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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Running on Empty? Roadside Assistance (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!”

Though many of us spend much of our lives feeling like we’re running on empty – spiritually, physically, emotionally – God wants better for us.  God wants us to live a life full of his grace.

Today we wrap up a series of messages called “Running on Empty.”  As we’ve thought about our spiritual journey, we know that we can’t earn God’s grace, nor can we turn it on or off by our actions, but the maintenance tips I’ve given you each week are things you can do to be in the best possible position to receive God’s grace.

We’ve said that we fill up with grace when we use the right fuel, which is worship; when we check our fluids by remembering our baptism; when we use faith’s OnStar button, which is prayer; when we eat in the car, so to speak, by receiving Holy Communion; and when our words both toward and about all our travel buddies seek to build up and encourage at all times, in all circumstances.

It has been said that the best sermons are for the preacher before they’re for the congregation, and this series has been no exception.  Each week, I’ve found myself preaching to myself long before I ever stand up here on Sunday, because I also need God’s grace at every turn.  We all need as much grace as we can get – myself included – and each week I have been reminded of just how important it is to both seek God’s grace for ourselves, and to share it with others.

We have one more maintenance tip this morning: when you need help, call for it.  On the spiritual journey, Roadside Assistance comes in the form of prayers for 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).  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 are 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.

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.

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 it is not the faith of the individual that Jesus commends, but the faith of his friends - his community.

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.

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 if we pay attention to Jesus, maybe that’s enough.

Reaction of scribes and Pharisees
At the end of our passage, in verse 12, everyone said, “We’ve never seen anything like this!”  We’ve never seen anything like this – one phrase, yet it meant two completely different things to some in the crowd that day.  Most of the crowd were astonished and delighted, but a few in the crowd that day were astonished and ticked off.

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 following their rules.

Mike Berry says that “Pharisee” means, “a stuck up religious snob who just doesn’t get it” – they are always opposed to the work of God that is happening through Jesus.  Whether in Jesus’ time or in ours, they are paralyzed by the fear that somewhere, someone in the world is having fun.  These would be the folks who don’t want you to smile in church, because religion can’t possibly be enjoyable.  They believe religion should fill you with guilt rather than grace, which is why they take such an issue with Jesus, who has the gall to put the real needs of people ahead of religious rules!

The friends who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus were, no doubt, interested in physical healing.  Jesus goes one step further, however, and offers spiritual healing by declaring the man’s sins forgiven, and this is what the Pharisees take issue with.  “Time out Jesus!  Only God can forgive sins, and we don’t think you have the authority to do that!”

And they were wrong.  In the end, what we think Jesus can do doesn’t limit what Jesus actually can do.  Both his authority and his power derive not from us, but from God.  And so, when the religious leaders grumble because what he’s doing doesn’t fit with how they think things should be done, Jesus 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 grace 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.

The scribes and Pharisees said, “We’ve never seen anything like this!  Whoa.”  But the rest of the crowd was amazed and praised God, saying, We’ve never seen anything like this!  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!

Everyone else in the story was amazed, and said, “We’ve never seen anything like this!”  Some praised God, others grumbled.  Some said, “Wow,” others said, “Whoa.”

The scribes and Pharisees and the man on the stretcher have more in common in this story than they realized.  They were both paralyzed.  The man on the stretcher had the obvious physical paralysis; whereas the scribes and Pharisees had the less obvious spiritual paralysis.  In the end, both needed the healing from Jesus.  There are a lot of things in life that can leave us paralyzed - illness, weakness, anger, fear, addiction, circumstances completely beyond our control.

Sometimes things in our lives paralyze us.  And yet, the good news for today is that Jesus heals the paralytic - physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.  Roadside assistance on our spiritual journey is the wholeness and healing that comes from Jesus.  There are times when we are too worn down to get to him – and that’s where the community of faith comes in.  We literally lift one another up and bear one another to Jesus, especially when we can’t get there ourselves.

So, who are you?  Are you that paralyzed person on a stretcher?  Are you simply part of the crowd, standing around not really doing anything?  Are you one of the scribes or Pharisees, whose heart has hardened and become spiritually paralyzed, casting judgment and grumbling?  Are you the homeowner who is saying, “Hey, who’s gonna fix my roof?”  Or, are you one of the stretcher-bearers - stopping at nothing and doing whatever it takes to get people to Jesus?

Friends, we are called to be a community of stretcher-bearers, full of compassion for those in pain, and determined to stop at nothing to get them to Jesus.

Four men let nothing stand in their way to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus.  Good thing, too, because in the presence of Jesus, the wounded are healed and made whole.  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Running on Empty? Travel Buddies (Ephesians 4:29-5:2)

29 Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. 30 Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.
Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. 2 Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God.

God’s grace is a gift to us to help us make our spiritual journey, God is offering us grace all the time so that we don’t feel like we’re always running on empty.  The key is to take advantage of the opportunities we have to receive grace, which brings us to the practices we’ve been examining over the last few weeks.  The more we do all of these things, the more grace we receive in this road trip we call a spiritual journey.  We’ve already said that God gives us grace when we use the right fuel, which is worship; when we check our fluids by remembering the grace of our baptism; when we hit faith’s OnStar button of prayer; and when we eat in the car, which is receiving Holy Communion.

One of the best parts of any road trip is the people we travel with.  Today, we’ll be talking about our travel buddies in our spiritual journey, and how our conversation with them matters.  May we pray.

In my family, the gift of gab is a widely-distributed gift.  We are a family of talkers, which I never really thought about until I met Ashley’s family, who are a bit quieter than mine.  When my extended family is gathered together, everyone talks at the same time – taking a breath in the middle of a story means that you’ll be out of the conversation for the next twenty minutes, and I sort of assumed all families are like this.  Then I met Ashley’s family, where they do the strangest thing – one person talks, while everyone else listens patiently, and then there is silence while everyone thinks about what has just been said, and in a few moments, someone else will begin to talk, and the cycle begins again.  It was the strangest thing I have ever seen!  We discovered that we come from two different families with two different approaches to conversation.  It’s not that one is right and the other is wrong, but they are very different!

The human experience requires our interaction with others.  Now, you know as well as I do that not every interaction with other people is a positive or a pleasant interaction.  Some of you heard about an incident that happened to me in a parking lot last week – a lady driving a Nissan Armada parked a foot over the line into my parking space, and while I appreciated the difficulty she was having backing her behemoth vehicle out of the space when it was parked so close to mine, she sorta created the situation.  However, she still felt it necessary to yell at me and give me the Hawaiian good luck sign as she drove away!  Not every interaction we have with other people is going to be a pleasant one!

And yet, as people of faith, we are called to conduct ourselves with grace in all situations, pleasant or not.  Every conversation with every travel buddy on life’s journey is to be seasoned with God’s grace, making it holy conversation.

Holy conversation - it sounds like something Robin might have exclaimed - “Holy Conversation, Batman!”  Or, perhaps conversation between two nuns, or maybe some special way of speaking where we say “Thee” and “Thou” all the time.  It’s a bit simpler than that.  Verse 29 of today’s Scripture reading says, “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth.  Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.”

When the Scripture tells us not to let “foul words” come out of our mouths, perhaps we think of those four-letter words we didn’t even know were bad until we were told not to say them.  Yet, it is more like what happens when you go on vacation and your fridge breaks down while you’re gone and everything in it spoils, and when you walk into the house, the only word to describe the odor is “foul.”  “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth” – don’t say things that stink up the place.

I remember a sign that Mrs. Jasper hung in our Sunday School room as kids.  It said, “Before you Speak, Ask Yourself, 1. It is Kind?  2. Is it True?  3. Is it Necessary?”  If the answer to any of those things was “No,” then the appropriate thing to do with whatever we were thinking was to keep it to ourselves.  Again, the Scripture: “Let no foul words come out of your mouth.  Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.”

None of us has any control over what other people say.  We do, however, have absolute control over what we say.  What we say can give grace or give grief, our words can build up, or they can tear down.  Foul words are those that grieve others, that tear them down, that belittle them or are just idle gossip; such speech has no place in the life of a Christian.  Say only what is helpful for building others up and is a benefit to all who hear.  Let no foul words come out of your mouths.

Don’t let them come out of your phone line, or the hushed conversation in the church parking lot after a meeting when you think no one else is listening.  Don’t let foul words – unkind words, untrue words, unnecessary words – come out of your email or Facebook account.  Can I get up on a soapbox for a minute?  Chain emails and Facebook posts that are anything but an attempt to build anyone up or encourage them.  Most of these are filled with distortions, hoaxes, and outright lies – and if that’s not bad enough, most of the people forwarding and posting these things with me claim to be Christians.

The issue is not whether or not we like someone, agree with them, or approve of what they’re doing.  It is easy to be nice and pleasant toward people we agree with; anyone can do that!  The real issue at hand is whether or not we will compose ourselves with civility and grace, especially when we are dealing with someone we disagree with.

Friends, before you hit “send,” before you hit, “share,” take a moment and ask yourself, “Is it kind?  Is it true?  Is it necessary?”  If the answer is “no” or even “I don’t know,” then use your better judgment and keep it to yourself.

Dorothy Neville says, “The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”  The real art of holy conversation is to leave unsaid what verse 31 warns us against: “bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander,” especially at the tempting moment.

I know that’s easier said than done.  But, as people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we are called to see the sacred worth in people who are created in the image of God just as we are, including those with whom we disagree, including even those we might consider our enemies.

Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who has advocated for women’s rights and access to education, has been in the news again this week.  A year ago, she was shot in the head by Taliban militants in a failed assassination attempt.  She has recovered fully, is continuing to speak out for equal rights, and on Friday, became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate.  Earlier this week, she sat down with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart for an interview, and in a key moment, Stewart asked her how she responded when she learned that the Taliban wanted her dead.  Here’s her response:

 (3:55 – 5:20)

A friend of mine remarked that her words “seem eerily familiar to Jesus' command in Matthew 5 to love your enemies. There was something about her words that seemed to cut through those religious labels and reveal something deeply, universally human.” (Marta Layton, Facebook: 10/10/2013).

Friends, let us not stoop down to play in the mudholes of personal insult and injury or respond to anger with more anger.  Let us all be better than that!

What we say, or email, or post on our Facebook or do – is a reflection on us, our priorities, and the values we claim to champion.  How we treat others reflects more on us than it does on the person we’re speaking about.  Whether an enemy, a politician, a friend, a church member, a family member, we are called to be people of grace.  Let us lay down speech and actions that tear down and destroy.  Let us, instead, as followers of Jesus, lead the way in speech and action that builds up and encourages.

Verse 32 says, “Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.”  Friends, let us never forget who we are and to whom we belong!  Our identity is, first and foremost, defined by our relationship to God!  That identity comes ahead of our political party or nation or even family, and we are called to conduct ourselves with the love and grace of Christ.

God has forgiven and accepted us through Christ, even while we were yet sinners – in full rebellion against God, in full opposition to God, at the farthest distance we could get from God – even then, God extended his love and grace toward us and offered us a relationship with him through the sacrificial love of Jesus.  Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other.  Don’t belittle people or their position – love them as Christ loves you, and I guarantee you will start to see them differently.
What we say not only reflects on us, but affects us.  Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving – you may never change the other person, but you, most certainly, won’t be the same.  There is an old Cherokee legend of a grandson who came to his grandfather after some friend has wronged him, full of rage and spewing all sorts of hateful things about his friend.  The grandfather listened and said, “Hate and anger will wear you down more than your enemy.  Hanging onto hate and anger is like drinking poison yourself, in the hopes that he will die.  I, too, have struggled with these feelings many times.”

He continued, “It is as if there are two wolves inside me.  One is good and does no harm.  He lives in harmony with those around him, neither seeking to offend, nor taking offense when none was intended.

“But the other wolf, is full of hate and fear and suspicion.  He looks out only for himself, and is consumed with blind rage and anger.  He fights everyone, for no reason.  He cannot think for his anger and hatred are so great.

“It is hard to live with both, for every day, a fight rages inside of me as each tries to dominate my spirit.”

The grandson said, “Which one will win?”

The grandfather smiled and replied, “The one I feed.”

So it is for us.  We have a choice, between words that tear down and destroy or words that build up and encourage, words that give grief and guilt, or words that give grace.  When we choose the words that give grace, we find that we also receive grace.  In your bulletin is a little card, “Guidelines for Holy Conversation.”  Put it somewhere you’ll see it, and think about those guidelines every time you go to speak.  I guarantee that if you do, others will find grace in you and in your words.

We have a choice – between words that stink up the place and those with the fragrance of God’s grace and love in Christ. Negative words cause us and those around us to feel like we’re running on empty.  Words that encourage and build up – those fill everyone up with grace.

On the human journey, our travel buddies are among God’s greatest and most sacred gifts to us.  Yes, it’s true that not every interaction we have with others is going to be a pleasant one, and we still have no control over what other people say or do, but as people who are committed to seasoning our interactions with grace, we can disagree on things without becoming disagreeable. As followers of Jesus, let us imitate Jesus – not a broken political system, not cable news networks, not sensationalist journalists and bloggers – don’t act like them, show them how to act by acting like Jesus!

God, help us to see people by the light of the faith we profess, that we may check in ourselves all ungenerous judgments and all presumptuous claims.  Help us to see the needs and rightful claims of others, remove old hatreds and rivalries, and hasten new understanding.  Use us, our words, and our actions, to show your love and grace to all your beloved children, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Running on Empty? It's OK to Eat in the Car (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.
The life of faith is a spiritual journey.  In our messages over the last several weeks, the human spirit is like a car that needs regular maintenance; each week I’ve offered a maintenance tip of something you can do to fill up with God’s grace in order to keep from feeling like you’re running on empty.

The first thing was to use the right fuel, and we said that worship is our fuel.  Worship simply means that we ascribe value to something, particularly through our time and resources – and when we give them to God, we are filled with grace.  Then it was checking our fluids, and we said that God gives us grace by water and the Holy Spirit in baptism, and we were encouraged to remember and renew the grace in our baptism often.  Last week, it was OnStar, and we said that prayer is like our OnStar button with God – it is an immediate, direct line to God.  Prayer is the language of our relationship with God, involving more listening to God than speaking to God, and when we nurture the relationship through prayer, we receive grace there, as well.

Today’s maintenance tip moves from what we do for the vehicle toward what we do for the passengers on the journey, and on our spiritual journey, I want you to know that it’s okay to eat in the car.  Not only is it okay, I even encourage it.

Today, I want you to think about food.  Yes, your minds may wander off thinking about food and never wander back, but I’m willing to run that risk.  So, go ahead.  Think about food.  Think about what you’re going to eat after worship.  What are you looking forward to having a second or third helping of, what one thing are you going to scrape the bowl and lick the spoon and then look up hopefully and ask, “Do we have any more?”

Mmmmmmm-mmmmmmm.  Think about food.  Think about the last milestone you or your family celebrated - a birthday, an anniversary, a graduation, a retirement.  Was food part of the celebration? Think about holidays.  Whether a family feast at Thanksgiving or a cookout in the backyard on the 4th of July, isn’t food always a central part of the party?  How are we doing, is your mind completely focused on food yet?  Tummies grumbling?  Mouths watering?

How many of the great celebrations in life involve a feast of some sort or another?  And it seems the greater the cause for celebration, the greater the feast.

Growing up, my grandparents on my dad’s side 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.  Grandma showed her love by stuffing you silly, and you showed your love in return by scarfing down whatever was put in front of you.

It sounded like Grandma was saying “Come and get it,” but she was actually saying, “I love you.”  Sharing food is a universal way of expressing love.  The family table is 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 – Holy Communion is God’s family table, where God’s love and grace are 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.  God’s love and grace are served in heaping helpings at this table, which is one of the reasons I always tear off great big chunks of bread when I serve you, because I want you to have a significant reminder of the abundance of God’s grace and generosity, and just how much God loves you.  The table may be set with bread and wine, but what’s actually being served is love and grace.

Now, I’ve heard concern from Christians who are worried either about “unworthy” people being at the Lord’s table, or people receiving in an “unworthy manner.”  “You can’t just let anyone receive Communion!  Oh, woe is me, what will become of us if we let anyone and everyone have Communion?”  This concern comes from the passage we read from 1 Corinthians, and is rooted in a lot of really bad theology that has served only to associate guilt with Communion rather than grace.

Think of “unworthy” – as in, “without worth” or “worthless.”  But it’s not about our own worth (or lack thereof, it’s about our recognition of the worth of others.  Receiving in an “unworthy manner” is failing to recognize the sacred worth and value of all others at the table.

We have to understand that in that time, celebrations of Holy Communion were not limited to a liturgical meal of bread and wine that took place during a designated time of worship, they were a big, festive meal that was shared among the whole family of faith – Methodists didn’t invent potluck suppers – they’ve been around for a long time!  Yet, at the church in Corinth, instead of a potluck where everybody shared equally in the bounty together, those who were rich brought a great feast for themselves, and those who were poor had a meager meal or even nothing at all.

And here’s the problem: certain members were not valuing the worth of other members.  Throughout Scripture, there is a strong connection between the feeding of bodies and the feeding of souls, which is why this is a spiritual issue.  Those with resources saw themselves as more blessed or favored than those who were poor, and their pigging out was a way of displaying what they perceived to be their own spiritual superiority.  In so doing, they completely missed the point of Holy Communion, and faith itself, for that matter.

The Lord’s table is a place where divisions are meant to disappear, not be highlighted and reinforced.  Anyone who wants to keep others from the feast of grace at the Lord’s table is in far more danger of “receiving in an unworthy manner” than whatever person they are trying to keep away.

Receiving in a worthy manner is simply a matter of celebrating the dignity and worth of all of our brothers and sisters who gather at the table with us.  Our place at God’s family table as well as our access to the abundance of grace served there, is not secured through our own means or merit.  God’s family table is not a place where the saints congratulate either for being oh-so-holy; rather, it’s where sinners receive grace and are strengthened for their journey.

As stewards of the feast, let us never be caught up in guarding the table, let us instead graciously invite sinners – you know, people like you and me – to feast on God’s grace.

The family table is a place of belonging.  I don’t know how it worked in your family, but we always room at the table for someone else.  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 everyone is 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, inviting them to experience grace.

God’s grace is for all, and so all are welcome at the feast of grace.  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.  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, such that even the vilest offender realizes that God even has a place in his family for them.  Talk about receiving grace!

The early Methodists were encouraged to practice “constant Communion,” partaking of the bread and wine at every available opportunity, precisely because God’s grace comes to us when we do. Sometimes people don’t want to have Communion too much, because “it won’t be as special,” which is like saying, “I don’t want to eat lunch every day because then it wouldn’t be as special,” or “I don’t want to tell my children I love them every day because then it wouldn’t be as special” or “I don’t want to deposit my paycheck every month because then it wouldn’t be as special.”  Communion is as essential to our spiritual well-being as these other things are to our physical and emotional well-being.  It should be a regular staple in our spiritual diet.  Friends, we need grace!

It’s one of the reasons we’ve started offering Communion on Wednesday evenings from 5:30 – 6:00.  As a pastor, I am committed to offering you the bread of life and the cup of redemption often, because I believe so firmly in the grace that’s made available at the Lord’s table.  Every time you have an opportunity to receive that grace – Sunday morning, Wednesday night, wherever, whenever – do it!  Otherwise, you’re literally leaving grace on the table.

One last thing about this “unworthy” business.  I sometimes hear from people who don’t want to receive Communion because they feel or have been told they are unworthy.  First, I’m sorry people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about have made you feel that way.  More importantly, if you hear nothing else today, hear this: Two thousand years ago, Jesus ate with sinners. He still does.

Jesus is used to eating with sinners.  It’s what he did his whole life.  It’s what he continues to do today.  Thank God Jesus eats with sinners – it means he’s willing to eat with you and with me.

Friends, we are on a spiritual journey, and it’s OK to eat in the car.  It’s not only OK, it’s essential.  We need the bread of life and the cup of redemption.  On the menu today, the meal looks like bread and wine, but Christ has actually prepared a feast of love and grace for all of us.  Come and get it.

Be present at our table, Lord. Be here and everywhere adored.  Thy creatures bless and grant that we may feast in paradise with thee.  Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, the bread and wine to us be blessed. Grant us thy grace and make us new, we’ll keep the feast always with you.  Amen.