Sunday, May 31, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Table"

Matthew 9:9-13

As Jesus continued on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. He said to him, “Follow me,” and he got up and followed him. 10 As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.
11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

 12 When Jesus heard it, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. 13 Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Common English Bible)

“Whole: A Call to Unity in a Fragmented World,” Week One

The whole scene was a mashup of things that should never, ever happen, but did. 

A car accident on a busy road.

A five year old boy who was hit.

And in the middle of it, a young, 22-year-old Sikh man who had removed his turban and used it to give the injured child a pillow to lay on as he was being tended to.

Understand, mind you, that Sikhs, according to their religion, must never remove their turbans in public.  For him to do that would be like one of us using our most treasured Bible to wipe up the little boy’s blood: it is the right thing to do according to your morality, but still violates this symbol of your faith that you hold dear.

So this was a BFD for a lot of people, and this young Sikh man, Harman Singh, began fielding interview requests from all over at his little apartment in Auckland, New Zealand.  And one of these news crews, upon entering Singh’s humble abode, noticed how empty the rooms were, and how little furniture they contained.

This honestly isn’t uncommon for the large Indian minority in Auckland, over 100,000 people; when C and I vacationed there on our honeymoon, we met a number of Indian Kiwis who did the same jobs that immigrants tend to do here: driving cabs, doing housekeeping, jobs that require a great outlay of labor for really very little money.

And so this news station did something for this young man with very little materially but with so very much spiritually: they bought him a new bed, sofa, chair, and coffee table…because why have a sofa to share with guests without a table to sit around at?

Harman called it "the biggest surprise of his life," and his home has taken a step in being as welcoming as he himself is.  But as churches, we tend to be the opposite: we have all sorts of property and facilities, but we are not always so welcoming.  Which is where this new sermon series comes directly into play.

This is a new sermon series for the summer season, which will take us through June and into early July.  It is based off of a book written last year by Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, who has served for the past eight years as our denomination’s General Minister and President.  As such, she is one of the most visible pastors in our tradition; she has written in magazines and newspapers, preached at national prayer services, and been interviewed by just about anyone you can imagine about what exactly the Disciples think about this or that (trick question: we never think exactly the same about anything).

Pastor Sharon has used this widespread pulpit of hers to proclaim her vision, which she finally put into a book by the same name as this series, and the name comes from the preamble to the design of our denomination: that we are called to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  In a world broken apart by sectarianism, prejudices, and hatred, we as Disciples are meant to be a movement for making humanity whole but to make ourselves as persons whole.  But what does that even look like?  Well, that is what the book she has written is for.  We’ll go chapter by chapter through it, with texts paralleling it from Matthew’s Gospel, and we begin with this excerpt:

As places to eat, tables matter.  Our first “tables” come to us: Mama’s lap, a bouncy seat on the floor, a high chair.  Family life often takes its most representative shape at table.

Tables also exist as more than places to eat.  Tables can represent gathering in community…Mary Roach, author of Packing for Mars…describes the gathering role of tables.  Her book tells you more than you’d ever want to know about the challenges of space travel, including quite a bit about eating in space…

A lot of food in space is delivered from a tube directly into the mouth.  No spoon or fork required.  You miss much eating that way: the smell, the presentation—but it turns out that what you miss most is the social part, the conversation, the sharing around a table.

So now, long duration space ships are fitted with a completely nonfunctional table…nonfunctional, that is, for sitting down to eat in zero gravity.  The table is completely functional, however, as a center for gathering, for being together, for establishing community.  Even when the food is more or less symbolic in nature, the gathering at table matters for the sense of community it creates.

What does this have to do with a tax collector named Matthew…aside from the fact that tradition holds that he is the one who wrote the Gospel we are reading today?  Well, many of you may have already heard my spiel on why being a tax collector was such a reviled occupation in New Testament Israel, but it won’t hurt to brush up.

As a tax collector, Matthew would not have only been a very visible member of his community, he also would have been a very visible reminder of the Roman occupation of Israel.  The Israelites, and the Zealots in particular, believed in their homeland as the Promised Land given to them by God through Moses, and being reminded that they and their land were the vassals of a pagan empire would have galled them at every turn.

But to make matters worse, Matthew is himself an Israelite, even as he works for the Romans.  To his countrymen, he is a collaborator, a traitor to his own people.  He would have fit in incredibly well in Vichy, France during the Second World War.  He and Benedict Arnold would have been BFFs.  You get the idea.

There is still yet another layer on this giant sundae of awfulness that made Matthew such a reviled chap.  Tax collection didn’t work in New Testament Israel the way it does today, with income and payroll taxes automatically deducted from your paycheck, and you receive an annual refund for the excess tax you paid that year.  No, much as we might like to complain about the IRS, they are downright peaches and cream compared to the tax collectors of New Testament Israel, who were, for wont of a better term, state sanctioned muggers.  They would win the right to tax certain districts at auction, for a price that they would pay directly to the Romans.  In order to make a profit, they would demand more in taxes than what the right to collect those taxes had cost them at auction.

So basically, they lined their own pockets by stealing from their neighbors, and the Roman Empire was fine with this because they didn’t care how their legions got funded so long as they got funded.

And Jesus sits down with one of these rats, not just once, at Matthew’s booth, to tell him to follow Him, but again at Matthew’s home, around his table, with Matthew’s colleagues, tax collectors and sinners all.

When the Pharisees predictably criticize Jesus for this, what is His response? “Go and learn what this means: I want mercy, not sacrifice.”

Jesus is quoting the Hebrew Bible to the Pharisees—schooling them in their own area of expertise.  The verse Jesus is quoting is Hosea 6:6, and in this singular respect, Hosea is very much keeping in line with the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible: Isaiah, Micah, and Amos among others all preach to this truth that what God desires is not sacrifice, either in the form of the burnt offerings of old or of sacrificing one another upon the altar of doctrinal purity, but instead, mercy.

God desires mercy.

And community cannot exist without mercy.

Think about it: every time you sit down at the table to brace yourself for an earful from that relative of yours who is always critical of you or envious of you, that is a mercy you are doing.  Every time you offer to just let somebody vent to you over coffee or a beer, that is a mercy, too.  Every time you provide a table to someone who doesn’t have one to invite people to, that especially is a mercy.

Because it isn’t just about the food or the drink, especially if you aren’t going hungry to begin with.

It’s about being held in regard by another human being, to be worth a place at their table.  Especially if that person would have no obligation to do so beyond basic human and Christian decency.

Jesus is under no obligation to show such regard to Matthew.  In fact, if He outwardly reviled Matthew, Jesus would simply be in step with the prevailing mores of the day.

Nor, for that matter, are Jesus’s disciples under obligation to show such regard for Matthew, and that is where we come in, as Disciples today.  One of Jesus’s disciples, Simon, is a Zealot, one of the fervent, violent insurrectionists against Rome.  The Zealots were not to be trifled with—I got asked (jokingly) once which disciple would emerge victorious in a no-holds-barred MMA fight, and without hesitating, I said Simon.  The Zealots were that fearsome.

Matthew represents the human embodiment of what Simon would have almost certainly despised the most: an Israelite exploiting fellow Israelites for profit on behalf of a foreign emperor.

But instead, Matthew and Simon followed Jesus together.  Think of how many shared meals over the course of three years that is.

And now, imagine Simon and Matthew in their next life as astronauts, sitting around a nonfunctional table in outer space, partaking of tubes of freeze-dried food together, and the part about them being astronauts is far more outlandish to us than the part about them sharing a meal together.

That is the power of the Gospel.  That is the power of the table.  That is the power of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 31, 2015

Original image credit: artfromthesoul.com

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