Grace Presbyterian Church
May 3, 2015, Easter 5B
Luke 15:1-2; 24:13-35
A Table That Rejects Rejection
“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
These words, spoken in an address by Rev. Martin Luther King in March 1968 (only a few weeks before his own assassination), have gained fresh currency and citation in the wake of numerous events in the past year, from the disturbances in Ferguson, Missouri to this past week’s events in Baltimore.
The statement gets at some truth; rioters in most cases don’t riot in expectation that anything will change; quite the opposite – riots happen precisely because those rioting are convinced that nothing will ever change. And they are convinced that nothing will ever change because they are convinced that no matter what they say, no matter how desperate their situation or how many promises are made, no one in fact is hearing their concerns, no on is interested in their troubles; no one listens.
In truth, though, I’m not quite sure that this applies to all such situations. What were the unheard cries of those who rioted in San Francisco last October, after the Giants won the World Series? Or in Lexington, Kentucky, just a few weeks ago, after the Kentucky Wildcats were eliminated in the NCAA Final Four in basketball? Oh, I forgot. We don’t call those “riots.” We call those “unruly behavior.”
For now city officials in Baltimore are looking at weeks of not only pursuing charges related to the riots or the police-custody death that served as the immediate trigger (though by no means the underlying cause) of those riots. At the same time, those same officials can no longer look away from the crushing economic inequities that generate despair and anger, hopelessness and resignation, and (when some triggering event occurs) violence. Promises made and forgotten can no longer be deferred.
We have to acknowledge, though, that “the unheard” do not always come to our attention because of events like those in Baltimore. Unless someone in congregation has harboring plans to climb Mount Everest, it’s unlikely that this congregation has spent much time, collectively or individually, thinking about the nation of Nepal before this week. At last report the death toll from last week’s earthquake in that country had reached a horrifying threshold of more than six thousand lives lost. Beyond that staggering toll, the loss to that nation is incalculable; countless homes and other structures have been destroyed, and numerous artifacts of Nepali culture – temples and artworks, for example – have been lost.
It’s probably not unfair to speak of the people of Nepal as “unheard” – though there may not necessarily be any hostility involved, Nepal is simply a long way from the everyday average concerns of most Americans, including most American Christians. And let’s be honest; if it doesn’t involve us, our immediate family, our local church, or our immediate community, we Americans are prone not to think about it, whatever it is. And so the people of Nepal go unheard until an earthquake devastates their country and their lives.
There is one other example of “going unheard,” one that indicts us perhaps most strongly. Sometimes the cries of others go unheard because we’re too busy yelling at each other.
For the past several years the Presbyterian Church (USA) has faced a number of disagreements and controversies, hard choices and decisions that have caused some churches to pack up their toys and go elsewhere. Now that the dust has settled, to some degree, the churches of this denomination are awakening to a harsh and startling reality; mission giving in the denomination has fallen so precipitously that unless more funds come in, PC(USA)’s Presbyterian Mission Agency, Office of World Mission, will be forced to call home as many as forty mission workers from the field over the next two years.[i] In this case, the cries of our own have gone unheard.
We need to face this. We as a church universal and a church particular need to own up to our own failure to listen, to open our ears to the world around us. I get it; it’s far more comfortable to settle in among our own and enjoy the fellowship of those we know. It’s comfortable, but it’s not Christlike, and that’s the challenge that is put before us today as we come to this table.
The brief reading from the fifteenth chapter of Luke speaks volumes about the Jesus we claim to follow. It comes not in Jesus’s own words, but in the words of Pharisees and scribes, religious leaders, observing Jesus’s teaching and the number of “undesirables” who flocked to hear it. You know the type…sinners. Tax collectors. Those people. And at the sight of all those people, these righteous types (you can practically imagine them holding their noses or something like that) couldn’t restrain their shock and offense. “This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them.”
This isn’t a new charge against Jesus; as early as chapter seven Jesus is mimicking these same religious leaders making this charge against him. In short, this is Jesus’s reputation. Among other things, Jesus is known for eating with sinners, with those people.
Backing up to the previous chapter we see that this very exchange is taking place in the context of a meal; apparently Jesus had been invited by one of the Pharisees to a meal, on a Sabbath day. On the way he had stopped to heal a man, a violation of Sabbath rules in the eyes of some. Upon arriving and observing the jockeying for position at the table, he had offered some trenchant observations on honor at the table, suggesting it was wiser to choose a seat of less honor and let your host bump you up to a more honored position. He then suggested that it was better to invite the poor and paralyzed and generally outcast to your feasts, and told a parable of a man whose invited guests bailed out on him, leading him to do exactly that. A couple of random parables later, we come to the incident in our reading. Right there in the context of the meal, Jesus is welcoming those whom the good righteous folk don’t want to be next to or associated with.
It’s a small token of a theme that gets bigger and bigger as our Bible goes on. As far back as the prophet Isaiah, we’ve been told that the Lord’s temple would be “a house of prayer for all nations.” Jesus would echo these words in the incident known as “the cleansing of the Temple,” the one where he flipped the tables and let the sacrificial animals loose. The book of Acts will continue to expand on the theme of expanding the reach of God’s table, so to speak, as first the crowds at Pentecost, the Ethiopian treasurer in Acts 8, the centurion Cornelius and his family, the Philippian jailer, and numerous other Gentiles – those people – are added to the church, sometimes to the great consternation of the original, Jewish followers of Jesus. The limits that Jesus’s followers set up, almost reflexively, keep getting broken down, right after Jesus spent so much of his ministry “welcoming sinners, and eating with them.”
This pattern, this repeated and ongoing practice of Jesus, eventually became not only his reputation, but also the way his own disciples would recognize him at what seemed to be the darkest time they had ever known.
We are of course familiar from this story at or immediately after Easter. Two disciples, identified as “disciples” even though not among the numbered twelve, are walking from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus on Easter evening, their world shattered. There was that strange report from the women in their group about the tomb being empty and angels being there, but no one else saw that (the angels at least). The stranger appears and enters into conversation between the two; they tell their story, and the stranger responds with a staggering knowledge of the scripture, arguing that the events of crucifixion they described were exactly what had to happen, which they’d have known if they weren’t so foolish and slow of heart. With day fading, the two stop and entreat the stranger to stay and be their guest, which he does. The stranger then, surprisingly, takes the role of host: he takes the bread for the meal, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. Then – and only then – did they recognize that the stranger was none other than Jesus himself. When he disappears, the two disciples rush back to Jerusalem to report to the others, and to describe how, as verse 35 puts it, “he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
We could evoke the feeding of the five thousand, or to many other shared meals recorded in Luke’s gospel. We can also recall, and do so at each observance of the Lord’s Supper, that awful night, just a few nights before, the last night Jesus spent with the disciples. The gesture of breaking bread to share was characteristic of Jesus. What we need to remember when we come to this table is that this wasn’t some esoteric, unusual event that Jesus chose to imprint upon his followers as a memorial to him; it was something they had seen him do over and over again, time after time sharing bread with them and with all manner of other undesirable characters. If he asked his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me,” it’s at least partly because he had done exactly this with them so many times in their years together.
But what is fascinating about this Emmaus Road story, as well as a bit depressing for preachers, is that it is this gesture, this breaking of bread, that opens the eyes of the two disciples to see Jesus for who he is. All of that amazing expository preaching that Jesus did? Nope. If you felt like reading the story tongue-in-cheek, you could even say that all it did was give the disciples heartburn. But the act of breaking bread was one so characteristic, so typical of Jesus that their fogged and shrouded eyes could no longer conceal from them their Lord.
The message came to these two disciples, not in a barrage of words and scriptural exegesis, but in the rather simple medium of bread. Stuff of the earth, harvested, ground into flour, mixed and kneaded and baked into the most basic staple of the disciples’ diet. But in that medium indeed was a message that had been witnessed and lived so many times by Jesus that it was one the disciples knew by heart; a message of welcome, of hospitality, not just to the good folks but to the worst sinners society could dredge up, even sinners like us. And this medium of bread, being broken, still shapes and forms that message even today, whenever we come to the table.
On that Maundy Thursday Jesus paired the breaking of bread, a token of humanity’s most basic needs, with a cup of wine poured. If bread represented the basics of life, wine no doubt served as a token of celebration. The reading from the Gospel of John reminds us that the very first sign Jesus performed in the presence of his disciples was one of turning ordinary water into wine, a sign that became the rescue and continuation of a wedding feast, one of the most joyous celebrations that culture knew.
Bread broken, a cup filled. These are still signs of welcome and celebration to us today. They still point us to a Life of welcoming and making welcome, a Life that celebrated and rejoiced even as it grieved and mourned and got angry a time or two. They point us to a Life that was so dedicated, so insistent on bringing everyone in and ministering to all, that it poured itself out in death rather than suffer any one of us not to be guests at his table for eternity.
Perhaps the bread and cup seem a curious choice of medium, but the message that bread and cup shape for us in this sacrament is still one we need to hear, as many times as possible. Christ calls us to come; he welcomes us to the table; he bids us be his guest. Let us not be blinded to the message in this humble, yet exalted medium.
The table is made ready; Jesus our host bids us – all of us, even those people – come and eat.
For the bread and the cup, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90): “God Is Here!” (461), “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ” (514), “Now To Your Table Spread” (515), “Draw Us In the Spirit’s Tether” (50