Monday, February 18, 2008

Who Gets to Sit at the Table of God?

So who gets to sit at the table of God? Not waiting on that table as a servant, but seated there as belonging? Consider the table a metaphor representing the love, the deep-hearted relentless love of God from whom we come, in whom we live and move and have our being, and to whom we go when life no longer animates our bodies. For God has come to humankind in Jesus Christ to dwell within each of us and among all of us, to make us a people generously included in the covenant love that has long embraced the Jewish people.

That embrace goes back, says the Book of Genesis, to Abram. “For he is the father of all of us,” says St. Paul in his letter today. And the noteworthy thing about Abraham, says Paul, is that we celebrate not his righteousness through keeping the law of Israel’s covenant with God—there was no such law, or covenant, or Israel in his time—but instead we remember him for his sheer faith, his trusting of God. (You remember that story: God called a fairly elderly Abram and Sarai his wife to pick up their stakes and move from a settled life in Ur of the Chaldees—that would be modern Iraq—to journey to Canaan, the famous promised land that Israel would one day claim, and endlessly fight over.)

Abraham stops being Abram when he agrees to obey God and become displaced from his homeland, a moment when covenant is made between them and Abram emerges a changed man. Abram, the Hebrew for “exalted father”, gives way to Abraham, an Aramaic form meaning “father of many nations”.

And the point, lest we miss it: Abraham is noteworthy because Jew and Christian and Muslim alike can celebrate him in terms that trump all religious claims that he is one of them. He wasn’t. There was no Judaism to belong to, in any formal sense, in that time. And it’s a sure thing there was no Christianity or Islam. Yet all three recognize his righteousness, and lay claim to him, “father of us all.”

This fractured world needs Abraham!

You can see the cast of characters in our readings today already shaping an answer to the question, “Who gets to sit at the table of God?”

In his letter, St. Paul speaks Abraham language to the Romans, to show that the Christian faith, while rising from Judaism, is not restricted to Jewish people. Christianity “depends on faith, in order that God’s promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all God’s descendants, not only to the adherents of the Jewish law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham…”

And what is the faith of Abraham? Certainty that God allows no resting on laurels. Sureness that God will upset your applecart, even in old age. Assurance that you should never put your hiking boots too far in the back of your closet. Conviction that God never calls you to do anything that God doesn’t also equip you to do. Awareness that God is always making all things new, always conceiving, always gestating a new heaven and a new earth. Realization that here on earth we have no permanent dwelling place. Assent to God’s radical agenda, that God is blessing all nations, not just our own. And, finally, the faith of Abraham is a shedding of the illusion that God’s blessing means ease and comfort, absolute clarity that God’s blessing awakens a person, a nation, to new responsibilities, new insights, new questions, and new ability to pursue the mission that is entrusted whenever God blesses.

Who gets to sit at the table of God? In the light of today’s portions from scripture, perhaps the question ought to be: On what basis could people not find their seats there? And I hear the Gospel answering, not with the suggestion that God could have an exclusivist attitude, but with the words of Jesus: “You must be born from above.” Without openness to the Spirit of God, without being born of the Spirit, one doesn’t look for the table. Without news of the fiesta, one doesn’t come to the fiesta.

Nicodemus gets close. He has come to Jesus by night, and could there not have been a meal in the background of this meeting? We get the sense, though, that Nicodemus, a religious leader with a lot at stake should he be discovered in the ragtag company of Jesus and friends, Nicodemus stands at the edge of holy space, not at the table—in the obscurity of shadow, not out in the torchlight. “How can these things be?” he asks painfully, yearning for what he will not allow himself to reach for.

Nicodemus has a seat. He is a member of the powerful Sanhedrin which will one day pass lethal judgment on Jesus, and, of course, already has judged him a threat to the established order. Nicodemus is not ready to give up that seat. Understandably, since until he met Jesus he had every reason to believe that there was no finer seat at the table of God than to be an elder of Israel. Rather like being an Anglican bishop.

Jesus upsets that sureness. Nicodemus feels drawn, cannot shake the appeal Jesus makes with authentic integrity of divine Spirit that makes the soul of this old man sing. But he has paid attention, has heard Jesus insist that at God’s table no one sits higher than the next, no one gets favored portions or special influence. It is to a table of equals that Jesus invites him, and could it be that Nicodemus can’t yet see his equal in the likes of boastful James and John, the fisherman Peter, that nervous Judas Iscariot—not to mention earnest Mary of Bethany, her fussy sister Martha, and that one with the long hair and bold look, the Magdalene?

Nicodemus’s resistance may be explained by verses from the Gospel of Mark: “As Jesus sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick do; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’” (Mark 2:15-17)

If you know him well, you will not hear those last words as excluding anyone. But he had a sharp tongue, and used it to slice people free from false assumptions and presumptions. The consummate truth-teller, Jesus tells it like it is: the already-righteous do not need him. Those with big important seats to occupy will not see the compelling beauty or hear the sweet wisdom of God’s hospitality without being born from above, of the Spirit.

Who gets to sit at the table of God?

There’s no more important question to be answered than that one. The Episcopal Church is just one of several parts of Christ’s one Body in spasm at this time in history, over this question.

It is a question that you’ll want to ask and answer before you vote in the presidential election, this fall.

The question is being answered falsely wherever racist grafitti appears on walls, or sexist reaction is allowed to go unchallenged, or fear of the stranger is allowed to block our best impulse to welcome, include, and celebrate the seating of yet another who is revealed to be sister, brother.

Now, what if you ask the question of yourself? Is it just some righteous part of you that gets to sit at the table of God, just the commendable part?

My all-time favorite Lenten book is Martin Smith’s A Season for the Spirit. I’ve set out a few copies at the foot of the aisle, if you’d like to borrow one. His premise is that within each self there is a little world of selves, and he says this:

“The Holy Spirit of God dwells in your heart and is no stranger to the diversity and conflict there. The Spirit dwells with and among and between all the selves of your self. There is no secret place where the Spirit has no access, nor any inner person excluded from the Spirit’s presence…

“…What the Spirit struggles to achieve in human societies will throw light on what the Spirit is bringing about in my own conversion and healing. If the Spirit unites people into communities of love where there is room for everyone, then the conversion of each heart will be a similar process of reconciliation. The Spirit will bring the selves of the self into a unity around the center of the indwelling Christ. The New Self will be a kind of inner community based on the principle of love in which there is room for everyone.

“Jesus proclaims the hospitality of God that beckons all the excluded and disabled and powerless out of the shadows into the full light of day.

“Jesus is serving notice that the present arrangements of human society are obsolete. The announcement of God’s community of equals requires the abolition of human structures that alienate and oppress and starve out the needy, and that maintain enmities between societies and races…” (And, we might add, deepens the opposition between political parties, among churches, and among people with differing viewpoints who need to hear one another.)

“The Spirit’s work in the heart is not a matter of a few adjustments here and there, a little polishing and refining. There has to be a breaking up of the present order… And so the scriptures speak of a breaking down of the old way of being a person and the discovery of a completely new one. They speak of our need to be born again.”

Compassion is not just for others. Acceptance and forgiveness are not for export only. Carrying around a burden of self-rejection is not going to leave us free to love others, try as hard as we will. Smith says, “Without an inner climate of compassion in the heart it is not possible to be a peacemaker.”

God’s call to take our place at the table is not a call to seat just the righteous part, leaving the rest in the shadows. The righteous part may not even have heard that there is a fiesta, and may simply not need—or may be too busy—to come.

It may need to be a disadvantaged self within the self, a part that is wounded or unwell, that will hear the invitation to come to the table of God.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What is Lent for?

So here’s our Lenten mantra this year: “Lent is not about giving up potato chips, but about hearing the story, fresh and deep.”

Today, we might ask “which story?”

Let’s start with the tornadoes in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. On Tuesday, February 5, storms moving across the South spawned a cluster of killer tornadoes, along with hail and heavy snow. Fifty-five people were killed, over a hundred injured, and countless homes, schools, and businesses were reduced to rubble.

Episcopal Relief and Development has already reached out on our behalf to affected dioceses, beginning assessment to determine critical needs. Don’t assume that working through dioceses means that we’re only taking care of our own. It means that dioceses have local arms and legs, networks and connections. What we heard the prophet Isaiah urge us to do on Ash Wednesday, our Church is doing: to share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our house, to cover the naked, and not to hide ourselves from our own kin.

Let’s call this a Lenten ka’ching moment: what the Emergency Relief Fund of ERD is disbursing, needs replacing. Your gifts placed in Raile’s Bowl this morning will go to that purpose.

Months ago, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori declared this Sunday Episcopal Relief and Development Sunday—a date well chosen.

Other stories circle around us today. St. Matthew tells us of our Lord’s dark night of the soul (in fact, forty nights and days) in the desert, facing down one temptation after another, and all on an empty stomach and in profound solitude.

The first of these temptations catches my imagination: “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

What I see when I hear those words is all the stones in this building that we have labored over, these past two years. That each is in its place is already a great act of recycling and change, these many hundreds of glacial pebbles rubbed off in the passage of the Ice Age. For farmers to plow, these stones had to go; and while some became fill and some were piled in walls, these became a church.

Are they of any use, unless they are turned to bread? If we fail to express our faith through works of mercy, compassion, and justice, how does our pile of stones, however charming, glorify God? Without our faith becoming action in the world, don’t we become cold and inert, stone upon stone, with a sad tendency to wobble in our cracking mortar?

There’s one temptation. But Jesus’s own ju-jitsu with the tempter asserts the primacy of God’s living Word over the importance of bread, even to the famished. I hear him saying that if we’re always in motion and never still, always adding to our lists and never emptying our independent souls as Jesus was doing in the desert, if we’re afraid to pray, afraid to really listen and to recognize God in our own experience—then we’ll become hollow and insubstantial. At least stones have mass and dumbly know how to support. Disciples, on the other hand (as we saw last Sunday), tend to get agitated and close up when confronted by change and transcendence. Think of Peter, James, and John on the mount of Transfiguration, nervously offering to build shrines to capture a passing glory while the demand from God is, “Listen to my beloved Son.”

What was Jesus doing in the desert? He was being empty so that the mind and heart and will of God might fill every cell and fiber of his being. He was knowing with God his own weaknesses so that God’s brand of might could build itself in him. He was listening, and he was hearing.

As if this day’s cup of stories isn’t overflowing already, we have yet another about listening. Adam, Eve, and the serpent all share a growing commitment not to listen to the LORD God. The way the story is told and taken, disobedience is the result, and the root of that word tells the story: the edience part of obedience is from the Latin audire, to hear. I’ll guess that the ob part, a Latin preposition, may mean towards.

Towards hearing. That’s what Lent is for: to move us towards hearing, fresh and clear and deep, the story of Jesus’s passion, God’s compassion, and our mission as Christian hearers. The kind of Lenten obedience that will reward us and delight God is not the obedience of grim will power, but the obedience of open-minded, open-hearted listening.

That’s our purpose in the Lenten lunch series that follows this service today and on the four following Sundays. Not business as usual, but time invested in community, gathered around tables for homemade soup and hearty breads. Then hearing a story teller who will help us walk the way of the cross, telling us one story from one day in that holy week that opens with Palm Sunday and, in Easter, refuses to end. We’ll be rediscovering that we’re always in holy week, that all time is within the reign of the Prince of Peace, and that we’re given the mission to claim all moments in his name—as Paul puts it in his letter today, exercising dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

After we hear John Ladd tell the story of Palm Sunday, our Lord’s dramatic entry into Jerusalem, we’ll choose into small groups, either one that will consider how this story speaks to our faith journey, or one that will explore how this story addresses issues of social justice in the world.

Then we’ll hear how this first of the stories of holy week has been enacted and celebrated in the Church’s life over the centuries, how we usually do it here, and we’ll be listening for inspirations as to how we might observe Palm Sunday this year.

All that in eighty minutes, including lunch. And you won’t have to wash the dishes.

You’ll just need to place yourself at the gates of Jerusalem and be open to what you hear and see as Jesus enters the city famed for killing its prophets, chewing up and spitting out its peacemakers. In that respect it could be any modern city, but to belong to all time a story first must have its traction in one time and place, even as it requires us to see and understand our own nature. Does any day in the Christian year do that better than Palm Sunday, when our very own voices call out Hosanna! and Crucify him! all within eight minutes in St. Matthew’s story?

For it is in our nature both to listen deeply and to listen not at all, to hear and understand, and to have an urgent truth pass through the chambers of our ears, in one side, out the other.

“Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you.” We said those words that God, through the psalmist, says to us, and we’ll do well to hear them summon us to a Lent of listening. Listening to Jesus’s story so we rightly hear our own, and better understand our own nature, letting it be re-shaped to a finer obedience.

So, if Biscuit the donkey visits us again this Palm Sunday, you and I won’t be shown up as creatures less in tune with God than an ass.