Worship notes: meeting God at table with Jesus #4
NOTE: Here is a rough take on my worship notes for the fourth Sunday of Meeting God at Table with Jesus. I did something this morning that I haven't done in a long time: I wrote out the broad themes here by hand and then followed my stream of consciousness outline wherever the Spirit led me at the computer. I will do much the same thing Sunday morning, too.
This morning we’ve sung four songs – and listened to another – that invite us to respond in some way to God’s grace: we began worship with that wonderful jazz number called “Dancing on the Ceiling” – moved into “the Lord of the dance” and the “Gloria” – sang and literally danced to the Lord with “In the Presence of Your People” - and raised up a Psalm response about being grateful that our moving lives are built upon a firm foundation.
+ By my count we also already participated in worship in five other ways that are not musical: 1) We arrived, walked inside the Sanctuary and parked out bodies someplace in this sacred hall; 2) we spoke part of an oral prayer and then actively listened to its conclusion; 3) whether or not we chose to sing the appointed hymns almost everyone stood up during their proclamation; 4) a good number of people chose to be brave and try tasting one of the stuffed grape leaves the children distributed; and 5) we visually watched our little ones depart as we raised our voice in yet one more song.
+ Now the reason I mention all of this participation – musical and otherwise – is to consciously call to your attention that at its core, our tradition is about participation, action and embodied living. There is a place for solitude and quiet contemplation, but always in service to the sacred rhythm of going inward and then outward. Our faith is much like breathing – we inhale the essence of life and then exhale a response to the blessing – and should this rhythm ever cease, well then so does life, right?
I don’t know where or when it became calcified in our Christian habits – probably around the third century when thought and abstract ideas were elevated above the flesh as more sacred and God-like – but some people want to believe that remaining stationary – inert – is a natural and healthy aspect of embracing the Jesus life – and I have to tell you: I just don’t see it.
+ Christ comes into his public ministry urging us to repent – that is, change our direction – and he underscores this by inviting us to pick up our Cross and… follow.
+ To be sure, the Hebrew Bible that guides and shapes the ministry of Jesus speaks to us about a sacred rhythm where everything has a season – action and contemplation, song and silence, joy as well as sorrow.
But even the Lord’s call to come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy ladenis about the rhythm of rest in anticipation of engagement. Jesus tells us to take MY yoke upon your life rather than the way of the world so that we might learn and living into the unforced rhythms of grace. The writer, Anne Lamott, once put it like this in her book, Bird by Bird, part of which says:
My pastor said last Sunday that if you don't change directions, you are going to end up where you are headed. Is that okay with you, to end up still desperately trying to achieve more, and to get the world to validate your parking ticket, and to get your possibly dead parents to see how amazing you always were…(and) putting those tiny pesky parental voices aside, what about, oh, say, the entire rest of the world? Do you mind even a little that you are still addicted to people-pleasing, and are still putting everyone else's needs and laundry and career ahead of your creative, spiritual life? Giving all your life force away, to "help" and impress. Well, your help is not helpful and falls way too short.
Ok, Ms. Lamott can be snarky and sometimes a bit over the top, but she cuts to the chase and makes her spiritual point clear and accessible in this age of smart-phones and 24/7 updates that are filled with Tweets and Tumblr and who knows what else, yes? In a more gentile time, the equally challenging and insightful bard of Vermont, Frederick Buechner, said much the same thing when he wrote:
Don’t worry – trust God - stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter.
And I can’t help but recall that Dr. King once noted that not every moment in history is the same; sometimes we must seize the moment because once it is gone, it will be gone for a long, long time – maybe forever.
Which brings me to the heart of today’s message: I think that there are times in our personal lives and the life of a congregation when Jesus simply moves on. He invites us to follow him and join the dance – he calls us to pick up our Cross and become part of the company of the committed – he patiently waits for us to grasp where the Spirit of the Lord is blowing and shares all kinds of forgiveness.
What’s more, Jesus is extravagant with generosity and almost promiscuous with God’s grace because he so wants us to find our place at the table. But, if for some reason we can’t or won’t join him, I sense that the Lord sadly moves on… and we miss out on the blessings and joy he aches to share.
+ I know this is an unpopular notion in a culture like our own that had made individuality and freedom of choice an idol, but sometimes people get stuck in the brokenness of life. Sometimes it is grief, sometimes it is addiction, sometimes it is simple selfishness that refuses to let go of a wound. But whatever it is that causes us to get stuck, sometimes Jesus moves on.
+ I think that’s what the apostle Paul was trying to tell us in Romans 1 where he says that after showing us the way of health and hope – and watching us reject it – God lets us experience the consequence of our actions much like a bereaved parent. Romans 1 puts it like this:
Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Sometimes the Bible calls this the “wrath of God” – not hellfire and brimstone falling out of the sky – but rather God’s intentional decision to step back out of things and let us experience the consequences of our choices. “You WANT to drink yourself into oblivion after I’ve shown you the way of moderation? You WANT to act like a reptile or animal with sex when I’ve shown you the way of responsibility and compassion? You WANT to act in stupid and hateful ways when I’ve shown you what that leads to on the Cross? Ok… if that’s what you want, let’s see if you LIKE it.” And the Lord lets us experience what we say we want.
I sense that Jesus does much the same thing – and tells us he will move on,too if we choose to remain being stuck – but we have to really be paying attention. Two additional stories from Scripture might be useful here:
· In the 10th chapter of Matthew, Jesus sends his disciples out two by two to practice loving and healing and teaching among the people. After offering them practical advice about how to serve, he adds this zinger: As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
· Did you get that? This is not Jesus meek and mild – this is the wise, hardnosed Messiah who says sometimes, for whatever reason, there are people who choose not to respond to God’s grace. And after giving it your best shot… what? MOVE ON! Wonder where Buechner and Lamott got their inspiration? Right here: sometimes you have to shake the dust off your sandals and move on.
My hunch is that is part of what the parable of the wedding feast is telling us, too: we all have excuses – good, bad and in-between for being busy and self-absorbed – but there comes a time when our excuses outlive their usefulness and we push ourselves away from the banquet table. Notice a few things in Christ’s parable:
· First, the host invites all the usual suspects – the good and the prosperous, the well-dressed and well-appointed – and what happens when they get the invitation to the feast? Most – not all, but most – are too busy. And they aren’t too busy with bad things – they are working hard on love and death and work and things that make the world go round – so it is not as if these folk are somehow morally decrepit. No, they are just too busy and self-absorbed to respond the joy of the moment.
· Second, the host in the story gets frustrated with all the excuses and decides to let the people experience what staying stuck feels like. And just to drive the point home, who else are invited into the banquet but the least likely characters at a Middle Eastern feast: the poor and the lame, the broken and the shamed – they are not only invited – but given places of honor.
And here’s where I think our friends in the 12 Step groups can really be helpful to us because they really get what it means to miss the Lord when Jesus moves on.They understand that all people are simultaneously unique and all too alike at the same time. St. Paul says, “All have sinned and suffered and fallen short of the glory of God” and he means ALL and EVERY ONE of us.
· That’s what we have in common – we’ve all been invited to the feast – every one of us. And if we’re honest, each of us knows when we’ve been too busy or sinful or self-absorbed to respond.
· Now at the same time we are all totally unique – mysterious even. I remember talking to a few sponsors at an AA gathering in Cleveland and asking: how come some people become alcoholics while others do not – any ideas? They smiled sadly and replied, “I don’t have any more an understanding of that than I do about why some addicts respond to the program while others don’t.”
· It is baffling – and frustrating – and true. The best we can say once again comes from the Apostle Paul: Now we see as through a glass darkly, but later we trust by faith that we shall see face to face.
Apparently, my friends, we are not God – we are not omnipotent, omniscient nor omnipresent – we are just people. Like God said to Job after Job flipped out and ranted in anger, fear and frustration over his brokenness: Man, were you there when I created CREATION? Where you a part of my hanging the stars and the sun and the moon in the sky? Or knitting together a way of living that includes both the food chain AND the urge for compassion? If you were, then please tell me and we’ll talk… but if not, Job, then please be get some perspective. Our friends in the 12 Step realm grasp what humility is all about and have a whole lot to teach us.
· They also know that you can’t force anyone into gratitude – or sobriety or health or joy or hope. You can invite them to the banquet, but you can’t force them to come. Guilt doesn’t work any better than shame or worn out rules and obligations – especially today when we have so many distractions and options to fill out time.
· Some people, like St. Paul observed, need to hit bottom before they are ready to respond to God’s invitation. Others stay stuck or broken forever, too – and nobody knows why.
In fact, the BEST Jesus could do was say – come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden – put on my yoke – and I will give you rest – and even he had to leave the rest to the Lord. Are you still with me? Do you grasp what I’m trying to say? I really do believe that sometimes Jesus just chooses to move on whether we’re ready or able to respond.
The banquet table – the feast of the Lord – is a metaphor for how Christ invites us to live and love in a world that is filled with busyness and excuses. Like the Lord of the Dance, it is active rather than passive, always in synch with the sacred and unforced rhythms of grace.
· There is a time for solitude and fasting, a time for community and feasting – a time for grief and tears as well as a time for celebration and laughter – it is how God made creation.
· That’s why Jesus called us into repentance – changing our direction – because if we keep living and acting like we know what is best, things will only go from bad to worse.
That is why the faith community was created – the church – the body of Christ in the world. When the Scripture tells us that the church is the body of Christ, it is giving us some practical and counter-cultural wisdom that is absolutely essential so that we don’t get stuck and wind up watching Jesus pass us by:
· If the church is really like a body, then all parts – all people – have a place at the table and a role in the community, but please notice that not all the parts all have to do the same thing. The eyes don’t hear, the tongues don’t lift heavy loads, the wounded don’t have to celebrate, the broken don’t have to fake having it all together, right?
· Not all the people in the church have to do the same thing or be in the same place emotionally, physically and spiritually. Not everybody has do justice work, not everybody is called into the river to get it clean, not everybody has the gift of preaching nor is everyone expected to be a stellar cook when we have suppers or potlucks. Are you still with me?
And if that is true, if the body has different parts that all work together, than it stand to reason that sometimes those who are strong and deeply committed to their role as servants are going to have to carry those to the feast who just can’t make it by themselves. Remember: everyone is invited – the healthy and the broken, the blind and the lame, the joy-filled and the shamed. Some of us need to carry others to the banquet from time to time. Some of us need to make sure that everyone is invited – we can’t make them celebrate – but we can make sure they’ve heard the invitation.
And then… we leave the rest to the Lord. We stop worrying, we enjoy the feast, we honor Christ Jesus by being present and seeing his face in those who gather around the table. And, beloved, that IS the good news for today.