October 1, 2017 17th Sunday in Pentecost World Communion Sunday
Exodus 17:1–7 Philippians 2:1–13 Matthew 21:23–32
World Communion Sunday. The entire planet in connection and communication with God all together on one day. It’s a great idea.
It doesn’t matter if you are Protestant, or Catholic, or Orthodox, or Coptic. Today all of us celebrate the feast that Christ had with his disciples; the continual relationship that we all have with Christ now; and the feast that we will all have with Christ once we are done with this life. It is a wonderful, huge concept. And are any of us ready for it?
Now I am well aware that everyone sitting in this church is open to engaging people of other denominations as well as people of other faiths. I personally believe that, although coming to this table is a Christian act, that I am including all people who believe in a loving and forgiving God. Whether they be Jewish, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Zoastrians, Shintoist, or any of the other myriad faiths that cover our planet – If anyone out there is striving to live as a person of faith and compassion then I should welcome them to a seat at the table.
Some might say that since they are not Christian that we shouldn’t include them in our thoughts and prayers, but I’m going to leave that final decision up to God and Jesus. I don’t think that God would be angry if I welcomed someone who is a stranger, and who might be looking for a friendly place to sit. Compassion is for everyone.
I sometimes think that it is easier for us to welcome the stranger, or the person who is very different, because we don’t expect that they will have the same values so we accept the differences more readily. Sometimes it is the people closest to us, who are supposed to be more like us, whom we have difficulties with their differences. Differences might change from age to age, but they are always there and we are always ready to judge them.
I remember when I was 5 or 6 – this was in the mid ‘60’s – there was a married couple in our apartment building who both worked, even though they had two small children. Kids hear things. It was very apparent, from the remarks that I heard some mothers make in the playground, that this was not something that was approved of.
But of course, it is now the 21st century and we are beyond all that. We don’t glance disapprovingly at the woman wearing a business suit with a purple streak in her hair and a nose ring. We don’t wonder at the suitability of the young gentleman in the tank-top who has tattoos on both of his arms. We don’t pass judgment on the grandmother who is taking care of her grandchildren because her child is in re-hab.
Or do we?
Each of us carries around with us a construct of what is socially correct or at least acceptable. And each of us carries some measure of the idea that if it isn’t acceptable to society then that person won’t be acceptable to God. These thoughts don’t make you a bad person – it is the fallibility of being human. To be cautious of differences is a survival mechanism that is built into us. When we see something that is not familiar or comfortable our brains go into caution and alert mode – because this unfamiliarity might hurt us. It’s a perfectly natural biological reaction.
My anthropology professor explained it once. He said, “I want you to honestly think about a time that you met someone who was severely disabled. Did you have a moment of repulsion? If you did, don’t worry or feel guilty about it. That is a biological reaction to insure that as a member of the human species you will not want to mate with this person and pass down something that might not be genetically good for the species. That is the basic animal instinct in you. The human in you is when you look beyond that initial reaction and treat the person with respect, caring, and dignity.”
Now of course, severe disability is not simple unfamiliarity, but they both exist in the same areas of our brain. And one way to rise above our familiar vs. unfamiliar thinking is to remember that Jesus was not a socially correct or acceptable prophet. My goodness that man was breaking bread with prostitutes and tax collectors. Remember when I break the bread later that prostitutes and tax collectors are allowed at this table.
Jesus was challenged by the Socially Correct and Acceptable, who believed that they were the Authority. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Implication: It certainly wasn’t us!!!
Jesus throws down his cousin John’s acts of baptism. “Was John’s authority to baptize from heaven or of human origin?” Besides putting his questioners in a bind for an answer, it is a question we should ask ourselves of all our interactions with other people.
Are our own actions coming from a place of God’s loving commandments, or are our actions caught up with what is socially acceptable and expected? One of the Kingdom building exercises, that we are supposed to be engaged in, is to work on making God’s loving commandments socially acceptable and expected. But this world is not perfect – as Methodists, as Christians, we are working on it – but it’s not perfect yet. There are still a lot of actions out there that have nothing to do with God’s loving commandments but are socially acceptable and expected. And those are sinful actions because they are systemic inflections of negativity; built into our social conceptions and perceptions of others, and we need to work on rooting them out of us and out of our society.
There are a couple of things we can do to get ourselves over to the God square. First of all, ask yourself if your reaction to someone (or something) is a basic animal instinct. Is that person with the multiple tattoos really a danger? Sometimes the fight or flight is real; don’t discount it; but ask yourself if it’s true. Remember, people with tattoos are welcome at God’s table.
Next, ask yourself if what that person is doing or being is really inappropriate. The combination of a business suit, purple hair, and nose ring is not something that I could pull off, but maybe that girl is really rocking it. What is my perception? I see a woman in a business suit and I’m going to think lawyer. (Hmmm, lawyers shouldn’t dress like that!) But what if this woman works for the entertainment industry? Her unconventional attire might be very conventional, or even conservative to her. What do I gain if I treat her with distain? Nothing. What do I gain if I give her a smile and say hello? Maybe we’ll strike up a conversation and find out that we both like Pink Floyd. Maybe I’ll find out that she has an issue in her life that she needs help with and I just happen to have the information she needs. And then I start to think: Well, yes, God, this is why I got put in line with her at the grocery store. Remember people with purple hair and nose rings are welcome at God’s table.
And finally pray. Now if you get to know someone and find out that they have a problem of course your can pray for them, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking about you praying for you to recognize that each strange unauthorized person is a child of God. I used to travel on the city buses to seminary, and you can’t really do anything – it’s hard to read or study. So I would do a prayer game. I would look at everyone on the bus, one at a time, and I would pray to myself: Dear Lord, bless this person, for they are your child.
This is a great exercise for your blood pressure. Try this exercise in a traffic jam. Instead of getting mad at the traffic or at the idiots who don’t know how to drive, look at each car and pray for the people inside. I am not kidding, your stress level will go down. Remember idiot drivers are also welcome at God’s table. So are people who cut in line, don’t have exact change, and forget birthday or anniversaries. So are grandparents who are taking care their grandchildren, and so are the people in re-hab. The only criteria for being at the table is to repent, turn away from the bad stuff you do, believe in God, and then try like heck to live inside of God’s love.
It isn’t enough for us to have World Communion Sunday one day a year. We need to walk out of here and make everyday a world communion for ourselves. Next time you are in a store, or park, or at work, look at the person who gives you the feeling of difference and practice loving them as a child of God. If you do you will find yourself united with Christ, comforted by his love, and sharing in his Spirit of joy and compassion.
And that’s a very good place to be when you come to God’s Table.