The three scripture readings we heard today seem to ring out justice in their very words, in similar yet different ways. First, Moses, who had led his people for 40 years through the desert, finally brought them to the Promised Land, the land where they would settle and finally be still and at rest, laying down roots for the generations to come. Yet Moses died right as they reached the overlook, never to step foot in it himself. His task was done and he had led God’s people to this place where their life could begin anew, even as his ended. Then, in Thessalonians, it speaks of the suffering of the disciples, and warns against this suffering being passed on to future generations, reminding them that their suffering must not prevent them from sharing the gospel, the good news, in a way that does not spring from deceit, impure motive or trickery. And then we come to the Pharisees, and a lawyer among them asking Jesus which is the greatest commandment, to which Jesus replies, “Love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself.”
I feel like our world has forgotten this in recent times. There was a minor example that a friend told me about recently where a large department store was promoting a give away they had where, for every winter coat that was purchased, they would donate a new winter coat to someone in need. An angry potential customer said, “You want me to buy a winter coat, paying full price for it plus the taxes. Then you are going to give one away to some loser? I don’t think so.” While this may be something we smile at in our disgust at the response, it feels like a micro example of what is happening in the world at large.
One thing that has broken my heart this week is seeing the report that the parents of 545 children who were removed from their families who had come to our country seeking asylum, have been lost in the system. The children taken, the parents deported, leaving little hope of reuniting the families. When we care for our neighbors, we must care for those who come to us, legally, seeking help. Instead we have torn families apart, causing long lasting trauma for these families who were just trying to get help. And the children, many of whom will likely have no memory of their parents, will have to live with this trauma for the rest of their lives.
So as I prayed with these three passages this week, I kept remembering the Native American philosophy of the seventh generation. It has been found written from the Iroquois people who lived on the land we know as Northeast America, and is thought to have been passed down from as early as the 12th century, a philosophy that is echoed throughout the Native peoples from many tribes. The Constitution of the Iroquois Nation (The Great Binding Law) explains “seventh generation” philosophy as follows: “The thickness of your skin shall be seven spans — which is to say that you shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism. Your heart shall be filled with peace and good will and your mind filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people. With endless patience you shall carry out your duty and your firmness shall be tempered with tenderness for your people. In all of your deliberations, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation.” In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
In all of your deliberations, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion. Think of others, even those who have yet to be born. Think ahead to your great, great, great, great, great grandchildren! That is what Jesus is preaching as he says Love your God and your neighbor as yourself. Cast self into oblivion, cast thinking only for what is good and right for you as an individual into oblivion and think of your neighbors, think of your family seven generations in the future, think of your neighbors family seven generations into the future. This is what Moses did in his faithful act for forty years leading the people through the wilderness, knowing he would never live in the promised land. An act of selflessness, leading others to the place they will be able to call home. Casting self into oblivion for the sake of others, for the sake of the future. And for the disciples in Thessalonians, even though you, personally, have suffered, do all that you can to prevent that suffering from reaching future generations, instead tell the good news, tell the hope, work with gentleness and caring so greatly for others that they see the Love of God shine through us.
In all of this we are reminded that the justice work we do today is not nearsighted, but it reaches into many future generations, shaping their lives in ways we can’t even imagine.
As this election season continues to stir up name calling, self interest, division, as it uses the tactic of fear to entice people to vote for this person or that, as leaders steer away from speaking words of encouragement and hope in gentle ways and instead rile people up to anger, how different would it be if this were not so. If those campaigning spoke of loving neighbor, of the generations of those not yet born, if they spoke with hope and gentleness in their words, if they showed a willingness to lead us out of this desert time in our nation to a place where all truly were able to settle and find home, able to live free from fear and violence, were able to lead us to the place where all could live in harmony, loving God and one another, casting self interest into oblivion and truly living in a world that reflects God’s kin-dom thriving here on earth.
There is a quote floating around on social media that speaks to this. It says, “You can’t love your neighbor if you vote for people who will pass laws against them.” When I think of this I think of my literal neighbors. I live between a fiercely independent 92 year old widow surviving on a small fixed income who worries about rising medical costs and what she will do when she is no longer able to look after herself, and a young gay couple who both work in health care who are concerned about CoVid and the ways it is impacting the residents in the places they work with, as well as the judgement they face in some places if they are seen holding hands in public. They hope to start a family some days, and this also weighs heavily on their hearts. At the back of me there is a group home for disabled adults who face a high turn over of caregivers struggling to survive on minimum wages. Across the street is a single mom with two young teenagers, one of whom has special needs that means he cannot be left home alone, again working a minimum wage job as she tries to keep food on the table while helping her kids with hybrid distance learning and struggling to find child care for her son. And next to them is a mixed race couple with a young son, juggling work and daycare and studies while dealing with prejudice about the color oof their skin and their relationship. So when I pray about care for my neighbor, all these diverse needs and beauty and issues and dreams come into play, and when I think about the next seven generations, just from these immediate physical neighbors, then how do I act, what words do I choose, how do I vote, how do I work for a more just world for all of us?
And it breaks my heart that even asking this question is seen as a controversial stance. That we are in such a place of deep division in the world, that loving neighbor, near and far, is often viewed as taking sides on a political spectrum. That remembering the words of the Iroquois: “Your heart shall be filled with peace and good will and your mind filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people,” can be heard as a challenge to an other’s core values.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, knew this well. While he was a student at Oxford University, at that time a university with strong ties to the Church of England, and which claimed to be a Christian university, John began to gather daily with a small group of other students to read the Bible and hold one another accountable. As they prayed with scripture this thought of loving God and neighbor really took hold of these young men, and they looked for ways they could love their neighbors. Rather than looking at other students, they looked at the city at large, and they saw the places where people were most in need…. The prisons, the hospitals, the orphanages. They began to visit the prisoners, teach the orphans how to read, took food to those in hospital. All good acts of loving neighbor. But their fellow students, most of whom would claim to be Christian, mocked them for doing this. They jeered at them and made fun, even while reading the Bible for themselves. This small group, called the Holy Club, who fasted, prayed together three or four times a week, and spent Sundays loving neighbor, became controversial in this university setting where students were often self serving, worried about their future standing in the world of business and politics, wanting to party and social network with their peers rather than seeing the needs of their neighbors right outside their dorm rooms.
But even while they heard the mocking and name calling from their fellow students, John, his brother Charles, and the others in their club, carried on following the greatest commandment, to love God and love neighbor. They balanced their studies with prayer and service, and shut their ears to the world that told them they were stupid, that called them fools, that mocked them with the name Methodists.
In this elite institution, these men cared less about their status and more for their neighbor. They spent any spare money they had on care for the other, for the future generations…. For think what a difference they made teaching the orphans, giving them a way to rise from poverty just by knowing how to read and write; and what a change they made in the attitude of the prisoners they visited, helping them break generational violence and lives of crime by having someone care about their souls, by having someone bring them the good news with gentleness and love.
As John Wesley continued his path of becoming a pastor and preacher, he continued to seek out his neighbors that others refused to welcome: the coal miners who would not be allowed through a church door with their filth and stench, the pub goers and drunkards who only heard words telling them about their sins, not that God loved them; the farm workers, the prostitutes, the poor. All those who were his neighbors, so often ignored by people like him. And he not only changed the lives of these people, but the lives of the seven generations that would follow them. For when someone steps aside from all that others think they can do, from the position in society they have been assigned, and learns something new, breaks a pattern of poverty, changes a history of abuse, repents from a life of crime,… then the generations that follow are all blessed by this. All it took was for John Wesley and his followers to recognize their position of power as white, educated men in the 18th century and to set aside self. In the words of the Iroquois, With endless patience they carried out their duty and their firmness was tempered with tenderness for the people. And they not only served the people directly, but used their positions of power to change laws, to better the life of large groups of people by creating policies that made change on national levels that ensured neighbors were loved just a little bit more than before.
So in the next weeks and months, let us strive to love and neighbor just a little bit more, to cast self interest aside and, “In our every deliberation, consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” May we not worry so much about our future, but lead others through the wilderness of this time, knowing we may never see the changes we are working for to make the world a better place, but work for them anyway. May we take our suffering and turn it to good, not looking to enact an eye for an eye philosophy, but rather using our pain and the pain of the world to help others grow in love. May we follow the greatest commandment in each decision we make, running our discernment through those three tests of loving God, loving neighbor, loving self, each in balance without putting self at the number one position. May we work for peace and hope and justice in our nation and in our world by spreading love with abandon. May we remember the great grandchildren of our great grandchildren, to the 7th generations, and work for justice and love for them.
In the Gospel of Luke, the story we heard from Matthew is told in a slightly different way: Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’
“But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’
“Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’
“Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’
“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.’”
This less violent version still holds the same central theme, and the parable can be looked at in multiple ways… The rich person throwing the banquet believes his wealth and table of plenty should only be there in service of other rich folk perhaps. Or that poor rich man who put all this work in to prepare a feast for his friends was under appreciated and his gift was not received by those he invited. Or the rich man, scorned by those who looked like him and were in his social class, listened to who he was supposed to serve and had a change of heart. But then, in Matthew, we have this mysterious person who was not wearing the wedding garment who gets thrown into the outer darkness. Many aspects of this parable make us uncomfortable, and don’t match my theology where all are welcome, no matter what we are wearing. But it comes as a warning to the people of these times…. Those with wealth and riches are not the ones to fawn over. See those on the margins of life, bring in those from the streets, bring in the crippled and the poor and the lame. But be careful, for not everyone you invite comes with good in their hearts….. and I wonder if he was referring to the Last Supper where those gathered with him were from different walks of life… and Judas was also there among them, welcomed to some extent, but wearing evil in his heart.
For us, today though, I think this parable speaks to each of us individually, playing multiple roles in the story. If we place God in the role of the party giver, we are probably most likely to be the ones who are too busy to come, too uninterested, unwilling to set aside the time to come to God’s feast of abundance…. We turn our backs on the invitation, claiming that we have other, far more important things to tend to, and we miss the chance to come and sit with God multiple times throughout our days and weeks.
Recently my fellow monks and I did a prayerful reading on this passage, and one, Merri Lynn, wrote these words in response:
Come, for everything is now ready.
I can't come. My father-in-law has died.
I can't come. I'm too tired in my bones.
I can't come. I'm too sad.
I can't come. My grandchildren need me.
I can't come. My mom needs support and laundry and groceries.
I can’t come, I’m not worthy.
Come, for everything is now ready.
Come out of the alleyways of your mind, your experience, your loss, your confusion.
Come bewildered, blind, begging.
Come forgiving and forgiven.
Come. Keep coming. Keep bringing all that you are. There is room.
Come again, and again, and again.
Come, for everything is now ready.
I can’t come. I can’t come. We all have many excuses to say no to God’s invitation to come and feast, to come and celebrate, to come and sit, to come and visit, to come and pray. Yet, unlike the parable, this invitation to come never ends, we are invited over and over and over. The table is always ready, and all we have to do is show up. And how hard this is… right!
Earlier this week I went to walk a labyrinth. A labyrinth is a path of prayer that leads to a center, and, unlike a maze, it’s a path that, even with all the twists and turns, does not lead you astray. It leads to the center and then it leads out again. No dead ends, no false trails. Just a simple path. This particular labyrinth is out on a prairie and I was walking it on one of the windy days this week, and as I walked I was praying with this scripture. I got to the middle and listened, the wind at my back blowing hard. It felt like it was compelling me to move, to step forward, to go, go, go. But that didn’t feel like what God was asking of me. So I listened. “Turn,” I heard whispered in my heart, “Turn.” So I turned and faced into the wind. All of sudden, everything slowed down. I leaned into the wind, the fast air blowing in my face, and I felt totally at peace, held by the wind, not compelled to move but just to be, supported as I leaned forward, the wind holding me in place. I could lean far into it and feel secure, knowing it was strong enough to hold all of me, constant enough to keep me safe. As tears came to my eyes I thought that this is what life is like. We are driven by the outer world to keep moving, pushed to go, go go. But if we turn, if we allow ourselves to lean into God’s presence, then we can feel held and supported, and our ‘going’ has a very different feel to it, moving from this place. One that, when we are ready to move we may be going into the wind, is surrounded by the Spirit, it’s a being led rather than being pushed, it’s more stable than running with the wind behind us, pushing us out of control. And so I faced into the wind, and allowed the God to move me, to hold me, to stabilize me, to support me. Lean into me, the invitation I heard, the one I listened to. Lean into me.
Another of my fellow monks, Sue, drew a picture as part of her prayerful response to the passage. In the center, in large red letters, was the word BUT. And surrounding this was a litany of excuses… I’m too busy, tomorrow maybe, later, when I have more time, how about after the kids grow up? And these were just a few. I think we ALL tend to do this: place God down our list of important things to pay attention to, especially when the wind is at our backs. But when turn, when we lean in, when we feel the love and support that comes from the power of God holding us, the excuses soften and fly away.
So, for a few minutes, I invite you to write down some of your excuses on the card you have in your pew. What keeps you from saying Yes to God’s invitation to come and spend time in that Divine presence, what are the things that feel like the wind is pushing you forward in an out of control way, rather than turning to lean into the Spirit? Write them down now.
As you sit with your list of excuses, I invite you to ask God to show you just one way you can change one of these from an excuse into a leaning. One way you can bring one of these things into your awareness and turn it into something different when you feel that old way of being rising within you. Circle it, maybe write some words of encouragement you are hearing next to it, and bring this into your prayers this week.
The good news is that the invitation is always there for us. God, like in the parable from Luke, continues to tell us to come, until the house is full…. Until we are full of God’s love and grace. Until our souls and spirits are full of God’s peace and hope. This is a time to turn, a time for leaning. When the world around us spins out of control… turn and lean into the One who stays constant, who never changes, who is our center and our outer universe. Lean in to God. For the door does not shut on us, rather the invitation is to return again and again, to find time and space to turn in to God, to lean into God’s presence. When we do this, perhaps those parts of us not wearing the right robe, those parts that we think are ugly, mean or unready, those parts that have not taken this invitation seriously, the parts that show the world a false side will be thrown out, will move aside, will be healed, leaving the parts that are eager and ready to receive God’s love more space to do so.
So come, lean into God’s presence. Chose one excuse of busy-ness and allow it to fade away. Take your seat at the table. Say yes to the invitation to be with God. Be fully there and rejoice in the abundance of life you will find there! Lean in.
As we listen to Kitty play Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, begin to practice this leaning, take that one thing you have chosen to focus on and feel God’s presence supporting you, offering you a leaning post, lean in, lean in.
Today, we celebrate World Communion Sunday, a day where we remember the millions of Christians around the world who gather in churches and homes and under trees to celebrate Holy Communion. These days the gathering may look different, some in person, some outside, some in their homes, most socially distanced, yet for all of us, the celebration of Holy Communion is a central sacrament in our faith. As United Methodists we believe that all are invited to this feast, that all are welcome to come and partake in this gift from God’s table, this gift of bread and juice symbolizing the body and blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. A table that is big enough for any who wish to come, not a table with limitations and tests of worthiness to pass, but one where anyone who longs to be in relationship with Christ can come and partake and be welcomed fully, no matter what.
This, in itself is a miracle!
When I was a child, I attended church with my grandparents. The rest of my family rarely went, but I liked going, and I liked singing in the children’s choir. Communion Sunday was always a little stressful though. My grandmother would always put the Sunday roast in the oven before they left for church, with the hope that it would be ready when they got home. But on Communion Sunday’s she was always anxious as the service would run 10 or 15 minutes longer, and she sat there, concerned that her roast might be dried out or burnt. And my grandfather was anxious for other reasons, although I didn’t know this until much later. When I was an adult I visited and went to church with them. I hadn’t known as a child that Communion was for members only…. We didn’t get to receive it as kids. But this happened to be a Communion Sunday, and when the bread and juice were passed along the pews, my grandfather leaned over to me and said with a look on his face that was like a kid who had gotten away with something cheeky, “It’s ok if you take it…. They don’t know this, but I’m not a member and I take it every month!” For the last 55 years, since he had been married to my grandmother, he had been receiving Communion when, according to the church, he should have been denied it…. And he was tickled pink that he had managed to get away with it for so long.
In this denomination and in this church, we celebrate an open table. As United Methodists, when we declare this is God’s table and ALL are invited, it truly is a gift, maybe even a miracle!
But, more than this, I believe the real miracle is in the words Jesus used as he broke bread for the last time that night long ago. The night when he knew he was about to be betrayed, to be denied, to be killed. The night when he left this gift from the Seder dinner where he broke the bread in a way that we now know as the Last Supper, the Holy Communion, the Eucharist. For on that night he invited all those at the table with him to eat and drink… listen again to these words from the Gospel of Matthew:
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Do you hear it? Do you hear that miraculous invitation? Drink from it…. ALL OF YOU.
Jesus knew that Judas, the one who would betray him with a kiss was part of this ‘all’. Jesus knew that Peter, the one who would deny he was one of Jesus’ followers was part of this ‘all’. Jesus knew that the other disciples who would huddle and hide, scared for their own lives were part of this ‘all’. Jesus knew that all those gathered in their many vast and deep ways of being broken were part of this ‘all’. And still, he said, ALL OF YOU.
As I sat with these words in prayer again this week, I was reminded of a poem by Warsan Shire, a poet who is a Somali refugee living in England. She wrote:
they set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?
i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
Where does it hurt? Jesus might have asked that very same question that last supper. Where does it hurt? For those disciples were hurting as Jesus shared the bread and cup with them. Jesus, himself, was hurting, as we see when he heads to the Garden of Gethsemane later that evening. His mother was hurting as she imagined the next few hours for her son. Where does it hurt? And in response, Jesus looks at those gathered and says, Yes… it hurts. Here is my body broken for you. I’m not going to deny the hurt, the brokenness, the pain. It hurts….. it hurts everywhere. AND, here is my body, broken for you. It hurts everywhere, and here is the cup of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of their sins.
There is a real beauty in this acknowledgement of the hurting of individuals, of the pain of the world. The way that Jesus is able to look at the hurt, the pain, the brokenness with compassion and know it’s not the end of the story. The way he sees the hurt and still offers up himself to all… even the ones who will later hurt him directly. It’s a promise for both the nowness of the pain, the ways he promises to see, to acknowledge and not turn away, to walk with us, to stay with us in the midst of all the horror that is taking place. And it’s a promise for the future. Take this bread, all of you, take this cup, all of you. A new covenant is being worked out, even as we sit in this present time of destruction, abuses of power, fear and hate… something new is being prepared. So eat, drink. I see what is happening. I see what the future holds. Don’t loose hope. All of us are hurting somewhere. Don’t loose hope.
There was another poem that came to mind when I sat with the beauty of this, the beauty that, even in our brokenness, our humanness, our hurt, we are welcome to the table. This one is by Andrew King:
THE TABLE WITH NO EDGES
We will sit down where feet tire from the journey.
We will sit down where grief bends the back.
We will sit down under roofs wrecked by artillery.
We will sit down where cries sound from cracked walls.
We will sit down where heat beats like hammers.
We will sit down where flesh shivers in cold.
We will sit down where bread bakes on thin charcoal.
We will sit down where there is no grain in baked fields.
We will sit down with those who dwell in ashes.
We will sit down in shadow and in light.
We will sit down, making friends out of strangers.
We will sit down, our cup filled with new wine.
We will sit down and let love flow like language.
We will sit down where speech needs no words.
We will sit together at the table with no edges.
We will sit to share one loaf, in Christ’s name, in one world.
We will sit down…. It doesn’t matter where we have come from, what shame fills our lives, what brokenness or grief we carry, what we may have done or left undone, what hurts we have inflicted or absorbed. We will sit down…. However we are dressed, whatever language we speak, whatever color our skin, whatever preferences we have for love, whatever our income is, wherever we live. We will sit down…. It doesn’t matter what we did on the way to get here…. In many ways it doesn’t matter what we do 30 minutes from now, for remember Judas. When we sit down, when we come hungry for a relationship with the Divine, when we show up at the table ready to be seen by God, ready to be welcomed into this place of grace and mercy. When we sit down at this table with no edges it receives all of our rough and broken edges. When we sit down, then Jesus will say to us, Take this bread, all of you, take this cup, all of you. All of you. Each one AND all of you…. The hurting and grieving parts, the shame-filled parts, the parts that you may think are beyond repair, the parts that are shiny and that you want the world the see, the parts that you hide from everyone you meet… and even from yourself. Take this bread, all of you, take this cup, all of you. ALL of you.
For when we show up at the table we are welcome, when we come to God’s table, all of us is rejoiced! The mere act of showing up is all that is required of us, God will take care of everything else. And the beautiful thing is that when we show up, time after time, the grace and mercy and love that drips into us through this bread and cup, through this act of welcome, through our willingness to come and be met by God’s love, through all of this God’s love and healing and grace begins to change us, to smooth out the rough places, to heal the broken places, to comfort the grieving places, to open our hearts to receiving even more of the love and grace that flow so freely. It’s like a gentle mother kissing an owie of a small child… the pain is lessened and the child is reassured that the parent is there for them. Each time we come, we are kissed by God’s love. And reassured once more… no matter what we have done in between the times of sitting at the table. We show back up. We are received each and every time with Love.
So come, ALL of you.