Micah 6:8; Mark 2:14-16
The Rev. Tom Herbek
January 13, 2019
Communion is an important part of our tradition, one of the few places where we use the term “sacrament” or sacred moment. But sometimes traditions are hard for new people in a group to understand. For instance:
A young rabbi found a serious problem in his new congregation. During the Friday service, half the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition. Nothing the rabbi said or did moved toward solving the impasse. Finally, in desperation, the young rabbi sought out the synagogue’s 99-year-old founder. He met the old rabbi in the nursing home and poured out his troubles. “So tell me,” he pleaded, “was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?”
“No,” answered the old rabbi. “Ah,” responded the younger man, “then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers?”
“No,” answered the old rabbi. “Well,” the young rabbi responded, “what, we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout, and the other half sit and scream.”
“Ah,” said the old man, “THAT was the tradition.”
How do we understand our traditions here? This tradition of communion that we share together is a way for us to pause and remember who Jesus was, and what he came to help us to understand.
In this holy meal, we remember Jesus’ death, but this is also a time to remember his life, and the radical inclusiveness of the way Jesus lived every moment of life. As Marcus Borg says, in his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time:
One of his most characteristic activities was an open and inclusive table. “Table fellowship”-sharing a meal with somebody- had a significance in Jesus’ social world that is difficult for us to imagine. It was not a casual act, as it can be in the modern world. In a general way, sharing a meal represented mutual acceptance. More specifically, rules surrounding meals were deeply embedded in the purity system. Those rules govern not only what might be eaten and how it should be prepared, but also with whom one might eat. Refusing to share a meal was a form of social ostracism. Pharisees (and others) would not eat with somebody who was impure, and no decent person would share a meal with an outcast. The meal was a microcosm of the social system, table fellowship an embodiment of social vision.
The inclusive vision incarnated in Jesus’ table fellowship is reflected in the shape of the Jesus movement itself. It was an inclusive movement, negating the boundaries of the purity system. It included women, untouchables, the poor, the maimed, and the marginalized, as well as some people of stature who found his vision attractive. It is difficult for us who live in a world in which we take for granted an attitude (at least as an ideal) of nondiscrimination to appreciate the radical character of this inclusiveness. It is only what we would expect from a reasonably decent person. But in a society ordered by a purity system, the inclusiveness of Jesus’ movement embodied a radically alternative social vision.
And in his book Who Is Jesus?, John Dominic Crossan helps bring it into a more modern perspective:
So eating is not simply a physiological act to get rid of hunger pangs. Anthropologists tell us that the “rules” of eating are miniature models of a society’s rules about people’s relationships and behavior. What we do at the dinner table serves as a map of economic, social, and political differences.
To take a twentieth-century example, think back to the United States at the start of the civil rights movement. Think of the furor that erupted at a Woolworth lunch counter when black young people sat there to order a sandwich or a Coke. This modern, enlightened, democratic society had rules about who could eat and drink where, when, and with whom. It was literally against the law for blacks to eat in certain places, and certainly for blacks and whites to eat together. That segregated lunch counter was a miniature model of the patterns of association in the segregated society as a whole. So when young people, black and white, broke the rules and sat around tables together to eat (or rode in the same bus), they were creating a new model of what the society should look like. The segregated table symbolized human separation and discrimination; the open table symbolized human community, oneness, equality. And that is exactly what was going on in the ministry of Jesus.
In Jesus’ day, you did not eat with “those people,” people who were not a part of your social, cultural, or religious group. Even today, there are Christian groups that do not allow you to participate in communion unless you have met certain requirements.
Joan and I have been watching “Downton Abbey” over the past few months (we’re a little bit behind many of you– thank goodness for Amazon Prime video). I find myself disturbed by the fact that the servants must eat downstairs, and the nobility eat upstairs. When a world-class opera singer is visiting, she is expected to eat with the servants, even though the performance she is to give is an occasion for many high society friends to visit. Luckily, a radical idea is presented: that she eat with the lords and ladies prior to the performance, something that turns out to be uncomfortable for both her and them. And this is set in the 1920’s in England! Obviously, Jesus’ radical idea of an
all-inclusive table fellowship would have been disdained still, even at the time of Downton Abbey.
When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we certainly remember Jesus’ death and his sacrifice for us. But it seems that we should also remember a radical part of who Jesus was in his life, as well. Jesus did not exclude anyone from his table. The scribes and Pharisees were continually asking Jesus’ disciples: “Why does he eat with…?” It was inconceivable to them.
John Dominic Crossan says that there were some early Christian groups who felt that the inclusive meal fellowship was the most important thing Jesus left us. He says that: “What Jesus left behind was the tradition of open eating as a sign of the inclusiveness and equality of life in the Kingdom of God.”
In fact, New Testament scholar Crossan writes that some early Christian groups made the fellowship meal their primary way of remembering Jesus. It was a full meal where all of the social barriers to meal fellowship were broken. At the table were wealthy people, poor people, collaborators with the Romans like tax collectors, people who were considered inferior like women, people who were considered unclean like beggars, and people who were considered heretics and half-breeds like Samaritans; no one was excluded. Jesus welcomed everyone to the table and so did his early followers, which was extraordinarily radical behavior.
It is also our calling to behave in a way that is extraordinarily welcoming. In her book, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Anne Lamott writes about our call to be welcoming:
There must have been a book- way down there in the slush pile of manuscripts- that somehow slipped out of the final draft of the Bible. That would have been the chapter that dealt with how we’re supposed to recover from the criticism session in the Garden, and discover a sense that we’re still welcome on the planet. There are moments in Scripture when we hear that God delights in people, and I am incredulous. But they are few and far between. Perhaps cooler heads determined that too much welcome would make sissies out of us all, and chose instead accounts of the ever popular slaughter, exile, and shame.
The welcome book would have taught us that power and signs of status can’t save us, that welcome- both offering and receiving- is our source of safety. Various chapters and verses of this book would remind us that we are wanted and even occasionally delighted in.
Somehow that book “went missing.” Or when the editorial board of bishops pored over the canonical lists from Jerusalem and Alexandria, they arbitrarily nixed the book that states unequivocally that you are wanted, even rejoiced in.
We have to write that book ourselves.
Hospitality is a very large part of the reason that this is a “church family.” This is a place where we not only open the door, but we also open our hearts. This is a place where we are enabled to enlarge our family, our sense of being welcomed.
At the Lord’s table we connect with each other, not just based on our strengths but also based on our limitations and failures. We recognize our common need for forgiveness, for healing, for love, for acceptance.
There are lots of times in our church where we connect based on our strengths, our talents, our abilities, our laughter, our successes. But that is only one part of who we are. At this table we can also connect with the other part of who we are, the part that needs God’s love more than anything else. Here at this table we know we have been given a great gift, have been reconciled, forgiven, loved by God. It is not anything we have earned. It is God’s gift to us.
At this table is true table fellowship– no boundaries– no one is excluded! Thank God!