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Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Grace - Healing (Mark 2:1-12)

After a few days, Jesus went back to Capernaum, and people heard that he was at home.  So many gathered there that there was no longer space, not even near the door.  Jesus was speaking the word to them.  Some people arrived, and four of them were bringing to him a man who was paralyzed.  They couldn’t carry him through the crowd, so they tore off part of the roof above where Jesus was.  When they had made an opening, they lowered the mat on which the paralyzed man was lying.  When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”
Some legal experts were sitting there, muttering to themselves, “Why does he speak this way?  He’s insulting God.  Only the one God can forgive sins.”
Jesus immediately recognized what they were discussing, and he said to them, “Why do you fill your minds with these questions?  Which is easier--to say to a paralyzed person, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your bed, and walk’?  But so you will know that the Human One [the Son of Man] has authority on the earth to forgive sins” - he said to the man who was paralyzed, “Get up, take your mat, and go home.”
Jesus raised him up, and right away he picked up his mat and walked out in front of everybody.  They were all amazed and praised God, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this!”

Today, we are continuing in a series of messages called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Grace.”  Just as a hitchhiker is dependent on the generosity of someone else to make their journey, so too are we spiritual hitchhikers, dependent on the generosity of God to make our spiritual journey.  We have been deepening our understanding of grace as the free, undeserved gift of God’s presence in our lives.  But how do we get grace, how do we experience grace in our lives?  That’s a good question, and that question is at the heart of these messages.

I have asked us all to keep an image in our mind, of God driving around in a great big bus full of grace, and making periodic stops where people can hop aboard the grace bus for the ride of their lives.  In order to experience the grace promised, God asks us to do two things - those of you who have been here, do you remember what they are?  Say them nice and loud for the rest of us: the first thing is to-----show up, and the second is to-----have an open and willing heart.  So you’ve all shown up today - good job - and I hope your hearts are willing and open to what God might do.

The grace bus has already made two stops in our series: holy communion, and baptism.  God gives us grace in both.  The more frequently we receive Communion with an open and willing heart, the more frequently we receive God’s grace in our lives.  Likewise, though we are baptized just once in our lives, the more frequently we remember the covenant and promise God makes with us in our baptism, God’s grace becomes active and real in our lives.  Today, we are invited, with open and willing hearts, to climb aboard the grace bus as it pulls into its next stop - healing.  May we pray.

We’ve never seen anything like this
Jesus said to the man who was paralyzed, “Get up, take your mat, and go home.”  They were all amazed, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:10-12).  You think?  It is only the 2nd Chapter of Mark’s Gospel, and Jesus’ reputation is already such that as soon as he gets to town, a crowd forms to see him, hear him, and be close to him.  At the house where he was staying, we are told that “so many gathered that there was no longer space, not even near the door” (Mark 2:2).

Four men, bearing their paralyzed friend on a stretcher, come to the house in hopes of getting him close to Jesus.  I am struck by the insight of those determined friends who know instinctively that healing and wholeness is related to proximity to Jesus.  They arrive, and the crowd of people is so large and so dense that there’s no way they can get their friend to Jesus.  Yet, this is only a minor inconvenience & temporary setback.

We know from archeological evidence that homes in this time and place often had stairs from the ground leading to a flat roof.  The roof was considered living space, and often used in the early morning and late evening, away from the heat of the day.  And so, the four men bear the stretcher up the stairs to the roof, lay their friend down, and literally start tearing the house apart; this is the magnitude of their determination in getting their friend to Jesus.

You can just picture the scene.  Jesus is standing in the middle of the house - speaking, teaching, talking, laughing - with the crowd that gathered.  His lunch, interrupted hours ago, is sitting on the table and has long gone cold.  Suddenly, bits of plaster, and wood, and straw begin to fall from the ceiling onto Jesus, those around him, the floor, and even onto his lunch.  A spectre of sunlight pierces the cool shadow of the house, and the crowd looks up as the hole above their heads gets wider and wider.  They are astonished to see four men tearing chunks of the roof away with their bare hands, and when the opening is finally wide enough, they take the corners of their friend’s stretcher, and gently lower him down through the roof to the feet of Jesus (Mark 2:3-4).

This story often elicits the response - usually from someone on trustees - “What about the building?  Did the insurance cover the damage?  Did these guys pay to get it fixed?”  And yet in the story, the state of the building is far less important than doing what it takes to get people close to Jesus.

Faith, child, forgiveness
Verse 5 tells us, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”  Let’s hit the pause button there.

The word “faith” comes from the Greek, pistis.  Used in conjunction with miracles in Mark, it implies perseverance - overcoming obstacles in order to get to Jesus.  In our text, there are several barriers to overcome - the crowd blocking the normal and obvious way to Jesus, and the roof blocking the abnormal and not-so-obvious way to Jesus.  The four guys demonstrate their faith in their perseverance in overcoming barriers to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus.

When Jesus sees the faith of the friends, he forgives and heals the paralytic.  Jesus commends their faith, the faith of those roof-destroying friends.  Notice that is is not the faith of the individual that Jesus commends, but the faith of his friends - his community.  He didn’t ask for healing or forgiveness, he didn’t confess his sin or profess his belief.  He isn’t what we might call “deserving,” he’s done nothing himself to receive this gift from Jesus.  In other words, it’s about grace.  The story is more about the character of God - who freely gives through Jesus, and the community - who overcomes obstacles in order to get someone to Jesus - than about the response of the man.

Now, what about the paralyzed man himself?  Jesus calls him, “Child.”  The Greek is teknon, which means “child” or “son.”  When Jesus addresses him as teknon, he is addressing him with affection and endearment and a closeness that was reserved for members of the family.

Jesus hasn’t said word one about the paralyzed man’s faith.  The paralyzed man hasn’t done anything to deserve any of this, and honestly, how could he, he’s paralyzed.  And yet, according to Jesus, he is a teknon, a child, a son, a precious member of the family, and according to Jesus, that’s enough.

Reaction of scribes and Pharisees
In every generation, there will always be those who want to make it more complicated.  There will always be some who protest, “It can’t be that simple!”  But it is!  At the end of our passage, in verse 12, it says that “everyone was amazed and praised God, saying, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this!’”  I love that Jesus seems to elicit two responses that sound very similar, yet are very different.  One group responds positively, saying, we’ve never seen anything like it – wow!  But another groups responds negatively, saying, we’ve never seen anything like it – whoa!

In the stories of Jesus, this nay-saying group is sometimes represented by the Pharisees, sometimes by the scribes, or the experts in the law.  There are found in our story in verses 6 & 7.   Whereas others saw what was happening and were amazed and praised God, the scribes and Pharisees said, “We’ve never seen anything like this—and we don’t like it one bit!”  They didn’t say “Wow,” they said, “Whoa!” because God wasn’t acting how they expected God to act.

Throughout the Gospels, the scribes & Pharisees tended to be full of themselves.  Whereas the Old Testament prophets had written “The joy of the Lord is my strength,” (Nehemiah 8:10), the scribes and Pharisees found their strength and power in knowing the right answers, following the right rules, and honestly believing they were better than those around them. 

This is the group that is always opposed to the work of God that is happening through Jesus.  Whether in Jesus’ time or in ours, they are always easy to pick out in a crowd.  They’ve never been known to smile, and they are paralyzed by the fear that somewhere, someone is getting better than they deserve – which is sorta funny, because we all get better than we deserve!   You can see why they don’t like grace very much, which is why they take such an issue with Jesus, who has the gall to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners.  Heaven forbid God should move in a way other than what they expect, let the muttering and grumbling begin.  This is exactly what happens when Jesus pronounces forgiveness for the paralyzed man.

Even so, they’re not fooling anyone, especially Jesus.  He says in verse 8, “Why do you fill your minds with these questions?” (Mark 2:8).  They fancied themselves experts in God’s law, yet they couldn’t discern the work of God’s spirit in front of their very eyes.  The irony is that the scribes and Pharisees were the ones suffering from paralysis - spiritual paralysis - such that the transforming grace of God in their midst left them grumbling amongst themselves and completely unmoved.

What a contrast to those who were amazed and praised God, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this!”  One group said, “Whoa.”  The other said, “Wow.”

Where do we fit in?
Friends, what I want you to consider this morning is this: where do you fit into this story?  Who do you identify with here?  You can actually be anyone in this story you want, except for Jesus.  That position has already been filled.  None of us is Jesus.  No one here needs a savior complex, so let’s go ahead and rule that one out!

But, who do you identify with?  Are you that paralyzed man, lying on your stretcher?  Are you simply part of the crowd, standing around not really doing anything, but sorta blocking the way to Jesus?  Are you one of the scribes or Pharisees, whose heart has hardened and become spiritually paralyzed, casting judgment and grumbling, all because God has the nerve to act however God wants without having to consult with you?  Or, are you one of the stretcher-bearers - stopping at nothing and doing whatever it takes to get people to Jesus?

What I have come to realize is this: at some point in our lives, if we’re honest with ourselves, each of us probably spends some time being each of these characters.

The scribes and Pharisees and the man on the stretcher have more in common in this story than they realized.  They were both paralyzed.  There are a lot of things in life that can leave us paralyzed - illness, weakness, anger, fear, addiction, circumstances completely beyond our control.  And yet the good news for today is that Jesus heals the paralytic - physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.

If you’re the paralyzed one in this story, get some stretcher-bearers.  Find some people in your life who will carry you when your own strength isn’t enough, who will stop at nothing to get you to Jesus.  If you’re not the paralyzed one in this story, be a stretcher-bearer for someone else.  Have compassion, and stop at nothing to get those around you to Jesus.

Worship today is going to conclude with the ministry of healing.  At various points in our lives, we all need healing.  Healing comes in many forms - physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational.  James 5:14 says, “If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”  So that’s exactly what we’re going to do today.  If you are in need of healing this morning in any form, in a few minutes I will invite you to come forward, where I will anoint your forehead with oil in the mark of the cross, and pray for the Holy Spirit to work within you to bring healing and wholeness in all areas of your life.  If you would like to stand in and be anointed for someone else, that’s fine.  Others who wish to come forward with anyone else for prayer and laying on of hands are welcome to do so.  If you can’t come forward, but need to remain in your seat, and you desire anointing and prayer, we’ll come to you.  This is an opportunity for all of us to practice being stretcher-bearers for each other.

Four men brought a man who was paralyzed to Jesus.  Grace was made real in life through the faith of his friends who stopped at nothing to get him to Jesus.  No obstacle was too great, no barrier was too high.  They just knew that they had to get their friend to Jesus, whatever it took.  Good thing they did, because in the presence of Jesus, the wounded are healed and made whole.  They were all amazed, [as are we], praising God and saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this” – Wow!

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Grace: Baptism (Romans 6:3-6, 1 Corinthians 12:13)

Or don’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life. 5 If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his. 6 This is what we know: the person that we used to be was crucified with him in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin.
13 We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink.
Today, we are continuing in a series we began last week, entitled, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Grace.” We started with the premise that as hitchhikers are dependent on someone else to make their journey, so too are we spiritual hitchhikers - dependent on God’s grace to make our spiritual journey.

Throughout these messages, I’m asking you to keep an image in your mind, of God driving around in a great big bus just overflowing with grace.  But how do we get grace?  Along the way, God stops at various places where people can get on board for the ride of their lives, and each week, we’re exploring the grace that’s available at one of these stops.

Last week we said there were two things we each have to do in order to receive the grace that’s available.  If you were here last Sunday, do you remember what they were?  1. Show up, and 2. Have an open and willing heart, and those are the only two things I’m asking of you through this series - to show up, and have an open heart.  Today, our journey continues as we come to the next stop along the way: baptism.  May we pray.

The lay of the land
Let me say at the outset that you are in a United Methodist Church today, where we preach and teach United Methodist theology.  In eight years of ministry, every time I have preached or taught about baptism, I always get someone who is deeply distressed, confused, maybe even a little angry because what I’ve just said is different than the way they’ve always understood baptism.  Let me repeat this - this is a United Methodist Church, so when I talk about baptism today, it’s going to be from that particular perspective, which means that the emphasis in baptism is going to have less to do with us and more to do with God.  Other groups emphasize the person more, and that’s their prerogative.  We’re just not one of those groups.  They are not right or wrong, just different.  You wouldn’t get mad at an oak tree for making acorns and not walnuts.  If you want walnuts, go shake a walnut tree, but let the oak tree make all the acorns it can.

What you need to know about baptism in our tradition can be summed up in one word: covenant.  That’s a hard word to work with and understand, and I quickly realized that I don’t have enough time this morning to even scratch the surface.  In the Bible, covenants go back all the way to Noah, and then Abraham, and then Israel, and then the followers of Jesus, which is where our baptism comes in.    And yet, just reading the Bible closely, or even reading our own hearts closely, it’s clear that in over 6000 years of practice, we’re still trying to figure out how to participate fully in covenant with God.  Let’s see if we can’t cover a 6000+ year history of Biblical covenant in about the next 12 minutes.

Baptism is a covenant, initiated by God, binding us to God with water on the outside, and grace on the inside.  A covenant is an agreement between two or more parties, which sounds an awful lot like a contract.  The difference between a covenant and a contract is this: whereas we design and make contracts, covenants actually make us. For example, the covenant of marriage makes me a different person than I was before.  I have different obligations, priorities, and accountability, so my wife tells me.  I don’t define the covenant of marriage; the covenant of marriage defines me.  Likewise, and in an even more powerful way, we don’t define baptism because baptism defines us.

Baptism is a covenant relationship, initiated by God so that God might define our lives. That’s a really important point for all of us to remember: God initiated the covenant.  Write that down: God initiated the covenant.  God started it.  God sought us out, inviting us into the relationship.  Baptism seals that covenant.  It’s all God’s doing!  Long before any of us made a move toward God, God was already moving toward us.  Thanks be to God!

A means of grace
In our tradition, baptism is a means of grace.  By that, we mean that it is a tried and true channel where God shows up in a real and tangible way.  In baptism, God is present and active, imparting the indwelling Holy Spirit to define the lives of those being baptized, whatever their age or ability.

What that means is baptism is a starting point, not a final destination.  Here is a picture of me that was taken within a few weeks of my baptism.  I know what you’re thinking, too: “What an adorable kid - what happened?”   Now, as you look at that picture, do you think that when this picture was taken, I was closer to the beginning of my life’s journey or the end of it?  Clearly, I was at the beginning of the journey.  So it is with baptism.  It is a beginning, which is why the age of the one being baptized really doesn’t matter.  It’s not about knowing what we’re doing, it’s about taking a first step.

Take a look at this picture again.  Do you think I could explain nutrition to you at that age?  Of course not - but that didn’t stop my parents from feeding me - look at me, I was obviously not a starving child!  Do you think I could have explained the importance of bathing and good hygiene to you?  Of course not - but that didn’t stop my parents from cleaning me up.  Do you think I could have explained love to you?  Of course not - but that didn’t stop my family from loving me.  I didn’t know anything about a lot of things, but my lack of understanding didn’t stop my parents from giving me the things I needed to be a healthy and happy part of the family.

So let me put that back in the context of faith.  Can small children explain grace?  No, but they can experience it, and they do, as a happy and healthy part of God’s family.  Not only that, but they can show grace - often more thoroughly, readily, and effectively than we adults can.

God is big enough, and grace is abundant enough, to assure us that God is at work in our lives, even when we don’t know what we’re doing.  Baptism isn’t about what we know, what we have chosen, what we believe, what we have decided.  Baptism is about God giving grace, a grace which is for all people. It is that means of grace that starts us on the journey.

The role of the community
And because this is just the beginning, God makes sure we are equipped with the support we need for our lives to be defined by God. When we are baptized, it is not simply a private matter between us and God.  Baptism is never private or in solitude, but something that happens in the context of a community because it unites us not only to God, but to the family of faith, the Church, the body of Christ.  The role of the community is so important in baptism, even more important than the response of the individual.  Our society places such a high premium on individualism, yet baptism dares us to believe that we participate in something bigger than ourselves.

God initiates the covenant of grace and the faith community surrounds us with God’s grace.  For its part, the community promises to uphold us and care for us, to teach us the story of faith, to live out their faith in such a way that we can live out ours.  The congregation promises to be a community of love and forgiveness - that’s no small promise! - so that the seeds sown in baptism might grow to full maturity.  The congregation makes this promise - to God, to each other, and to the newly-baptized person - to be sort of community where grace is experienced and expected, so that the love of Christ and the joy of the Lord may flow freely in all we do, whether inside or outside these walls.

The community of faith also helps us remember our baptism.  At every baptism, I encourage lots of photos to be taken, because that’s one way a community helps a person remember their baptism.  I think we should pay attention to the details of the day - what was the weather like?  What was the worship service like?  Who was there?  What did the person being baptized do - did they cry, did they smile at everyone?  The community often gives gifts - a certificate, a baptismal candle, special clothes, the shell the water was poured with.  Then, as the person grows - whether they were an infant or adult at the time of their baptism - we in the community tell those stories, show those photos, and share those gifts, in order to help a person remember their baptism.

There is another aspect of remembering that the community plays when it comes to baptism.  Others in the community of faith not only help us remember the specifics of our own baptism event, they also remind us that we are baptized - a constant reminder of who we are and to whom we belong.  A community helps us remember that our truest identity is in our baptism, that we belong to God, that we are people of God’s covenant, that we are dependent on God’s grace rather than our own good works.  Make no mistake, our response to grace and our growth in grace is vitally important, but our first emphasis is upon God - what God does, what God promises, who God is.

It really is all about God
The baptismal covenant reminds us that God is sorta like Motel 6 - he leaves the light on for us.   No matter where we go, no matter what we do, no matter how far we try to turn from God or run away from God, God never abandons God’s part of the covenant. God remains faithful to us even when we’re less than faithful to God.

The covenant made in baptism is still good because when God makes a promise, God always keeps it, which is why Methodists do reaffirmations of faith rather than re-baptizing.  On one hand, we recognize how much we mess up in holding up our end of the covenant with God, but God never fails on God’s part.  And since it’s about God, the baptism is still good!  We just need to recommit ourselves to it.  Reaffirmation gives us a chance to say, “God, I need a new start.  I can’t do this on my own. I can’t live for myself, so I need you in my life and I’m dependent on your grace. And with your help, I’m gonna live my life for you.”

Even if we haven’t really messed up all that big (or think we haven’t), the reaffirmation of our baptismal faith is something we’re called to every day.  Now, let me say that I am aware that there are people here who may have never been baptized before.  If that’s you and you’re sitting here thinking, “He’s just assuming we’ve all been baptized and I’ve never been baptized and I’m missing out on something and I want to be baptized!” - if that’s you, talk to me after worship and I’ve got a stack of these booklets - “What United Methodists should know about Baptism” - and I’d love to give you one so you can take it home and learn more about what we’ve been talking about all morning.  Then, I want us to find a time to sit down and talk about scheduling a date for your baptism as soon as humanly possible.  It is a great thing, and I don’t want anyone here to miss out on God’s transforming grace that is given to us in baptism.

For those who have been baptized, today you have the opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to the baptismal covenant.  This is something we Christians need to do often.  Baptism is a means of grace - both when it happens initially, and every time we remember it.  Today, I invite all those who have been baptized, whether recently or long ago, whether in this church or somewhere else, to remember your baptism and experience God’s grace.

Here’s what will happen.  We will sing a song of preparation together.  Then, we will go through the liturgy in our hymnal designed for the congregational reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant.  Don’t just go through words and responses.  Think about them and what they mean, and let the words themselves shape you.  I will pour the water into the font, and invite all those who wish to reaffirm their baptism to come forward, where I will touch the water to your forehead, make the sign of the cross, and say, “Remember your baptism, and be thankful.”  As you hear those words and feel the water on your brow, may the Holy Spirit work within you, fill you with grace, and remind you who you are, and to whom you belong.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Grace - Communion (1 Corinthians 11:23-34)

23 I received a tradition from the Lord, which I also handed on to you: on the night on which he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread. 24 After giving thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me.” 25 He did the same thing with the cup, after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Every time you drink it, do this to remember me.” 26 Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes.  27 This is why those who eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord inappropriately will be guilty of the Lord’s body and blood. 28 Each individual should test himself or herself, and eat from the bread and drink from the cup in that way. 29 Those who eat and drink without correctly understanding the body are eating and drinking their own judgment. 30 Because of this, many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few have died. 31 But if we had judged ourselves, we wouldn’t be judged. 32 However, we are disciplined by the Lord when we are judged so that we won’t be judged and condemned along with the whole world. 33 For these reasons, my brothers and sisters, when you get together to eat, wait for each other. 34 If some of you are hungry, they should eat at home so that getting together doesn’t lead to judgment. I will give directions about the other things when I come.
Today we are beginning a new six-week series of messages I have entitled “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Grace.”  What I want each of us to consider throughout this series is this: we are all hitchhikers.  Every one of us - the person on your left and the person on your right, and most importantly the person between them - we are all hitchhikers.  Now, what do I mean by that?

Think about what a hitchhiker is.  A hitchhiker is a person making a journey, trying to get somewhere, who can’t do it on their own, who is dependent on the generosity and goodness of others in order to make their journey.  Someone is going to have to give the hitchhiker something - a ride - with the full knowledge that the hitchhiker doesn’t deserve the ride, hasn’t earned the ride, and likely can’t pay for the ride.  Likewise, we are all on a journey, as well.  We are on a spiritual journey, whether you are  Christian and have been your whole life, or are here in church today for the first time in years or perhaps ever, we are all on a journey.  We all may be at different points along our journey, but that’s okay - we’re all still a work in progress.  We are neither in the exact same place we started, nor are we finished and arrived at our final destination.  We are all on a journey, and wherever you are on that journey today, I am just so glad that you’re here today.

To make that journey, we are all dependent on the goodness of God.  We are spiritual hitchhikers!  Do we deserve God’s goodness?  Have we done anything to earn God’s goodness?  Can we somehow pay for it?  So God’s goodness is a free, undeserved, unmerited, gift - I wish there were some word that could describe such a thing - a free, undeserved, unmerited, gift from God - if only there were such a word!  Can anyone here think of such a word?

Of course we’re talking about grace.  We are dependent on God’s grace to make our spiritual journey, but how do we get grace?  Over the next several weeks, we’ll find out.  May we pray.

I have another image I need you to keep in your mind both today and throughout this series.  That image is of God driving a great big bus full of grace, making stops along the way so people can hop on board the grace bus for the ride of their lives.  There are two things that are required for the passengers to get on board the grace bus.  First, you’ve got to show up.  Second, you’ve got to have an open and willing heart.  It sounds basic, but you’d be amazed how many people either don’t show up the places where God has promised to give us access to grace, or they do, but their hearts are closed off and their minds already made up, and they miss the opportunity to have an encounter with God’s healing and transforming grace.  So, two things we need to do to receive grace: show up, and keep our hearts open and willing to what God will do within us.

Each week, we’re going to make a different stop along the route of the grace bus, and you’ll have a real, practical, hands-on opportunity to not only hear about God’s grace, but participate at each stop so you can experience God’s grace.  Today’s first stop: the family table.

Growing up, my grandparents lived in DC and we lived in New York, so we didn’t get to see them all the time.  On top of that, my dad is an only child, so we were the only grandchildren they had, so you had better believe that we got spoiled rotten - filthy, stinkin’ rotten at Grandma’s house.  Grandma Thomas showed you she loved you by feeding you.  It was not uncommon to have a big breakfast at 8, homemade cookies at 10, lunch at noon, homemade fudge at 3, dinner at 6, and ice cream sundaes before bed.  It sounded like she was saying “Come and get it,” but she was actually saying, “I love you.”

I realize my family is not alone in this.  Sharing food is a culturally universal way of expressing love.  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 is as real as the food on the table.

The best cultural associations we make with family meals - caring and sharing, nurture and support, building relationships and showing love - all of that happens at God’s family table when God’s family gathers together for a meal.  God’s love and grace are served in heaping helpings at this table spread with bread and wine, which is one of the reasons I always tear off great big honkin’ chunks of bread when I serve you, because I want you to have a real, 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.  It may sound like we’re saying, “Come and get it,” but we’re actually saying “God loves you.”

The table may be set with bread and wine, but what’s actually being served is love and grace.  All this is God’s free gift to us and to the world through us, but in order to receive the benefit of that gift we have to show up, and our hearts have to be open.  When we celebrate Communion with hearts that are open to what God will do within us, we receive grace, and loving relationships with one another are built, and we are strengthened for grace-filled ministry in the world.

The family table is a place of belonging.  I don’t know how it worked in your family, but in ours, there was always room at the table for someone else.  Even when times were hard, even when it seemed there might not be enough to go around, there was always the gracious invitation for others to join us at the table.  Somehow, there was always more than enough to go around, and everyone left the table satisfied, closer to each other, and graciously received by the host.

The same is true at God’s family table.  It is a place where you belong.  There is always room at the table for you.  We don’t fence off the Lord’s table or deny people access to it.  You don’t have to earn a spot at God’s table, you don’t have to prove that you belong there, we’re not going to check your credentials or give you a test to gain entrance to the table.  In the United Methodist tradition, we celebrate an open table, meaning that all who respond to the grace-filled invitation of Christ are welcome at this table.  Those who are spiritually mature, those who are spiritual infants just starting out - all are welcome.

Think of it this way.  In your family, do you feed the children or do you just let them starve?  My hope is that you feed them.  Now, do children have to earn a spot at the table?  Maybe to move up from the kids’ table to the adults’ table they do, but again, I would hope that they get fed one way or the other.  Why do we feed our children when they haven’t worked for their food, earned their food, paid for the food, contributed anything toward growing or purchasing or preparing their food - why on earth do we keep on feeding them?

Because we love them.  It’s the same reason we will feed anyone the bread and wine at Communion - because we love them.  More importantly, God loves them, and the table belongs not to us, but to Christ, the gracious host.  We are stewards of the mystery, entrusted to care for the meal and the people as Christ would.  The gracious invitation to come to the table and partake of the mysteries of God may be the very thing that stirs up faith in the human heart.

John Wesley went as far as to call communion a “converting ordinance.”  By this he meant that some might, in the very partaking of the sacrament, come to full knowledge and experience of the saving grace of God, and the graceful invitation to the table may be the very first time someone realizes God’s love for them, God’s care for them, and the possibility that God may even have a place in his family for them.

I also hear the concerns of Christians who are worried either about “unworthy” people being at the Lord’s table, or people receiving in an “unworthy manner.”  First, let me say there’s been a lot of really bad teaching on this particular topic that has intruded guilt into Communion where grace was intended.  In the scripture passage we read a few moments ago, the Corinthians are warned against receiving Communion in an inappropriate or unworthy way.  If you simply read the context of the verses around it, it’s pretty clear what’s being talked about there.

We have to understand that in that time, Communion was part of a joyful, community meal.  And yet, instead of a potluck where everybody shared equally in the bounty together, it had devolved into more of a brown-bag meal where everyone brought their own supper.  Those who were rich brought a great feast for themselves, and those who were poor had a meager meal or even nothing at all.  The crux of the matter was that certain members of the body were not showing love toward other members of the body - in this case, those who had plenty of food selfishly pigging out in front of those who had none.  They were looking after themselves, but literally allowing other members of the family, weaker members of the family, to starve - both physically and spiritually.

When Paul refers to receiving Communion in an unworthy manner, he is specifically referring to those in verse 29 who “eat and drink without correctly understanding the body.”  In other words, coming to Communion requires that we realize our connection to each other as members of Christ’s body, and with the intention that we love the other members of the body. How could they possibly be showing love toward each other if they are starving each other?  The application for us is this: if we come to the table of the Lord with no intention of loving others, of sacrificing for them, of giving ourselves up for them, then we receive in an unworthy manner.

One last thing about this “unworthy” business.  I told you, there’s been a lot of bad teaching on this topic that has led people to experience guilt rather than grace at the Lord’s table.  I sometimes hear from people who don’t want to receive Communion because they feel unworthy.  Hear this: Two thousand years ago Jesus ate with sinners and those whom others scorned. He still does. If you’re a sinner, then this meal is especially for you!  None of us is worthy, except by God’s grace. Thank God we don’t have to earn worth in God’s eyes by our goodness or our faith. Your sacred worth, and ours, is God’s free gift. No matter what you have done or what your present condition, if you want Christ in your life you are welcome at his table.

Jesus is used to eating with sinners.  It’s what he did his whole life and ministry.  It’s what he continues to do today.

Everyone is welcome at the table.  We are all at different points on the journey, some of just starting out, some of us have been traveling for awhile, some of us aren’t even sure we want to make the journey. And that’s fine.  No matter where you are, you still need food for the journey, and that’s what we’re serving up at this table today.

It may look like bread and wine, but the main course is love and grace.  Come and get it.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

So, you ate mor chickin yesterday. Now what?

First, let me say what this post is not:

It is not an attack or rant against Chick-fil-A.
It is not an attack or rant against anyone who ate at Chick-fil-A or boycotted Chick-fil-A.
It is not a discussion about anyone’s freedoms or rights - be that of a business owner, franchise owner, employee, or anyone who chooses whether or not to patronize a business.
It is not an argument about taking any particular stance in an already-heated culture war.
Now, here is what this post is: a call to authentic discipleship for those who confess Jesus as Lord - whether they are liberal, conservative, bleeding hearts, tea-partiers, FOX News or MSNBC watchers, gay or straight, rich or poor, black or white - whatever.  Whatever label you want to attach to yourself as a modifier to “Christian,” then this post is for you.
In that spirit, let us begin.
I had to run a quick errand on my way home from the office last night.  My destination was only a mile and a half away, and I got out to my usual route to this place along the main road.  I approached a major intersection where I would need to be turning left and traffic ground to a halt.  Several hundred yards in front of me, I could see the traffic signal going through its cycle, and despite the fact that I watched the double left-turn arrow turn green, no one in my lane or the one next to me was moving.  And then it hit me: there was a Chick-fil-A on the road I was turning onto, a few hundred feet off the intersection.
Because of the congestion, what should have been a five minute errand stretched to more than an hour.  The traffic blocked my access for the return trip as well, causing me to head pretty far out of my way to find an alternate route back to the interstate for my commute back home.
If you have just awoke from a coma, and turned on your computer for the first time today, mostly conservative Christians (and other socially-conservative non-religious groups) flocked to Chick-fil-A yesterday in a nationwide show of support for the company in response to some recent controversy regarding a hot-button social issue.  I’m not weighing in on that today.  Just google it if you really don’t know what I’m talking about.
I live in Charlotte, which is sort of the shiny metal stick part on the buckle of the Bible Belt.  Leaving the Charlotte-Douglas International airport usually puts you on Billy Graham Parkway toward the library of the same name (they frown on you if you ask where the books or checkout desk are - don’t ask me how I know this).  Evangelical Christianity (with a capital “E”) is as much part of the culture here as sweet tea and, well, fried chicken.
And so, when the conservative Christian community is called to action around here, you can feel the movement.  A Chick-fil-A on every other corner across town made for a powerful display of solidarity as they were all packed with folks demonstrating their support for the company and the convictions of its founding family.  It’s a pretty good deal - you get to be part of a movement, one of a large crowd of like-minded people, and there is a Spicy Chicken Biscuit in it for you.
What I wonder is this: did our focus on Chick-fil-A also cause us to neglect “the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith” (Matthew 23:23, CEB).  My fear is that some (by no means, all) of the folks who patronized, boycotted, or protested Chick-fil-A yesterday went home feeling justified in their good works, and put a gold star on their chart for doing something for the kingdom of God.
My hope from the whole Chick-fil-A saga - whether you were one of the people eating chicken and waffle fries, one of the people protesting, one of the people boycotting, or one of the people rolling your eyes as you read the facebook posts and agitated at the traffic jams (I’m in that last category) - is that the same passion that fueled people to pick up a side either for or again Chick-fil-A would also lead all of us who claim to follow Christ to consider the more important matters of the law.
Sadly, however, I am left to wonder if this is the case.  My unusual route back to the interstate took me through parts of town I don’t frequent, and I happened to pass by a homeless shelter preparing to serve the evening meal to its male guests.  I would have expected to see Christians around the block, waiting in line for 45 minutes to serve these men, but you know as well as I that was not the case.  I did, however, see the men lining up, jockeying for positions near the front of the line, knowing that the shelter would serve the meal until the food ran out, and there are always more mouths to feed than there are spoonfuls of food in the warming trays.
There was a lot of passion yesterday that entwined faith, freedom, and food.  I can’t help but wonder if some of that passion wasn’t misdirected.
I searched my Bible long and hard yesterday, and I couldn’t find anywhere where Jesus was concerned about whether or not we ate chicken.  He was, however, consistently concerned with showing us that the kingdom of God is tied to those more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith, and he spent his ministry encouraging us to devote ourselves to the things that bring them about, that’s God kingdom may come and God’s will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.
The whole of the Law, Jesus said, hung on the great commandment to love God and love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40).  It’s not about the minutia we so often focus on.  The whole thing really is about love, which is simple to remember, but the most demanding requirement Jesus could have made because none of us knows how to love as we ought.  He didn’t say that the world would know we are his disciples based on whether we ate chicken yesterday or boycotted it; he said we would show ourselves as disciples based on our love for one another (John 13:34-35).
Many of you, because of your genuine convictions, are eating chicken, boycotting chicken, or protesting chicken right now.  Good for you (I really mean that, by that way).  But, be sure that you are not neglecting the more important matters of the Law.  In everything you do, make sure it advances justice, peace, and faith, as Christ would have it.  Do it all with love, so the world will clearly know that you are a disciple of Jesus.  For those who claim the name Christian, may the world be a little bit better reflection of the kingdom of God today than it was yesterday because you have walked through it.

Eat where you want.  Or don't.  Either way, it's your choice.  But for Christ's sake, be loving.