Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

A Place At The Table

October 4, 2020
World Communion Sunday

Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
1 Corinthians 11.17, 20-26, 33-34 Matthew 15:21-28

 

They didn’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the Greek city of Corinth like we do today. For one thing, they came to church in the evening, and the worship service was like a supper that we used to have in Parish Hall before the pandemic. Everybody brought their own crock-pot full of a soup or stew, or a picnic basket filled with fruit or bread or cheese. Everybody, that is, who could afford to buy and cook food, brought it. For the church at Corinth contained both people who had money to spend and people who did not. Both people who had leisure time and could come at the regular supper time and people whose jobs forced them to come after everything in the house had gotten cleaned up. The Corinthian church had free citizens as well as slaves. The people who were forced to work long hours for little or no pay and had to ask permission for time off and so were always late to church suppers and communion.

You might ask how the Corinthian congregation came to have in it such a wide variety of rich and poor, slave and free, people who had lots of time and those who were always at the beck and call of someone else. The answer has to do with the apostle Paul’s way of being a missionary. Paul did not spend every day seeing people in a church office or visiting the hospitals or calling on homebound or meeting with community leaders. The Corinthian congregation could not afford that kind of a minister. Paul had to take on a day-job to earn money to cover his expenses. That day-job was tent-making. Everybody needed the skills and products of the tent-maker, so Paul would come into contact with many people from all walks of life as they came through the tent-maker’s shop. It was there, as a tent-maker, that Paul made contacts with rich and poor, slave and free, the salaried and the hourly wage earner. As Paul talked with them, he was able to invite them to come in the evening to the Christian church he was leading. So, that’s how rich and poor, slave and free, those who worked nine-to-five and those who were at the back and call of their owner came to the congregation.

The Corinthian congregation would gather on a Sunday evening for worship around a pot-luck supper. And this pitch-in meal became the time and the place to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Now here’s how it was supposed to work. Everyone waited until all arrived and found a seat. Everyone: rich and poor, slave and free, those who worked nine-to-five and those who had to get permission to come. Then a loaf of bread would be broken and thanks spoken to God. But right at that moment the minister would also add these words, “Jesus said, ‘This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” After that, the body of worshippers would share in what was brought. When all had eaten enough, then the minister would lift up a cup and say, “Jesus said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” You see, they began with the first part of the Lord’s Supper, then ate a pot-luck supper, then finished with the last half of the Lord’s Supper. Now that’s how it is supposed to have been.

Trouble was, things were terrible. People were simply ugly to each other. There was class warfare in the Corinthian Christian community. The rich people, the free people, those who worked nine-to-five—they could get to church on time, and they would begin right on time to eat. They would begin with Jesus’ words, “This is my body broken for you.” but only a part of the body of worshippers would dive in to what they had brought. By the time the other part of the body would arrive, the poor people, the slaves, and those who punched the clock, all the food would have been eaten, all the wine would have been drunk, all the places at the table would have been taken, and this remaining part of the body would be forced to sit on the outside, tired, hungry, and humiliated, watching the rest of the body behave in drunken ways.

These “Johnny’s come lately” had had neither time nor money to prepare food to contribute. They may even have prepared the food their masters took to eat it all up before they were able to get there. This late-coming part of the body were counting on the patience and generosity of early coming part of the body who lived in more fortunate circumstances than they. After all, Paul had told them that patience and generosity were what being a part of the body of Christ all was about. They were sadly disappointed to find only a mess of crumbs and spilled wine left on the table. And to be looked down upon through the bleary eyes of drunks.

And is this what Jesus means when he says, “This is my body broken for you.”? And is this what Jesus means when he says, “This cup is the new covenant, the new bond between humanity and God and among humanity itself, in my blood.”? Does Jesus mean for us to be so out for ourselves, for our personal walk with the Lord, for our personal salvation and comfort, for our very own intense spiritual experience, that we blindly see ourselves separate from the rest of the world, not having to adjust our own behavior to take into consideration the lives of others who are different than we are?

Now we can appreciate the full thunder of Paul’s concern for the Corinthians. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?…Examine yourselves…For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper comes in a package stamped, “Handle with care.” Discerning the body.

What does that mean?
• That body was also broken for poorer Christians whose needs cannot be ignored by richer.
• That broken body was Christ’s self-denial for the benefit of others which we are to imitate.
• Eating and drinking in remembrance of Christ’s death obliges us to die with Christ to our sinful selves so that we can be set free to love others actively.

Discerning the body means doing something as simple but so radical as waiting on each other, feeding each other, including each other. This sacrament comes with a warning, “Handle with care!” But it also comes with a summons: “Shape up! Shape up to the sacrament! Let the body of the Church be the Body of Christ broken and poured out for the world.”

We hear much about “class warfare” these days. Some of it political and self-serving, no doubt. Much of it, though, is absolutely true. The sacrament of Holy Communion puts any kind of class warfare into the strictest and severest judgment. We know our country has immense wealth, military power and cultural influence. Yet, according to the Social Progress Index, the United States ranks 28th among the nations of the world in measures of well-being such as nutrition, safety, freedom, the environment, health, and education. Our founding documents say that people have a right to a place at the table but according to this Index, we are behind significantly poorer countries, including Estonia, Czech Republic, Cyprus and Greece. The contrasts within our borders are striking. While the Index ranks us No. 1 in the world in quality of universities, we sit at No. 91 in access to quality basic education. Our school children are on a par with children in Uzbekistan and Mongolia. While we lead the world in medical technology, we are No. 97 in access to quality health care. Our health statistics make us peers with Chile, Jordan and Albania. Listen to the pain of our own citizens in ZIP code 76104; listen to your own pain.

The Bible is full of stories that insist that everyone have a seat at the table. In our Old Testament lesson, the undocumented alien is specifically called out to be included in the annual feast of remembrance of God’s rescue of Hebrew slaves from Egypt. Israel is to keep the memory fresh that it is a nation of immigrants and be open and inclusive to those who have no legal standing. In our Gospel story, a Canaanite woman, a pagan, pierces right through Jesus’ narrow vision to insist that she have a place at the table of his tremendous power, even if she must eat the crumbs that fall from the hands of his disciples. He readily caved in and granted her equal status.

Why must the richest, most powerful, most religious nation suffer from higher rates of poverty, infant mortality, homicide and HIV infection, and from greater income inequality, than other advanced democracies? Listen to the pain of our own citizens; listen to your own pain. This sacrament tells us that Jesus is in our pain to comfort, to console, to heal, of course. But he is also saying to us in our pain, “Shape up. Shape up to be the body that I gave my body for.”

St. Stephen is listening to that voice and that’s good news to conclude this sermon on. Since mid-March at the outbreak of the pandemic, we have prepared and delivered over 18,000 meals to Presbyterian Night Shelter. Excluding the value of countless volunteer hours, the estimated cost of these meals is $30,000, or approximately $1,000 per week.  This has been made possible by generous donations designated for this project from members and friends of St. Stephen.  Through communication among our Room in the Inn partners, many other churches have also participated in this effort. It’s a big table for all to participate in.

In addition, monetary and food donations were delivered to the night shelter in September along with new or gently used bath towels and twin sheets. Your dollars assure a place at the table for our most vulnerable citizens while they receive services to return to independent housing.

On another front, every Tuesday at 1:00 p.m. a pickup truck is in the church parking lot to receive donations for the Center For Transforming Lives. Your donations secure a place at the table for women and children who are victims of family abuse while they receive the services needed to support their return to independent living. And when you drop off your donations, you can pick up a kit with materials needed to make ten face masks for homeless people.

Moreover, when the call went out to our congregation in the wake of Hurricane Laura for Hygiene Kits for Louisiana residents, the response was over the top, a bonanza of outpouring of material and monetary support.

So when we pray on this World Communion Sunday, “O Lord, make us a world that grows into the shape of your communion table, where all are welcomed and all are fed,” our actions show that St. Stephen means business.

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