Scripture: Luke 7:1-10
Given on June 2, 2013 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
There is something about coming together around table and sharing bread and cup that seems to draw people from all walks of life together. There is something universal in the exercise of eating. We all have to do it. But more than that, there is something universal about the need for shared meaning, shared space, community, hope, love, God. And that is, I think, especially at work around this table and this space. A table where we boldly proclaim the very truth that Paul came to know in his letter to the Romans, the very truth that nothing can separate any of us from the love of God as we have experienced it in Jesus the Christ. A proclamation that goes out to all people with ears to hear and eyes to see, a proclamation that goes out to all persons saying, all those who hunger, come. All those who thirst, come. All those who need to feel loved and valued, who need to feel a shared experience with other and with God. All those who need this meal to continue on in your faith, come. Because here at this table there is always a place for you. And it is at a table like this that given the opportunity we can really begin to see the magic that can happen when we decide to drop the blinders that we forever put over our eyes that blind us to the presence of the Spirit in all people in all places. The magic that can happen when we authentically experience each person as our brother or our sister. It’s magical and mighty and beautiful and at times it can also be overwhelming. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton once wrote of an experience he had walking through downtown Louisville, KY on a busy work day on the corner of 4th and Walnut. He noted, like waking up from a dream, that he came to the realization that he deeply loved each person, that he no longer felt alienation from any of them and that as members of the human race each was deserving of respect and honor and dignity and love. And from that moment forward until his untimely death, Merton sought to practice that love and respect towards every person he encountered. That’s what is offered to us here at this table, the chance to wake up from the dream world in which we too often find ourselves and awaken to the deep and abiding love that we are called to share with each other. And when the blinders are cast off, when we are able to move and breathe with the Holy Spirit, then we see incredible examples of the faithful life lived more fully, often in the most unexpected places. Think about the times when someone’s faith has really surprised you, really caught you off guard. Think about what you were doing and where you were doing it. For me, those times of greatest experience and surprise have often come around table, many times in the most desperate of circumstances.
Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to break bread with folks in some of the poorest, most desolate parts of the world. As a pastor, I have been afforded the opportunity to lead in services of communion and those have been wonderful but the most amazing experiences that I have had the opportunity to experience have been when others have sought to serve me. I’ve had the chance to help build several houses down along the border of the United States and Mexico in a land often left to the devices of the drug lords and border patrols. And in my head, I always feel a mixture of despair and guilt coupled with whatever feelings of worth that accompany the building of a house for people who live in broken pieces of plywood clumsily nailed together. Sure, for this person at this time, what we are doing is helpful, but in the back of my mind I know that much of the situation in which these communities find themselves occur because of the brokenness, greed, and disdain that my country shows towards people from other countries. Just across the border from McAllen, TX is poverty, illness, and hunger that arises because of imaginary borders that divide us from cultures that most of us don’t even know exist. To be born on the northern side of that imaginary line is to have a much greater chance of success, a greater chance of survival, to be born to the south signifies a lifetime of struggle, hunger, cycles of poverty, and illness. And It seems like bleakness should be the order of the day and yet, each time a house is completed, the women of the area have gotten together, scraped together whatever food sources they can and cooked an amazing meal of rice, beans, potatoes, cheese, meat, when they can get it, and there is a period of time when it feels like the food is. And it is there, at that time, of celebration and feast that time and time again, eyes are opened to the shared humanity, the brotherhood and sisterhood that transcends race and culture, class and language. For those few moments we all speak the same language of food, love, and celebration. And it is here that faith is made most real for me. A colonia of people who in my head should be passively accepting the efforts of those who come together to build houses, should be angry at the systems that benefit me while holding them down, should, when faced with the circumstances of Job, be cursing God, but instead actively welcoming and feeding and loving. “I’ve Never Found This Much Faith Among The Israelites.”
A few years ago, I had the chance to go to the country of Malawi with my father as he did medical missionary work. I was lucky enough to be able to come along because I was the only person on the team who spoke “pastor” and in a place like Africa having someone who can do that is important within a religiously driven culture. About 2 weeks into our trip, we took the opportunity to visit a congregation in a town on the coast of Lake Malawi that my home church had sponsored for the last few years. The town, Usisya, was about 30 miles and about 3 hours (if that gives you any idea of what the roads were like) from the larger city of Mzuzu. They knew we were coming and had prepared their village for our arrival. As we crested the final hill we looked out over the vista and saw the village for the first time against the backdrop of the Lake. And as we grew closer, the ladies of the community began to line the dirt road that went into the village and sing religious songs in their native tongue. The road lined with women wound its way to the church building. An open air building lit by Coleman lamps where we were received by the village in a service of prayer and exchanging of gifts. In my office at home is a bible given to me by the pastor there in his native chiTumbuka. As the night continued we were offered a feast of food that would have fed the village for a month and before I knew it that feeling of guilt and despair had returned. Africa, as a continent, finds itself in the painful situation in which it is primarily because of the slave trades of the past, the Atlantic slave trade lasting from the late 1400s to the middle 1800s, but also because of the colonization of the land by Western culture who used much of the land as its own game of Risk. What ensued was a stripping of the land of its material wealth and genocidal relationships developed between brothers and sisters in the same family. And yet, here we were, honored guests, consuming their meager food in an epicurean fashion with little regard for where our next meal would come. “I’ve Never Found This Much Faith Among The Israelites.”
In both cases, what emerged was a faith that transcended all language or logic and in unexpected places. Places we think couldn’t possibly have anything to teach us and yet, sitting there breaking bread with residents of the colonias, most of whom lived in houses we wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving our pets in. Breaking bread with villagers from an African village that can barely feed itself. You become aware of strong faith emerging from places where you presume it just can’t be. You become aware that you have much that you can learn from folks who don’t share your common background or language or culture or class. You can witness acts of faith that would blow you away if you but open your eyes and ears to the magic and the beauty and the strength of the Holy Spirit in your midst. “I’ve Never Found This Much Faith Among The Israelites.”
Jesus had just finished giving what is recorded in the Gospel of Luke as the “Sermon on the Plain.” A collection of sayings from Jesus in which the prevailing culture of his day is called into question. In a world in which Roman occupation had created an environment of fear and loathing, Jesus proclaimed love your enemies, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who abuse you. If one strikes you on the cheek turn and offer the other one likewise. In a world in which it had been determined that the only way to end Roman occupation was through violent overthrow of the government Jesus proclaimed blessed are the peacemakers. In a country in which resources were scarce among the Jewish lower classes, Jesus demanded that they each share equally with one another lest some end up with too much and others end up with none.
Having finished this sermon, Jesus makes his way to Capernaum. And the presence of Jesus must have caused something of a stir because we are told that when he enters the town a certain centurion hears that he has come. Now, the centurion is a Roman centurion–a military member of the occupying force in Palestine. And to the ears of first century Jews, this must have sounded weird. Surely nothing good can come from a request from a Roman centurion. But the centurion sends some of the Jewish elders to Jesus on his behalf and let Jesus know that he is one of the good ones. And again, this must have sounded strange. A Roman centurion who loves the Jewish members of the community. A Roman centurion who has built the synagogue in Capernaum for the Jewish community. Now we are told that this centurion had a servant whom he valued greatly. And the servant had grown ill and was even close to death. And the centurion needs help. So, presumably, Jesus agrees to go and heal the servant when upon hearing that Jesus is coming to his house, the centurion, the Roman centurion, who could demand that all those in his presence bow before him, is filled with feelings of unworthiness of even being in the very presence of Jesus. And so he sends word again. “Jesus, I am not worthy to have you in my home. Great teacher, do not even trouble yourself to come here. For I know, I believe that you are a man of great power. I have the power of the Roman Empire behind me. If I say, ‘Go,’ people go. If I say, ‘come,’ they come. If I say, ‘Do this,” it is done. I am a Roman centurion. But you, you are the great teacher, the one who has the whole of time and space at your command, I know all you have to do is say the word and all will be made right for my servant.” And Jesus was totally taken aback by the words of this man. This man, this Roman, desperately staring death in the face and yet knowing of the power of Jesus, of the power of God to heal with a single word. Jesus is blown away by his faith and lifts him up as an example of supreme faith to all the Jewish folks in his midst. This Roman, this member of the hated class of occupiers. This Roman, a commander of the military might of the Caesar. This Roman, has a faith like has never been seen in the Palestinian world that Jesus has called home for his whole life. “I’ve Never Found This Much Faith Among The Israelites.”
In a few minutes we are going to engage in a conversation about the future of the church. A future that will hopefully include opening our doors to members of the community who have not before called this church home. For our congregation this will require a great deal of faith. A faith that the spirit of God moves through this place drawing us to greater and more deep expressions of faith and love for the community of Amsterdam. A faith that the openness that we practice around this table in here will spill out into those tables out there. Those tables in the session room and the community rooms. Those tables at which we fellowship and have conversation. Those tables where folks who are desperate to know that someone, anyone cares about them gather. Those tables where individuals will learn and grow and be given opportunities that are beyond what they can even begin to think up today. Those tables where those from other countries may come and learn our language and not fear the demeaning looks and mean-spirited words that they hear so much in their daily lives. Those tables where those from other cultures might find respite and security and safety if only for a few hours each day. Those tables where the teachers of the program will use their God-given abilities to walk with Jesus, to move with the spirit and to open up new forms of love and acceptance for all who walk in the door.
Friends, we gather around this table and we boldly and radically proclaim that no one is ever turned away from experiencing the love of God, the compassion of community, and food for the hungry. But it cannot remain at this table. Just as the disciples could not remain in the upper room with Jesus, or locked away for fear of the Romans, or even just in Jerusalem, but rather were flung far and wide in a net of compassion, as fishers of God’s children, to reach out and call all of God’s children back home. This table always must lead out these doors and into the world. It’s simply too good an experience to not share it with everyone we meet. We are all blessed to be a blessing to each other and the world. Thanks be to God and Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s people. Alleluia, Amen.