October 4, 2015 —World Communion Sunday
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Tension at the Table… The People and the Place, Fourth in a Series
If you have ever come home after a long trip, pulled your luggage off the baggage carousel and found your car in the lot… If you have ever made it through the first semester of school, or the first week of a new job… Or if you have ever lived through an unthinkably difficult day that was never supposed to be difficult, I really hope there was dinner waiting for you on the other side.
And not like a granola bar and yogurt, that’s fine sometimes, but not this time. You make it to the other side and find your way back home, there should be dinner at the table -where the bread is still warm from the oven, and your glass doesn’t get to be empty. The kind of dinner where nobody’s in a hurry, where everybody wants to hear all about what you’ve just lived through. The kind of dinner that proves you are home, that proclaims, “You made it. We know you. We need you. Here let me get you some more coffee, so you can tell us what happened next.”
Our faith teaches us to eat together like this, to settle in and be nourished and take pleasure in the bread. And our faith teaches us to be wary of the lastingness of the end. The end doesn’t always stay the end. The dinner that seems to mark the end might actually launch us into a new beginning, ready or not.
Today we’re continuing our worship series on the books of Ezra-Nehemiah, and the scripture we hear features one of these pivotal meals. It holds together all the celebration of arrival with all that charged-up anxiety of what is to come. On the one hand, it affirms who we are. On the other hand, it asks, “Are you sure this is who you are? What if you change?”
Our story begins with the good news that the temple has been completed. Even though the first temple had been destroyed when the people were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Even though the exiles returned home and began building a new temple, and this action was challenged by the neighboring nations. Even though the temple building was delayed, it was not defeated. The people came home and built a home for the LORD. Now we know who we are.
The people of Israel celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. They offered animal sacrifices and when it came time for the next holy feast, well now the people were ready to observe Passover. As you might know, Passover remembers the time when the LORD sent the plagues upon Egypt, but the Jewish people were spared. They put the blood of the sacrificed lamb on their doorposts and the angel of death passed over their homes. In honor of this miracle, the people observe the festival of Passover; they eat only unleavened bread to remember how their ancestors escaped Egypt in a hurry -no time to wait for bread to rise.
During Passover, you can feel a tension at the table. On the one hand, this meal proclaims: We have arrived safely on the other side. Now we are home. On the other hand: We remember our ancestors who were fleeing -who couldn’t linger over coffee. Grab a granola bar and get out the door! On the one hand, Passover is a celebration affirming identity. We know who we are by how we eat. On the other hand, the world is changing and who knows how we will be transformed?
This question really might be the most critical concern throughout Ezra-Nehemiah. Now that the people have survived exile, how will they maintain their identity, their faithfulness to God? Ezra advocates renewed zeal in keeping the law; he’s especially against mixed marriages between insiders and outsiders. Nehemiah’s plan is to rebuild the wall around the city to clarify who’s in and who’s out. That’s the problem.
Now in today’s story, the Passover feast was not just for the Jewish people who survived the exile. They opened their table to all the Jewish people who joined up with them and who rejected the nations who worshipped foreign gods.
On the one hand, this action expresses hospitality and welcome. On the other hand, it is an explicit rejection of those other nations who worship other gods. And the struggle around these boundaries shines a light exposing which pieces are deal breakers and which pieces hold the possibility for change… Who’s in and who’s out. This is how we know who we are… This is how we could be transformed. And if you feel the tension of this struggle, then you understand the challenge unfolding for the people in the Bible, then you understand the challenge we are feeling as a church. We have this in common with our ancestors.
See as a member of the United Church of Christ, I love the part of the story where the Passover is shared with their allies, even those who did not come through the exile themselves. Let’s open our minds and our doors and add more seats to the table. Our UCC denomination has staked a claim for our identity —we are the ones who welcome. What makes us distinct from other Christian paths? In our church, whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. We don’t all have to believe the same thing, or vote for the same issues, or come from the same background. Instead, we hold up a three-word slogan that proclaims our truth: All are welcome.
Which is a beautiful, critically-needed, life-giving claim. And once in a while, on a good day, it’s even true. Honestly, most of the time, it’s more aspirational than accurate. All are welcome… really? Maybe not. If by “welcome” we mean your presence will be tolerated, nobody will actually kick you out, then we usually get that right. But if welcome means something more, and I think that it might, then you know we fall short.
What happens is we bump into boundaries we’ve established, some on purpose and some by accident. We’d like to say that all are welcome at this table, but is that true for people who aren’t sure whether they’re Christian? Is that true for children? We like to say that all are welcome here in worship, but is that true if you can’t physically get into the building? Or if you need the service to be in a language other than English?
I’m sure you could name some of the barriers you have experienced in being part of the church. That’s okay. Identifying these barriers illuminates which matters are deal breakers and which matters are points where the church can change. In doing this, we move from the slogan to the struggle. All are welcome. Holy is this struggle.
Look at the stories in the gospels and you’ll see, this struggle lives at the heart of following Christ. Jesus leads us right into that creative tension between affirming this is who I am and wondering who I might become. Jesus pulls us right into this struggle and blesses it like it’s the best miracle, because maybe it is.
You might remember the late poet Maya Angelou. Legend has it that she was once confronted by a person who said something like, “I am a Christian. Are you?” Angelou later explained how she answers that question, “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian,’ I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means I try to be kind, and fair, and generous, and respectful, and courteous to every human being”
This week, we’ve learned of a horrific incident in which the question “Are you a Christian?” had deadly results. But even on a friendly afternoon, this is a demanding and daunting question. I’m thankful for Maya Angelou’s response because she reminds us that being Christian is about the struggle, not just the dinner on the other side.“I’m working at it” is the truth.
Now maybe this table is not just for the last supper, not even just for rehearsing the great meal on that day when the LORD wipes away the tears from every face. Maybe this table also remembers the breakfast Jesus shared with his disciples after his resurrection. They didn’t even recognize him until he started cooking the fish on the beach. They ate fish and bread together and he told them, “Go feed my sheep” (John 21:9-17).
Friends, I invite you to consider how you experience communion. If this is your first time sharing communion at Church of Peace, maybe you can imagine what it’s like, or maybe not. If you have had communion here many times, there might be something about it that is comforting, something that affirms your faith in Christ and your love for this church. I hope there is that something for all of us.
But I’m sure, for each of us, there is also something about communion that is not comfortable. It can be stressful to serve communion, and if it’s your first time with us, it can be confusing to know what to do. Sometimes the mood feels subdued and reverent when you’re ready for loud rejoicing. Sometimes communion is loud and festive when you’re feeling contemplative. Please know, it is okay to feel uncomfortable during communion; there’s something important about our discomfort. It might hold our potential for being transformed by Christ…
And holy is the struggle. And who knows, maybe communion today will be just the beginning… May it be so. Amen.