Sunday, October 6, 2013

Phil Kniss: Eating for mission

Holistic witness: Worship
Matt 26:26-29; 1 Cor 10:16-17; Acts 2:42-47

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This is World Communion Sunday, but with a sermon title—
    “Eating for mission”—
    you might ask, “will you be talking about
        all the donuts and pies and BBQ chicken
            we consumed at the Relief Sale yesterday,
        or the bread and juice
            we will soon partake of in the Lord’s Supper?”
    “Yes, and yes.”

There is no small irony in both of these eating events,
    yesterday and today.
    Most of us walked away from the Fairgrounds stuffed to the gills,
        from raising money for world hunger relief.
    And today’s eating ritual involves
        nibbling on tiny bits of bread
            and sipping on micro-portions of juice,
            while standing up,
            in a ritual we sometimes call,
                feasting at the Lord’s table,
            even though we don’t get within ten feet of a table,
                and what we eat barely qualifies as an hors d’oeuvre,
                much less a feast.

On one level, these eating events are the exact opposite of each other,
    and neither one makes any sense—
    in one we hold a big feast to raise money for hunger,
    in the other we take little nibbles to commemorate a big feast.

But I want to suggest they both make perfectly good sense,
    and they are connected to each other in important ways.
    No, Communion and Relief Sales are definitely not the same thing,
        but they do share some important elements.

Properly understanding this has to begin
    with properly understanding who we are as the church.
    We are, as I have been saying in this whole sermon series,
        a community of disciples
            called to participate together in the mission of God.
    We, collectively, give a holistic witness to the Gospel,
        to God’s saving and reconciling mission,
        by how we live together,
            how we live in relation to the world,
            how we speak,
            how we serve,
            and how we worship.

    And the table is central to that worship and witness.
    In fact, the table is central to our whole life as a disciple community.
    The table, that is,
        our gathering together to eat and drink and share hospitality,
            is not just a nice, old-fashioned thing
            that people do once in a while.
        It is an essential practice of any church
            engaged in God’s mission.

Many of the most important events of Jesus’ life and ministry
    involved food and drink, and happened at a table,
        either literally or figuratively.
    The table is where he communed with disciples,
        connected with sinners,
        and confronted his enemies.
    It is where Pharisees were challenged,
        where Zacchaeus was forgiven and reconciled to his people,
        where water was turned into wine,
            and a boy’s lunch turned into a massive feeding operation,
        where Jesus poured out his heart to his disciples,
            in bread and wine,
        where his feet were anointed and kissed by a sinful woman,
        where Jesus took a towel and washed his disciples’ feet,
        where, after his resurrection,
            he broke bread and opened the eyes of two grieving disciples,
            and grilled some fish for breakfast by the lakeshore,
                are forgave the disciples who denied and deserted him.

It is no happenstance,
    that the table, the Lord’s Supper, Communion,
        has become a universal ritual of the church worldwide,
        for the last 2,000 years.

In some Christian traditions,
    the table is considered more important than the pulpit.
    So the table is front and center,
        and the pulpit is off to the side.

I will not diminish the importance
    of proclaiming the Gospel with words,
    whether from a pulpit or face-to-face,
    but I appreciate it when the table is put at the center
        of the life of the church, where it belongs.

If we believe God is creating us into a new peoplehood—
    a community that points to, and demonstrates,
        and gives witness to the Kingdom of God—
    then we must pull up to the table, together.
    I mean real tables, as much as possible.
    We must gather regularly,
        in a space where we can share our lives deeply,
        in a space where we can renew our bonds of mutual covenant;
        in a space where we can challenge each other,
            in love . . . and in safety;
        in a space from which we can practice the discipline
            of profound hospitality to the neighbor,
                the stranger,
                the outsider,
                the enemy.

    The table where Jesus’ followers gather,
        in honesty and intentionality,
        and where Jesus is acknowledged to be present,
            is a space unlike any other.

    There is no substitute for the table,
        no matter how modern we get,
        no matter how fast-paced our lifestyle,
        no matter how connected we might feel
            to some other kind of dispersed social network
            or community-at-a-distance.
    There is no adequate substitute
        for the people of God gathering to eat and drink
        and share their lives with one another.

    And, I want to suggest . . .
        this gathering together, if it’s in the name of Christ,
        always has a missional component to it,
            an element of witness to the Gospel.

It did yesterday at the Relief Sale.
And it will this morning at the Communion Table.

I want to suggest that the Relief Sale
    has an impact for the mission of God,
    that goes beyond the 100s of thousands of dollars
        raised for relief work around the world.
    That’s huge, of course.
    And it’s wonderful.

But what’s really beautiful to me
    is not reflected in any report about dollars raised.

What I saw at the fairgrounds yesterday was a foretaste of heaven.
    And in saying that, I’m not just being dramatic.
    I saw a big, celebrative, communal festival of praise to God,
        the God who created all things and all people,
        to live in harmony and diversity and mutual care.
    I saw a church that, at least for a day,
        put aside every difference that divides us,
        and joined our lives for a common purpose.

    And guess what?
    That common purpose was not just money
        for world hunger and disaster relief.
        The money was, truly, more of a by-product,
            than it was the main event.
    The main event was the sheer joy of being together,
        of working together,
        of sharing our lives,
        of having real conversations with everyday friends,
            long-lost friends,
            and perfect strangers.
    It was people of Mennonite faith—Old Order and New Order,
        left wing and right wing,
        rich and poor,
        plain and fancy—
        Mennonites who once upon a time,
            parted ways with each other,
                in bitterness, anger, and hurt,
            now being together,
                at work, and in fellowship, as friends,
                even, as sisters and brothers in Christ.
    It was seeing certain individuals talking, shaking hands, laughing
        who I know, first-hand,
        would not have done that in any other context,
            than this big, open, family feast.

Our United States Government is right now in a political quagmire,
    and has ground to a screeching halt,
    because adversaries with differing visions
        can’t sit down at the same table and talk together rationally,
    because getting my way, and winning my political fight,
        is worth making everyone else suffer,
        including those not fortunate enough
            to have their own stockpile of resources.
    That’s the American way.

While that was happening in Washington, two hours away
    Mennonites staged a massive counter-demonstration.
    We demonstrated the pure beauty of
        putting aside our differences with each other,
        offering untold hours of our time, freely, without compensation,
        giving our money away, without complaint . . .
    showing how much joy can be had when we ignore
        how much education or status or power we have in the world,
        and happily dish up food, wipe down tables,
            pick up garbage and recycling,
            count money,
            and anything else we can do to be helpful.

We do all this as if it’s normal,
    and we do it before a watching world.

So our day and a half of fun and festivity
    was, on the one hand, just that, fun and festive.
    It was a big, community party.

But more importantly, it was demonstrating a different way to be human.
    And it was a public demonstration, to which everyone was invited.
        People of other faiths, and of no faith,
            came from up and down the valley,
            came from the big cities,
            and were welcomed to the party.

        They came, maybe,
            just to add another 1,000-dollar quilt or furniture item,
                to their already well-furnished home,
            or they came for a nostalgic taste of older, simpler times,
                when all pies and bread were homemade,
                and apple butter and potato chips made from scratch.

    But while they’re here, they see our faith on display.
    They see all the human labor and love that gets invested,
        for no apparent reason,
        except we care about others in our world who suffer.
    And when they hear the explanations and stories from MCC,
        and hear the public prayers,
        they are witnessing the Gospel in action.
        And so are we all, if we pay attention.

And now, here we are this morning,
    for another eating ritual, World Communion Sunday.
    It’s a different sort of feast.

Here we partake of a memorial feast,
    remembering one who suffered for the sake of the world,
    that we all might be reconciled
        and might be welcomed to the Great Banquet.

Today, it’s only symbolically a feast.
    We will not be filled, physically.
    But there’s no reason it has to be only symbolic,
        other than logistical reasons.
    We could be sitting down at a fully spread table,
        and have plenty of food,
        and the bread and wine could carry the same meaning
            that it does here,
            where we’ve reduced it to a bite and a sip.
    Whether a literal or symbolic feast,
        the meaning is significant for us, and for the mission of God.

Here also, as we did yesterday, we put difference aside.
    We don’t ignore difference—it’s still a fact that we differ,
        in our interpretation of scripture,
        in our theories of atonement,
        in our economic status,
        in our political ideologies,
        in our language and culture.
    But it matters not what divides us, away from the table—
        here we join together in a shared covenant,
            in shared confession of our complete dependence
                on the grace of God in Christ for our salvation.
        “We, who are many, are one body, and we share the one loaf,”
            says the apostle Paul in our text from 1 Corinthians.
        And we gather around the most unlikely symbol of salvation:
            a symbol of brokenness and suffering and death.

Here, at this feast, we are not doing it for the needy.
    Here we, the celebrants, are the needy ones.
    We are the ones in need of relief.
    We need God’s generosity, symbolized in this communion table,
        to save us from being crushed by sin and separation from God.

And again, we are doing it before a watching world.
    No, maybe there isn’t a big audience today,
        of those just looking in on this feast.
    But we are doing it publicly and openly,
        willing to be seen by anyone.
    Willing to partake of this culturally unpopular symbol—
        of a broken body and shed blood—
        and to say, we will follow Jesus, even unto death,
            if it be required of us.

It is a message not many are accustomed to hearing.
    And we don’t only do it here behind closed sanctuary doors.
    It’s not a secret ritual.
    We carry it from here, out into life,
        living as the broken, but loved, body of Christ in the world.

That’s what the church in Acts did.
    We heard it earlier, chapter 2.
    The first church daily broke bread together at home
        and ate with “glad and generous hearts.”
    They communed daily;
        ate a common meal with high thanksgiving,
        and in memory of Jesus.
    And what happened?
        “The Lord added to their number daily
            those who were being saved.”

So I invite us to enter into this ritual today,
    with as much joy and delight and unity,
        as we did when we feasted yesterday.
    It is an important worship practice that strengthens us,
        that clarifies our identity.
    And it is a witness to the watching world.

—Phil Kniss, October 6, 2013

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