The Big Table

 

I listen to a lot of podcasts and a lot of NPR. They’re nice things to have on when I’m driving, or in the background when I’m writing, or to pay attention to when I’m doing yard work.

And I listen to the news sometimes. Other times, it’s stuff that’s funny and relaxing: Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me or Ask Me Another or The History of Fun.

But, the last couple of weeks, everything has been less funny and less relaxing. The podcasts and NPR, the evening news, the conversations, the social media feeds… everything has been about a Supreme Court nominee and a woman—multiple women, really—who have accused him of sexual misbehavior and sexual assault.

And it isn’t the beginning of that conversation. The story of this nomination is part of a bigger story that’s been ebbing and flowing through our national discourse. The stories of #metoo are stories that we’ve needed to tell and that we’ve needed to hear. And we’ve been hearing them a lot over the last couple of weeks.

And, I’ll tell you, I don’t want to start a sermon with a Supreme Court nomination. I’d much rather start with a story about Hildegard. But when you have the bible open in your web browser and Pod Save America playing in iTunes… well, sometimes you hear God calling you.

And I know that it’s on the minds of people sitting in this sanctuary. You have talked about it in the prayers of the people. We have prayed for Judge Kavanaugh and we have prayed for Dr. Ford. And we have prayed for the people who have listened to their testimony, or who have listened to the news, and who have heard the echoes of their own stories.

So we start here, with these words from the Epistle to the Hebrews: you are crowned with glory and honor. And that’s another way of saying, at least a little bit, you are loved and you are worthy of love.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in the United States, one in three women, and one in six men, will be the victim of sexual violence in their lifetime. It is worse for people who are transgender, genderqueer, or gender nonconforming. Look at the people around you. Do the math.

Over the last couple of weeks, countless men and women—and more women than men—have heard their own stories echoed in the news. Some have had to relive those stories. Some have been called to tell their stories. Some have longed to hear the words of the church: you are crowned with glory and honor, you are loved and you are worthy of love.

And, as the church, we have a responsibility to show those survivors of sexual violence that they—that you—are crowed with glory and honor; that they—that you—are loved and worthy of love.

But it doesn’t end there.

Statistics on perpetrators are hard to find. But I know that there are some men—and some women—who have heard the stories in the news or read the stories on their social media, and who have started reviewing their own lives. Some people are obvious perpetrators. More people are asking if they crossed a line, if a moment was really consensual, if they hurt people they cared about, if they failed to care when they should have.

Some of us have had things happen to us that have broken our hearts. Some of us have done things that have broken our souls.

And here we are, on World Communion Sunday.

Today, churches around the world are celebrating communion together: churches who celebrate communion once a day, or once a week, or once a month, or once a quarter, or every-so-often.

And I know that I like to say that this is the biggest table. And what I mean is that this table in this sanctuary is one corner of a great table that stretches through time and space, a great table that we share with Christians around the world and through the ages.

We come to this table and join the earliest Christians in the upper room. We come to this table and join people who will be baptized generations from now.

We come to this table and eat the feast that Christ prepares for us again and again. And we do that together.
And that is terrifying.

We come to this table and eat the feast that Christ prepares for us again and again. And we do that together. And that is terrifying. Click To Tweet

We come to this table to eat with psychopaths and thieves and murderers. I am eating at this table with the kids who made fun of me in school, and the boss who made me cry at work, and the teacher who punished me for something I did not do…

…and people who hurt me in ways that are so much worse. People who have hurt me in ways that have broken my heart. And if they are not at the table themselves, then someone like them is.

And we come to this table to eat with the victims of our sins. I am eating at this table with the panhandler who I told I didn’t have any change, and the underpaid textile worker who made my shirt, and the child who mined the cobalt for the battery in my phone…

…and people who I have hurt in ways that are so much worse. People who I have hurt in ways that have broken my soul. And if they are not at the table themselves, then they are present in Christ.

This is a hard table. I am here with my friends… and my enemies… and my victims.

And I will tell you: there are times when my broken heart makes me wonder if I am worthy of eating at this table, let alone serving at it. Because I know that when I look across this table—this table that stretches through time and space—I see the faces of people who hurt me and who I cannot forgive.

And there are times when my broken soul makes me wonder if I am worthy of eating at this table, let alone serving at it. Because I know that when I look across this table—this table that stretches through time and space—I see the faces of people who I have hurt and who I do not believe can or should forgive me.

And yet…

In our reading from Hebrews today, the author of that epistle tells us the story of our faith. God used to speak to us through prophets. And now God has spoken to us through a Son, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Who became like us. Who gave up his privilege to be one of us. Who suffered and died like us.

And who was raised. Who is crowned with glory and honor. Who is the pioneer of our salvation. Who calls us brother and sister and friend and neighbor. Who invites us into the Kingdom of God.

And when I say us… I mean all of us. Even you. Even me.

Our faith is not an easy faith. It is a faith begun in the crisis of suffering and death. It is a faith brought to life with the resurrection of our Lord. It is a faith forged in the crucible of persecution.

It is a faith where we see, with terrible clarity, that we are both slaves to sin and redeemed by Christ. And it is a faith where we see, with terrible clarity, that the same is true of our friends… and our enemies… and our victims.

It is a faith where we have to look Christine Blasey Ford in her eyes, and remind her that she is crowned with glory and honor, that she is loved and worthy of love. And where we say to her, this is the body of Christ, broken for you.

It is a faith where we have to look Brett Kavanaugh in his eyes, and remind him that he is crowned with glory and honor, that he is loved and worthy of love. And where we say to him, this is the new covenant in Christ’s blood, poured out for you.

Our faith is not an easy faith. It is a faith where we know that our hearts have been broken by the things that have happened to us, and where we know that our souls have been broken by the things that we have done.

Our faith is not an easy faith. It is a faith where we know that our hearts have been broken by the things that have happened to us, and where we know that our souls have been broken by the things that we have done. Click To Tweet

And once a month, we do something that is so hard: we come together at a table with the people who have hurt us (even if they aren’t in this time and this place) and the people who we have hurt (even if they aren’t in this time and this place). And we see each other. And we know that all of us rely on the same God, the same Christ, the same Spirit.

There is a rule that I follow in preaching: I will preach from my scars, not my wounds. And that means that when I preach from the places where I am hurt, I preach about the hurt that I have processed, and dealt with, and healed from. I preach from my hurt after it has healed, not while it is still red and raw.

And I can tell you honestly, in these last couple of weeks, some of the scars have been torn off and some of my wounds have been reopened. I have been looking through my life. I have been reviewing my story.

I have heard echoes of my story in the words of Dr. Ford. And I have felt my heart break.

I have heard echoes of my story in the words of Judge Kavanaugh. And I have felt my soul break.

And for you who are in this sanctuary, or who are reading a manuscript of this sermon, or who are listening to the recording: that is where I am leaving it.

I will not put my wounds on display. But rest assured that things that have happened to me that cause me pain. And there are things I have done that I am ashamed of.

And I know that some of you—maybe even a lot of you; maybe even most of you; maybe even all of you—are in the same position. We are broken in so many ways. We bear our wounds in so many ways.

But the reason I am telling you that, is that sometimes, those of us who preach, preach the sermon that we need to hear. And I know what I have needed to hear for the last week or two, and I know that there are other people who need to hear the same thing:

No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, no matter what has been done to you, and no matter what you have done… you are welcome here. You are welcome in this church. You are welcome at this table

Whether you are a victim, or a perpetrator, or both, or neither, or somewhere in-between, you are crowned with glory and honor, you are loved and you are worthy of love. And because of that, you can live a life that is not defined by what has happened to you or what you have done to others. Because of that, you and I and all of us can live lives that are defined by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, by the love of God, and by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Whether you are a victim, or a perpetrator, or both, or neither, or somewhere in-between, you are crowned with glory and honor, you are loved and you are worthy of love. Click To Tweet

And that begins, in some small way, with coming together at this little corner of a big table, with people who we cannot yet forgive and with people who cannot yet forgive us.

It begins, in some small way, with coming together at this little corner of a big table and eating together in our mutual brokenness.

It begins, in some small way, with coming together at this little corner of a big table, with all of the other people who depend, in faith, on the promise and hope of Jesus Christ. Which is to say, everyone.

And it begins with the knowledge—even when we can’t quite believe it—that we are welcome at this table and we are worthy of this table.

Hallelujah. Amen.

Jesus the Refugee

This sermon was delivered at Union Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline, Illinois on January 1, 2017. The scriptures for this sermon are Matthew 2:13-23 and Hebrews 2:10-18.

I’m a geek.

I’m enough of a geek that, when I was traveling for work a couple of weeks ago and that latest Star Wars movie came out, I went to see what I’m pretty sure was the first showing at a theater in D’Iberville, Mississippi.

Now, I’m not going to spoil the movie for you. I’m going to tell you what anyone who follows Star Wars — and what a lot of people who don’t — already knows.

At the beginning of the original Star Wars movie, there’s a famous opening crawl: that famous yellow text floats out into space before the camera pans down to reveal a rebel spaceship running away from a much larger, much more menacing, Imperial Star Destroyer. The opening crawl sets the scene: a galactic civil war, a first victory for the rebellion, an armored space station called the Death Star, stolen plans, and so on.

It’s almost entirely unnecessary. All of the important information in the crawl is also contained in the actual movie.

But someone thought, “Let’s make a movie about the things in the opening crawl. Let’s make a movie about how the rebellion won that victory and stole those plans. Let’s have the last scene of the new movie flow seamlessly into the first scene of the original movie.”

I’m willing to bet that they also thought, “We could make a lot of money doing that.”

And it’s a good movie; it tells that story. And by telling that story, it changes the original movie. It adds depth. It adds perspective.

And I’m telling you this because Matthew is giving us an opening crawl.

You see, the nativity stories in Luke and Matthew have a problem: the prophets had declared that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but everyone knew that Jesus was from Nazareth.

Luke solves this problem through a story that you’ve heard. It is the basis for every public reading of the nativity:

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.”

Joseph takes Mary from his home in Nazareth to his ancestral home in Bethlehem to be registered, Jesus is born, they go home. Easy.

Matthew does something different. Jesus is just born in Bethlehem. There’s no comment. There’s no census. There’s no journey from Nazareth. Joseph and Mary are just there.

And to get Jospeh and Mary and Jesus to Nazareth, Matthew gives us an opening crawl.

Wise men come from the East seeking the Messiah. They’ve seen a star and they know that there is a new king of the Jews. King Herod had been given the title King of Judea by Rome and he feels threatened. He begins to plot against this child.

The wise men are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod. Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt. Herod orders his men to kill all of the children in and around Bethlehem; everyone two years old and younger. But, of course, they miss Jesus, because Jesus is in Egypt.

And, when Herod dies, Joseph and Mary and Jesus return from Egypt. But Herod’s son is ruling over Judea. So they settle in Galilee, in Nazareth.

And then Matthew skips a few years, brings in John the Baptist, and starts Jesus’ ministry.

It’s a bit of an opening crawl. You can imagine it in yellow letters floating into space before the camera pans down… probably not to a scrappy rebel spaceship. A conflict between two kings! A massacre! A family on the run! Excitement! Adventure! Wonder!

And now we’re ready for the main story.

Now, Matthew never wrote a prequel to flesh out his opening crawl. We have to imagine.

Imagine having just had your first child. You’re a new mother or a new father. You have hopes and dreams for your son. Maybe it’s been a few months or a year. You’re starting to build a nice little life as a family.

But, in the middle of the night, you get  a message. One word: run!

You start grabbing things. You can’t take everything you own, there isn’t time. You can’t take everything you can carry, you need to be fast and light. You can only take the necessities.

You run. You settle in a foreign land. You work, you pray, you start to build a life. Some of the people here are kind and they help you. Some of the people here are cruel and they tell you to go back where you came from. And you wish you could. This isn’t home.

You hear news. The ruler of your homeland is massacring children. Every child under the age of two has been killed. And while you hear people in the cafés talking about the statistic, you start seeing faces and hearing voices and recalling names. You know those parents. You know those children. You know those families.

You go to your home that isn’t home and look at your family — your family that you brought to this strange land — and you weep.

You hear news. The ruler of your homeland has died. Your home, your real home, is safer. You get up, you take what you have, and you go back to your home country. But your real home is still too dangerous, so you settle nearby. You go home… ish.

And time passes. And your son grows up. And you wonder if he remembers being a refugee. You wonder if he remembers his real home, or the foreign land, or fearing for his life.

That’s Joseph. That’s Mary. That’s Jesus.

In Matthew, Jesus wasn’t born peacefully in a manger. Shepherds didn’t come down from the hills to greet him. Angels didn’t sing him to sleep. Cows didn’t low. In Matthew, Jesus is a child of war, threatened by a king, taken for his own protection to a foreign land.

In Matthew, Jesus is a refugee.

And that matters. I don’t know if Matthew intended to, but it does. Once we flesh out that opening crawl — once we see Jesus as a refugee — it changes things. Everything that happens from here on out — all of the sayings, all of the parables, all of the healings, all of the miracles — are the acts of a refugee. Everything that happens from here on out — the last supper, the betrayal, the crucifixion, the resurrection — are the acts of someone who had to leave his home when he was a child… and never return.

“Blessed are the merciful.” The words of a refugee.

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The words of a refugee.

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” The words of a refugee.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The words of a refugee.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know anything about being a refugee. I’ve never had to run from my home. I’ve never had to flee my country.

But I know this. Refugees span every walk of life.

Politicians? Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger.

Scientists? Max Born, Albert Einstein.

Writers? Joseph Conrad, Rigoberta Manchú.

There are refugees who are musicians and actors and athletes and artists and a thousand other things. They are white and black and brown and every other color. They are men and women. They are adults and children. They are just like us. But, to paraphrase Maria von Trapp — a refugee who you know from The Sound of Music — they have no home… they feel like a parcel that has been mailed and moved from place to place.

And I know this. There are a lot of refugees.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 21 million people who have had to flee their countries. In addition to that, there 38 million people who are still in their countries, but who have been forced from their homes. And in addition to that, there are millions of people who are stateless, with no country, no nation, no home.

More than half of those refugees come from just three countries: Somalia, Afghanistan, and Syria. And more than two-thirds of them live in the Middle East and Africa. There are more than two-and-a-half million refugees in Turkey alone.

And there are about half a million here in America.

Jesus is a refugee. And he has tens of millions of brothers and sisters.

And, as the author of Hebrews says, he, “is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

The author of Hebrews — it’s a letter that’s often attributed to Paul, but he didn’t write it — is writing to Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem. The original audience for this letter knows persecution. They know what it’s like to be home but not home. They are not refugees from their country. But they are refugees from the Kingdom.

And they know that Jesus is not ashamed of them. They know that Christ had to become just like them. They know that Jesus has suffered like them. They know that Christ is among them.

Later, Matthew will write that we find Christ among the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. We know that Christ became like them, that Jesus has suffered like them, that Christ is among them.

Christ is the stranger. Jesus is a refugee.

And we have faith that we, too, are refugees; that we are strangers in a strange land; that we are home and not home; that we are in the world, but not of it; that we are refugees from the Kingdom.

We have faith that we can look to our brother Jesus who became like us and suffered like us and fled his home when he was a child, and he is not ashamed of us.

We have faith that we can look at our brothers and sisters from Somalia and Afghanistan and Syria and every corner of the earth — the refugees, the displaced, the stateless — and know that they are not ashamed of us. And we are not ashamed of them.

We have faith. And because of that faith we can welcome the stranger and the refugee with open arms. For we know that they are Christ.

Because Jesus was a refugee.

Hallelujah. Amen.

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