Tuesday, October 28, 2014

At Table with Jesus

Matthew 26.26-29

The other night I did something I haven't done yet this election season. I turned on the TV and watched a program in real time. Not prerecorded. So there was no way to forward through the advertisements. And what I saw was distressing. Have you watched TV lately? Have you seen the incessant political ads? I know political advertising has traditionally been some of the most over-the-top, hyperbolic stuff out there. But, wow. I'd forgotten. Just listen to the ominous music, the dramatic voices, and you'd think the end of days was approaching and the candidate on the other side of the ad-maker was personally responsible for ending life as we know it on the planet.

The same thing hits my inbox, of course. Email comes in waves these days. Make a single contribution to a campaign five years ago, and your inbox explodes this time of year with the catastrophe of the day as fundraising deadlines approach. The techniques used involve shaming, fear-mongering, and so much strident, urgent, ALL CAPS GIVE NOW screaming that I just shut down emotionally and delete all of it, trying not to read more than who it's from and the subject line so I don't accidentally delete something unread from one of you!

We've gotten so good at packaging the horror story that it's no wonder so many of us live on-edge. This would be a good time to take a media holiday.

The church isn't immune. We have a story to tell, too, one with the capacity to make sense of life, to remind us of our purpose. But it's hard sometimes to separate the story of faith from the crisis du jour. What I'd like to do this morning, and for the next several weeks, is to help us focus on what's really important. If we are to stay spiritually grounded in a world that is constantly shouting, making earth-ending crises out of every piece of news, escalating everything to a partisan war cry, then we need to be clear about out story.

It's a story that begins at a table.

Why here? Because the table is everything the demons and demonizers cannot stand. 

Demonic powers in scripture are the ones who divide people from each other, and even divide people within themselves. Read the stories in the NT about Jesus and you'll find he is casting out the forces that divide from others and divide us from ourselves. We deny the reality of such powers only to our peril and their delight, because to deny that there are forces at work that divide us from others and divide us within ourselves is to ignore that the divisions are real. That these are demons of our own creation does nothing to minimize their effectiveness. To ignore them is to minimize their reality.

There's a reason we talk about coming to the negotiating table. Tables bring us together. Because it's when we sit down together to listen to each other and not just talk past each other that reconciliation is possible. When peace talks happen between nations, much of the work on each side is done seated behind a desk. There is research to do, and histories to study, numbers to crunch. But the actual negotiating happens when the sides come together at table.

Sometimes the table is symbolic. You may recall either because you lived through it or read about it in a history class, that when Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin were negotiating a treaty between Egypt and Israel at Camp David, Jimmy Carter was the one who kept both men at the table. Even when things broke down, and both men walked away from the table, Jimmy Carter kept going back and forth between them becoming a sort of moving table between them. When Sadat was ready to quit, Carter reminded him of their friendship. When Begin was ready to walk away, Carter signed pictures of the three of them and personalized them to each of Begin's grandchildren, whose names he knew. Thie broke the impasse. So when talks resumed, they "returned to the table." And they worked out the longest-lasting treaty for peace in the Middle East.

There is a reason when Jesus met with his disciples for Passover they met in a home around a table. It was in that meal that the sacred story was remembered. The story of God rescuing the Israelites from Egypt. The story of oppression and liberation. The story of God's judgment on those who enslave and redemption of those who suffer. The table of Passover in Jewish memory predates the temple sacrifice. Yes, the temple mattered. Yes, there was a lamb to prepare. And this took place in the table. But it was prepared to feed people at home around thir kitchen table who were telling a story of liberation. It was prepared in thankful memory of a people set free who trusted God to set them free once more.

The Romans were a tolerant lot when it came to religion. "Just add our gods to your existing pantheon, and our emperor among them, and make the sacrifices and offerings and all will be well." Judaism lived in tension with this directive because of its unusual insistence on one God and one alone. Jesus' followers were no exception. They were accused of being atheists for not worshiping the emperor. Separate, traitors. Freedom of religion is one thing, but freedom from religion, especially imperial religion, was not allowed.

So in that day when Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples, it was a countercultural act of resistance to come around the table. By the time the gospel writers told the story of his last supper, it had become a weekly ritual his followers did in order to remember who they were and to keep them reconciled with each other so their community could do the things Jesus had called them to do in his lifetime (the things people in need need): feed the hungry, take care of the widows and orphans, clothe the naked, heal the sick.

The table each week brought them together as one people to remind them of the new age they were called to live into, a new age where the whole earth was already God's Realm, a kingdom not united by military might but by mutual care and respect, a community united by love. It was not the flower-child love of the idealistic, the "why can't we all just (smoke a bit and) get along" kind of love, but the realistic love that committed each person week in and week out to being there for the other, in the community and outside it, working for a just order in the world, not just an alternative vision of social order but a radical inside-out, upside-down kingdom. Where people were genuinely concerned for each other's needs. This is the kind of community that gathered around the table each week and kept coming back, because by celebrating these memories in bread and wine, they became one people

It's a new covenant they were proclaiming, what Lynda in study hour called "a heart-change," one that reminded them of the original covenant. A covenant of a God who comes to people in trouble and sets them free. The original covenant promise to Moses was that God would liberate. The new covenant was similar: liberation. In Jesus they saw a new Moses. In him they were reminded of the central commandments of Moses' law: when Jesus was asked, he answered, "love God and love neighbor." In him they remembered the stories of Passover, and they believed that God was bringing a new age into being where love would reign, and peace would come not at sword-point but through right relationship.

For us, who still come together around the table and who still find God empowering us to live into a new age, the challenge is clear. Our world is in need of people who are willing to come, despite our differences, to sit down at the table together trusting that Jesus is here among us, so we can find the strength and nourishment to keep loving God and neighbor.

When the world is screaming no, no, no, we are called to find someone in this world to say yes to.

When the world round us is pointing fingers and screaming across the aisle about evil incarnate, we are called to invite people to catch their breath, come to the table, and listen. Tell your story. Listen to your neighbor's story. No judgement. No screaming. Reconciliation.

Then, having discovered the freedom we find in our common humanity, we may go hand in hand from the table into the week to come working on the actual problems we face.

What's this all got to do with stewardship? It's about starting here at the the table. A steward is someone who's been given something to take care of. You and I have been given so much! We've been given each other. We've been given neighbors who are in need. And what reminds us is this most precious story we tell around a table. A story that reminds us who we are and how God envisions all of life to be.

We share ourselves, our memory, our story, our love. And in sharing them here they multiply so we can share them with others. There's nothing eloquent or fancy about it. It's simply who we are. Thanks be to God.