Thursday, March 24, 2016

Table manners

Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-17,31b-35

Tonight’s readings all have to do with a meal and some instruction in carrying out life in community. 
The ancient Israelites are about to escape slavery in Egypt, and they are given instructions on final preparations before their departure.
Jesus shares his final meal with the disciples and gives them instructions on life without him.
Paul learns about some abuses in the way the Eucharist is being shared and sends some instructions to correct the practices.
First, Exodus: Passover is a celebration of the night in which God passed over the houses of the Israelites and left unharmed their first-born children. They were to sacrifice and roast a lamb, eat it, and spread its blood on the doorway of their homes. They were to eat it in a hurry, because on the next day, they would begin their departure from Egypt.
I notice that this plan was for everyone, for all the Israelites. They would work together to cook and eat the meal, and they would leave together. Even today, the Passover meal is a communal event, with family and friends, even non-Jewish friends included. Everyone has a role in the Seder ritual.
… Next, Jesus’ last meal. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this meal is the Passover supper, and during the meal, Jesus gives new meaning to the elements of the traditional meal. But here in John, this is not a Passover meal because John views Jesus as the Passover Lamb. Jesus dies at the same time as the lambs are being sacrificed at the temple for the Passover supper, making Jesus the Lamb of God.
So, instead of the focus on the elements of the Passover, in John’s Gospel, Jesus put the focus on servanthood. Jesus shows himself to be the servant of all, who will give up his own life to demonstrate God’s love for all people. Throughout his life, Jesus has modeled what his followers are to do. They are to heal, cast out demons, and share the good news of God’s love with all people. They are to be servants, just as Jesus is a servant.  
To demonstrate how to be servants, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. This task was normally done by the lowest servants of the household as people entered the home. After walking through the dusty and soiled streets, feet needed to be washed. Normally, people of this time ate their meals while reclining on low cushions, propped on the left elbow. Their faces were quite close to the next person’s feet, so clean feet made for a more enjoyable meal.
Jesus tells the disciples they are to serve all people in the same way that he is now serving them. Naturally, there is resistance to this offer by Jesus. Peter balked at having his Lord wash his feet. We are just like Peter. Many churches offer a ritual of foot washing on this night, but we balk at having people even see, much less touch our feet.
… Third, let’s spend some time with Paul. His letter to the Corinthians has the tone of scolding. Looking deeper into the letter, we understand what he is talking about. As we do today, when we have a large crowd in our homes for dinner, some people sit at the table in the dining room. Some people sit at the “Children’s table.” Some people sit at the kitchen table. And some people sit at card tables in other rooms. They all eat the same food and there is normally plenty of food for all people.
In the situation Paul is addressing, the class structure decided who sat where. The wealthiest, most important people sat in the dining room and got the best food. Other people sat in the other rooms and ate whatever people in their class got. The poorest, lowest class people often got nothing to eat.
Paul objects to this practice. Jesus made it clear that all people are equal in his eyes, so there should be no class distinctions during their gatherings. To resolve the meal issue, Paul recommends that everyone eat at home, and then come to worship.
Then, in our text tonight, he clarifies the ritual words that should be used, so there are no strange practices with the Eucharist, either. Some people were taking unorthodox approaches to the meaning of the meal, and Paul wants to correct that. Paul claims that these are the words that he has received from Jesus himself, and they are the words the Corinthians should use as well.
Essentially, Paul is saying that all people should be welcomed at the table; people of all classes, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women – as he writes in Galatians. We could add, people of all ages and races and legal status.
Visitors at Hope are often amazed and delighted that we make it clear that all people are welcome at the communion table. We want everyone to know that the bread and wine / body and blood are God’s gifts for us, for all of us. Jesus made no rules about who is welcome at the table. He merely said, come and dine. Even Judas was welcome at the table!
… So, what pulls all three of these stories together? God’s desire for God’s people to be treated well. God’s desire to share God’s gifts with all people, regardless of who they are. God’s desire for us all to welcome all into God’s community, regardless of human rules and social structures.
One story: in my first congregation, there was a practice of giving raisins to children who came to the altar for communion. The children knew the difference. They knew they were not receiving communion! When I arrived, I made it known that all children were welcome to receive communion. They all knew it was God’s gift, which is all we adults can sometimes figure out.
Five-year-old Emma shows up that first Sunday and beams as she puts her hands out to receive the bread from me. A few weeks later, Emma brings a friend who has been on a sleep-over with her. Angie comes to the altar and stands next to Emma. I watch as Emma elbows Angie and shows her how to put her hands out. I have no idea if Angie is a believer, or if she has been baptized, or if her parents approve of her receiving communion. But it is not for me to deny her the gift of God’s love and grace, so I put the bread in her hand and move to the next person. In that moment I know I am Jesus’ hands, sharing his love with a little girl.
It is good that we, God’s people, have been given instructions about how to enjoy and serve meals. It is also good that we have received the instruction to be graceful and flexible about who is to receive those meals. It is also good that Jesus has reminded us to be servants to all, so we know how it feels to give as well as to receive gifts.

Please pray with me. Gracious God, we ask for your blessing tonight as we receive your gift of bread and wine. Nourish us and send us out to give your gifts of love and grace to those we meet. Amen

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The greatest love

Philippians 2: 5-11; Luke 19: 28-40

Many artists have illustrated this moment in Jesus’ life, when he enters Jerusalem for the last time. To paint the picture, we need to notice the details.
First, Jesus has made arrangements for his ride into town. How and when did he do that? We don’t know.
Second, he starts from Bethany, the home town of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Perhaps Lazarus was the one who made the arrangements. Jesus and the group head down the mountain from Bethany, and back up the next mountain into the city.
Third, the road is dusty, and as they travel, people throw their cloaks on the road. Cloaks, not palms. There are no palms in the story! Palms are mentioned only in John’s gospel.
Fourth, as they travel they sing praise songs, songs which proclaim Jesus as the king, the messiah. In the US, they might be playing “Hail to the Chief”.
Fifth, while some people praise Jesus and proclaim him king and messiah, some Pharisees object to this proclamation.
Sixth, Jesus declares that all of nature is praising him at that moment.
… As we imagine the scene, we might also consider what is going through Jesus’ mind at this moment. Here’s what I think.
Elation at being recognized as who he really is: Lord, King, Messiah. He knows he is God incarnated – God with skin on.
Dread about what will happen soon – his death at the hands of the Romans.
Worry that the human desire to live will over-rule the divine desire to prove how much God loves God’s people.
Anticipatory loss – he has grown to love, as humans love, the disciples, Lazarus and his sisters, Mary Magdalene and the other women, and all the other followers. He weeps at the loss of this direct interaction he now has with them. And he weeps at the pain his death will cause them, even though it will be temporary.
He is bubbling over with joy at the surprise he has for them, because even though he has told the disciples he will be raised on the third day, they don’t understand what that means.
Jesus knows at this moment that he could give in to the human desire and claim the power and become king of Israel. He knows he has the ability to make it happen, just as the satan tempted him to do, right at the beginning of his ministry.
But, he chooses to live this last week with his divine power channeled for divine purposes. He chooses to continue to preach and teach and heal until the very last minute. He chooses to allow himself to be arrested and tried and humiliated and crucified. Instead of a crown of gold and jewels, he ends up with a crown of thorns.
… Paul describes this choice in his letter to the Philippians. Jesus gave up his divinity in order to become human, obedient to God’s plan. He accepted that he would die on the cross in order to prove the extent of God’s love for humanity, for all of us. Jesus says, “The greatest love you can show is to give your life for your friends.”
Some of us have intentionally put ourselves in harm’s way for the sake of others, especially those who serve in the military and as police officers and sheriff’s deputies. These men and women sign on for long-term service.
Some have dived into water to save someone else from drowning. Others have shoved people from in front of a bus or train, putting themselves at risk in split-second decisions. We remember today Deputy John Kotfila, who was buried on Friday after heading off a wrong-way driver on the highway. But how many of us have willingly offered to die so that someone else could live?  
Would you be willing for your child or grandchild to die instead of you? Of course not. We would all choose to die so our children could live. God loves us so much that God was willing for God’s Son to live, love us, teach us, heal us, and die for us. Jesus was willing to die on behalf of us, God’s children. That is how much God loves us.
In response to this extreme love, we are to praise God and exalt Jesus’ name.
In response to this extreme love, we are to confess that Jesus is Lord, and the boss of us.
In response to this extreme love, God does not call us to die also, but to live. We are to live knowing that we are loved, cherished, and worth dying for.
We are to live knowing that God’s Holy Spirit lives within us.
We are to live knowing the end of this story, that the tomb is empty. And that means we can do anything!
Hope’s mission statement is: To Know Christ and to make him known. The more we know Jesus the more we can make him known to others.
When we pray, read the Bible, and spend time alone with Jesus, we get to know him.
When we pray and study and worship together, we get to know him even better.
When we make quilts, mow the lawn, fill the food basket, listen to a friend’s grief, check on someone who isn’t where they are supposed to be, we get to know Christ and make him known.
I know a woman who knew Jesus so well, she loved serving at the soup kitchen. She organized her congregation and got a group of volunteers to join her. Churches signed on to take one day a month. After a few years, she became the leader of the soup kitchen and served for many years in that position. Through her, many people came to know Jesus.
When we know Jesus, we can help our friends and acquaintances and people we’ve just met to know him, too. I know a woman who always had a full pew at church because she would say, “Please come with me this Sunday. I’ll save you a seat.” She was so enthusiastic about her congregation that many of the people she invited did come to sit with her and came week after week.
Every year we learn a little more how God’s extreme love for us is demonstrated in what Jesus did for us. Let’s get better every year at sharing that love with others. Together and as individuals, let’s exalt Jesus and proclaim him our Lord.

Please pray with me. Jesus, we can only begin to imagine your emotions at this moment in your life on earth. We praise you and give you thanks for your love for us. Lead us to share that love with others who don’t know you as we do. Amen