Sunday, March 15, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Thursday"

Mark 14:17-25

17 That evening, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. 18 During the meal, Jesus said, “I assure you that one of you will betray me—someone eating with me.” 19 Deeply saddened, they asked him, one by one, “It’s not me, is it?” 20 Jesus answered, “It’s one of the Twelve, one who is dipping bread with me into this bowl. 21 The Human One goes to his death just as it is written about him. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays the Human One! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.” 22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 I assure you that I won’t drink wine again until that day when I drink it in a new way in God’s kingdom.” (Common English Bible)

“The Last Week: Mark’s Retelling of the Passion,” Week Four

The congregation’s stance had made headlines—this brand new church in Portland, less than a year old, put a welcome statement on their website.  That in and of itself isn’t headline-worthy, and especially not in a generally GLBTQ-friendly city like Portland.  What happened afterwards, though, was what made the news.

This church’s denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, caught wind of this crazy thing their church plant in Portland had done, daring to actually something as crazy and out-of-bounds that all people were welcome in their church, and they ordered their pastor, Rev. Adam Phillips, to take the statement down.

He refused.  So the congregation was expelled from the denomination, their funding was cut off, and Pastor Adam was defrocked of his ministry credentials.

For a church that was less than a year old, this could have killed them in the cradle.  But another older, venerable church stepped in to open their home to this newer sibling, to give them sanctuary and space to worship as they were originally called to when their church was planted last year.

That older, venerable church?  First Christian Church of Portland (and we’re First Christian Church too…yeah, our predecessors were real creative with our church names).  A church in our own denomination, the Disciples of Christ.

I felt exceptionally proud in hearing this news to be a Disciple pastor, because rather than see this new upstart church as competition, they were welcomed in as family around the table.  And despite the competition that the original disciples, the Twelve, have had throughout their time with Jesus, and despite the consternation caused by Jesus’s pronouncement that one of them would soon betray Him and that it would have been better had that betrayer never been born, they too still gathered around the table in that tiny upper room in Jerusalem to celebrate God’s goodness in liberating His people from slavery in Egypt.

This is a story about how God continues to liberate us from our own forms of slavery, in order to one day bring us together as one whole and unified chosen people around His table to be blessed.

Now that Lent, that 40-day fast in the wilderness alongside Jesus as He is tempted by the devil, has not just begun but can officially be considered to be in full swing, so too does a new sermon series really begin digging in for us as well.  And we’ll continue stretching out Holy Week—that seven-day span of time from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—by talking about each day in turn, starting with Monday (that way we can discuss Palm Sunday on, you know, Palm Sunday) before wrapping up with Easter Sunday itself on April 5.  For this sermon series, I am using as a template the book “The Last Week,” a commentary on the Gospel of Mark’s telling of Holy Week, co-written by Bible scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.  Professor Borg just passed away a few weeks ago, plus this book is one of a precious few on my list of “it truly changed my life” books, so this series has a lot of added meaning for me as well as, I hope, eventually for you too.

That hope is especially true for this day: Thursday, Maundy Thursday, when the open table is born.

Why is it open?  Simply because that one whom it would have been better if they had never been born, the betrayer, Judas Iscariot, still takes his place at the table alongside the others.

Borg and Crossan highlight four particularly “rich meanings” of the last supper, the first of which is “a continuation of the meal practice of Jesus.”  By that, they mean:

He often taught at meals, banquets were topics of His parables, and His meal practice was often criticized by His opponents.  Scribes and Pharisees aggressively ask, “Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16; see also Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34; 15:1-2).

The issue is that Jesus eats with “undesirables,” the marginalized and outcast, in a society in which the people with whom one shared a meal was hugely significant.  Jesus’s meal practice was about inclusion in a society with sharp social boundaries.  It had both religious and political significance: religious because it was done in the name of the kingdom of God; political because it affirmed a very different vision of society.  An analogy close to our own time would be a religious leader in the American South prior to the antisegregation legislation of the 1960s holding public integrated meals and declaring, “This is the kingdom of God—and the divided world that you see around you is not.”

…The Last Supper continues and culminates in Jesus’s emphasis upon meals and food as God’s justice.

In the end, the table is a place for everyone, even Judas.  Even tax collectors.  Even, basically, sinners.  Sinners like you and me.  Saints who have already been perfected have no need for what is offered here, because what is offered is, as Jesus says, offered “for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  If you have no sins to be forgiven, you require no seat at this meal.

That is why I could never, for the life of me, understand why we required a certain moral standard (arbitrary and determined by us, naturally) in order to partake of communion.  Why would we deprive the people most in need of this meal from receiving it?  It would be like doctors saying that they would only take care of people who were already healthy, or lawyers saying they would only represent people who required no legal advice.  If we deign to limit who gets to taste and see the grace of God, then what on God’s green earth are we doing here?

Not kingdom building, that’s for certain.  But we often think that we are, which might be even more dangerous.

Some years ago, I worshiped one Sunday at a Lutheran Church: Missouri Synod congregation.  It is the denomination that my mom grew up in before she converted to the Disciples of Christ.  They had communion the Sunday I visited, except that instead of the servers going out into the congregation like how we perform communion, the congregation would go up row by row to form a circle around the altar to take communion.  Which sounds lovely in the abstract…unless you have a visitor like me who ends up at the very end sitting all by his awkward lonesome in his seat while the entire church is up on stage in a circle without him. 

Really, at that point, I wanted to stand up, sing, “The cheese stands alone!” and leave.  But even I have a (repressed) sense of decorum.  But it was a humiliating experience to have as a first-time visitor in a church—I was instantly made to feel like I did not belong there.

I never went back for a second Sunday.

Because what kind of a church tells someone that Judas sat at the table with Christ, but you can’t?

The entire point of church is to get someone regardless of how much of a Judas they are to sit down at the same table as Christ, because it is, in the end, none other than Christ Himself who has invited them.

Maybe that is what offends us about this whole business.  We’re still exactly like the scribes and Pharisees who turn their noses up at the company Jesus keeps.  We don’t like the way they are dressed, or the way they talk, or…if you’re, say, the Evangelical Covenant Church, what sexual orientation a person has, and so maybe we keep our distance, we edge away from them, we tell them—in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways—that we are far from thrilled at their presence amongst us.

And if so, Jesus would have strong words for us.  Welcoming the least of us is the same as welcoming Him, remember?  So what does it mean when we do not welcome the least among us?

Let us never get to the point of finding out.  Let us never have to wonder or worry about that particular fate, because we have instead striven, and continue to strive, to invite all manner of disciples to our supper table, from the Peters who will deny Jesus to the Judases who will outright betray Him, and to all manner of fellow sinners in between.

Because such grace was extended to us too once upon a time, and we cannot ever, ever forget that, lest we lose sight of what our salvation is ever really about to begin with: being in a right relationship with God, as His child who has gotten to finally, at long last, sit at the adults’ table on holidays.  I mean, we all know the kids’ table is still more fun, but we long for that acceptance, that being able to belong where we didn’t think we ever would or could belong.

And, as it turns out, miraculously, we do.  We all do.

What a welcome table that can be, if we let it.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 15, 2015

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