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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Taxes and Tithes, Traps and Tricks (Matthew 22:15-22)


15 Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19  Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.

 

It’s said you can bring up the topics of religion or politics once at a fancy dinner party, but do it twice, and you won’t be invited back.

 

The Bible, however, is no slave to social norms, and our passage today is a complex web of politics, religion, and money – three things my grandmother taught me never to talk about in polite, public company.  The only thing missing from this conversation is sex – add that one to the mix, and we’ll have people running for the doors, or perhaps we’d have them running in, I’m not sure.

 

Why are these topics off limits?  Perhaps, they are too personal and private to be discussed among polite people.  Perhaps they are too inflammatory – opinions on such matters run deep – and we avoid these topics in the interest of “just getting along.”

 

Politics, religion, and money get center stage in today’s passage from the 22nd Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.  Here’s the backstory: An occupying army of Roman soldiers had invaded the country with much bloodshed and cultural upheaval.  Then taxes were collected, and used to fund the same occupying army.  The tax wasn’t popular, but refusing to pay meant imprisonment or death.  Taxes were not paid to demonstrate good citizenship so much as to stay alive.  Benjamin Franklin famously said “There is nothing certain in this life except death and taxes,” but for the people of 1st Century Judea, it was a matter of taxes or death.

 

Two groups who ordinarily have nothing to do with each other have joined forces in their quest to defeat Jesus.  The Herodians were those loyal to King Herod, who was seen within his own country of Israel as a sellout to the occupying Roman government – a puppet king whose loyalties lie in Rome, not to his own people.  The Pharisees – devout, religious, purists – detested Rome and anyone sympathetic to Rome.  It was insulting enough to pay the tax, but to have to use Roman currency to do it – engraved with an image of Caesar and proclaiming the divinity of Caesar – required them to regularly violate the first two of the ten commandments.

 

The Herodians have the lock on government power, the Pharisees the lock on religious power.  Along comes Jesus, an unlikely third party candidate, but lately he’s been gaining in the polls.  The Pharisees see him eroding their religious traditions and heritage, the Herodians see his popularity as a potential political threat and the seeds for an uprising.  Politically, the only thing the Herodians and the Pharisees had in common was their hatred of Jesus.  Indeed, politics do make strange bedfellows, as now they caucus together in a united front against Jesus, asking whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Rome.

 

Even Admiral Ackbar could see from a mile away that it’s a trap.  If Jesus answers, “yes,” he risks losing the support of his adoring public.  If he plays to public opinion and answers, “no,” then he can be arrested for advocating lawlessness and possible insurrection.  It’s a trick question with no right answer.  Jesus recognizes the inherent flaw in the question is that he is being asked to pick a side.

 

Jesus doesn’t take the bait, but reframes the question.  “Does anyone have the coin used to pay the tax?”  Someone in the crowd produces a Roman denarius, like this one, and presents it to Jesus.  Go ahead and pass this around, although, I would like it back, so whoever ends up with it, please bring it back to me!

 

As he casually holds the coin in his hand, Jesus asks, “Whose image and inscription are on this coin?” and he knows full well, as his opponents will answer, that the face of Caesar, as well as words ascribing glory and power and even divinity are on that coin.  The coin that’s being passed around is badly worn, but you can just barely make out the face in the middle, and evidence of some sort of writing around the edges.

 

And so, Jesus says, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.

 

He hasn’t technically answered the question.  He hasn’t helped us make heads or tails about the question of paying taxes, but has introduced a new, more fascinating and utterly more important wrinkle to the fabric: namely, what – and who – belongs to God.

 

Before I tackle that question, let me ask one of my own: why is it, actually, that we’re not supposed to talk about money, politics, and religion in the first place?  Yes, these matters are personal and potentially divisive.  People feel very strongly about these matters, which is just why we should talk about them in the community of faith – not to tell people what to do but to help them see these issues from the vantage point of their faith. When you ask what church folks look for in a good sermon, one common theme is that the sermon will connect to and inform their daily life; how the biblical story, in other words, connected with their life story.

 

What is more daily, more directly related to our decisions and priorities than our politics and how we spend money?  Does not our faith and who we believe and experience Jesus to be not have some influence on both?  Do we not have at least some idea of what the kingdom of God is like, some picture of what that might look like, and are we not called to work to bring God’s coming kingdom to fruition?  Are we not called to bear a little more light to an often dark world, to bring a little bit of heaven to earth, and really mean it when we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?

 

Give to God what is God’s – we don’t have to scratch down too far to realize that it all belongs to God.  Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all within it; the world, and all who live in it.”  But that doesn’t really solve the dilemma – if God already owns everything, how can we give God what God already has?

 

Think about that coin for a minute.  That coin stamped out by human hands for human purposes, and the image of Caesar imprinted on it - it’s hard to ignore the connection to those words from the beginning of Genesis about the first time God stamped out a human being: “Let us make humankind in our image” (Genesis 1:26).

 

An unspoken question hangs in the air as the eyes of Jesus meet ours. “And you, my friend: Whose image do you bear?”

 

Give to Caesar the things with Caesar’s image, but give to God what bears the image of God – yourself, your whole self, nothing less than yourself.  We belong to the one whose image we bear.  We belong to God.

 

Whatever we render unto Caesar, or to the retirement fund, or to the offering at church, we can never afford to forget this: we belong entirely to God. We may divide our budget, but we must never divide our allegiance.  Our first citizenship is in God’s kingdom, the church exists as an outpost of that kingdom, the embassy of a people who gather not under the flag of any one nation, but under the shadow of the cross of Christ.

 

That’s what we’re supposed to be anyway. Yet, I find that too often our other allegiances are allowed higher priority than God.  We too often modify and qualify our identity in God, describing ourselves as conservative Christians or liberal Christians; young Christians or old Christians; traditionalist Christians or contemporary Christians.  Every modifier and qualifier divides our loyalties and muddies our identity.  Our lives are influenced more by forces that are economic, cultural, and geographic than they are shaped by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

 

Friends, God comes first.  Before anything else.  Our ultimate, absolute, and final allegiance is pledged to God and God alone.

 

While we may feel strongly about our loyalties, before we are Democrat, Republican, or Independent, we are Christian.  Before we are liberal or conservative, we are Christian.  Before we are American, we are Christian.  No matter what else, our identity is in God.

 

Why does that matter so much? 
Think about that coin that’s going around, and think about the image on that coin.  That coin is 2000 years old.  The image has faded and is barely recognizable.  The emperor died long ago.  His empire has collapsed.  Everyone who pledged their allegiance and loyalty and identity in that earthly empire now have nothing to show for it.  The image on that coin is faded, and everything that image represents is now gone.

 

Eventually, all kings and kingdoms shall fade into oblivion.  Rulers and realms will be relegated to the ages.  Powers and principalities will pass away.  Every nation that rises will eventually fall.  But the name of the Lord endures forever.

 

The image of God, unlike the image on that coin and all it represents, doesn’t fade.  It is marked indelibly on each of us, it will last for all time and for the time that is beyond time.

 

Our value, worth, and identity is not found in that coin.  Not in the accumulation of those coins and the things they buy, not in the image on that coin and all it represents.  We are valued, every one of us, with sacred and inestimable worth, because we bear God’s image.  Recognize that value on yourself, and recognize it on all others who bear that image, and you’re on the right track toward giving God the things that belong to God.

 

So sure, give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar.  Some trinkets?  A coin?  Sure, why not!  That will all fade away, anyway.  But give to God the things that belong to God – starting with yourself.  Give yourself to God, and those other issues about what to do with your energy and time and money will come along, as well.

 

But, just to give you an opportunity to practice, at both ends of each row, you’ll find a permanent marker.  What I want you to do is to reach in your wallet and pull out a credit card or your debit card, or a dollar bill if you don’t have any cards.  I want you to mark the sign of the cross on that card or bill, and then put it back in your wallet.  From now on, when you pull that out of your wallet, the first thing I want you to do is remember that you are made in God’s image, and nothing you or anyone else does can change that, especially not the amount of money in the account tied to that particular card.  Once you’ve done that, ask yourself if the purchase you’re about to make is consistent with the values of God’s kingdom, and your identity as one who bears God’s image.  Use that as an opportunity give yourself to God again, and ask God to shape your priorities and identity to be more like Jesus.

 

It’s been said “Who you are is God’s gift to you.  What you do with yourself is your gift to God.”  Give God your self.  Your whole self.  Your very best self, and nothing less.

 

Let us pray.

O God, all that we are and all that we have is a gift from you.  Out of your great love, you formed us in your image and breathed into us the breath of life.  When our love failed and we turned away, your love remained steadfast.

 

Forgive us for those times when we live with divided loyalties.  Forgive us when look past you for our identity.  Bear with us as we learn to give you the highest place and our first and primary allegiance.

 

We thank you for the value and sacred worth you have placed upon us, the honor you give us simply by forming us in your image.  As those who bear your image, help us to live like that actually makes a difference in our lives.  May we worship you not with lip service only, but with our whole lives.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Praise. Pray. Peace. Repeat. (Philippians 4:4-13)


Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

10 I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.) 11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. 13 I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.

 

Be glad in the Lord, always.  Don’t be anxious about anything.  I must admit that at the beginning of the week, when I opened my Bible and read the first lines of our passage for today, I wondered if we were being punked.  Be glad always?  Don’t be anxious about anything?  Nice try, God, but do you have any idea what we’ve been through lately?  Do you know how much death and tragedy we have faced as a congregation in the last six weeks?  Do you know how many are facing difficulties – medically, in their families, in their relationships, their jobs, their finances?  Islamic State, Ebola, the economy, the election.  Our church – our relationships, our mission, our budget, our resources, our future – friends, there is plenty to be worried and anxious about!

 

And yet the Scripture says, “Do not be anxious about anything.”  I used to regard that as good advice, maybe even a command: sort of self-improvement slogan; a personal, spiritual pep-rally. I would read it and try to psyche myself up. "Let's do this! No anxiety! Who needs it? I am a competent adult. I just need to breathe deeper, summon more faith, and I can achieve this anxiety-free life Paul talks about. Let's do this!"

 

There are a lot of things we can do ourselves. Home Depot, Lowe's, and other companies specialize in selling products to people who want to do their projects themselves. Their slogans seek to inspire confidence in people that they can do it themselves!

 

Lowe's was "Let's Build Something Together," which gave way in 2012 to "Never Stop Improving."   Home Depot, until recently, was "You can do it, we can help."

 

We are a society built on self-improvement, do-it-yourself, can-do-ability.  We believe that the ability for each of us to do and be whatever we want is somewhere inside of us, and the key to success is to look and dig deep enough to find it.

 

And, truth be told, there’s an awful lot of good that we can accomplish ourselves.  There is satisfaction in tackling a difficult project and completing it.  Small children delight in being able to master some new skill without any help and proudly announcing to the world, “I do it myself!”  Goals of independence and self-sufficiency are common both to our growing children and our aging parents.

 

All the self-help gurus will tell you that the keys to peace and contentment and joy are found within ourselves, as well, but I’ve got news for them – I’ve looked, and it’s not there.  That need that we have for deep peace and joy and contentment is a real need.  We go looking for it where we’re told to look for everything else that gives us meaning – within ourselves.  And true enough, that need is inside of us, but the solution isn’t.

 

So, if it’s not within us, it must be around us.  Maybe we find joy in our circumstances, our surroundings, our jobs, our wealth, our status, our possessions.

 

Over the winter, I had been hinting for months that I wanted a new television.  My birthday rolled around in April, and low and behold, I came home from a trip to Kansas City and there in my family room was a new flat-screen television more than twice as big as the clunky old TV we had been watching.

 

The old TV worked just fine – it was just, old.  I am grateful to my wife for getting it.  Season Five of The Walking Dead begins tonight, and I’m glad to have a nice, big, clear screen to watch it on.  But, after a few weeks, the excitement of having it wore off because I was used to it.  And then, they started advertising for those new curved-screen TVs, and I was thinking, “Oh man, here I am watching this outdated flat-screen; we should have waited and gotten the curved-screen!”

 

Or, you buy a car, new or used, and you’re excited to get it because it’s so much nicer or newer or more reliable or whatever than your old car, and you show it off to all your friends, but then after a few weeks, you’re used to it.

 

You see how quickly that excitement and euphoria of a new thing can wear off?  Often the build-up and anticipation of having those things brings more actual pleasure than the thing itself.  So, no, true peace and joy and contentment aren’t found outside of ourselves, either.

 

So if not inside of ourselves, and not outside of ourselves, where do we find it? Well, for one thing, maybe each of us needs to take our “self” out of the picture.  If I may, we are far too impressed with ourselves, and far too obsessed with ourselves.  If you bought a Coke over the summer, be honest, did you dig through the cooler on more than one occasion seeing if they had a bottle with your name on it?  I know I did!  Why was that campaign so successful?  Because it capitalized on our unhealthy obsession with ourselves.

 

I can psyche myself up in other areas of life. So why do I struggle with actualizing peace of mind in my own soul?  Well, when it comes to finding lasting and peace and contentment and joy, we are not clever enough, creative enough, smart enough, good enough, spiritual enough, deep enough.

 

Peace and contentment and joy are not found in us, they are not found around us, because they’re not about us.  They’re found in God, because it’s about God.

 

The need for them is inside of us, but the solution isn’t.  True joy comes from God.

 

It may be stating the obvious, but the joy Paul has in mind is not superficial; there is a difference between something funny or happy and deep joy, which has a lasting effect and the power to change us.

 

Specifically, this joy is not the same as “happy,” and following Jesus is certainly not always “happy.” The Apostle Paul, who wrote these words to “be glad and be joyful, always” is the same Apostle Paul who was persecuted, beaten, and imprisoned. In the end, his faith cost him his life, as it did for many who believed in Jesus. The faith is not always happy.

 

At the same time, it need not be overly somber, either.  Sometimes we are our own greatest barrier to knowing God’s joy and peace.  Sometimes we Christians just take ourselves too seriously.  We can get so focused on duty and obligation, and rules and regulations that we miss the invitation to walk with Christ in newness of life.  Steve Brown says, "Religion has made us obsessive almost beyond endurance. Jesus invited us to a dance...and we've turned it into a march of soldiers, always checking to see if we're doing it right and are in step and in line with the other soldiers. We know a dance would be more fun, but we believe we must go through hell to get to heaven, so we keep marching."

 

Sometimes we focus on the negative rather than the positive, or the shortcomings, failures, and annoyances of others, caught up in meaningless disagreements and petty arguments.  I’ve seen more church folks lose sight of the big picture because everyone was more concerned with the color of the carpet, the music selections, the “right” way to make the hot dogs and the setting of the thermostat than they were with being a community of praise and prayer that sought God’s will over each of their own.  I’ve seen more church folks major in the minors, thereby destroying rather than building any semblance of God’s peace.

 

We are too often focused on sin instead of celebrating that we are forgiven. We complain too often about the lack of righteousness instead of remembering we are beloved children of God. We are too often frustrated by feelings of weakness instead of being delighted about the strength of the Holy Spirit working in us. Yes, we too, probably need a periodic reminder to “rejoice in the Lord.”

 

You may know that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a missionary from England to the colony of Georgia for about 18 months in the 1730s.  Despite what the folks in Savannah tell you, his time in America was a colossal failure.

 

One famous story from that time was on the ship to Georgia.  A violent storm came up that had most of the passengers screaming for their lives, except for a group of Moravian Christians – the same Moravians in Winston-Salem – who calmly prayed, read Psalms, and sang hymns.  That incident left an impression on Wesley – the maturity of their faith, and by comparison, the lack of maturity of his own.

 

What Wesley saw was truly “the peace of God that passes all human understanding.”  They found a joy and contentment that was not within themselves, not circumstantial, but from God.

 

Now, in theory, we all know this.  We all know that God’s will is ever-directed to his children’s good, that God is the Lord and giver of life who came that we would have life and have it abundantly, and whatever forces are at work in our world to steal and kill and destroy, those things are that are robbing us of abundant life and taking away our joy are clearly not from God, in theory, we all know that in our heads, but it’s easy to let the troublesome circumstances of life cloud out that reality.

 

Yes, we too, need instruction to focus our thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.  The life of praise and prayer is the path to peace and joy.  If you are looking for that in your life, commit to being a person of praise and prayer; you’ll find a joy and a peace that transcends all human understanding.

 

This joy does not overlook or diminish the real pain and difficulty we go through in life, but it keeps the long view in mind that our struggles and grief are both temporary and counter to God’s will for us.

 

Where that gets muddled, our passage from Philippians is like hiring a personal trainer who isn’t going to drop any new knowledge on us, but just tell us and remind us and encourage us in what we already know:  that we, as the people of God, are called to a life of joy and contentment and peace in God, even when the storms of life rage within us and around us.

 

So what is there to rejoice? Real and lasting joy comes from the confidence that, no matter what happens, we are inseparably connected to God and saved – saved from sin, and saved for abundant life. It has to do with where the focus of one’s life is or, to employ a famous phrase by Paul Tillich, with one’s “ultimate concern.”  True joy is seated in an unwavering faith that no matter what comes, God will win in the end.  Good will triumph over evil, hope will prevail over fear, love will always win over hate.

 

When anxiety and stress and fear and pain and worry and grief are weighing us down, we are invited to rejoice, because ultimately our identity is found in God, not in our circumstances.  We rejoice, not because we are holding it all together, but because God is holding us, not because we are having fun but because God is faithful, not because we are happy but because God is holy.

 
We rejoice, not because life is good or we are good but because God is good.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

God's Family Table (Matthew 26:20-35)


20 That evening he took his place at the table with the twelve disciples. 21 As they were eating he said, “I assure you that one of you will betray me.”

22 Deeply saddened, each one said to him, “I’m not the one, am I, Lord?”

23 He replied, “The one who will betray me is the one who dips his hand with me into this bowl. 24  The Human One goes to his death just as it is written about him. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays the Human One! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.”

25 Now Judas, who would betray him, replied, “It’s not me, is it, Rabbi?”

Jesus answered, “You said it.”

26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is my body.” 27 He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. 28  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven. 29  I tell you, I won’t drink wine again until that day when I drink it in a new way with you in my Father’s kingdom.” 30 Then, after singing songs of praise, they went to the Mount of Olives.

31 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Tonight you will all fall away because of me. This is because it is written, I will hit the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will go off in all directions. 32  But after I’m raised up, I’ll go before you to Galilee.”

33 Peter replied, “If everyone else stumbles because of you, I’ll never stumble.”

34 Jesus said to him, “I assure you that, before the rooster crows tonight, you will deny me three times.”

35 Peter said, “Even if I must die alongside you, I won’t deny you.” All the disciples said the same thing.

 

The children were gathered together in an interfaith learning group, to learn more about each other’s religious heritage.  For the first session, they were each asked to bring something from home that symbolized something important about their faith.  They went around the room; “I’m Catholic, and this is a rosary.”  “I’m Jewish, and this is a star of David.”  “I’m Buddhist, and this is a Lotus flower.”  “I’m Methodist, and this is a casserole dish.”

 

We joke, and yet the reality is that when the people of God share a meal together, we draw closer to God as we draw closer to one another.  Sharing food together is as much a part of our faith as attending worship or reading the Bible or tithing or acts of service and mission.  Whether we are out to eat, in someone’s home, in the fellowship hall, or having a cup of coffee together between services, when we eat together, we are drawn together.  At the table, something wonderful always happens, and nowhere is that truer than around the table of our Lord.  May we pray.

 

Think of the times your own family has gathered around the table.  No doubt you will think of holidays and birthdays and anniversaries and special occasions.  I always think of Thanksgiving Dinner at my Grandma’s house – with my aunts and uncles and cousins – half in the dining room at the adult table, half in the kitchen at the kid table.  I think of the joy and celebration – everyone excited to see each other and catch up, telling stories, cracking jokes, all talking at the same time such that I learned quickly that to take a breath in the middle of a story was to be left out of the conversation for the next 20 minutes.

 

I think about the mashed potatoes being passed to my Uncle John, and when he was finished, and my Grandma looking over and saying, “John, pass your plate” because there were more on his plate than left in the bowl.

 

I think about the dinners we’ve hosted in our home, how some of the traditions are the same as I remember from growing up, and yet some are different.  Every family has their own traditions and ways of celebrating around the table.  The details may vary from place to place, but other things are universal: togetherness, celebration, and love.

 

That can be true around God’s family table, as well.  The traditions and details of Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist) can vary from place to place.  The meal is often approached with questions and confusion – Who can receive Communion?  How old should someone be to receive Communion?  What if I feel unworthy?  What if I don’t understand it?  What if a non-believer receives it?  How often should we have it?  What’s the best method to receive it?  Wine or juice?  Standing or kneeling?  Common cup or shot glasses?  Wafers or bread?  Leavened or unleavened bread?

 

It’s easy to get lost in the details, and lose sight of the main thing: Holy Communion is a place where God promises to meet us and give us grace, to draw us closer to Christ and one another, to give us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.  It’s God’s Family Table – where we share in God’s love and grace in a real and tangible way.

 

In the United Methodist tradition, our practice is to have an open table – because this is a place to experience God’s love and grace, and we don’t want to deny anyone that opportunity.  God’s presence and grace are so real and tangible in the bread and wine that John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, went so far as to call Communion “a converting ordinance,” meaning that even an unbeliever could be brought to faith in Christ through the powerful grace of Communion.

 

For that reason, everyone is welcome at God’s family table.  Children, members of other churches and denominations, people who are not part of any church, those who are sitting in a church for the first time in their lives today, saints and sinners – all are welcome!

 

The table is not ours, it’s God’s!  We are not the host of the meal; Jesus is!  Jesus came for all, his grace is for all, and his grace is available at this table, which is why all are welcome at this table.

 

That makes some folks uncomfortable.  I’ve been asked by very well-meaning folks, “Pastor, what if unworthy people receive Communion?”

 

Well, how did Jesus handle it?  The scripture we read a few moments ago is Matthew’s account of what we commonly refer to as “The Last Supper.”  It is Jesus’ final meal with his closest followers and friends, a Passover celebration on the eve of his execution.  As you look around the table of those first disciples, realize that none of them was worthy of their place at the table with Jesus.  Judas, of course, is the one we single out.  Judas, the betrayer, the one who sold Jesus out for a few measly coins, Judas, the bad apple in an otherwise good bunch.

 

But friends, there was plenty of sin to go around the table that night.  The disciples had argued about who would get the most important, honorable place.  They had all refused to serve each other.  They had false expectations about him, even at that late hour.  They would fall asleep when Jesus told them to pray.  Peter would deny ever knowing him.  The others would abandon him and run for their own lives.  None of the disciples is any prize.  Not just Judas, but there is enough sin to go all the way around the table.

 

If the places at God’s family table were awarded based on who is worthy, then Jesus would have eaten that meal alone.  Jesus took his place at the table among those who would betray, deny, and desert him.  Even those closest to Jesus would let him down and disappoint him, and yet he expressed how much he wanted to eat that meal with them.

 

It’s particularly remarkable considering that in Middle Eastern culture, both in Jesus’ day and in ours, eating together is considered one of the most intimate thing you can do with someone else.  It is a way of signifying solidarity, unity, connection with another person.  To invite someone to your table and to share a meal with them is to bestow upon them a great honor.  With the peace talks that are on and off between Israel and Palestine, I can guarantee you that any time food is served, the Palestinians and Israelis will not eat together.  Eating together says, “We’re on the same page, we respect you, we honor you.”

 

That’s some real food for thought.  The saying goes, “You’re known by the company you keep.”  In the Scriptures, you’ll find Jesus keeping company, eating with tax collectors and prostitutes and every manner of sinner, every outcast, every social misfit, every disreputable character you could imagine.  Jesus doesn’t end up sitting with them by accident; he invites them to his table, he invites himself to their tables, even up to the last, he desires to eat a meal with people who would let him down in the biggest ways imaginable.

 

What if unworthy people receive Communion?  Who cares?  So what if they do?  It would be no different than that night Jesus was betrayed and gave himself for us.  Forgive my simple mind, but unworthy people at God’s family table – wouldn’t that be exactly what Jesus wanted?

 

Across the world and regardless of cultural context, the family table is a place where relationships are strengthened as bodies are fed.  It’s a place where love is as real as the food on the table.

 

If you can understand that, then you can understand the significance of what happens in Holy Communion - where God’s love and grace are as real as the food on the table.

 

We come to this table because we need God’s grace, not because we already have it figured out.  Wherever we are on our spiritual journey – just starting out, well along the path, not sure – we all need food for the journey, which is why we all need to come to this table.  Grace is the main course served here – it looks and tastes like bread and wine, but it’s the gracious and loving presence of Christ that’s being served in abundance at this table.

 

I don’t know about you, but I need all the grace I can get.  I am hungry for the presence of Christ in my life.  That’s why I make sure to receive Communion every opportunity I have.  Every time this meal is available, we, as the people of God are invited to receive it in faith that Christ is really present, and that grace is being served.

 

Sometimes I hear people say they don’t want to have Communion too often because “then it won’t be as special.”  Let me ask you this: how much of God’s grace is too much of God’s grace?  John Wesley encouraged the early Methodists to celebrate “constant communion,” meaning, if it’s available, you go and receive – in order to receive the grace available.  Wesley was known to receive Communion several times a week.  Methodist laypeople were known to travel many miles in awful weather to get to a Communion service, anymore, we have trouble getting you to come out if it starts to drizzle a bit!

 

If you’re a lifelong Methodist, you may remember “quarterly Communion,” basically celebrating Communion about four times a year.  That tradition dates back to the frontier days, when Methodist preachers were circuit-riders.  Ordained Methodist clergy were few and far between, and so they covered a great deal of territory.  The preacher, the circuit rider, would come through about once a quarter, and would celebrate Communion on that visit.  Once a quarter doesn’t seem very often, but it was as often as the laypeople had access to an ordained person who could celebrate Communion – they were having Communion as frequently as possible.

 

Now that most United Methodist congregations are led by an ordained clergyperson, many congregations are taking seriously the command to have Communion as often as possible, moving toward more frequent celebrations of Communion – monthly, in most cases, and even weekly in some places.  Some are asking, “Isn’t that too much?” and again I answer, “How much of God’s grace is too much?”

 

Friends, Communion is not special because it only comes around every once in awhile.  It was never intended to be a rare treat; it’s supposed to be daily bread.  What makes it special is the presence of Christ and the gift of grace.  Communion is celebrated weekly in our sanctuary on Wednesdays at 5:30.  If you’re hungry and thirsty for more of God’s presence, then be here.

 

God’s grace is abundant and there’s always plenty to go around.  No doubt you notice what big pieces of bread I break off for you when you come to receive Communion.  Some of you think “it’s too much,” but again I ask, “How much of God’s grace is too much?”  Friends, I give you those big pieces intentionally.  This is a feast of grace, not a meager meal.  God gives grace in abundance; who are we to be stingy with what God has given abundantly?

 

That big piece of bread is a significant reminder of the abundance of God’s grace, even if you have to chew on it for more than one bite, I want you to take that time chewing to think about just how good and generous God is, and knowing that in the economy of God’s kingdom, there is always plenty to go around.  When someone complains about the bread being too big, too much, you just look them right in the eye and say, “And how much of God’s grace is too much?”

 

Jesus desires to eat this meal with us.  I am so honored that Jesus thinks enough of me, loves me enough, to invite me to his table.  Jesus takes his place at a table packed with all sorts of unworthy people.  Take a look at the table; it may look like bread and wine up there, but the main course is an abundance of God’s love and grace.

 

Are you hungry for some grace?  I hope so; dinner is served.