O Wisdom on High, by you the meek are guided in judgment, and light rises up in the shadows for the godly. Grant us, in all doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us do, that we may be saved from all false choices, and that in your light we may see light, and in your straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
(Adapted from BOW 525, The Book of Common Prayer, USA 20th Cent. Alt)
Today is World Communion Sunday. As I fill your pulpit this
morning I cannot find the words. I have words enough to say thank you for the
way that you have welcomed me and my family to Grace over this past year. I
have words of thanksgiving for Pastor Cathy for inviting me to preach. And I’m
sure that if this does not go well, you will undoubtedly have words for her
too. Let us pray that it does not come to that.
All kidding aside I cannot find words that befit what is supposed to be a glorious occasion. It’s supposed to be the day where in every corner of the world we are not far from a table with dimensions to hold the cup that overflows and the loaves that multiply. It’s the day when we come to the table where there is room for all. I should have lots of words to say about this.
I mean I went to seminary.
And don’t get me started on the other schooling, because for all the books, and all the languages, and all the digging by the sea of Galilee, you know what great font of knowledge I kept returning to during my sermon preparation.
An NBC, Sunday night, made-for-tv movie about the life of Jesus circa 1995.
This was the strangest movie because it started out with a college-aged Jesus who was working as a carpenter. He’s wearing a robe that looks like the first century equivalent of a leather jacket. He’s like the Fonz,…eh.
Anyway he’s working away at building this table that’s looks a lot like a communion table, you know the rectangular, dining room style ones you see at a lot of churches. After he finishes, he grabs his mother, Mary, and brings her over to see it. And she stares at it, walks around it, and is trying to figure out what to do with it.
You see, in that time and in that place, you kind of lounge around low tables when you share a meal. You recline when you eat. So Mary is perplexed by this giant table. She leans on it. Then she squats at it. Jesus finally brings her a chair and she sits at with her elbows on it. Then she and Jesus start talking about how funny the people are that would use a table like that. And they just laugh and laugh and laugh.
I remember this particular B-movie because I had never seen an image of Jesus laughing…
and frankly, I didn’t like it.
I remember turning to my mom and saying, “What is this? Jesus, didn’t laugh in the Bible.” And I’ll never forget what she said back. “Son, if Jesus was human, how long do you think he could have gone on this earth without laughing, crying, or doing any of the other things humans do?”
As I thought about this sermon in fits and starts, I kept thinking about Jesus laughing at the table. I wondered if he would laugh at us for the ways we boast about our big tables and yet maneuver to maintain our personal space, the way we can give intention to inclusive litanies regarding ritual, yet take little time to look around the table to see who’s missing or should be here or needs to be here.
Would Jesus laugh when we come into God’s house after six days in the field, only to stroll up to a greeter and say “table for 1, I’ll have the bread and cup special” without savoring the duty that makes us the body of Christ—that call to be last, not first; the host, not the guest; the servant to all?
Maybe Jesus would laugh to keep from crying about what Zion has become. I have the words to tell you about about Jerusalem in 586BCE. I don’t know if I have the words to tell you about Tuscaloosa 2019.
Zion’s roads are in mourning; no one comes to the festivals.
All her gates are deserted. Her priests are groaning,
her young women grieving. She is bitter.
(Lamentations 1:4 CEB)
I don’t know if I have the words to tell you about the black students who tell me about the things that have been yelled at them or who come up to me, shake my hand, look into my eyes because—as Paul wrote in Romans—sometimes all we have are “sighs and groans too deep for words” (Romans 8:26 NRSV).
I don’t have words for a world so very dangerous for those
who want to protect and serve, nor do I have the words about what it’s like to
have to have “the talk” with a five year-old because that too is my duty. Is
there room at the table to talk about that?
One of the gains of the ecumenical, or cross-denominational movement, of which this Sunday service is a part, is that it has gotten the church thinking deeply about what happens at Communion. Thus, some of you may notice that we don’t really talk about altars because what we do here is not a sacrifice so much as a celebration of the life led, shed, and resurrected in word and deed.
That said, as one who comes from a people for whom altars are of immense importance, I think there is a word lost if we do not contemplate the mysteries there too. In the same Africa that sheltered Moses, Jews, Jesus, and the matriarchs and patriarchs of antiquity, altars are a place to remember your kin. Those still with us. Those who’ve gone with the ancestors. Some would even argue that in the new world you find these in the homes of black elders, at mantles overflowing with pictures of family and loved ones.
On this World Communion Sunday, I have thought a lot about whether Allison Jean has a altar mantle. Allison Jean is the mother of Botham Jean, a 26-year old black man who was killed in his Dallas apartment by a white off-duty police officer who mistook his apartment for hers and him for a burglar. Allison Jean is also the mother of Brandt Jean, Botham’s brother who you likely know as the one who extended forgiveness to his brother’s killer.
Many have latched onto his story as an example of the mystery of our faith. And while the Lord works in mysterious ways, Isaiah (55:8) says his ways are not our ways. So if you are going to contemplate one man’s spiritual act of worship at the altar of forgiveness, so too should you hear the holy cries of a woman whose son was “seized” (Psalm 137:9 CEB)
Shortly after word of the killer’s controversial 10-year sentencing, Allison Jean went to her church for a service, and according to news reports said the following:
“There are many Christians who asked me if I would forgive Amber. I will leave my forgiveness for Amber to myself. God knows my heart,” she said. “What I want you to do for us, for the family is to support the legacy of Botham. We have created [a] foundation not to help us, but to help the underprivileged, the underserved, the vulnerable, the voiceless. So I ask you to support the Botham Jean Foundation. I would love to help someone who Botham would have wanted to help… While we walk as Christians, we still have a responsibility to show that our city does what is right,” she said.
At the altar mantle, she has the words. She has the words that take the grace of the table to the city where there are so many who hunger and thirst for righteousness, yes … and those that simply hunger and thirst (Matthew 5:6, cf. Luke 6:21).
And you know what, it turns out that you don’t need a tall table for that.
I still don’t have a word, but I do have a hunch. I have a hunch that the actions shown by the Jean family come from history of receiving grace. For “as often as you do these things” (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26) with a bread or a cup or by whatever means the spirit moves, then you remember that the duty for which we are created requires faith no larger than a mustard seed (Luke 17:5-6). It is a faith that you can hold on a table of any size. And it is a faith you can carry with you into the world.
Lest some of you think I am advocating that we turn over our table, I thought I’d share with you a mustard seed of a story that I carry with me. I spent much of the summer of 2007 in Israel-Palestine on an archaeological dig. Interestingly, my mother was not to thrilled about me going to this geo-political hot spot. She was also not too thrilled about my reply that, “If it was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for me.”
Anyway, as holy as that land may be, I have to think Jesus would laugh at the Christian tourism industry. Everywhere you go, people will tell you the gospel significance of this site or this field or this house or this food or this soap. It’s as if Jesus said to his disciples, “monetize in remembrance of me.” And I’m sad to say, that the Christian branding kind of put a bad taste in my mouth.
But something changed it during my time in Jerusalem. And it happened at the last place many of us would ever look.
Jerusalem today is divided up into four quarters: the Jewish quarter, the Muslim quarter, and then Christians have two quarters because they can’t agree on one. And of course, if you want to do the stations of the cross and follow Jesus’s presumed footsteps, you’d have to traverse through various quarters. I stayed at a Catholic monastery called, “Ecce Homo,” named for the site where in the movies, Pontius Pilate lifts his arms and presents the crowned Jesus to the crowd and says “Behold, the Man.” Inside the monastery, the monks are keeping their daily offices, celebrating the mass each day. And outside, pilgrims of various denominations walk from station to station.
One day, I was up the road at a pizza shop in the Muslim quarter where all the archaeologists hang out. And some kids were playing soccer on the old street in front of the shop. Meanwhile pilgrims were coming up, and… you just knew that the friar leading them was about to be beamed in the head by that soccer ball.
But before that could happen, the pizza shop owner, a
Palestinian Muslim, runs out in the middle of the street and swoops the kids up
and pulls them to the side. And the man points to the pilgrims and starts
explaining in Arabic what the pilgrims are doing. And I was close enough and my
Hebrew was good enough for me to make out the words of the sister language. In
part because I had heard them before. They were the words we say when we tell
the story at the table. And I have never seen such reverence or admiration or
understanding in all my travels than I saw from that man.
What did he know about this Christian life? He taught me that it doesn’t take a lot when you trust that you have been given enough.
When you go from this table into a city that at times leaves you with a bitter taste that keeps the words from coming, I pray that just a mustard seed of the story we share will get you through. I hope you’ll remember the faces on the altar mantle that lift you into tomorrow. And I trust that you will find grace in the last place you look. In the name of the one who laughs, weeps, and goes with us each and every day. Amen.
May you go out this day and every day in the name of the Almighty God,
in whose image you are created,
With grace to fearlessly contend against evil,
And with charge to keep no peace with oppression.
May you reverently use your freedom in the maintenance of justice
To the glory of God’s holy name
Through Jesus Christ who saves.
And in the spirt of the bread and cup that unites us all. Amen.
(Adapted from BOW 513, Book of Common Prayer, USA; 20th Cent. alt)