Celebration of Life – Arthur (“Art” “Peewee”) Taylor

*Memorial service for Arthur (“Art” “Peewee”) Taylor, was conducted at First Christian Church of Hampton VA, on Tuesday, 14 May, prior to our weekly “Welcome Table” meal.  Art was one of our regulars, a part of the community that gathers for a meal… and finds friendship across all the lines.  We cherished him and we miss him.  A gentle spirit; always with a smile. – Vinson

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First Letter of John 4:7-16 (New Revised Standard Version)

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.  By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.  God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.  So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.  God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

II Corinthians 5:14-17 (New Revised Standard Version)

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,[c]we know him no longer in that way.  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Gospel of John 14:1-3 (New Revised Standard Version)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

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INTRODUCTION

We have no choice but acknowledge that death is present in life.  It leaves us confused at best or hurt at worst.  An absence is now keenly felt on Tuesday evenings at our Welcome Table, where Art was among those who called him friend.

Art had a fall.  A number of them.  Somewhere along the way there was an intercranial bleed.  It wasn’t discovered until he collapsed in a doctor’s office.  Attempts to save him would eventually prove fruitless.  Such medical facts we may well protest with the question: “Why?”  I know I have at times reflected back on the many times I was the chaplain in an Emergency Room and ICUs where tragedy was a common occurrence.  So often I was asked “Why?”  Why did this happen?

WHY I BRING THIS UP

It’s a question among the faithful as old as the patriarch’s in the Book of Genesis.  It’s as old as when King Josiah, one of the really few “good” kings to rule Israel, died suddenly.  Everyone went looking for a satisfactory answer.  None were to be found.  It doesn’t make sense when a “good” man dies, although there is, to quote Ecclesiastes, a “season for everything.”

FOR INSTANCE

So, when we hurt and ask why, we’re actually asking a question of justice.  We cannot see why a particular person had merited death, regardless of age.  Circumstances only catch us more off guard.  It doesn’t seem right and we protest death.

I have to think that even were we to be assured that we had the right logical and scriptural answer to “Why did this happen?” – we would still be left wanting.  God knows this too.  Nothing makes what we view as an untimely death, acceptable in our hearts and minds.  That is the nature of grief.  That is normal for people.  It is often wrestled with in the pages of the Bible.  Some more quickly than others will work through the spiritual wrestling and prayer that grants peace.  Yet, the perplexing loss of a friend remains an individual journey for each of us for which we cannot be hard upon ourselves.

The hands of the clock have moved.  We stand at a new place in time, one not of our choosing.  We may find a kinship in the words of the ancient Israelites.  They found themselves living in exile, having been carried off by the Babylonians, following the conquest of Israel.  In Psalm 137, they ask the most essential question of now: “How can we sing a new song in this land?”

That, my friends, is the crux of any death that touches our spirits.  How do we go forward, exiled from a future that no longer exists?

We are advised in God’s word that “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself” [Romans 14:7].  I have thought about hospital visits at an earlier time, just as much as sitting down to dinner with Art and Nancy and friends scattered across the tables.  I found myself with a man whose countenance was peaceful, smiling, interested in others, considerate, humble.  I have wondered what shaped his life’s outlook.  Was it was how he was raised.  Did he drew lessons from his time serving in the Army?  Was he befriended and mentored amid the shipbuilding environment that he made his career?  Did he find something among friends in his later years/  Was it being around Nancy?  Did the faith in Christ long woven in him shape him this way?  I suspect it is all of those things and much more.

What we do know is that each person is unique in God’s creation.

What we do know that each person who accepts Jesus Christ is gifted by the Spirit.  That giftedness is a way of being and serving in the world in relationship with others.  It is a way of remembering what drew the disciples of John to Jesus wasn’t his words.  They had not heard them.  It was his deeds.  We all notice WHAT people do.  We notice HOW they treat others.  We notice the WAY they are present in life.  Your presence here celebrates that truth about Art, and about all people.

What we do know is that each person is a part of our journey.  Some leave us with a voice, a perspective, or sometimes something just as simple as a gentle smile like the photo on the bulletin.  They become an image, an icon, in our hears and minds.  They point to the One who gives us breath.  Maybe that image helps us in the critical moment when we are scattered in thinking.  Or, when we are sad or needing to be grounded amid anxiety.  I would submit that Art and others whose spirits are woven into the better part of our lives, offer us such.  Insight.  Behavior.  Perspective.  A gift of kind or presence.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here.  Know it or not, we integrate that which others bring into our own way of being in life.  This is even more true when we walk in fellowship with one another and Christ.

What we do know how many friends we’ve lost over the years.  Some much older.  Some much younger.  Yet each is a teacher in some way to us.  It’s what has made us better persons in this world.  It’s the images or voices of counsel that come to mind when we need to go in a better direction.  We hear the Apostle John’s words encouraging us to “love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”  They remind us of the greatness of that which seems the smallest thing of all when we offer it:  the kindness of loving one another.  John, who wrote those words, was the last of the Apostles to die.  In his final years he was crippled by a stroke.  Unable to walk, he was carried on a chair into church.  Unable to easily speak, he still spoke from his heart saying over and over: “Little children, love one another.”  Whether one is of many or few words, that’s how we speak Life to one another.

SO WHAT?

The only question left to us is: What of who Art was among us, will we choose to carry forward in us?  What is it that we saw in Art that we want to remind ourselves to do likewise?  What in Art we would want in us – to witness to our Creating God and Redeeming Christ?

I once knew a young man who died way too young.  Along the way had tattooed upon his arm the phrase “Life goes on.”  No one knew why he chose those life-affirming words as his personal motto.  Yet, I suggest they answer our question, as much as the Psalmist.  As the Psalmist sat by the waters of Babylon, he asked: “How shall we sing a new song in this foreign land, this new experience?”  It to asks of ourselves, if we would honor Art…

How can we be an encouragement to the next person…

How can we laugh deeply when the opportunity arises…

How can we to embrace life in all of its seasons.

Until such the day we are caught up in heaven and meet again, may the grace of our Lord hold Art in eternity and us in hope.

Amen.

“Eyes of a Gazelle, Heart of God”

 

pptF9B.pptm - AutoRecovered*Sermon preached on 12 May 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  If we are to understand what “being” church… the body of Christ… is amid this world, there is no better place to start than the Book of Acts.  We are in a changing season, a time when the Church is sometimes far removed from the spirit that draws people into relationship, with one another and with Christ.  We should be asking ourselves how the “way” of Jesus exploded across the Roman Empire, in spite of agressive efforts to stamp it out.  It wasn’t just “know the Lord” that brought people, and certainly not the desire to be persecuted.  It was what they saw in the believers.  THAT is what we must ponder if we are to witness in our own age.  So… start with Acts!  – Vinson

Book of Acts 9:36-43 (New Revised Standard Version)

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas.  She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.  At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.  Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”  So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs.  All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.  Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed.  He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.”  Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.  He gave her his hand and helped her up.  Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.  This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.  Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

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INTRODUCTION

As we continue through the Book of Acts, discerning what “Church” is for the community of Christ followers, and what that means for us today as we seek to be “church,” we are brought to the telling of the death and the life restored, of Tabitha, by Peter.  Mourning her loss.  Celebrating her life.  The most concrete reminders of her life being how she made and clothed those who were the marginalized of the time.  The tension mimics the words of Ecclesiastes [3:1-4] that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:  a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”  Dance, is, of course, the last word, to we who are a resurrection people, in the reign of Christ Jesus.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

So it seems that the timing of today’s lesson feels appropriate to frame the week we have ahead, as we look to the welfare of one another in the shadows and in the sunshine, within our community gathered in Jesus’ name.  But, I suppose there is always an element of that on Mother’s Day, which brings a mix of emotions that varies by life history.

FOR INSTANCE

In approaching the passage from the Book of Acts today, I find myself reminded not so much of my Mother’s abilities as a seamstress, but the only reality TV show my family’s found worth watching:  “Project Runway.”  We’re somewhat addicted to it, even our son watches, as each season starts off with a new group of fashion designers, each with his or her own flair, making their way through thematic design challenges for unusual occasions or using unusual materials.  Yeah, there is a bit of behind the scenes drama sometimes between people, but it is just fascinating as to what they come up with, and yes, how they help each other with insight and sometimes labor.  Always, under a severe time constraint as they work, most of the time we find ourselves stunned with the creativity and detail, right down to the stitching that says something tangible about the personality of the designer and his or her care about making clothes for normal people.

Apparently, if Luke’s words in the Book of Acts are to be taken at face value, Tabitha would have done very well in “Project Runway” – because she took the time and her means to make clothes that spoke to the worthiness of each person in the sight of God – the widows and others who lacked economic means to clothe themselves.  These were no hand-me-downs, but custom made to give light and life to each life troubled by loss and economic stress.  It is, I have to think, the same spirit that guides us when we feed people at the Welcome Table – as we ensure meals are the best of home cooking on a large scale.  After all, even if sometimes we might wonder how it will come together, the careful design of each meal honors the worthiness of each who partakes.  Adding to it, of course, is their experience of being waited upon and served – with a love and respect akin to that which Jesus showed for his disciples when he washed their feet.

As always, scripture speaks in silence as much as words.  Luke doesn’t say Peter or some other disciple, converted Tabitha, but presents her as already being a disciple.  I think it not unreasonable to suggest, she had her own encounter with Jesus during his three years of crisscrossing Judea and Galilee.

Then, in Acts 9:36, her discipleship was given definition by the acts of loving kindness by which she is known, imitating Christ by her love for those whom he loves.  We know those hands which have surrounded us or others with love… that have clothed… or fed… or encouraged… or in any number of ways – made Christ visible.

But then, Tabitha dies.

It strikes the community with as much anguish as if our guests suddenly found themselves with no Welcome Table, no place to experience hospitality and develop friendships.  With her death, it’s as if people came up to Peter showing photos of the meals they had eaten here, of their friends at table, and pleading for him to do something – pleading for restoration of a life that gives hope.

Given the custom of burial by sundown, with ten miles separating the two small cities – a three or four hour journey for the messengers to Peter and his travel to Joppa, we know Peter would have had to rush.  Traveling in increasingly less Jewish and more Gentile locales, with Joppa itself  primarily a Greek city in this timeframe, Peter enters a semi-chaotic scene amid weeping widows and others as “they showed the tunics and other clothing” that Tabitha had made for them.  Keep in mind, in that age property of the husband went to any sons, or back to his family; there was no right of survivorship, like we know.  The focus was on just surviving, so the spiritual impact of being properly clothed in such a way that one could be seen as a person worthy of respect, simply cannot be overstated.

Literally named a “female disciple” in the original Greek text, the only time this word is used in Acts, Luke makes clear she is no ordinary follower.  If the male disciples of Acts 6 are spoken of as filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom, her spirit is abundant with good works and alms.

Her name, given in both in the Aramaic spoken throughout Judea and the common Greek pervasive throughout the Roman world, was likely not her birth name, but the name that had been given her because of her character, a name meaning Gazelle.  An animal of grace and quick movement, it is known for its watchfulness in that it sleeps – literally! — with one eye open, and for having keen eyesight that puts one in mind of how Proverbs 22:9 puts it, those who have “…a good eye will be blessed, for [they] shares [their] bread with the poor,” and if, as Jesus said, “your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light” [Matthew 6:22].

Tabitha has an eye for people.

Luke holds her up as not just a committed Christian, but as a person of some status and importance in the Joppa Christian community – every bit as much as Priscilla would become in the Roman community of believers.

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of it all?

I think the temptation that is present is that we can put people up on pedestals so high that we forget that at the end of the day – we’re all human beings.  Disciples are ordinary people who live out an extraordinary love, one which compels those who live in the “way, the truth, and the life” of Jesus – to care about the wholeness of others’ lives – hearts, minds, and bodies.  Tabitha was just such a disciple.  She lived in the way of Jesus… simply, mercifully, and justly – as a gifted servant and craftswoman – a normal human being – whose extraordinary care and creativity was in seeing Christ in the “least of these” in society.  This is our high calling.

Perhaps as well this story asks us to ponder the challenge in doing good, especially works of charity and mercy, is sometimes feeling like you’re at the bottom end of a stream, pulling people out, with acts of justice akin to going upstream to the other end to stop whoever is throwing them in.  Either way, fatigue can enter in, raising the question of whether we, like Tabitha, may seemingly run out of life and energy to do the great work.

As those who seek to be not simply hearers of His word, but doers as well, in this life of love… of service… of mercy and justice, we don’t have a Peter among to raise us up.  We have the Table of the Lord.

We have been made an Easter people, here we gather in the grace of our Lord, to be equipped in common love, fed for the journey, and blessed with life-affirming and sustaining grace.

Amen.

“You Want Me to Do What, God?!”

pptF9B.pptm  -  AutoRecovered.jpg*Sermon preached on 05 May 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton.  As we continue to look at what being “church” really means, let’s be honest with ourselves.  Do we want to take comfort in being a people of a noun (“Christian”) or a people of a verb by accepting those folks we don’t want Jesus to accept, because we don’t.  It is our first witness in an age when the faith is held suspect by skeptics because those speak of following in the “way” of Jesus… aren’t.  – Vinson

Book of Acts 9:1-20 (New Revised Standard Version)

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.  Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  He asked, “Who are you, Lord?”  The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”  The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.  Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.  For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.  Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”  The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul.  At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”  But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”  But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”   So Ananias went and entered the house.  He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.  Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.  For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

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INTRODUCTION

Sometimes, if we are honest, sometimes we push back against the vision God has for us, like the Biblical Jonah who had no intention of going to Nineveh, considering the people there detestable and unworthy of salvation.  He would find himself there before it was all over.  In the same way, when we listen to the reading from the Book of Acts, we read how Ananias is asked by God in a vision to go to this man Saul – a man already well-known and just as much feared, in the early Christian community.

Ananias’ reaction could be best summed up as “You want me to do WHAT, God?!”

Are you serious?  This guy is terrible!  Ananias pushes back against God with a not unreasonable objection to the instruction of the vision.  After all, he has already heard all he needs to know about this man Saul.  Word of his ensuring the brutal execution of the first martyr, Stephen, and his imprisonment of believers had traveled to Damascus.  How can God send Ananias to such a person?

God doesn’t argue with Ananias, but simply repeats “GO.”  And, oh, by the way, Saul has been chosen to be “my chosen instrument.”

WHY I BRING THIS UP

One could say that this is a “rubber meets the road” passage.  Do we believe in what we are selling – Jesus – or not?  But I think it’s more complex that just overcoming fear… but taking in what really makes church – “church.”

FOR INSTANCE

If Acts is where we start, even if in Acts 11:26 it’s recounted that it was at Antioch where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.”  A noun.   What’s easy to miss is that prior being known as “Christians,” they were know by a verb – known for their following in “the Way” of Jesus.

One is a name.  The other is what one’s doing.

It seems to me that the “doing” is what Jesus was actually teaching, and what caught fire in people.  Thus, rather than being identified by a name and its attendant defined set of beliefs – not that there weren’t clear beliefs – these communities were instead known by their character in the world… How they expressed their faith in Jesus Christ.  How they lived in the “Way” that defined their relationship with God and one another.  They held tightly to love, support, belonging, and mutual respect.

It would appear that what people and churches apart is indeed their character.  In essence, how do values… beliefs coalesce in the nature of the person… or an organization?  Faith.  Integrity.  Love in word and deed for others.  Courage, and so forth.  The marks… the fruits of the spirit visible.  No wonder that Paul would later write in his First Letter to the Corinthians, the 13th chapter, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”  It is coming to people without any agenda other than to receive them as they are and to love them as they desire to be loved.  Resting in the safety of that, they begin to be transformed.

Paul was talking character.

Character defined the followers of Jesus.  It still does, for better or worse.

But it isn’t static.  It can change.  That is the message of the Gospel.

At the earlier point, when he was still known as Saul, the first time we hear about him, in Acts 7:58, Luke recounts how he stood guard over the coats of those who were preparing to brutally execute Stephen – the first Christ follower to die.  Saul wasn’t some passive observer, but had been he who “approved of their killing him” [Acts 8:1a].  Then, as the 8th chapter details, Saul is seen as one “ravaging the church … dragging off both men and women,” jailing them.  Centered in Jesus, this new kind of relationship with God that was inseparable from a community of those living together in a way that continued the way of Jesus.  It had, in the language of our age, gone “viral” – this open table of our Lord’s.  It brought in people seeking such a life.  It also brought the attention of those who just didn’t get it.  Like Saul.

Luke’s readers know who this Saul is; they know what turns his life will take.  They know how the episode will end, but in describing the complete shift to take place in Saul’s life, Luke draws a portrait of God’s graceful but not always subtle or easy pull on our lives.  So, as Saul draws near to Damascus with expansive plans for a slew of persecutions, he is struck by a heavenly light and addressed by a heavenly voice – that of Jesus himself.

Saul had been so sure of himself and what he was doing, but he was about to be taken down a peg.  Actually quite a few, as Jesus asks Saul why he has sought to persecute him.

Three days later, Jesus calls upon Ananias, who resists the direction, but submits – in the knowledge that just being in Saul’s presence could be a death sentence.  The Saul he had heard of…

Sometimes, God ask us to do difficult things, to go to unexpected places, and perhaps be surprised by who we are called to serve alongside.  It may, for instance, take us from a perspective that looks at the community and asks, “How can we get these people to come to our church?” to one that asks “How can we go and be engaged with our neighbors and those on the margins?”  Amid this, the Book of Acts is a teaching portrait of the early church community, and a potent reminder of how we are to function as church, across the centuries.

I would suggest that it’s offered as a template, not as a rigid example of structure, but an example of pragmatism and – always – inclusivity and transparency.

I would suggest that it’s a witness as to how God intends his people to stay in the PROCESS of becoming church, and to not see it “church” as some fixed point of achievement – and that’s one reason it continued to grow.

I would suggest that, using contemporary terms, it was marked primarily by a transformational style holding forth a vision of what could be, thinking outside the proverbial box wherever needed – bringing the vision into reality.  This congregational style of the church expanded in the face of stresses far greater than any we are experiencing; while addressing the need to keep things running smoothly – which is how we ended up with Deacons – but both reaching out and doing the “rather tedious, sometimes boring, slow process of nurturing deep relationships” which is disciplining, not merely the simple, measurable data of new folk in the door.” [A Bigger Table, p 97]

SO WHAT?

Pastor John Pavlovitz, in his book A Bigger Table, writes that “We wrongly imagine the Gospel stories as one continual, thirty-three year tent revival, a never-ending rock-show crusade, and we miss the reality that the pages of the story of Jesus are filled with quiet conversations, with walks in the field, with hands upon weary shoulders, with loving meals around the table.  We forget the wounds that were tended, the feet that were washed, the break that was broken.  Those were as real and powerful and life altering as any tearful worship service prayer.” [A Bigger Table, p. 99-100].

Sharing the gospel, then and now,, in the time of Ananias and Paul or the present, is really a matter of giving people a daily front row seat to a life that looks like Christ….” the BEST way “to make disciples is by showing people the fullest incarnation that we can manage and resting in that.[A Bigger Table, p. 100]

Amen.

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“Finding the Purpose”

pptF9B.pptm  -  AutoRecovered.jpg*Preached on 28 April 2019, a First Christian Church of Hampton.  The Easter season is an opportunity to explore the birth of the Church and how the disciples lives’ were so changed, they themselves became a beckon to Christ.  It is much to ponder in an age when we really need to think about what it means to “be church” – not as an organization or for us to have some sense of belonging, but as those filled with a purpose that truly invites others into relationship.  Lots to ponder!  – Vinson

The Gospel of John 20:19-31 (New Revised Standard Version)

 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.   If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  But Thomas (who was called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.   So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.  Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

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INTRODUCTION

There comes a time to each of us as believers, when we must live the resurrection, and yet the Sunday after Easter is invariably a tough one.  The busyness of Lent and certainly Holy Week are over, and fatigue then hits in the wake of the drama… the trauma… and even the early word of the Good News.  Clergy and choirs alike everywhere tend to feel as much relief that it is over as joy.  Then, somewhere in the recesses of the mind and heart there a question always arises, “OK, what’s next?”

Let’s be honest, it’s usually not a question of energy, but of anxiety, as God’s word, in this case, from John, initiates us into the experience of those first disciples.

It’s Easter evening, when Jesus appears among the disciples.  It has been a bewildering day of it.  Gathered in the upper room, one could reasonably infer that nearly all of them had been hidden there through the bulk of the horrific and uncertain recent days since that last meal together.  Given the sabbath would have gone from Friday night to Saturday night, they would not have traveled any distance even if they had wanted to.  They still had the room for their use, even if was serving as a protected place to just absorb all that had transpired, especially with the reports from the women, Peter having gone himself to find the tomb empty, but unlike the women – not having encountered Jesus.

The setting is, if we are faithful in reading the scripture, a bit depressing.  We are told that “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked.”  They were afraid.  They were unsure of how to get on with being Jesus’ disciples.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Sometimes, if we are really honest with ourselves, we have a similar thought, it being:  what do we now do as disciples… as church?  Invariably, everyone will look around, scanning faces, hoping someone has the answer.

FOR INSTANCE

So let’s start there — in the ground of God’s wisdom — and think for a moment about the scene, through what John writes.

Jesus’ tomb is open and the stone rolled away, but the disciples’ house is closed with the doors locked as tight as the tomb had been.

Jesus is on the loose and appearing here and there, but meanwhile the disciples are bound in fear and hiding.

The few that ventured forth left the empty tomb of Jesus had entered their own tombs of fear, doubt, and blindness right along with the rest.

Jesus words of faith, hope, and love shared by the three Marys, Joanna and the rest Mary Magdalene’s on Easter morning, had seemed an idle tale.

The doors of faith have been closed, their eyes shut to the bold new reality.

They locked themselves in, the doors becoming the great stone sealing their tomb.

They separated themselves and their lives from the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.

But before we get judgmental about them, especially Thomas, we have to admit that we too know such days.  We’ve experienced them.  The days when we prefer to just stay in bed, pull the covers over our head, and close out the world and not deal with the full reality – both the death AND even the resurrection.  It even happens to churches.

We might THINK we know what it is to lock ourselves in, but does that provide only a false sense of “security?”  Might we – instead – actually be sealing our tomb and imprisoning our lives, our minds, and our hearts?

If Easter evening has come, the empty tomb has been seen, the words of Mary Magdalene saying “I have seen the Lord” have echoed… yet there is the holing up with those known best, while the doors are locked with fear.

Here’s the thing to note; as John describes the upper room, the doors, the locks – he is speaking of much more than about a physical space, its walls, doors hanging on pivots that were the typical hinges of the time, and wooden locks like Jesus might have once made when he was a carpenter.  What John, who is the one gospel author who always uses story to get to the meaningfulness of events, vice just straight facts, is actually describing is the interior condition of the disciples as the locked places of lives are always more about what is going on inside than around.

So a week after Easter, the witness of John asks:  How is our life different after Easter?  Are we living in the freedom – and yes – the joy of resurrection?  Or, are we still behind locked doors?  John sets this scene to ask us to pause upon the deeper questions, witnessed through the disciples’ behavior and words:  What are the closed places of our lives?

What keeps us locked in our own tomb?

Perhaps it is fear of the unknown that keeps us locked in our tomb.  If we are paralyzed by our fears, it’s as if our feet are caught in a glue trap, and this will hinder our movement toward the resurrection.

Perhaps it is the questions we fear, the disbelief, and/or the conditions we place on our faith, that keep us locked in our tomb.  If we cannot speak openly and honestly about what puzzles or confuses us, it will hamstring our movement toward the resurrection.

Perhaps it is sorrow and loss that keep us locked in our tomb.  If we are so absorbed in our own woundedness that we cannot look up, it will restrict our movement toward the resurrection.

Perhaps it is anger and resentment that keep us locked in our tomb.  If we are unwilling to embrace the light of new ideas, the exploration of possibilities, and hesitant to make changes, it prevents our movement toward the resurrection.

But here’s the thing, Jesus won’t be halted by locked doors, thanks be to God!  John tells us  “Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  Jesus enters into the locked places of life… unexpected, uninvited, and sometimes downright unwanted… and if we happen to be absent in the moment, Jesus will then too – as Thomas found out.  Standing among us, Jesus still offers peace and Jesus still breathes new life into his disciples.

I suppose that’s why I’ve found myself thinking again about a man I once knew some thirty plus years ago when I was a regional medical center chaplain in Kentucky, and this poor soul had been brought down from the mountains. If I was his chaplain, I also found him inviting me into being a student of God’s grace.  The gentleman had an awful combination of an aggressive cancer and out of control diabetes.  I had been called to an ICU because he was throwing things and the nurses were looking for a way to calm him down.  They had put him in an isolation room, to minimize what other patients could hear, and when I stepped into the room, I realized his body had been whittled away while nothing would heal.  Gone were his legs and even his hips.  The cancer had spread into his abdomen and there was no hope, medically speaking.  He had days to live, I was told.   OR So They Thought!  God had other plans.  It was not an easy first meeting, as he would only stare at me in constrained fury.  I finally said it was OK for him to be angry and I would be available if he changed his mind.  Days later, his sister tracked me down.  It seems he couldn’t remember my name, but he did remember a short, bearded chaplain, so the staff had no difficulty knowing it was me!  At her behest, I returned again to him and we entered into conversation.  He believed in Jesus, but he needed more.

He had sought to become perfect before he gave his life, not realizing Jesus was his perfection.

Dying, he thought he had no life to give, not realizing Jesus could do a lot with what little he had.

He thought his life had no meaning, not realizing Jesus IS the source meaning.

Finally, coming to a place of giving his life to Christ, I remember him asking me, “What can half a man offer?” 

We all tend to go straight to the limits we perceive of ourselves.  Factual?  Perhaps.  But absent of the insight of God.  In his case, he had quite a lot to offer – once he began to rely on Christ and not himself.  I witnessed God use him, half a man, one that not only puzzled the doctors when the cancer  retreated and healing occurred, but who in the many weeks he was there changed his siblings not just to a reenergized faith in Jesus Christ, but to step into the joy that surrounded him.  He became the one who lightened the hearts of others.  I would see worn-out nurses step into his room and step back out with a renewed spirit.  He couldn’t read or write, but his sister sent me a note the next year… he was a happy man, one they had not known and could have only been hoped for – alive for reasons medicine could not say, but we could!

We forget, it is not about what one has or doesn’t.  It is always about what God has.  It is not what this church has in people and resources.  It is always about our openness to what God can do, through Jesus Christ.

So a second time, Jesus appears.  This time it is to Thomas, saying again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.”  Speaking to all of us who have not seen the Resurrected Lord, but depend upon the Word, it is Thomas who is offers the first declaration in scripture of Jesus’ divinity, as he proclaimed: “My Lord and my God!”

SO WHAT?

As believers — we know, we trust — that Christ always stands among his people, in whatever places we are found, saying, “Peace be with you,” and breathing life into that which may appear lifeless.

Regardless of the circumstances! — Jesus shows up bringing peace, offering peace, embodying peace.  Regardless of the circumstances! — Jesus shows up bringing life, offering life, embodying life.  Neither may change the technical circumstances of our life and world… for this world can be a messy and challenging place.  But the life and peace of Jesus’ resurrection enable us to meet and live through those circumstances – endowed with his peace, his breath, his life – sent into the life of others.

We just need to unlock the doors of our own hearts and lives and CONFIDENTLY step out daily into this life which sprang forth from Easter!

Amen.

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“A Name’s Witness” (An Easter Sermon)

PPT for WordPress*Sermon preached on Easter, 21 April 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton. -Vinson

Gospel of Luke 24:1-12 (New Revised Standard Version)

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.  While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.  The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.  Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.  Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.   But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.  But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

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INTRODUCTION

On that long ago Easter morning, the women went to the tomb.  It was custom for the nearest women relatives to wash and anoint the bodies of the dead, but in this case it is the closest women followers of Jesus who come in the early dawn to do the sad task.

They are startled to find the tomb empty, the stone rolled aside, and then taken further aback by angels asking the rhetorical question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  After all, they say, “He is not here, but has risen,” adding in explanation, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  THEN, it is said, “they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.”

Luke then notes how “it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.”

Women figure prominently in the Jesus movement, and one of the things most notable in the Gospel accounts is the name-dropping.  Whenever followers of Jesus are mentioned, male or female, it is invariably because they became leaders of the early church, whether in Galilee, Jerusalem, or within the larger Roman Empire… and even in Rome itself.  It’s a way of saying, “You know so and so, this is when he or she started out.…”

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Names always matter, especially in the Gospel of Luke, and invariably those mentioned were still very much alive at the time of writing.  Through their lives, the story of Jesus Christ is told.  It is the same even now for us.

FOR INSTANCE

Enter Joanna, a disciple of Christ, who is specifically mentioned in a mere two verses of the Gospels.  As typical of most of the disciples, there’s virtually no background information as to the family she came from, what village or city was her hometown, or even if she had any children.  Married to Chuza – the manager of Herod Antipas’ household and who essentially controlled the treasury and property of the court, Chuza and Joanna, could have been either Jewish or Roman, although Joanna is certainly a Jewish name.

During her lifetime, and most certainly the period of Jesus’ ministry, King Herod, otherwise known as Herod Antipas, was the tetrarch of the Galilean territory.  It can get confusing when reading the New Testament, with three King Herods recorded in the Gospels and Book of Acts.  The king that Joanna would have known, being married to a member of the king’s court, was the second Herod; every bit as fearful of any threat to his reign as his father who had ordered the death of the infant boys in Bethlehem when word came to him via the Magi of the birth of a King.  This Herod she knew had built his court at Tiberias little more than a dozen years earlier, just a few miles away from Capernaum, atop an old Jewish cemetery despite all the Galilean protests, and with funds from excessive taxation.  One can well imagine what the locals thought of him, or of members of his court as they traveled nearby.  Who knows, as one intentionally named by Luke, her husband could have been the one who oversaw its very construction.

When one thinks of the context in which Joanna lived as a member of the court, she would have been present when John the Baptist had come along, one whom we are told in the Gospel of Mark [6:20] that Herod had both fear and protected “knowing him to be a righteous and holy man.”  Joanna would have known that Herod not only befriended John in prison but held great respect for John, and it’s entirely possible she had heard John herself and grown curious of this Jesus, whom John spoke of as one whose sandal he – John – was unworthy to even so much as untie.  Being married to a member of the king’s court, Joanna would have no doubt heard in court gossip of Herod and Herodias’ contentious quarrels over John the Baptist, and would have been present at the horrific birthday party for Herod when the head of John the Baptist was presented after he  reluctantly ordered his execution at the behest of his wife and daughter.

The Eastern Orthodox Church believes Joanna retrieved his head from the dung heap where Herodius threw it and buried it upon Herod’s land on the Mount of Olives.  Whether true or not, Jesus was certainly in nearby Capernaum where Joanna is now revealed as having joined his group of followers, as one healed by him, in the cryptic reference of Luke 8 where it is said “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”  I would have to wonder if Jesus’ healing of Joanna’s mind had anything to do with what she had seen at Herod’s court.

If Joanna purposefully placed herself in Jesus’ listening audience, she must have been rather conspicuous in her hopes that Jesus would take mercy on her – this woman of supreme privilege standing among the desperate and the poor who flocked to hear words of healing; this woman of a court absolutely detested by the Galileans around her, and who in such proximity to the palace that a Roman soldier or two might have recognized her, perhaps even the centurion whose daughter Jesus had just healed.  One could say she made a choice Herod would not, and put it on the line to seek life in Jesus, well before their actual encounter.

Did Joanna return to King Herod’s court after her healing?  Probably.  She may have wanted to show her husband that she was miraculously well.  Perhaps she gained King Herod’s ear, since he was known to be sympathetic to John the Baptist’s teachings, certainly we do know that the king’s foster brother, Manaen, is found in Acts 13:1 as a teacher in the church.  Who introduced him to the Lord is anyone’s guess.  Nor do we know what happened to her husband over time – only that she used her privilege…

to travel without male escort,

to immerse herself with the most marginalized of society,

to choose and undertake a life of wandering, discomfort, poverty and fear together with a life of generosity, courage, and faithfulness as she financially backed Jesus’ ministry paving the way for his food, shelter, and hospitality and that of his disciples,

to listen to Jesus’ sermons, as one of the first women disciples, and…

to accompany the mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross on Calvary.

As one of only three women witnesses to the empty tomb, the angels, and the risen Lord – Joanna continued to travel in the apostles’ company, and is likely one of the women mentioned in the Upper Room during Pentecost, in Acts 1:12-14, where the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus and filled them with power to evangelize to the nations.

So it should be no surprise that scholars have concluded that the disciple Joanna is the same woman as the Christian Junia, spoken of by Paul in his Letter to the Romans (16:7), with the Roman name Junia being a form of the Hebrew name Joanna, presumably her adopted name after becoming a missionary.  Given that Paul reports she was with the Lord before his own 34 AD conversion, and for him to have given Junia such praise as a famous apostle, she had to have been a witness from Jesus’ baptism until his crucifixion.  Only a few women deserve that title.

SO WHAT?

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  Joanna, in the company of Mary, the mother of James,. and Mary Magdalene, and others whose names are lost to us, heard that question that God puts to the saints — and the strugglers — of each generation.  Yet, shocked, disoriented, fatigued, and sorrowful as they were that morning, they also heard the crucial statement that followed:

******** “Through the living Jesus, I give YOU the gift of life.” ********

If we were, like Joanna, given two lines to be visible in the pages of the Gospel, as those through whose life the story of Jesus Christ is told, what will be our own witness of the one who heals us, saves us, and gives us the power to be Christ’s evangelists in our own chaotic age?

As those who have heard the Good News of Christ in our own age, that dawn morning holds before us the implicit question, what will we do with our own encounters with the Risen Lord, as those now called to tell the story of Jesus Christ… his mercy, his love, his healing?

We have been called.  We ARE called still  — DAILY —  to be an Easter people.  And as an Easter people, “ALLELUIA IS OUR SONG!”  ALLELUIA!  ALLELUIA!  Our Christ is Risen.  ALLELUIA!

Amen!

 

 

 

 

“Finding One’s Voice” (A Palm Sunday Sermon)

PPT for WordPress*Sermon preached on 14 Apr 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton, on Palm Sunday. -Vinson

Gospel of Luke 19:28-40 (New Revised Standard Version)

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.  When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,  saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.  If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”  So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.  As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”  They said, “The Lord needs it.”  Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.  As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.   As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,  saying,  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

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INTRODUCTION

What if I told you that Christmas only made it into two of the four gospels?  Or, that only two of the gospels mention the pregnant Mary?  Or that only one notices there was no room in the inn?  Or only two speak of shepherds watching their flocks by night, the angels singing, the star that guided the wise men, and the babe in the manger?

What if I told you that the Lord’s Prayer only made it into two of the four gospels?  This prayer Jesus taught his followers at their request, the prayer Christians have recited for more than 20 centuries, its words spoken in a diversity of languages and places the whole world over, by Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, and every sect and faction of the full diversity of the church universal… did you notice it’s in only two of the gospels?  Only two.

What if I told you that the Beatitudes only made it into two of the four gospels, with its words of blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor and so forth?

What if I told you that the parable of the Good Samaritan only made it into two of the four gospels, and the same is true with the parable of the Prodigal Son?

OK, now what if I told you that the story of Palm Sunday, of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, made the cut in all four of the gospels?  The story with the humble beast, the shouting crowds, the branches, the coats and cloaks spread like a carpet upon the road, though not all the details were shared by each – it took center stage in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

One could, I think, make the case that if Pentecost is the day the church was born, Palm Sunday marked the day that the followers of Jesus first found their public voices and summoned their courage, as the whole of the followers of Jesus, not just the 12 who were sent on a preaching mission, took to the streets publicly witnessing to God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

FOR INSTANCE

Listen again to Luke’s description of the scene, as they entered the Golden Gate into the city of Jerusalem and “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’”

It’s a city crammed for Passover, with visitors from all over the divided land that had been Israel and from across the Mediterranean, their clothing, manners, languages and accents making clear who were the city natives and who wasn’t.  In this festive scene, rooms went at exorbitant prices, markets were jammed as folks made their preparations, lambs were driven through narrow streets, smells of the hard unleavened bread wafted through the streets as it was baked, the curious gathered around musicians and street performers, as merchants sold their wares—spices and fruits, wine, probably trinkets, with coins exchanging hands – those of the Roman Empire, and upon the Temple Mount, other coins.

It’s controlled chaos.

Roman soldiers on foot and astride horses, helmeted and with gleaming breastplates, make their way on patrol in this complicated, ever on edge province, among a people who refused to worship the emperor as another God in a large pantheon.

Amidst this, in a neighboring village, Jesus’s disciples — armed with the code words “The Lord has need of it” — procure a colt that had never been used in a Temple procession, owned by those so poor that it had taken a significantly sized group pooling their funds together to be able to purchase it.

If we really think about it, until now the followers of Jesus had been just that…Followers,  Largely passive,  Reflective,  Listening,  Watching…: Jesus often having to pull them aside to explain his latest parable as they sometimes stumbled over his metaphors and allegories, while they journeyed the past three years all over the land, even stepping into what is now southern Lebanon.

When Jesus had argued with both civil and religious officials, they had watched with a wariness, probably marveling at his ability to parry their attempts to trap him.

When Jesus had defended an adulteress against those ready to execute her by stoning, I would imagine they held their breath.

When Jesus broke social taboos and conversed in public with a woman from Samaria, I expect they cringed.

When Jesus defied the Sabbath laws by cracking open and eating grain as they walked, or declared that the last shall be first, the first last, and the rich poor, they found the understandings they had grown up with being challenged.

When Jesus kissed lepers and healed those of broken bodies, don’t you imagine they must have been in both fear and awe at the same time?

Until this day, this moment in time, the followers of Jesus had been just that: followers, largely passive in the gospel accounts, doing what he asked of them, observant and sometimes questioning of his words and deeds as he drew them into an understanding of what God was doing.  But on this first day of the week, “Palm Sunday” as we call it now, we see their transformation as they enter Jerusalem.  Taking their first steps as actual witnesses, for the first time since they have known Jesus, the whole of them are shown proclaiming the Kingdom of God breaking forth, as they echo the words of the prophet Zechariah.

The followers of Jesus enter the city, engaging in a kind of street theater.  On the ancient streets of Jerusalem, in front of God and Rome and everybody, they announce and proclaim that their allegiance belongs not to Pax Romana, the uneasy peace achieved by Roman force, but to Pax Christi… a peace to which we are invited, but never coerced… a peace which emanates from the very heart of God… a peace that Paul would one day eloquently sum up as passing all human understanding.  They announce him in a city that hosted the full weight of the political and military power of Rome, the Fortress of Antonio standing as a tall sentinel over the Temple Mount and city itself, declaring the reign of Caesar.  They announce him in a city with the Temple complex, its inner and outer courts visible over the city, declaring the reign of the organized religious power of the Temple, as the smoke of the sacrificial rites rises above them.

The followers of Jesus shout in public that they belong to God, an act that could be viewed as sedition.  If some of the Pharisees demanded of Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop,”  He knew full well that even if they “were silent, the stones would shout out,” while Pontius Pilate entered from the opposite side of the city, taking up residence in his fortress.  Keeping an eye over Rome’s most restless province as it celebrated God’s triumph over the greatest superpower of its day, Egypt, Pontius Pilate and his legions left the comfortable confines of his palace in Caesarea Maritima for the parochial space of Jerusalem, precisely because they distrusted associations, crowds, and gatherings – especially this one.

SO WHAT?

Perhaps, Palm Sunday has pride of place in all four gospels because…

This is the day disciples, called from their prior work for the past three years to experience what had been an intimate and private discipleship, now go public – announcing the kingdom of God.

This is the day when the disciples witness what God’s liberating love looks like.  Yet, only too soon discover — as much for our sakes as for theirs – what true forgiveness looks like through a journey with Jesus that will see them largely fail and then experience that very failure transformed in service to a resurrected Lord.

This is the day the first inklings of “CHURCH” began to find its feet and its voice and swore allegiance to the Prince of Peace.

And so — THIS day, which marks the beginning of what, at minimum, becomes a week of drama, trauma, and finally… of awe – may the church be born again, reborn on Palm Sunday in me and in you, reborn with vim, with vigor, with determination,… and — most of all, — with love, light, and faith to heal our hurting, struggling world.

Amen.

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“Cup of Passion” (Fourth in Series on Lord’s Supper)

PPT for WordPress*Sermon preached on 07 April 2019,  at First Christian Church of Hampton. – Vinson

Gospel of John 12:1-8 (New Revised Standard Version)

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.  Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)  Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

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INTRODUCTION

Six hundred years ago, Thomas a Kempis made an observation within his book, In Imitation of Christ, his writings still a classic treatise on Christian spirituality:

Jesus now hath many lovers of His celestial kingdom:

but few bearers of His Cross.

He hath many who are desirous of consolations:

but few of tribulation.

He findeth many companions of His table:

but few of His abstinence.

All desire to rejoice with Him:

few wish to endure anything for Him.

Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread:

but few to the drinking of the cup of His Passion.

Many reverence His miracles:

few follow the shame of the Cross.

We may recall from scripture that on the night when the Lord’s Supper was instituted, a request was made by the sons of Zebedee as to their being able to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus, when he came into his glory.  If we recall the telling we likely also remember Jesus’ response, that they had no idea at all as to what they were really asking.  Said Jesus, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism of which I am baptized?”  Gathered around the Table, they were so busy figuring out how to be their amazingly awesome selves while they looked for positions of power, that they completely missed out that Jesus was speaking of his death – and how the very cup which was to overflow with grace would come at such a great price.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I think this is why Thomas a Kempis was onto something with his succinct observation that “Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread: but few to the drinking of the cup of His Passion.”  The feast we are all about!  Bread makes us happy.  It is one of our favorite things… happy food!  But, then the cup of Christ comes around, a cup we cherish because it IS a reminder of sins forgiven, but may at the same time resist that very cup because it invites us into discipleship that may bring discomfort and yes – sacrifice.  We naturally like the mountaintop, but the valley we would surely seek to avoid, the 23rd Psalm notwithstanding.

FOR INSTANCE

So it is that each and every Sunday we speak the words of institution, sharing those from the Gospel accounts of the last supper, or perhaps using the words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  Communion was a big discussion item for Paul and it’s easy to forget his instruction comes amid and because of some very painful discussions within the church at Corinth.  Paul does not shy away from it.  Paul did not shy away from anything, from what is evident in the Book of Acts and his letters, as he now writes: “when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it.”

Here, there is the recognition that the table isn’t always one big happy family, and sometimes, just like on the night Jesus was betrayed, it can get downright messy.  Yet addressing that very messiness is at the heart of the Gospel – this being the ministry of reconciliation – one built upon the bedrock of healthy relationships and communication.  So it is that Paul chooses to speak in the language of Passover, for such is generally understood within scripture to be the context for the Last Supper with the Gospel of John, as usual, sorta doing its own thing vice the other three.

Speaking of that time of Passover, the kitchen area was scrubbed to remove the last trace of yeast from any surface, before the new yeast would be brought forth after Passover.  The standards are exacting and onerous, and we can be assured it was the role of the women to attain them.  In fact, even today, the only relatively fast way to do it is a process that uses a flash fire.  So, Paul wrote:  “Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?  Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened.  For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.  Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” [I Corinthians 5:6-8]

Now I must confess I spent hours looking at my sermon this time, pondering how is it that we can clean out that old yeast of whatever might get in the way of “the new thing” that the Lord is doing, as Isaiah put it.

Surely this bears self-examination.  Surely there is the need to perceive the Body: in short, to get out of our own skin and live for others.  But the reading from John points to something more, as we hear of the actions of Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.  Passover is near, and so too is Jesus’ “hour” as he spends time with them soon after the pivotal scene of Lazarus being raised, a “sign” – his presence at the table confirming that death does not have the final word – and his resurrection bringing many to believe in Jesus even as others plot his death.

We know that — in coming to the Table — there is imperative to clear out the “old yeast,” the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves and our motivations… the lies that we can pretty much save ourselves by ourselves… the lies that we can follow Jesus without risk and without pain.  These things and more would contaminate the fresh and unleavened dough, and they can really mess up our integrity as disciples.

But is there something more than just ridding the house of what needs to go away, as we approach the cup of the Lord?  What needs to be brought into the Holy presence that is of us?

Foreshadowing the humility of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, I cannot help but think of how Mary “took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”  As the Gospel tells us, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”  Pouring out her treasure, equal to a year’s wages for a common laborer, there doesn’t seem to be any other place in the Gospel where a gift of such large measure was publicly given to the Lord, other than the gifts of Joanna and others seem to have had an undeniable role in underwriting the 3-year ministry of the Lord.

But it wasn’t the monetary value that really matters, even if it got the interest of Judas, it is the extravagant love it represented, a love brought into Jesus’ presence.  So if we can understand the economic and charitable logic beneath Judas’s criticism, there is also a rigorous, unyielding piety that just cannot stomach a wild love like Mary’s.  That’s why acts of true grace and love regularly get slandered as deviance – not everyone can get their heart, much less their mind, around generous love.

At the very least, Mary’s hair calls attention to the profound intimacy of what she offers, in the tactile element of the anointing.  If the fragrance of her perfume, which in a in a word study of the Greek text and an underlying Aramaic word appears to be based upon an oil pressed from pistachio nuts, fills the house, then would not the gentle touch of her locks fill Jesus’ sensations?

We might also imagine that in witnessing such an expression of deep love, those watching might even find it either uncomfortable or that it exceeded good taste.  Scholars cannot agree about whether the detail concerning Mary’s hair lends an erotic air to the event, but even today it may be impossible to hear the story without raising an eyebrow at the profound intimacy of her act.  Let’s face it, if we were present in that moment, would we find Mary’s lavish love too much to behold?

SO WHAT?

Isn’t that sometimes what we experience with the cup?  A lavish love given us?  Yet also a call to be such a lavish love to others?  To give all of ourselves in worship, not just in the shelter of this sanctuary, but everywhere we journey during the passage of our days.  To be willing to be vulnerable, even to the point of what might seem too much.  To be those who aren’t just served, but who serve.  To have experienced the extravagant love of Jesus Christ, to witness the extravagant love of the disciple called Mary.  To be the cup of the Lord in a world that thirsts for love and lacks the depth of joy.

Amen!

 

“Fragrant Bread (Third in Series on the Lord’s Supper)

pptF9B.pptm - AutoRecovered [Autosaved]*Sermon preached on 24 Mar 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton, as we ponder the meaningfulness of the Lord’s Supper. – Vinson

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Book of Isaiah 55:1-9 (New Revised Standard Version)

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
    listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
    my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
    a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
    and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has glorified you.
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
    call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
    and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

First Letter to the Corinthians 10:1-13 (New Revised Standard Version)

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.  For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.  Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.  Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.  Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.”  We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.  We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents.  And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.  These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.  So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.  No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

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INTRODUCTION

You never know what something means to you until it is absent.  We gather in comfort every Sunday, and unless illness or something else intrudes, we can make it here on time, attend church and have communion.

We bless and share the bread.

It’s routine.

In the decades I was away from the pastorate, serving in the Navy, most of the time far from a Disciples of Christ congregation, I experienced how this sharing it is anything but routine.

Deployed at sea, services could be interrupted by drills, and Sundays often meant doing “Holy Helos” – working out rides on helicopters to get dropped onto various smaller ships which didn’t have a chaplain, to do quick Sunday services, have communion, perhaps do some counseling, then onto another ship.

In the field, it was being in Baghdad with the thump of mortars landing interrupting one’s communion meditation and prayers while  everyone stayed put, unfazed.  When with the artillery, it meant everyone stopping to clasp hands over ears when hearing the command to fire from a nearby gun crew — just before the deafening concussive wave struck.  Or, as often as not, my just trying to find a uniformed Catholic priest or Lay Eucharistic Minister to take care of the Catholic troops.

Sometimes a service would be called for when the communion gear was absent or had already been shipped ahead, and invention by my assistant was required.  I bet you didn’t know that a pocket knife will quickly transform a Gatorade bottle into a chalice and a paten for communion ware?  Or that bread is whatever is edible and the cup whatever can be drunk?

One just makes do.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

After all, Jesus said he would meet us in the bread broken and cup shared. In him, all is made sufficient.

FOR INSTANCE

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price,” declared Isaiah, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” [55:1,6-9].

The Table of the Lord, declares Isaiah, in words echoing those for feasts when a new house of worship was dedicated, is an invitation that finds full expression in Jesus.  Don’t get stuck on the wrong things, Isaiah is telling us.  And in the society of our own age that finds itself in many profound, if painful at times, discussions about “privilege” – here is this table in our midst where we come as we have and as we are.  No need for family connections.  Personal wealth.  Or, even a handy background in the Bible.  One can come like the biblical Timothy who grew up in the faith or come like Titus who came into it as an adult, with no background in faith, and from a people who were derided – these two spiritual sons to Paul and witnesses to Christ.

Among the scattered people of divergent or no denomination in particular, in the farthest reaches of what was then part of Virginia and territory outside the border of Pennsylvania in what was called the Western Reserve, a movement arose more than two centuries ago.  They sought to model their worship practices akin to what is known or conjectured of the first generation church of the Apostles.  Urged on by Thomas Campbell in the small community of Brush Run, in what’s now West Virginia, the Lord’s Supper became central focus to their worship, these people who would become known as the Disciples of Christ.  They took to heart the words of Acts 20:7, that on the first day of the week the young church gathered together to break bread, which we understood to mean the Lord’s Supper.

To this day, if nothing else happens, we’ll break bread, won’t we?  But, do we think much about it?

If they knew that in several centuries past, great debates flowed over just what the broken bread meant and the sureness in every camp – it was one they hoped to bridge at the common table.  Does it in a mystical way become the literal body and blood of Christ, even though it looks just the same?  Does the bread shared simply remember Christ, as though this is all some wake for some long dead friend, perhaps taking Paul’s instructional words on the Lord’s Supper, in I Corinthians 11 [23-26], “in remembrance of me” – in a direction never intended?  In everything, just how IS Christ present, we wonder?  Their solution was simplicity.

As the late Kenneth Teegarden, former General Minister and President of the our denomination observed with, I expect, some mirth,

Disciples do not fit neatly into traditional categories of thinking about the Lord’s Supper – we pick what seems best to us from various concepts of the sacrament.  For example, we tend to think of the Lord’s Supper as an act of remembrance, but we are conscious of the real presence of Christ” [Teegarden, p. 80].

Explaining HOW that Christ is present has never been crucial to Disciples.

“The loaf and the cup are symbols that awaken our senses to the presence of the Lord.  It is his table and he is there… The name we frequently use for the sacrament, Communion, speaks of our feeling that it draws us into extraordinary fellowship with Christ and with one another” [Teegarden, p.80].

We were perhaps a bit ahead of time.  In more recent decades amid so many discussions between the larger church spanning denominations, and on the cusp of what in generations to come may be a post-denominational age, we’ve all finally arrived at the simple wisdom of what John Calvin wrote centuries ago: “I would rather experience it than understand it.”

In THIS truth…

We all affirm the manner and means of Christ’s self-giving love is witnessed in this meal.

We all affirm that however we understand the mystery of how – the real presence of Christ is with us.

Perhaps what we do experience in this mystery, is best captured in the language of Will Willimon, a seminary professor at Duke who has a way with words:

“When I sit in the presence of someone I love, I am not sitting in the presence of love in the abstract; I am sitting in his or her concrete, physical presence.  There is no way for me to love my friend without loving my friend as a person with definite characteristics, as an embodied presence.  My friend’s presence is real; it is not simply a noble thought about friendship in general.” [Willimon, p. 32]

It is much more than a table of remembrance, for in the presence of Jesus Christ, this meal we share with our friend.  As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, in the other lesson for today: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” [I Corinthians 10:16-17]

So the bread shared is the sign of our covenantal relationship, between one another and God, a table in which we find forgiveness in our seeking.  Given the table arose amid the Passover meal shared by Jesus and his disciples, consider the description by the Pharisee and Jewish historian Josephus writing in the first century:  “Our sacrifices are not occasions for drunken self-indulgence – such practices are abhorrent to God – but for sobriety.  At these sacrifices, prayer for the welfare of the community must take precedence of those for ourselves; for we are born for fellowship, and he who sets (that fellowship’s) claims above his private interests is specially acceptable to God.”  [Josephus, 2:196]

If we are to flee from the forms of self-idolatry so prevalent around us, we must order our lives so that Christ’s community becomes the focus point of our existence.  No wonder Paul uses the word “koinonia,” the same word Josephus used, for when we eat the bread and drink the cup we are bonded together in community with Christ and with one another.  Authentic worship drawing us together around the table of the Lord in such a way that we become a covenant people, receiving the blessing of fellowship with God and sharing our lives with one another.

SO WHAT?

God knows we can give nothing to him, so God gives to us.

God knows we have failed to find him, so God finds us.

God knows we cannot on our own, return to him, so God turns to us.

And so we hear across the ages, as if no time has passed, because in the mystery, he says to us once more:  “Have some bread.  Take some wine.  This is my body and my blood, your nourishment and your life.”

Amen.

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Pastor’s notes:  Unusual for me, but I used quite a few sources that needed to be quoted.  These include – Kenneth L. Teegarden.  We Call Ourselves Disciples”  St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1983; William H. Willimon.  Sunday Dinner.  Nashville: The Upper Room, 1981;  Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Volume 2, Page 196.

Life-Changing (Second in Series on the Lord’s Supper)

lord supper 2*Second in series, preached on 17 March 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton.  I had a conversation the other day with one of our Welcome Table volunteers from the community about how “story explains story” in our unpacking of God’s word.  Some certainly differ in their approach and it works for them, but the Bible would be a whole lot thinner if it just presented the do’s and don’t without stories to unpack them.  At any rate, here ya go for this past Sunday’s sermon.  I continue to marvel at the mystery of what happens in people’s lives at the intersection of the Table. -Vinson

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Gospel of Luke 13:31-35 (New Revised Standard Version)

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”  He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’  Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  See, your house is left to you.  And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

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INTRODUCTION

He wasn’t happy to be sent to talk with me, but when Marines are told to do something – they do it, whether they like it or not.

In my years as a Navy chaplain, there were many times sailors and Marines were sent to me.  I even had one skipper during my time as a carrier chaplain, who often in lieu of being busted a rank, would send his sailors to me so we could help them figure out themselves before their career was over.  Marines made good use of me, as no one really wanted to know what ugly stuff was in another’s head or life – just that the Marine would be “good-to-go,” able to perform his mission and handle his weapon.

Sometimes, they were sent to me because the Marine planned to marry, and the chain of command had hopes I’d talk him out of it.  That wasn’t my job, but I did help them sort out their path.  One day a Marine entered my office.  Clearly unhappy.  Sitting down, his arms folded.  What was I going to say to him, he wondered, me a Christian chaplain and him an avowed Satanist?  Now I was never one to compel someone to talk, so I just asked him where he worshiped, since I knew Satanist worship wasn’t allowed on base.  “No where” was his clipped response.  I asked him if he needed my help finding one.  Stunned he said, “You’d do that?”  I was so sure in what I believed I wasn’t threatened by what he believed, I told him.  His whole countenance of defiance dropped, his arms uncrossed and slowly we entered into perhaps one of the most remarkable conversations of my life, during which he spoke of the horrors he had endured as a child… of tremendous abuse… of almost unimaginable treatment that amounted to torture.  No wonder, I thought, the young man had turned to Satanism; magical thinking is after all a way some who have suffered greatly seek to reassert a sense of control in life – something of which he had none as a child.  And, of course, for this kind of thinking, revenge as well was also in play, and both as a teen and as a young adult he had done terrible things.  The abused had become the abuser; but as he shared his story it was clear to me there was a spark in him, the healthiest part of him – which at some level knew this wasn’t how life was supposed to be.  By conversation’s end, he asked if he could stop in and talk now and then, which he did.  It seemed to surprise him, but I found him easy to love.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Truth is, most of the time we really don’t need anyone to point out our errors.  We know ‘em already!  What we do need is someone to just sit with us as we sort ourselves out, and isn’t that what happens here at the Table, on Sundays?

Certainly we cherish it and if nothing else happens, the bread is broken, the cup is lifted and we share in the Lord.  But, how often have we come wondering if we are good enough to pull up a chair, or perhaps wondering whether someone else should partake?

In this second sermon during Lent on the Lord’s Supper, it seems to me that we should take a hard look at this… what inspires us and what hinders us in coming to the Table.

FOR INSTANCE

In the Gospel lesson for today we hear of how some Pharisees came to warn Jesus “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”  We’re not told their motivation, though Luke tends to paint Pharisees in a harsh light and Jesus appears to indicate that they are being deceptive as he responds: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’” [Luke 13:31-32]  Throughout the Gospel of Luke there are these constant run-ins with Pharisees, typically with them concerned about who Jesus was hanging around with.

There was the time that Jesus ate as the guest of a Pharisee, and a woman, implied to be a serious sinner, entered, anointed his feet with perfume and her tears, and wiped them off with her hair – to the horror of the Pharisee.  Whatever her unidentified sin, we know Jesus’ response of forgiveness – to the chagrin of His host.

There was the time when “The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’’ [Luke 5:30]  You need to be careful, Jesus.  Protect your reputation.  Be holy.  Walk on the other side of the road.  Don’t be contaminated by their uncleanliness… their rough ways… their lack of more polished talk.  They aren’t as good as we are, is the clear implication, and therefore not good enough to reflect well upon the Lord – because Jesus is supposed to be holy like the Pharisees.

But, as we were reminded last Sunday, by Sheila, Jesus’ response was pretty much THESE ARE EXACTLY MY KIND OF PEOPLE!  Such are the Lord’s people precisely because a physician IS needed.  What ails them may well be their sins, but it may just as much be their social exclusion and experience of injustice.  So we see Jesus teaching, healing, encouraging, and accepting – amid it all setting aside the social boundaries, the race boundaries, the economic boundaries, and yes even the faith boundaries – for the first task is always to take care of people’s needs, then the rest can be sorted out!

The righteous are all set, is the message of Jesus, so let’s worry about those who aren’t so sure of themselves who need to be embraced, walked with, cherished, helped, and accepted.  Let’s worry about those who don’t measure up in THEIR own eyes, or perhaps OUR own eyes – that each may know the look of love in our Lord’s eyes.

I would imagine that such words and deeds of Jesus were disorienting for the Pharisees, but wouldn’t you think they were just as much for everybody else?  After all, everyone had heard of John the Baptist and perhaps seen his disciples fasting and offering prayers – being sad and miserable.  So isn’t that how Jesus and his disciples are also supposed to behave?  But here they are in Luke 5:33 as those who “eat and drink!” – who are joyful and who make merry.  Some seem to wonder if this is any way to act, but Jesus cuts them off saying, actually… yes!  “When a bridegroom shows up at the marriage feast, do the wedding guests feast or fast?,” he asks, adding “The bridegroom is here!” [Luke 5:34]

The Messiah isn’t what they expect.

He speaks of new wine that would burst the old wineskins.

He and his disciples pluck and eat grain on the Sabbath.

The list goes on and on.

Jesus shocks them.  Jesus sometimes shocks us, this man, who says Luke 15:2, “receives the sinners and eats with them.”

I admit I thought I had a good grasp on this concept until my battalion deployed to Australia in 2001, before the war.  It was a long, dusty exercise, spread out over the outback of Queensland.  The near constant movement made Sunday services a challenge quite often, sometimes I was given little more a half hour notice of the time change, and one Saturday I got word I would have to do my Sunday service after dark in just a few hours.  Meeting in the large command tent, on the night of a new moon – which is exactly why we would be moving out quickly so as to be unseen – only my small red lens flashlight hung down to illuminate my Bible and then the bread and the cup.  That was all the darkness it could conquer.  I had no idea who was around me.  Not numbers.  Not persons.  I could not have known if there were 3 or 30, at least until time came when I pressed wafers into hands and lifted the chalice, finally saw the face of each Marine as he sipped from it.

I thought everyone had come forward and waited for a moment in the darkness.  Then a final hand emerged, and then the face – that of my self-proclaimed Satanist.  The face of one who fell into me crying while I held him, as he said to me quietly “I’m back.”

SO WHAT?

That’s when I understood.

The table around which we gather isn’t some sort of self-congratulatory meal for saints, but a life-changing meal for sinners.  If it, as a couple centuries ago Charles Wesley noted, sanctifies the saved, it is also a meal that converts many on the way to salvation.  After all, who ate with Jesus?

You see this table has never been about what makes us worthy, but who has made us worthy.  The one who dines with us still.

And, that is the miracle, always.  We come as we are, wherever we think we are in life, together or scattered, hopeful or discouraged, pious or decidedly not.  There is no yardstick on this table by which we are to measure ourselves.  Just a cross.  We come to be sanctified, to be converted, to be held in love by the one whose sacrificial love for us is all-sufficient.  We come, because here we are safe, here we are cherished, here we find peace, here we find we are no longer alone in this journey of life.

Then it is we experience the church of the apostles, where is written in Acts 2:46:47:  “Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.  And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

Amen.

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The Hospitable Table (First in Series on the Lord’s Supper)

Lord supper 1.jpg*Sermon preached on 10 March 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA, on why we have an “open table” for the Lord’s Supper. -Vinson

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Book of Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (New Revised Standard Version)

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it,  you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.   You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”  When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God.  Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

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INTRODUCTION

During the days, from 1963 to 1965, my Dad served as a student pastor of a congregation some 85 miles distant from our home, in Taloga, Oklahoma.  It wasn’t a problem getting to church in an hour for my Dad, on those straight and flat Oklahoma roads when there was no speed limit.  Taloga was different congregation than Dad’s first student church.  That one, in a crossroads called Spivey, simply gave Dad a $5 bill to cover our family’s lunchtime meal at a little café.  The food was good, but it was just us.  Taloga was very different.  We were quickly adopted by “Ma” Ruble.  It’s not like she didn’t already have a good-sized family, but I remember being in awe at the incredible length of her dining table.  It was a Kingdom table!  There literally was room for all, so much so that it seemed like the six of us didn’t make a dent in the seats as this woman in her 80s — who expected to be called “Ma”… even by my Dad – saw everyone of any age as someone to love as much as her own grown kids.

In my young mind, Ma Ruble’s table was the Lord’s feast, not just for the table length or even the bounty spread upon it, or even because there was enough room for all of us plus anyone else who joined us.  It was that Ma cooked without knowing who would come to her table and her table was always full – the abundant table, with room for any who hungered, all welcomed as family, no lack of discussion, and a love that knew no bounds.

While I did not receive communion until I was 11, that expansive table around which Ma Ruble gathered us, fed us, talked to us, and loved us – was probably closer to an authentic Lord’s Supper, absent of the elements, than anything I have yet to come across.  To me, it was church – joyful, inclusive, welcoming, sharing.  Even though I was a small child, there was no little kids table – I had as much a place at the table as anyone else.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

So let’s talk about what it means to gather at a common table, like we do every Sunday, and what it means to be invited.

FOR INSTANCE

Our former General Minister and President, Sharon Watkins wrote some years ago how we operate church on a model that is one of “..broad, expansive welcome.  (Adding), at least, it is supposed to [be]… Sadly, sometimes the reality is that the most precious Christian traditions, including the hospitality of the communion table itself, mystify people not used to experiencing them.  Without mediation, these transitional acts communicate the opposite of welcome and seem more like a secret society than a wide-open table” [p. 25-26].

Truth is, even if one has been around for years, I would hesitate to assume what someone does or does not know about the Lord’s Supper.  And if one has been around, yet still has questions, do we make it easy or comfortable for them to be asked?

So let’s talk.

Within the Disciples of Christ tradition, we speak of an “open table,” one that represented a major break from what was the norm two centuries ago.  No longer would people be examined as to their life and faith before an elder judged them to receive a metal token they would take to the other elder in order to receive communion.  Maybe it was the pragmatism of the frontier as much as a desire to leave behind the Christian sectarianism was so problematic in Europe, but two centuries ago, the Disciples began the shift that is largely accepted among Protestants now, that any who professed Christ had a seat at the table.

There was actually considerable debate on the matter which resolved itself by the outbreak of the Civil War with about two-thirds of congregations having lowered any barriers, and in the words of one prominent evangelist, “They spread the table in the name of the Lord and for his people, placing responsibility for sharing in the celebration of the Supper equally on each communicant” [Journey of Faith, p.242] in the living out of Paul’s instruction to the church at Corinth, for each to “…EXAMINE THEMSELVES” – rather than “others”, in preparing to receive the bread and the cup.

But, I would submit, there is a larger table of which to speak that just the elements we bless and we share in equally.  That larger table is about how we receive others.  Relating something I think we would all understand in some setting or another, Pastor John Pavlovitz notes:

“We can usually tell when we’re being received with great joy and when we’re greeted with ambivalence, if we’re being celebrated or merely being tolerated – and the two can be equally transformative.  The reception we receive in someone’s presence can determine whether or not we stay or if we ever come back.”  But then Pavlovitz adds, “Why it is so hard for religious institutions to figure this out is anyone’s guess, but many of us have found ourselves feeling like barely endured houseguests in faith communities for any number of reasons:  our appearance, skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, theology.  We know well the silent uneasiness of realization that though we are physically present, emotionally we are being kept at a distance – that our inclusion is highly provisional and only begrudgingly accepted” [A Bigger Table, p. 66].

Then he said something that really has my attention, especially amid this journey which is Lent:

“This is what tolerance feels like, and it why it’s one of the most useless ideas in our efforts to expand the table of the Church’s hospitality.  Christ calls his disciples to love one another, not to tolerate one another, and not as we imagine that to look, or the way we construct the concept around our fear and biases – but out of the sum total of His life and His ministry.”  Listen closely as he concludes, “If reluctantly putting up with people is the bar we’ve set in the Church, we’re hardly imitating Jesus, and we’re going to continue creating a table far too small for the name we claim” [A Bigger Table, p.66].

I think the fact of the matter is that the “Table” is larger than that point in the service where bread and cup are blessed and we share them.  Indeed, I think it is whether we actually understand what it means to follow Jesus.

In the reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, while not speaking to the Table of our Lord, the words do speak to the spirit of inclusivity that is intrinsic to a life dedicated to following after God, as it is said “…you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”

The Table is a lot more than bread and grape, it is about a way of living.  It is about hospitality.  Let me say that again with emphasis: it is about Unfettered hospitality, welcome, and embrace.

I’ve enjoyed reading Pavlovitz’s book, “A Bigger Table.”  If you’ve ever read any of his writings, you will know what it is to be jolted awake, even on a Sunday when Daylight Savings Time starts, so I will try to read this slowly and I ask that you ponder the words on this Lenten journey:

“Hospitality ascribes value to people.  It declares them worth welcoming.  It disarms them by easing the fears that past rejection has yielded and lets them know that this place is different.  And once people realize they are received with joy, they begin to rest in it.  They breathe again” [A Bigger Table, p.72].

Our hospitable table here before us is much bigger than this chunk of oak inscribed with “Do this in remembrance of me.”  I have to believe that the hospitable table is exactly what Jesus brought and yet it somehow has gotten so institutionalized that it is too often a shell of its prophetic call and limited to being a ritual instead of a way of life.  It isn’t a remembering like a wake, but remembering BOTH sacrifice and resurrection – made by our friend who is very much alive and reigning!  This is the Kingdom Feast.

If I first experienced such a table as a child, a beloved guest of Ma Ruble, whose love for our family continued through letters until her death when she was close to 100, I have seen it since.  Through the years, in virtually every church, there have been other “Mas”  (if you will)  who have thrown their arms and their kitchens and their homes open to us: as “beloved adopted children” amongst the women: Gramma Williams, Miss Mamie, and Ruth of our three tiny student churches in Kentucky who tended us as newlyweds and extra adult children, as “come-heres” in Mathews County, as “yinz” in Pennsylvania, “gaijin” in Japan, “ohana” in Hawaii, and as military “brethren” in so many duty stations.  Sometimes it’s around a physical table – as my wife is, herself, a “the more, the merrier” believer in family of the heart, but always – ALWAYS — it is in our embrace of others.  It is in open arms, hearts, and minds, genuine openness and acceptance of all human spirits in all states of mind, body, and being.

SO WHAT

Julie and I, together as well as being in different directions, have experienced being guests this week – with our family of the heart, guests of friends, guests of those grieving, and guests of strangers.  I would submit that in learning to learn the language of being welcoming, of enlarging the Table of our Lord, perhaps we are meant to first learn the language of “guest-hood” – to share in the surprise of the disciples who found their feet being washed by Jesus instead of the other way around, or the woman at the well with her very complicated life story who was so transformed by the acceptance of a stranger named Jesus that she brought the city to hear him as well.

Perhaps during these weeks of Lent, we would do well to read the Book of Acts to see how daily existence and faith in the life of the church was conceived.  It was “far more holistic and far less myopic that merely an altar call or a Sinner’s Prayer or even some measurable behavior modifications.  People were living together in a way that perpetuated the way of Jesus, and this beautiful presence was going viral because their open table reminded people of his.  A disparate group found equal welcome in his unconditionally loving presence, and community was created” [Pavlovitz, p. 97].

We come to the Table as guests, we come to the table family of the heart of God.  We come to see the table grow larger in the miracle of the realm of God, and to bring others to experience the equal welcome and unconditionally loving presence – for there is indeed, our Lord.

Amen.

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Resources:  Sharon Watkins.  Whole: A Call to Unity in our Fragmented World.  St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2014.  John Pavlovitz.