Tuesday, November 1, 2016

“A Place at the Table” - October 2, 2016

Text: Exodus 12:1-13, 13:1-8

My birthday was a couple of weeks ago.  I share a birthday with Ethan Phomvisay and Jeanine Cole, and I know there are some other recent birthday people here this morning.  Birthdays are a time to celebrate - even if we are not particularly excited at the prospect of adding another year to our count.  I was slightly down about reaching another milestone of sorts until I realized that I am now eligible for the seniors menu at Perkins - so I do have that going for me.

When we celebrate – when we get together with friends and family – what do we do?  Of course, we eat.  We share a meal.  So this past week, Susan and I drove to Cedar Falls to have dinner with Zoe – it was a late birthday dinner.

Meals are particularly important for us.  It is not just that we need nutrition, it is not just that we need fuel to keep our bodies going.  Meals are such a part of celebrations because of the community, the joy that is shared, the bonds of love and friendship and family.  Whether it is a fancy dinner or a picnic lunch or hot dogs on the grill, sharing a meal with can be a special experience.

Our scripture today comes from the book of Exodus.  We are following the story line of the Old Testament, but there are some pretty big gaps from week to week.  Last week, we ended with Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham, who became second in power in all of Egypt and was finally reunited with his family.  In a time of famine in the land, his family settled in Egypt with Joseph in the Land of Goshen.

The years moved on, generations passed, and as the Bible puts it, “there arose a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”  There was no longer a memory of the Hebrew who had saved Egypt in the time of drought and famine.  By now the Hebrews had become numerous and were seen as a threat.  And so they were enslaved and treated harshly.

God heard the cries of the people and called one to lead them out of Egypt.  Moses was a reluctant leader, but he was the one.  With help from his brother Aaron and sister Miriam, he answered God’s call.  In the words of the great old spiritual we just sang, God said, “Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land, Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go.”

If you remember the story, you know what Pharaoh’s response was.  Actually, even if you have never heard the story, you can imagine the response.  Pharaoh said to Moses, “You have got to be kidding.”  So God sent plagues of various sorts to encourage Pharaoh to change his mind, each worse than the one before, culminating with the Passover – the first-born of each Egyptian household would be struck down dead. 

Our first reading this morning reports on the Passover.  After this, Pharaoh relented and allowed the Israelites to go, although he had second thoughts about it and it took the parting of the Red Sea to get the people to freedom. 

At the time of the Passover, the Israelites had to be ready to move, ready to go, ready to run for freedom.  And so they were to eat unleavened bread.  There was no time for leavening, no time to wait for the yeast to rise.  They were to eat with a staff in their hands, sandals on their feet, and their loins girded.  For those of you who do not regularly gird your loins, this meant that long robes were pulled up from the back and tucked in, so that you were ready for action – you wouldn’t be tripping over your robe.  The entire meal was eaten quickly – the atmosphere was one of anticipation and readiness.

Our second reading tells of the establishment of the Passover meal as a continuing remembrance.  They were to celebrate this meal each year, and when they did, they were to tell their children that this was “because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.”  The Passover became the most important meal for the Hebrew people, and the exodus out of Egypt became the formative experience that the Biblical writers refer back to, again and again.

The Passover has been kept ever since, down to this day.  Customs have changed.  It no longer has to be eaten hurriedly. You don’t have to have a staff in your hand, ready to go, because now the meal is shared by a free people.

The Passover meal was celebrated in Jesus’ day.  We read about Jesus sharing the meal with his disciples, but then we read about a lot of meals with Jesus.

Jesus eats with his twelve disciples, with Mary and Martha, with Pharisees, with tax collectors, with known sinners.  He fed the 5000.  He attended a wedding feast, and when the wine ran out, he performed his first miracle.  He joined two strangers on the road to Emmaus and shares a meal.  He has fish for breakfast on the lakeshore with his friends.  He told a story about going out into the highways and byways and inviting anybody, everybody, to a great banquet.  

Sharing a meal communicated acceptance and welcome – when you shared a meal, you could no longer be enemies.  This is why people got so worked up about Jesus eating with sinners.  In a culture where who you ate with was extremely important, Jesus ate with all kinds of people.  He ate with all the wrong people.  It just didn’t look right.

In the Lord’s Supper, we remember the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples.  Jesus took this meal that was filled with history and symbolism and deep meaning and added new meaning, new symbolism.  He took the bread and said that it was his body.  He took the wine and said that it was his blood.  He said that whenever they shared that meal, they were to remember him.  And while the disciples may not have understood exactly what he was saying, we have the benefit of considering Jesus’ words from the other side of the cross. 

Now, we all have our own history with family meals.  I come from a long line of meat-and-potatoes people.  If I had to pick a representative meal growing up, it would be roast beef with potatoes and gravy and maybe carrots and green beans. 

Some of our other standard meals included tuna casserole, chili, ham and beans, we had grilled hamburgers a lot, and fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy again. 

What we did not have much of was adventurous food.  We stuck with what we knew.  Pizza was about as exotic as it got, and that was Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee Pizza out of a box.  When we went out to eat, which was rare, it was usually McDonalds.

Although we lived in a city of close to 150,000, there were few ethnic restaurants.  I remember a Chinese restaurant opening when I was in high school – a couple of my friends worked there.  It didn’t even cross my mind that I might go there to eat.  A few Mexican restaurants started opening at the same time, and I did like Mexican food.  I remember one occasion, maybe a birthday, when I got to choose the restaurant.  I chose Casa Gallardo and my dad very reluctantly went along with the idea.  Seafood, however, was completely out of the question – Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks was the extent of seafood at our house.

Over the years, my taste has expanded quite a lot.  I love all kinds of food – not just seafood and Mexican and Chinese but Indian, Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese.  And you know what?  My mom and dad, who rarely went out to eat when I was living at home, eat out all the time now.  And their two favorite places are a Chinese place and a Mexican place, where they eat so often that they are friends with the owner. 

Today is World Communion Sunday, a day when we share with Christians all around the world at the Lord’s Table.  Now, you may be wondering, what does my family’s food history have to do with World Communion Sunday?

Our faith can be kind of insular, kind of closed off, kind of like having roast beef and tuna casserole and Chef-Boy-Ardee pizza all the time.  Nothing wrong with that, it’s good stuff, but there is a lot more out there.  Sometimes we can live and act as though our experience of Christian faith is everybody’s experience, and that our way is the one right and true and good way to follow Jesus.

But you know, there are faithful people all over the world who worship in very different places, in very different ways.  Some in cathedrals and some in new suburban church campuses and some in white frame churches and some in cinder-block buildings with tin roofs and some in homes.  Some with elaborate, liturgical worship and some with very extemporaneous worship.  People are worshipping in churches all over the world this morning in a myriad of languages.  And all of us can learn from each other and all of us are stronger together.

This morning we celebrate, as Paul puts it, that “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” 

Tony Campolo told about sitting with his parents at a communion service when he was very young.  He became aware of a young woman in the pew in front of him who was sobbing and shaking.  The minister had just finished reading the passage of Scripture that says, “Whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup unworthily shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”

Campolo wrote,

As the Communion plate with its small pieces of bread was passed to the crying woman before me, she waved it away and then lowered her head in despair.  It was then that my Sicilian father leaned over her shoulder and, in his broken English, said sternly, ‘Take it, girl!  It was meant for you.  Do you hear me?’
Campolo continued,
She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it.  I knew that at that moment some kind of heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind.  Since then, I have always known that a church that could offer Communion to hurting people was a special gift from God.
Today, we gather with Christians all around the world at this Table.  We do so to remember that we are all God’s children, we are all part of the family.  We are connected with one another.  We share a meal that our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and ancestors shared.  We share a meal that goes back 2000 years to Jesus, and before that hundreds of years to the time of the Passover.  This meal is not a reward for good behavior or a sign of our righteousness or insider status; it is a meal to which we are all invited - a meal in which we remember and celebrate the depths of God’s love and grace.

In a few minutes, we will share with sisters and brothers around the world at God’s Table.  And you’re all invited.  There’s a place at the table for you.  Amen.