Sunday, May 09, 2010

Sermon for May 2nd 2010 - Pulpit Supply for Easter 5

In our modern world the experience of Paul and vision around food found in this morning's reading is quaint and little more – we live in a world that is full of literally hundreds of thousands of food choices. Even here in Brandon the world has arrived with curries, sushi, and spices and flavours that ten years ago we could only imagine … but now it's here.

When we arrived in Mantioba from BC we were shocked and surprised to find the only place you could get ethnic foods was in Superstore in Brandon – but even then, the Foreign Foods aisle had a selection of Old El Paso Mexican food and China Lilly and VH asian foods and little else … if we wanted curries, chutneys or the fixings for any number of traditional ethnic foods we enjoyed living in the Lower Mainland we had to make a trip to Winnipeg where we MIGHT be able to find them … since then Brandon has had no less than four sushi restaurants open, two mexican, two east asian, one korean and other restaurants and cafes are expanding their menus to include an ever increasing variety of foods and flavours …

So to stand (or rather – sit) and hear a story about certain foods being forbidden, and Paul experiencing a vision that suggests that no foods were to be considered unclean is bordering on the incoceivable in our modern world. Afterall, we live in a world where the breakfast cereal aisle has dozens upon dozens of choices alone … for most of us today, the very idea of kosher and non-kosher foods is completely alien to our understanding and experience – yet the abandonment of the Kosher system and the inclusion of the non-Jew was radical for the early Church – it marked a complete and total departure from what had been and moved the Church in to a whole new area of evangelism and outreach …

The communion table – the central place in the life of the Church became a place that welcomed ALL people, not just some … before Paul's vision though, communion – the most inclusive liturgy we have today, was a divisive moment that seperated people rather then drew them together.

In the early days of the Church, communion was not about just a tiny pinch of bread and a sip of juice – it was a liturgy that revolved around a meal – the sharing of the community both figuratively and literally.

The service would be about sharing a meal which cluminated in the breaking of the bread and the pouring out of the cup much in the same way Jesus and the disciples shared their last meal together in the upper room. The table would be set with food to be shared for all gathered, and like the Last Supper, it would end with the act of remembrance of that final night of jesus' earthly life.

The problem was the food. For the adherent Jews the food HAD to be kosher – and it could only be shared with others who are observing Kosher … a Jew and a Gentile couldn't sit down and share the meal together - so in that moment – in the holiest moment we have as Christians - the table became restrictive and exclusionary …

Paul's vision then is about building community – tearing down walls and reaching out across the boundaries and borders that seperate people and saying - “at this table ALL are welcome … and when we are AT THIS TABLE we will eat TOGETHER ...”

The idea that ALL food was now regarded as clean is radical … but it's also consistent with the teaching of Jesus who foresaw the in gathering of the nations through the messianic banquet that would mark the arrival of the Kingdom of God. The Messiah sets the table and ALL people are invited to share in the feast and the Kingdom of God begins …

SO – today in the Church the communion table and food is SO CENTRAL to our culture and our understanding of ourselves and our mission that we simply overlook the significance of opening up the table and saying - “ALL ARE WELCOME!!” … We make an assumption when we stand at the table. We are so steeped in the notion that we are open and inclusive and welcoming, that we have a hard time when it comes to readings that challenge that experience and understanding and cause us to pause and reflect critically on what we're doing and whether or not we can do it better …

A question I have long raised in Church circles, and that has often been met with hostility, anger and judgment of me as a person and a pastor, has been the question - “are we really as welcoming as we think we are?” … when we hang the words “all welcome” on the door or the sign of our Church building, do we really mean it? Or are we citing an expected statement that becomes meaningless when that unwashed “all” arrives?

In the United Church we have long struggled with the idea of being an open, welcoming and inclusive church, but we often failed miserably at living those values … we stumble … we struggle … we screw up … but we continue to try. Unfortunately, along the way we also exile and shun those who don't fit in and who dare to speak, and act in uncomfortable ways.

In the 1980's, as part of a United Church sponsored consultation on evangelism and outreach the late Gordon Turner studied the experiences of those who have been left outside looking in, and published his findings in a book entitled that - “outside looking in” … it makes a heartbreaking read … the stories of people for whom church was important and central to their lives, only to find themselves driven out by politics, by power struggles and by any number of factors that pushed them out the doors are hard to read … but they are much harder when you or your family members live them …

Turner built much of his study on the work of … Russell Hale who in the early 70's studied the experiences of those outside of the Church, and what their impressions of the church are … the “unchurched” as he called them, are outside of faith communities for a reason, and though they may be invited to consider attending or even joining, remain on the periphery as the church itself continues to shrink in size and influence … the Unchurched are those outside who will tell us clearly we are not what we think we are …

The very notion that the United Church is a welcome and inclusive community often runs hard against a reality that has voices speaking up and speaking out and saying - “sometimes that just it ain't true ...”

So what are we to do when the table is not what we have come to believe it is ? What do we do when we hear the voices of those who have been shut out and cast out and yearn to come home? What do we do about the challenge of living our faith and confronting the comfort of the status quo that keeps us happy but alienates others?

I can say from personal experience that those who are vested in maintaining the status quo WILL respond with anger and often open hostility … but fortunately there are others who respond quietly …

Palestinian Catholic Priest Elias Chacour writes of his experience as a young student who was about to be ordained into the priest hood when his mentor and teacher came and addressed the class Father Chacour was in.

Father Chacour's mentor sat before the class of eager young priests and said – "If there is a problem somewhere this is what happens. Three people will try to do something concrete to settle the issue. Ten people will give a lecture analyzing what the three are doing. One hundred people will commend or condemn the ten for their lecture. One thousand people will argue about he problem. AND one person – only ONE – will involve himself so deeply in the true solution that he is simply too busy to listen to any of it …"
"Now," the kindly mentor looked each of the young priests in the eyes as he asked the question: "which person are YOU??"
Father Chacour writes - “I reflect on this story often ... and I repeated ask myself the question: which person am I??”

Father Chacour would be ordained and sent to the village of Ibillin in the moutains not far from Nazareth. He found himself in a village that was deeply divided by conflict and differences … not only did the Muslims and the Christians NOT talk to each other, many within the tiny Christian Church didn't talk to each other including two brothers who hadn't spoken in years and yet faithfully attended church each week. For months Father Chacour struggled to bring resolution and healing to his community – then finally one spring morning he chained the back door of the church, secured the chain with an enormous lock, then tucked the key in his cassock and walked up the aisle before turning to address his congregation …

Father Chacour challenged the lack of faithfulness in a community that could be so deeply divided that brothers wouldn't talk to each other … he named the lack of openess and love within the community and boldly said – it was unfaithful and he would NOT give Communion to them until it was resolved … then he added that the doors would be unlocked only if he was killed by those gathered in the Church, or by a resolution being achieved …

In recounting the story, Father Chacour described trembling with fear as one of the brothers rose, his face contorted with anger … then a tear fell from the man's eye and he admitted that he had been a fool and was wrong to be angry at his brother and asked not only for his brother's forgiveness but for the forgiveness of his church and his priest and of God …

That day communion was served … the door was unlocked and the community began a journey that has witnessed it becoming a global leader in the peace movement … the rifts and divides within the church closed and healed and the community healed along with them …

Quietly, ignoring the rabble and the controversy, overlooking the debate and discussion – Father Chacour challenged the status quo and addressed a problem in the world … and he helped fix it …

In the United Church of Canada we ignore the voices of those Outside Looking In, and those that others have called the un-churched, at our peril …

we fail to embrace the potential that comes with asking ourselves the simple question - “which person am I?”

Are we part of the discussions, or are we part of the solution?

Is our table open ? Or is our table closed ?

The radical nature of Paul's teaching – radical as a return to the heart of who we are as a community and what we are about as people of faith – is opening wide the doors of our communties and welcoming in those who are hungry – physically, spiritually, and emotionally …

The quiet welcome – the work at being inclusive and welcoming happens fortunately happens all the time and we may not even see it. It happens when a cup of coffee is poured an neighbours sit and visit … it happens when donations of food and time are made to organizations like the local food bank and the local soup kitchen … it happens when the Church is opened up and our neighbours and community groups and organizations are welcomed in and made to feel at home … it happens when the wounded are welcomed in and tended and healed and prayed for … it happens when we stand at the table ready to break bread and pour out the cup and we know that no one will be turned away …

The quiet work of welcoming ALL, not just a chosen few comes when there is an honest wrestling with what it means to be Church and to live and embody the Resurrection, not just as some high-falooting concept that is remembered as Easter, but is lived every day … Ann Weems sums it up well when she writes:

We in the church are in danger of becoming a tearless people,

unable to rage even in a starless abyss.

We have imitated a smiling society,

glossing over the hurt, the oppression and the peacelessness on earth,

we have become caustic, cynical and despairing,

insisting on looking the other way as our church members crawl to the altar

with the scraps of their lives in their arms …

We were created for covenant keeping, and yet we are in danger

of becoming a blindhearted people, buying into the system,

placing our hopes with kings and corporations …

Have we not seen?

Have we not heard?

We persist in clinging to the way things are,

eagerly placing our faith in the newest fad, the latest how-to book,

the current slogans presented as though they were the Word of God.

We are programming and papering ourselves into perpetuity,

rationalizing and excusing our immortality,

We spend our energy in complaining,

gloomily forcasting our future together.

We panic for positions, vying for first place in the Kingdom.

Perhaps it's time for remembering that Jesus stood in the Jordan

waiting to baptised with the others,

long ago casting his lot not with the good church people, but with the poor,

wherever that poverty might be found …

His name is Emmaunel (God is with us),

and yet individually and corporately we have named him


Have we not seen?

Have we not heard?

In the light of the cross, the alternative is anything but hopelessness.

On the contrary!

There is every spiritual indication that we are called to change

who we are into the Kingdom of God.
Where change is possible, new resurrections loom!!

We are a resurrection people !

May it be so … thanks be to God … Let us pray !!