Sermon – September 1, 2019 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost


A Place at the Table

I am beginning to clean out some of the cluttered corners of my desk where I would stuff notes to myself, or ideas for sermons, or reminders of something that I probably forgot to do. I found one other day from Mr. Rogers who said, “when I was a boy and I heard scary news, my mother said to me, always look for the helpers. There are always helpers.” Of course, Mr. Rogers was talking to kids…… Or was he just talking to kids?  I think I was an invitation, even an admonishment to the listening adults to be those people to whom someone, anyone could turn. That we are all helpers. That’s how things were in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Don’t we miss him?

The reason Mr. Rogers was so effective is that he took his place at the kids table. He came down to them, to lead them and teach them and help them understand. He declined every invitation to become rich and famous because the children were the most important things. And a generation of kids saw him as a helper, a voice of reassurance and encouragement and comfort. He embodied the words of Jesus who said, those who are humble will be exalted,  and those who are exalted with themselves be humbled.

There was another mass shooting yesterday. I’m sick to death of this news. It makes me  wonder what our threshold is of suffering and death. Again, the shooter used a military style assault weapon .223 caliber AR 15. That is essentially a civilian version of the M-16 assault rifle that I was assigned when I was a soldier.   The round that leaves that weapon travels at 2700 ft./s and it can fire multiple rounds.   One  of the injured was a 17-month-old child.   She was shot in the face. You can just imagine what a round traveling at 2700 feet per second  can do to 17 month old child.  What is the threshold of our tolerance for this kind of pain and loss?

This country, this culture is looking for the helpers. Not apologists for violence. Not handwringing thoughts and prayers. But for people who actually help. And that is on us, however we are able, it is on us.

In our Gospel lesson today Jesus talks about the welcome table. And he outlines some new seating arrangements. You see, we’re fussy about the table . . . . who sits where, whose prerogatives, whose credentials are recognized. Here Jesus is saying, “don’t use your status and success of accumulated honors and privilege and power as your means to relate to other people.” That is self exaltation. Jesus message is clear.   That those who are gathered in his name, those are tuned to his words hear another ethic. There is a prominence of the place for humility in the kingdom. Furthermore, he says, don’t just pay lip service to this but show your integrity with your acts  . . . . .invite the poor and the blind and the lame and the least,  the children.  Come into community with those unaccustomed to honor and respect. Our reading from Hebrews this morning says, “in doing so you may attend Angels unaware” with your compassion and humility.  In other words, put your money where your mouth is.  You just might run into the divine in doing so.

Jesus loved a party. He loved a celebration, and most of them happened around the table. There he would speak and teach and model ministry. Of course, it was a metaphor of how the kingdom of God would be ordered.   You see, the Jesus party had different rules. The Jesus party reordered our seat assignment so that everyone would have a place. At that table there is a recognition that the party is not complete, that the table is disorderly when those the world says do not belong are not there. When the door is shut against the less credentialed, the weak. Now, Jesus could just as well have said “take care of those people outside the door. They’re hungry and may need some help.” And that would be fine and that would be a nice thing to do. But no, instead, Jesus says make room for them at the table. And you know why he said that? Because if those people are at the table, that they have a voice. If those people are at the table we can’t ignore them. If we are looking across the table at someone in need we cannot help but see the need and, sharing the table respond whatever way we can.  We have to be able to see the need, the suffering and lower the threshold of our tolerance for it.

In our current culture, we who have the power and the prerogative too often do not see the needs, that fear, the brokenness of many of the folks of Jesus has called us to share table with. And I think in this wave of mass shootings and mayhem and murder, for us to sit back and tisk at the murderers without attending to the systematic forces that allows these things to happen, we are not only missing an opportunity to affect meaningful change, but we are actually turning our backs on those whom Jesus demands that we share the table with.

You see, if Jesus has come to be celebrating with everyone, then to include everyone some will need to rise and some will need to lower themselves. The implication is, Jesus says, if you are going to participate in this table you have to give something up for the sake of your neighbor. It may be your resources, the gifts that you been given, it may be at an element of your autonomy or even your freedom. We insulate ourselves against all things and tell ourselves that somehow this is proper and ideal, because we are unaffected by the things of the world so long as we keep our prerogatives in place. Jesus is coming to celebrate with everyone and some will need to rise and some will need to lower themselves. Some will need to become helpers and enablers and that is always costly.  Think the cross.

You see we have to be careful not to see humility as passive.  Jesus, the one who took on our nature, who executed the divine,  humble accommodation, was not a passive man. From his place with the common he turned tables and shifted paradigms. His humble nature was directed to lift up the lowly, as Mary sang in the beginning of Luke. Jesus calls us to ponder such things in humility and then serve those who don’t share our place at the table to make a way.

Now, this is not only just a call to service. Is it a call for the sustenance and continuity of the church, the body of Christ, the Kingdom of God the ethic of the table.   What I mean is we have been blessed with the word of God in our lives at a path open for us and that word was conveyed by another who made for us who helped prepare for us a place at the table… Someone taught us, someone cared for us, someone walked with us, someone was our helper in Jesus name. Someone came to you to speak about the word of grace of the Spirit could be released into your heart and so that all of us would know that we, too, have a place in the community. And now we are stewards of that legacy, and not just for nostalgic purposes, but to continue to change the world. We are the stewards of that legacy, and as we begin to prepare for a change, for welcoming new leadership, we would do well to remember that we are part of that great cloud of witnesses who by our faithfulness prepare the church for another generation.

We are the helpers that Mr. Rogers encourages others to seek out. Now, this is not an invitation to defer this task to another.  We are the ones minding the table and have the power and the commission to share the gifts of that table with others, and part of these gifts is the power of our collective love, our conviction fidelity of the words that you heard enough Hebrews lesson today, “Jesus says I will never leave you nor forsake you so we can say with confidence the Lord is my helper.  I will not be afraid.” The Lord , upholds and equips the helpers and we need not be afraid.

One more thing .  Jesus, for all his table talk, seldom discusses the menu.  This is, of course, because he is the feast . . . his words, his promise, his love, his grace . . .  and his uncompromising call to follow.  Today, again, we are reminded as we come to this table to receive the gifts of hope, encouragement, forgiveness, and ministry, that is Christ himself who feeds us..

Today we gather around this table to share this gift of God’s service to us as he endured the cross for our place at the table. We come knowing that we cannot repay these gifts, but only continue to seek and receive them and then give thanks with the amendment of our lives and the  commitment of our faith and proclamation this good news.  We don’t come here because we got it all figured out. We come as together we try to figure out.   And to be fed on the journey.

And here’s a crazy thing; even the rules of consumption do not apply at the Jesus the more we consume his word, his presence, his promises then the more we walked in the more is made available to us and more clear is that mission in the world.

You might come to this table today with empty hands no matter who you are. Unsure of what to do, feeling unequipped.  It may be that you release the hold on your burdens just long enough to receive this bread and wine and gracious word, and then hoist them back on your shoulders.   Or it might be that you have to loosen your grip on those things which you hold dear that you accumulated to reach out empty-handed to receive these gifts.  As we do so, let’s remember where we are what is happening among us … in the presence of God, fed by Christ along with all manner of humanity in this place across the Body of Christ, Christ is calling and equipping helpers for hope in a troubled world.  And as we do so let’s hear again the promise, , “I will never leave you or forsake you.  The Lord is my helper.  I will not be afraid.”