Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Welcome Table for All: Today is the Day

Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, July 13, 2014, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene. Proper 10A:  Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

          Three Sundays and three sermons left, and it seems to me my last opportunity to preach the Good News of God proclaimed by Jesus and at work among us by the Holy Spirit, in the images we have held up most of these ten years we have been together.  I’m talking about the three images from our Mission Statement:  We are

A healing place for souls
A school for justice
A welcome table for all

          Just a reminder, and for the record, these images arose out of a visioning process in which the whole parish participated in 2005.  Those of you who were here then, do you remember the “Dream Team” who led the process?[1]

I am going to start with the image of the Welcome Table.  It came from a hymn that is on our regular “play list,” “I’m going to eat at the Welcome Table (LEVAS II #).  The parable of the sower will help me get there, along with two sermons on this parable by two of the great preachers of our time, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Fred Craddock.

          It may not seem so obvious how the parable of the sower leads to the inclusive image of the welcome table.  In fact, Jesus’ interpretation of it seems to head in the opposite direction—an exclusiveness based on whether or not the seed of the Word will grow in you or not.

          Another great preacher of our day, Barbara Brown Taylor, points this problem out.  She recalls seeing this parable enacted in the musical Godspell and says

Watching all of that, I had the same response I always do to this parable:  I start worrying about what kind of ground I was on with God.  I started worrying about how many birds were in my field, how many rocks, how many thorns.  I started worrying about how I could clean them all up, how I could turn myself into a well-tilled, well-weeded, well-fertilized field for the sowing of God’s word.  I started worrying about how the odds were three to one against me—those are the odds of the parable, after all—and I began thinking how I could beat the odds, or at least improve on them, by cleaning up my act.[2]

          Of course, this anxiety is caused mostly by Jesus’ interpretation of the parable rather than the parable itself.  But this exclusivist anxiety is common both in the Bible and in the church.  There seem to be two different paths, an exclusive path in which the world is divided into saints and sinners, worthy and unworthy, a path that has dominated much of the church’s history, or an inclusive path which many would say is foreign to Scripture, but many of us are now saying is the real golden thread of the Scriptures from beginning to end, often hidden and subversive, however.

          When Fred Craddock preaches this parable he admits that the interpretation of the parable does indeed head in the direction of those who seem to be good, fertile Christians and those in whom the Word just does not seem to grow.  But then he has this say:

If this parable did not have an interpretation and all I had was the parable itself, this is what I would say:  First of all, please do not ever give up on anybody.  Please.  The plain fact is that I do not know and you do not know whether there will be any growth.  So let us not be selective, saying, “Oh, I think I will put a seed here.  This looks like a good one, but I won’t put a seed there—no use fooling with him.”  No, spread the seed.  Let it go on the path and the weeds and the thin soil.  Randomly scatter the good Word of God and do not try to predict what the result will be, because you do not know….This is God’s business.  This is Christ sowing the seed for goodness sake.  And what do we know?  We don’t know anything.[3]

          That is one of the great keys to the truly inclusive church.  The humility to say, “This is God’s business.  We don’t know anything.”  And because we acknowledge that we do not know anything, we assume that God is working with all of us, “us” being whoever walks in the door and gathers here on any given day, whoever they are, whatever their circumstances today, yesterday or tomorrow.

          Everyone who walks in the door (and whether they have walked in the door thousands of times or just once does not matter at all—that is true hospitality), everyone who walks in the door we assume, because we do not know any better and never will, everyone who walks in the door we assume is a child of God with a story to tell (and to be listened to) that is part of God’s story, a wound that needs our compassion or a cause for joy and gratitude that needs to be joined to our joy and gratitude, and gifts to give that are different from anybody else’s.

          And what we say when we are at our best is not, come and be like us because it doesn’t matter how different you are from us.  That is not what we say.  Thinking that is the message of the inclusive church—that we are really all the same—is a fatal flaw.  No, we say bring your difference, join it to ours, the more difference among us the better.

          Bring your devilish birds, your thin soil, and your weeds.  We have all brought our own version of these things, but we have discovered that together we are fertile soil.  Together we make this table welcome, and the only criteria for remaining among us is that you do not try to tear the Table down, which is to say, you do not try to separate anyone from the love of God we know in Jesus, in whom there is now no condemnation.

          The song we sing about the Welcome Table dreams that we will eat at it one of these days.  What we proclaim is, today is the day.

[1] Again for the record, the members were Chris Cleveland, Bruce Colburn, Allan Cuseo, Donna Davis, Madeline Gamble, Aaron Kane, Sylvia Kannapel, Ebo Ocran, Chuck Smith and Carter Williams
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (2004), pp. 25-26.
[3] Fred Craddock, The Cherry Log Sermons (2001), p. 23.

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