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October 1, 2017

“God’s Buffet Table”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

1 Thessalonians 2.9-13

Matthew 21.23-32

October 1, 2017

            I love hearing stories about communion, especially the way people react to receiving the elements. Communion is a communal action, but it is also deeply personal, and we all respond differently, whether we pray quietly, say a few words, or leap down the aisle rejoicing. This is one of the reasons I love serving communion by intinction – I am able to witness the beautiful and creative ways people respond to God’s abundant love.

            Last week I read an article about a woman who was eager for communion, and was daring enough to do something that was unheard of in the church. Harriet was a woman who had begun going to church a few months before. She had heard about the church through a social service agency that provided materials and space to people living in low income situations. Harriet was beginning to feel very welcome in the congregation and arrived mid-service one Sunday. As Rev. Stacy Swain continued to preach, Harriet made her way down the aisle, but noticed the bread at the communion table. She walked straight to the table, took a few handfuls of bread, and sat down in a pew, munching away. She had participated in communion before – communion was not a new concept to her. People in the congregation clearly were uncomfortable. There was a tension as Rev. Swain preached on about the meaning of communion.

            Just as quickly as Harriet had sat down, she was up again, making a bee-line for the sacred table. The congregation tensed, again. This time, Brenda – a deacon – stood up and placed her arm around Harriet. She didn’t pull her away. She didn’t say anything. She waited for Harriet to fill her hands again, and sat down with Harriet to talk with her and be a presence.[1]

            Brenda’s response was perfect. She didn’t embarrass Harriet. She didn’t call her out or stop the service. She went to be with her. Sometimes we all need just a little bit more Jesus, which is one reason I encourage you to rip off a large piece of bread at communion. Never be ashamed or embarrassed to take a large piece. We all need as much of Jesus as we can get our hands on. Some of us are just bolder about admitting it. Harriet needed Jesus in that moment. It may not have been in line with church polity, or with what some elders might have thought was appropriate, but she saw the opportunity to meet with Jesus, and took the bread she needed. Even better, Brenda didn’t scold her, but ministered with her.

            The tension of the congregation is mirrored in the tension of the Gospel reading today. As the chief priests and scribes inquire about Jesus’ authority, perhaps the crowds began to hold their breath and wonder what would happen next. Jesus had entered Jerusalem and turned over tables and has caused quite a stir. The people are in the midst of an anxious moment. We know nothing about living in a time of controversy and anxiety, do we?

            While there was tension, this situation was not that unheard of at the time. In Jesus’ day, rabbis often taught in pairs so they could have an educated argument in front of the pupils. The rabbis would argue from opposite sides and teach not only civil discourse but offer both sides of a situation to the students to make a decision for themselves.[2] Can you imagine this happening today? In this conversation, the chief priests are asking about Jesus’ authority. Who told him he could go around preaching the things he is saying?

            Jesus turns the question back on them, stating that he will answer if they answer him. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" They panic. If they give the wrong answer, the crowd could turn against them. So, instead they refuse to answer. Rather than embarrass themselves they say they do not know.

            So, Jesus tells a parable. A father asks his children to do something. The first agrees and doesn’t do it. The second refuses, but does it anyway. Jesus tells this passage not to say who is “right” and “wrong,” but to show about the learning on the journey.[3] We won’t always give the “right” answers. Sometimes we will say no, and realize later on we should have said yes. We will change along the way, and learn in the process. Jesus tells the chief priests that surely the tax collectors and prostitutes will be in God’s realm because they have learned along the journey. They have made a connection with God and have understood that sometimes they said yes when they should have said no.

            The chief priests want to know who gave him the authority to speak out and preach. They ask this like an adult shaming a child with the hand in the cookie jar – “Who told you this was ok?” They ask this as if they are asserting their own authority – that perhaps if they are asking the question they are the holder of authority and can approve or disapprove of the authority given to someone else. Except, it isn’t about our authority – it is about God’s. Who gave Harriet the authority to walk up to the communion table and eat? If God truly welcomes all to the table, is it only between certain hours?

            Brenda showed her that she was welcome. No one was stopping her, but was willing to walk with her on her journey. We are reminded that we do not go this life alone. The Thessalonians passage is about Paul’s encouragement of the people. He offers the metaphor of being a “spiritual parent.”[4] In the passage prior to the one we read, Paul talks about nursing them as if they are infants, and plays a motherly role toward the people of Thessalonica. In today’s passage he is the father, helping them along. He uses both feminine and masculine language.

            Who were your spiritual parents? Who helped you by encouraging you in your faith? What did they do for you? Are you a spiritual parent? Too often I think we think spiritual parents are only for children. We do assign mentors to confirmands and those who are baptized, but at times we all could use a spiritual parent, or someone to just walk with us and sit with us when we feel the need to run up to the table and grab as much Jesus as we can. Being a spiritual parent means being a friend.

            As we celebrate World Communion, what does communion look like to us today? How can we make sure that all are welcome at the table, and that they leave satisfied and filled with God’s love? I pray that as you approach this table today you will think about your response to God’s word – not only your immediate response, but what you will do when you leave this place.

            I want to leave you with one more beautiful image of someone responding to God’s love. This past week I met with Sarah McKenney, who will be ordained in January to a position as chaplain at Stone Belt, a place for children with intellectual disabilities in Bloomington. Sarah told me about ways that some of these children had been hurt by the church. There was one child who went up for communion one Sunday when there was a guest preacher. For whatever reason, that minister didn’t think this child should receive communion – most likely because the minister didn’t think he was old enough. The child received a blessing, and solemnly walked back to the pew. The next week, when the installed pastor was back, the child received the bread and juice. The child jumped up and danced from the front of the church all the way back to his pew. This is how we should receive communion – with open hands, eager for more, and dancing all the way back into the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Stacy Swain, “Matthew 21.23-32” in Christian Century. (September 13, 2017) Volume 134, No. 19.

[2] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: A (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), 457.

[3] Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, “Matthew 21.23-32” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011),  118.

[4] William N. Jackson, “1 Thessalonians 2.9-13” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 254.