The story of the prodigal son is a homecoming story.  I imagine that it resonates so well with us because we all long for home, for the place where we belong without having to live up to any image, where we are welcomed without having to prove our worth, where we are embraced for who we are.

I imagine it resonates so well with us because we can all identify with the younger son who forsakes home in pursuit of the world’s attractions: wealth, pleasure, prestige.  We have all looked for love and life in the wrong places.  We have all taken a hard knock or two at some point and said to ourselves, “I’ve got to turn around.”

But when Jesus tells this story, he is not addressing the waywardness of his crowd.  He’s not on the street preaching judgment on the debauchery of his world.  He’s not calling, “Sinner, come home.”  When Jesus tells this story, he’s preaching to the choir, so to speak.  He’s addressing the Pharisees and the scribes, which is to say, he’s speaking to folks like you and me—folks who read scripture and pray, folks who go to worship every week and participate in various ministries.  The Pharisees and the scribes were the religious insiders of the day.  If they get a bad rep, then we should be extra cautious about judging them—for they are the ancient equivalent of us.  What we say about them, might well be said about us.

Outside Looking In

When he hears music and dancing, the elder son knows something’s up.  He asks one of the workers what’s going on and learns that his brother is home and his father is throwing a party.  He becomes indignant and refuses to join the celebration.

We’ve heard the story so many times that we may lose sight of a simple fact: by the logic of our world, the older brother’s anger is justified.  How many prodigal sons and daughters of our world have come home to find the door more or less closed in their faces?  I remember once going to a wedding where the sister of the groom was consistently excluded from his family’s pictures.  She had fallen into drugs and the wrong crowd in high school.  Whether from shame or a sense of punishment, the family would not welcome her in its joy.

The tragedy of the older brother, which is also the tragedy of the Pharisees and the scribes, is alienation.  Notice the words that the older brother uses to describe his relationship with his father and his brother.  To his father, he says, “I have been working like a slave for you.”  He sees his father as a slave-owner.  He sees their relationship in terms of work and reward.  About his brother, he says, “This son of yours…who has devoured your property with prostitutes.”  In other words, he may be your son but I wouldn’t stoop to call him brother.  He’s a sinner, for God’s sake.

And so it is that the “faithful” son, the one who has remained home all these years, working hard in the field, is a stranger in his own house.  The last we see of him in the story leaves us with a striking image: he is outside his home looking in, bitter and resentful.

What drives home the tragedy of the older brother, is that the feast inside is as much for him as it is for his brother.  His father clearly loves him just the same.  Just as the father runs out to meet his younger son, so he also comes out to plead with his older son.  Just as he insists on welcoming the prodigal as a dear son, so he greets his elder: “Son,” teknon in the Greek, an affectionate form of address.  He does not defend himself against his elder son’s complaints but cuts straight to what matters: his love for him too.  “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (15:31).[1] 

What keeps the older brother on the outside looking in, what keeps him alienated and a stranger in his own house, are the same things that threaten to alienate us today from the beloved community that God desires.  Independence and the insistence that everyone is capable of pulling themselves up by their own bootstrap are what alienate the older brother, who essentially says, “I’ve been doing this all my life.  Why couldn’t he?”  Achievement and due reward are what alienate the brother, who essentially says, “I’ve earned this, but he definitely hasn’t.”  Honor and status are what alienate the brother, who essentially says, “I’ve enhanced your name, but he’s disgraced it.”  These things may all be true by the logic of the world, but by the logic of the kingdom they are what keep us apart from others.  They are what keep our world fractured and frozen.

Our Home?

And so it is that I wonder about the church today.  In a world where the gap between rich and poor grows wider and wider, where the political rhetoric becomes more and more divisive, how the church responds to those who are different can either deepen or diminish the division in the world.  We can ministers of reconciliation, or we can be complicit in the world’s division. 

The temptation of our world is alienation.  It’s toward writing other people off, reducing them to stereotypes.  It’s toward saying, those folks are godless, they’re socialists, they’re right-wing extremists, they’re poor and too lazy to get help, they’re rich and ignorant, they’re Muslim or Jewish.

But by the logic of the kingdom, more important than any of that is that “they” are God’s children.  The table that we gather around every week is not a table for a privileged few who’ve got the right doctrine or done the right deeds.  It’s for everyone.

That’s why for me, our Sunday sojourns this summer have been so meaningful.  As we have broken bread with memory care residents and the homeless and hungry folks of our community, we have lived into the beauty of this story.  We have discovered, perhaps, what home really is.

Prayer

Tender Father and Mother of us all,
Who comes out to us
When we are alienated,
Whether by wealth or success
Or spiritual entitlement:
We hear your words this morning,
“Son, Daughter, you are always with me,
All that is mine is yours.”
May we find our home
With long-lost brothers and sisters
Around your table.
In Christ, whose love saves us.  Amen.



[1] Several of the insights from this meditation have come from Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: DoubleDay, 1994), 77-88.


Sunday, 4 August 2019

Would They Say No to a Table? (Luke 14:1-14)

(Meditation for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on August 4, 2019, Proper 13)



This Table Is a Trap

Tables are all over the gospel of Luke.  More often than not, they’re where we find Jesus.  And they’re where others find acceptance, forgiveness, healing, and transformation.  It’s no surprise that on more than one occasion, Jesus uses the table as a metaphor for the kingdom of God.  

But today the table is a trap.  Previously Jesus has dined twice with Pharisees.  At the last meal, he upsets his hosts.  He rebukes them for following the letter of the law while disregarding its spirit.  He tells them that the life they are living is a sort of death.  They’re missing out on the stuff that matters.  It’s not a surprise when Luke tells us that at the end of the meal, the Pharisees become hostile toward Jesus and begin to lie in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say (11:53-54). 

That forewarning brings us to today’s meal, which happens at “the house of a leader of the Pharisees.”  Today the table is a trap.

Seated around Jesus are a host of lawyers and Pharisees and then a person who sticks out like a sore thumb: the man with dropsy.  Dropsy here refers to the condition in which a person’s thirst is never satisfied.  As a result of excessive drinking, the body commonly becomes swollen.  Religious folks in Jesus’ day would have considered dropsy the result of sin.  They would have disdained such a person.  They would likely have considered him both ritually and morally impure.  So it is a real surprise that this distinguished gathering of religious leaders have invited him to their table.

But then, that’s all part of the plan.  Because today the table is a trap.

It is the sabbath, the day of rest.  Rumor is that Jesus does not always observe the sabbath.  Not long before this gathering, he had infuriated a synagogue leader by healing a crippled woman on the sabbath.  What disrespect for God and God’s day of rest, the synagogue leader had exclaimed; could he not have healed her on any of the other six days of the week?

And thus the trap.  This group of religious leaders wants to see this sacrilege with their own eyes.  They want to expose Jesus for the lawless troublemaker that he really is.

But the opposite happens.  Jesus exposes them—for their heartlessness.  In silence, he heals the man with dropsy and sends him away.  (This table, after all, is not truly a place of welcome to the afflicted man.  It was merely a stage and he merely a prop.)  Then Jesus asks a rhetorical question that reveals the hearts of his critics.  They would help one of their animals on the sabbath, would they not?  Why not one of their fellow men?

Jesus Turns the Tables

And so it is that this table, which begins as a trap, has now become a tutorial for what tables look like in the kingdom of God.  Jesus has turned the tables, so to speak.  Jesus transforms the table from a place of power and exclusion to a place of grace and welcome.

In the ancient world, tables were effectively a social boundary.  Rich people ate with rich people.  Poor people ate with poor people.  Honorable people ate with honorable people.  Sinners ate with sinners.  Religious folks kept this boundary better than most.  There kept all sorts of rules, spoken and unspoken.  They kept rules of ritual cleanliness, moral purity, and social standing.  And these rules kept tables divided.

What you did not do in the ancient world was mix different groups of people at the table.  Instead individuals could try to climb the ladder.  In other words, if you wanted to sit at the top tables, if you wanted to have a seat of honor, you had to earn it.  You had to rub the right shoulders, you had to keep up a certain appearance, you had to say and do the things that would give you honor.  This is what Jesus is talking about when he tells the parable of taking a seat at a banquet.  Everyone, he says, is trying to exalt themselves.  But the game is rigged.  You’ll never be satisfied.  In the end, you’re always humbled. 

So Jesus advocates the opposite tack.  Humble yourself at tables.  More specifically, when you give a lunch or dinner of your own, don’t invite your friends or family, which is to say, don’t invite people in your own group.  That just preserves the status quo.  It is a never-ending cycle, wherein I invite my friends, my friends return the favor and invite me, and so on.  The kingdom of God will never arrive that way.

Instead invite the folks who cannot repay you, Jesus urges.  Invite the down-and-outs, the excluded, the folks who have fallen on hard times.  Why?  They will be lifted up, and so you will you. 

The Homogenous Unit Principle

It is a glimpse of the kingdom: rich and poor, sinners and saints, sitting together at the table.

I imagine it’s an ideal that many of us appreciate.  It’s something to which we could easily say, “Amen.”  When I first read this story, I struggled to connect it to our experience.  After all, we do not practice the same exclusionary tactics that the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day did.  (Although I should hasten to add that not all Pharisees looked the same.  In the story right before today’s story, a group of Pharisees warns Jesus that Herod wants to kill him.) 

We do not set up a “you must be this tall” yardstick at our sanctuary door to exclude persons on the basis of social status or religion or nationality.  We do not put barriers around the table, for we recognize it is the Lord’s table and thus bears his invitation, not ours.  The challenge for the church is not, “How do we stop being exclusive?”

For the church the challenge is a little less obvious.  We don’t actively exclude.  It’s just that churches tend to clump together in groups that look the same.  In fact, this reflects what used to be a principle of church planting: “the homogenous unit” principle.  It was basically the idea that it’s easier for folks to become Christians if there are fewer social barriers for them to cross, such as class, race, or language.  Martin Luther King, Jr., once observed the homogenous unit principle in action when he declared that 11 o’clock on Sunday is the most segregated hour in our nation.  His insight addressed more than race.  Studies suggest that churches also segregate along lines of wealth and education.  In short, we tend to worship with people who are like us. 

Just Think of a Table

But this is the opposite of what Jesus advocates.  While the world feels most comfortable in socially reciprocal relationships—it operates more or less on the “homogenous unit” principle—Jesus envisions a kingdom that is socially topsy-turvy. He anticipates a banquet where social reciprocity is not what unites us, but instead radical grace and welcome.  What unites a Jesus table is the belief that everyone is blessed and beloved by God and belongs at the table.  So a Jesus table is filled with folks from all different backgrounds, rich and poor, saints and sinners, a hodgepodge that transcends the rule of social reciprocity.

The challenge for us, then, is how can we begin to see the church as more than just a gathering of familiar faces, more than a gathering of old friends? How can we begin to see the church not as a gathering meant for us, but a gathering meant for others, especially those who are hurting?

I don’t think it’s a complete coincidence that Jesus issues this challenge with the image of a table. 

How can we imagine a church with more than just the same old faces? 

Just think of a table, Jesus says.

You’ve heard me dream about tables before.  Today’s scripture rekindles the dream.  A growing number of our neighbors, many of them the needful whom Jesus describes, would not darken the door of a church.  Maybe they feel they would be out of place.  Maybe they have other reasons. 

But what about a table?  Would they say no to food?  Would they say no to being embraced, no strings attached?  Would they say no to stories of hope, songs of joy, people who cared for them and prayed for them?  Would they say no to a table?  (I recently heard a Mexican-American pastor put it this way: To build trust, “you need a table with food on it and you need a lot of time.”[1])

It’s a far cry from a traditional worship service.  But it’s not far at all from Jesus, who is the good news that our neighbors may need to hear.  I hope you’ll humor me this dream and perhaps consider it yourself as the church continues to reflect on its calling and purpose in the world today. 

Prayer

Dear Christ,
Who welcomes us
As brothers and sisters
Just as we are,
Whose love
Draws us into
Who we are becoming:
May we as your body
In turn show your welcome and grace
To those outside our circle,
Especially the needful.
Amen.




[1] Bekah McNeel, “Latino Immigrants Are Evangelizing America,” https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/july/hispanic-church-planting-survey-immigration-evangelism.html, accessed July 29, 2019.