Worship notes: meeting God at table with Jesus #3

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, May 11th - Part Three in our series "Meeting God at Table with Jesus" - and also Mother's Day in the USA. We will all gather in the large open Chancel of our Sanctuary for this worship celebration with chairs being brought in and set up around the large communion table. The table itself will be covered with a festive cloth and set with baskets of pita bread and a clay pot with Syrian cheese to be shared as part of the morning feast. My comments are broken into two parts - the first with our children grounded in blessings - and the second with the adults.

Part One:  Time for Children
Today is… different from other Sunday’s, yes?  So let me ask you a few questions about today’s feast:

+  How does our gathering look different to you?

+  Can you tell me what you see on the communion table?  Is this how it usually looks?  What’s different – can you tell me?

In a way, everything is different today – where we’re seated, how it feels to be up front and close to one another rather than spread out, the way the table is set – even the type of food we’ve placed upon the table is different, right?  And there is a reason for all this change:  in this season after Easter, we’re spending time trying to see what Jesus teaches us about God when he gathered around the table. So I thought we ought to experience what that looked and felt like when we gathered around the Lord’s Table up close and personal.

Now, before I tell you a story about Jesus – and ask you to help me share some of today’s special food – I thought it would be a good idea to teach you how some of the feasts that Jesus went to actually began.  You see, back in his time and place, God’s people began their meals – both the special as well as the ordinary ones – in ways that are quite different from the way we eat supper. 

So often we think that the way we do things is the way everybody does things, but that would be a mistake: not everybody dresses like we do, not everybody eats the same foods that we do and not everybody has as many choices about what they are going to eat as we do. You see, in the time of Jesus at least half of the food that ordinary people ate was… bread.  In fact, the Hebrew word, lechem, means both bread and food.  Bread was essential to the people of Israel and Palestine and is truly what kept most people alive.

And even though most of us don’t know Hebrew, we do know an important word in Hebrew that tells us a lot about the ministry of Jesus:  do you remember the town where Jesus was born?  We sing about it in a Christmas carol that goes, “O little town of…?”  Bethlehem. Here two Hebrew words are joined together in this name – beth which means house (maybe you’ve heard the word Beth-el which means the house of the Lord?) – and lechem which means bread. So Bethlehem means what? House of bread – the place where Jesus was born means house of bread – the essence of life.

In addition to lots of bread each day, people in the time of Jesus also ate a bit of ground beans called hummus, some olives and on special occasions some simple cheese like we have today.  But before the meal began, there were two blessings said:  one while you were washing your hands and one before the bread was broken and shared.

+  The first blessing was a way to remember all of the goodness of God’s creation – and went something like this:  you poured water three times over your right hand and then three times over your left hands saying:

BLESSED ARE YOU, O LORD OUR GOD, MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE, FOR YOU HAVE MADE US HOLY WITH YOUR COMMANDMENTS AND CALL US TO WASH OUR HANDS BEFORE THIS MEAL.

+  Why do you think this blessing was important at the start of the meal?

Then, after the people were focused and ready – having their hearts set on God rather than anything else – they said a blessing over the bread before it was broken and shared:  BLESSED ARE YOU, O LORD OUR GOD, MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE, FOR YOU BRING FORTH BREAD FROM THE EARTH.
And I’d like to teach you that prayer in Hebrew before sharing some bread and Middle Eastern cheese with you, ok?
+  It goes like this:  BARUKH ATA ADONAI – ELOHEINU MELEKH HA’OLAM – HAMOTIZI LEHEM MIN HA’ARETZ. 

+  And we’ll do it in those three small sections:  BARUKH ATA ADONAI – ELOHEINU MELEKH HA’OLAM – HAMOTIZI LEHEM MIN HA’ARETZ

Now the feast can begin, so let me ask my helpers to come forward now and help me share with you some lechem – bread – and gvina – cheese.  And as my helpers make sure you all get a little treat, let me tell you this story about Jesus.

Once, when Jesus was at a Sabbath feast, he noticed how each of the invited guests had tried to elbow into the place of honor, he said, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left. When you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, ‘Friend, come up to the front.’

That will give the dinner guests something to talk about! What I’m
saying is, If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.

Then he turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.  (Luke 14: 7-14)

+
Two more questions and then you can head off to Sunday School, ok?  First, what did the lechem and gvina – the bread and the cheese – taste like to you? Have you ever had any food like this before?

And second, was this mini-feast on the Sabbath fun?  The Sabbath is a special day – it is supposed to be joyful and nourishing – a delight rather than a duty. That’s why the people of Christ’s time closed their feasts with a prayer that went something like this.  Would you please stand and join me in prayer?

BLESSED ARE YOU, O LORD OUR GOD, MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE, CREATOR OF     ALL LIVING THINGS AND THEIR NEEDS:  YOU HAVE GIVEN TO US   EVERYTHING     WE NEED TO SUSTAIN THE SOUL OF EVER LIVING BEING.  BLESSED ARE YOU FOR YOU ARE THE LIFE OF THE WORLD.  AMEN.

Let us sing together as you head off to Sunday School…

+
Part Two:  Adult Conversation
So, we too are gathered around the table of the Lord on the Sabbath: like our children, we know that there are some things to consider and practice around this table that Jesus then asks us to make flesh when we depart.  Because, you see, in the old world of Christ, meals were “ceremonies” rather than rituals – ways of practicing and remembering your place in the real world – “a microcosm that paralleled the macrocosm of everyday social relations.” (Malina/Rohrobaugh, The Social Science Commentary of the Synoptic Gospels, p. 381)

+  Now think about that with me for a moment: a ceremony is regular and predictable and reinforces the status quo, while a ritual confirms a change in status. I think of the ritual of my ordination, for example, that marked the change in my role from being a lay member – or ordinary participant in the congregation – to that of being a teacher, preacher and healer who was set apart for special tasks.

+  Can you think of other rituals where afterwards the person’s role in the world has been changed?

+  Now consider a ceremony and how that is different from a ritual – the way a ceremony reinforces what is expected and predictable – can you name some ceremonies out loud?  (Opening Day at Fenway Park, marking the solstice and the equinox, some of our public holidays like Veteran’s or Memorial Day…)
In today’s meal, however, where Jesus gathered at table with some of the Pharisees to observe the ceremony of Sabbath, he turns things upside down in ways that upset what was expected. In fact, he articulates a NEW set of social relations for those who want to be allies of the community of God rather than just people who maintain the status quo. And he asks us to learn and practice this new way of living at both our regular Sabbath meals and at our special feasting tables.

Specifically, Jesus gives us three distinct challenges in today’s lesson that show us how live into the wisdom of the prophet Micah when he asked, “What does the Lord require but to DO justice, to LOVE mercy and to WALK with humility with our God!”  If you will, today’s gospel reading is a primer in what it looks like to trust that “the Lord is my Shepherd…who prepares a banquet table before me even in the presence of mine enemies!”

So let me highlight these three practical challenges that upset the status quo and ask you both what you think we should do with them and how they might matter to us as a faith community, ok?  First, there is the opening of today’s story, where Jesus is going to feast on the Sabbath with some of the Pharisees and they see a man with dropsy.  Let’s talk about some of what’s being shared with us just below the surface here:

+  Jesus is going to another feast with some more Pharisees:  what does that tell you?  Like I said last week, too often we Christians have painted the Pharisees to be bad guys – I’ve done it before and regret it – but we’ve made them into straw men who are easy to ridicule and dismiss so that we look better.  Like Mark Twain once said:  a Pharisee is a good man in the worst sense of the word.

+  But that doesn’t seem to hold water with Jesus because he is regularly eating with them and arguing theology and ethics with them – and that should tell us something.  Namely, that the both Jesus and the Pharisees considered one another social equals – they respected and valued one another – because in Christ’s day you didn’t eat with those who were above or below your status. 

+  Are you with me on that point?  The simple fact that Luke’s gospel gives us a number of stories where Jesus is meeting and eating with the Pharisees tells us that they took one another seriously.  It doesn’t mean they always liked one another, right?  Today’s text tells us the Pharisees were watching Jesus closely – and the Greek makes it clear that their watching wasn’t friendly – they were suspicious and searching for a way to denigrate and dismiss him. But that’s because they took one another seriously.

And that’s the context in which we need to wrestle with what might seem like a
throw-away detail – on the way to the Sabbath feast they saw a man with dropsy – and Jesus asked them if it was religiously acceptable to heal this soul. Now I had to look up what dropsy meant to understand the point of this detail.

+  Physically it means that a person is afflicted with edema or swelling due to water retention; but spiritually and morally there was an ancient notion of disease that believed the physical symptoms were a reflection of an inward sin.  In this case, the retention of water and swelling was a sign of… greed.

+  We may find such ways of thinking superstitious and morally abhorrent, but we didn’t write the story!  And if we want to understand the clues Luke is giving us about Christ’s upside down kingdom, then we have to know what is going on.

And it would seem from this detail that what Jesus was asking his religious opponents was something like this: on the day set aside to give glory to God and refresh our bodies and souls, is it acceptable to the Lord for us to heal a person who is consumed body and soul by greed?  When the Pharisees were silent, Jesus does not shame or ridicule those who are out to get him; rather, he brings healing to the afflicted and articulates a new rule of mercy: Is there anyone here who, if a child or animal fell down a well, wouldn’t rush to pull him out immediately, not asking whether or not it was the Sabbath?  Like he says elsewhere, the Sabbath was made for you and me, not the other way around, so we need to observe the Sabbath in ways that honor life. Tell me:  what are your reactions and/or thoughts about this first challenge to the status quo?

The second challenge takes place just as the ceremony was starting and has to do with where people were seated at the feast.  In Christ’s day, when you went to a special dinner not only did you recline while eating – it was considered a sign of trust because you weren’t ready to jump up and defend yourself with a weapon – but you wanted to have the most prestigious place of honor – usually at the center table in the middle of all the action – where you would be seen most clearly and have the best shot at getting the best foods first.

+  Modern people know something of this, too:  think of banquets where the honored guests are seated at the front on the dais, right?  Or at wedding parties where there is a head table and members of the wedding are seated in descending order with the special couple dead center.

+  Well, Jesus offers a 180 on the predictable etiquette of this ceremony when he tells his hosts that the way of the Lord cuts deeper than the social rules of Miss Manners.  In fact, Jesus reclaims the wisdom of Proverbs 25 – the ancient book of Jewish wisdom – that reads: Don’t work yourself into the spotlight; don’t push your way into the place of prominence. It’s better to be promoted to a place of honor than face humiliation by being demoted.

Not only is Jesus using his own tradition to criticize prevailing practices – some-thing that would have infuriated the Pharisees – but he is telling his hosts that the true way to live into the Sabbath is to become a servant.  There’s that pesky word that keeps resurfacing in every worship gathering we’ve celebrated since Maundy Thursday, right?  The authentic way of living as members of the community of God is in humility – on our knees – washing the feet of others rather than striving for first place.

+  Are you still with me here? Do you see that servanthood first articulated at the footwashing ceremony of Maundy Thursday showing up yet again here?


+  And what does that say to you? What are you thinking and feeling about all of this so far?

I think Jesus wants to make us uncomfortable at first so that we notice where our habits and proclivity towards comfort get in the way of the community of God. You see, maturing in the faith has to do with practicing trusting the grace of God. It isn’t automatic – we don’t get it right all at once – we have to bump up against our failings and discomfort so that we can try again.  Mary Luti, once the pastor of First Church in Cambridge, MA and now the Visiting Professor of Church History at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, put it like this:

The disciple Peter wrote: Like newborn infants, long for pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation. That makes organic sense to me. When I was little, I was taught to achieve salvation by building up a bank account of merit until I'd acquired enough to please God. Later, I was taught to work out my salvation in fear and trembling. There'd be consequences if I didn't do it just right. Then I heard that salvation's a gift, which should've been a relief, but wasn't. If something's really a gift, a giver can withhold it just as easily as bestow it. That worried and confused me… 

Then I read the words from Peter... and instead of anxious effort; instead of an iffy gift; instead of the exhausting spiritual aerobics we confess in church every Sunday …this made organic sense to me:  we're infants at God's breasts, helpless at the start. As we're fed the milk of mercy, we grow. As we're held in the arms of the family of disciples, cooed to with songs of faith, read to with stories of Jesus, we grow. As we toddle along the Way and speak our first Word, we grow. (What a great Mother’s Day image, yes?)

Maturation is not without its pains. And it takes effort—everyone's, since it really does take a village to raise a child. But there comes a day when we stand back and admire, wondering how this graceful thing happened, knowing that we did not make the splendid grown-up, the mature disciple, standing before us, even though in a way we surely did. And for this mystery of growth, we give God all the glory.

She then goes on to offer this prayer: Nurse us, Mother God. Set us growing until the day we stand before you in the splendid maturity you nurtured us into, you and the church that forms us in your name.

That’s how I hear this second challenge from Jesus: if we want to live into an alternative to greed – if we want to make the community of God flesh – we have to practice it – and the best place to practice it is where we take our nourishment – in our meals and ceremonies and celebrations. And just so that there is NO ambiguity about his intent, Jesus gives us the third challenge:  MAKE IT A PART OF YOUR REGULAR PRACTICE TO INVITE THE FORGOTTEN ONES TO YOUR CEREMONIES AND PARTIES!

When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind – and you will be blessed because they cannot repay you.

Did you get that? Your blessing will come through humility – not what the powerful say about you – but through a purified heart and a compassionate soul. Again, that servanthood thing in spades…

Jesus asks us to practice nourishing humility at our tables – especially our feasts – but our ordinary tables, too.  He invites us to make flesh the prophetic clarity of what the Lord requires:  doing justice, loving mercy and walking through life in humility.

+  What does all of this say to you?  What are your reactions? And what do you sense you need to do about what you’ve heard today?

+  Who have you forgotten about – and what can you do about that? How are you being called to practice servanthood as a result of being fed at the table of the Lord?

At the close of a Jewish feast – and often at the table of devout Jews every day – there are four blessings offered up to the Lord– the Birkat Hamazon – they are prayers acknowledge that it is God rather than our own striving who gives us all we need.  Let me close our time at the table with part of the first blessing:

Blessed are you, Lord our God, Master of the Universe, for you nourish the whole world in goodness, grace, kindness and compassion. You give bread to all flesh and your mercy endures forever.  Through your great goodness we have never lacked nor will we lack food forever… for you are God who nourishes and sustains us all and does good for all and prepares food for all your create. Blessed are you, O Lord, for you fill us and all creation. Amen.

credits:
3) Christ of the Desert - Robert Lentz
4) First Church 250th anniversary - Joe Durwin
6) Maria y Jesus

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