A feast prepared for all people

Sermon Notes 10/12/14      Isaiah 25:1-9      Psalm 23     Philippians 4:1-9


A feast prepared for all people.

God’s feast is for all people – not just the chosen, or the faithful, or the believers. God lifts the veil and sets the table for all people and nations. How have we as church tried to share or limit God’s generosity?

Questions to ask ourselves:

  • Where do I live under the shadow and fear of scarcity?
  • Where do I live the generosity of abundance and enough?
  • Where do I or have I experienced a feast? How does that story help me understand God’s goodness and provision?
  • When have I been welcomed to someone else’s feast? What was that like?

A feast prepared for all people.

When is the last time you attended a feast? How do you know? How do you draw the distinction between a meal, a banquet, and a feast? I suspect that every culture has an image of a feast – usually in honor of an individual or communal life event – a birth, coming of age, marriage or death. In the US we have some 20 & 21st images that often come to mind – the iconic paintings of the First Thanksgiving with American Immigrant Pilgrims in black hats and Native Americans in feather headdresses all gathered around a table overflowing with all kinds of natural bounty. I can’t hear the word feast without thinking of Dr. Seuss and all his Whos down in Whoville celebrating Christmas, and the Grinch carved the Roast Beast. More recent film has given us the Hogwarts feasts with never-ending food that just keeps appearing.

In the New Testament we see Jesus perform his first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana (John 2). These were celebrations that went on for several days – sometimes as many as 7 days. Jesus uses the image of a feast to illustrate the Kingdom of God in Matthew 22. The point in these two stories as in the passage from Isaiah is similar – God desires that we would relish in the bounty of God’s goodness. Too often, however, we choose the scraps we can produce for ourselves rather than the abundant good that is available to us.

In the passage from Isaiah 25, the prophet recalls how God humbled the proud and powerful. At the same time, God has been “a refuge to those in distress” (25:4). Then comes the promise of ultimate restoration and renewal: On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines… (25:6) The feast will be “for all peoples” – i.e. all nations, tribes or people groups. The vision offered starting with Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12 is that all people will be blessed. Yes, God calls a people to be set apart and holy – first Abraham and his descendants, the 12 tribes of Jacob / Israel. Later the church is grafted in to the people of Israel and the covenant is renewed – a New Covenant in water and in blood, in the Spirit and Fire. All of these are not simply because God plays favorites – they are called and formed “to be a blessing”. They are called to communicate that

A feast will be prepared for all people.

This story moves in three stages:

  • We recognize our current state. Are we those of power who have been brought low, or are we the poor and needy who find refuge in the LORD? Perhaps both?
  • We understand and accept that God is calling us to the feast that is being prepared. God wants us to live in abundance and blessing. God continually works and calls out to us. Finally, we come to the end of our striving, and we accept that God loves us and receive the blessings that God has for us.
  • We follow Christ out to the world to proclaim the feast for all and to bring others in.

Part of the challenge for a church is that simultaneously we include people who are at each of these three stages. Some folks are just coming to terms with their reality. Others are receiving the call to discipleship and beginning their journey with Jesus. Still others are venturing out of the boat to walk with Jesus to the ends of the earth. And honestly, each of us at that third stage circle back to stages one and two occasionally.

There have been seasons in my life and ministry when I have awoken as from a dream, only to realize that I’ve built a house of cards that is beginning to collapse around me. This can happen in any area of our lives – our profession, our marriage, parenting or other relationships, our physical health. It happens at the personal, communal, national and global scale. When a major financial collapse comes as in 2008-9, what can be said but that people of pride and power built a house of cards using their own cleverness and capacity rather than leaning on the wisdom and power and grace of God. There are multiple explanations for why the collapse happened – globalization, a weak dollar, deregulation of banks and the subprime mortgage fiasco – but any version is still a house of cards horror story with hubris and blind ignorance as the central narrative.

That same scenario could be repeated with any of our crisis and collapse chronicles. Think of the current Ebola crisis, or the efforts to respond to the shifting landscape of militaristic misappropriations of the Islamic faith. We ignore warnings, and the evidence before our eyes, because we think we know best. We desperately want to believe our own version of events. One of our difficulties is that we believe the lie of limited resources. The result is that we often fight over what resources we perceive in a perpetual win/loose downward cycle of decay.

The Truth is completely opposite. We live in a world of abundance, a universe of unimaginable capacity, and serve a God of limitless possibilities. Each of us has limits, certainly. Collectively we are limited too. Even if you and I pool our resources, it won’t be enough to do all we want or desire. BUT… if we will recognize our limitations, accept the grace and power available to us, we will find that we have enough. The path forward is the same for all – the three stages identified above.

The feast is not the end of the story. Isaiah continues: And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. (25:7) A veil of fear and darkness prevents us from seeing God’s abundant provision available in creation and in each other through community. We cannot lift the veil off our own eyes. Only the power of Spirit can do this. We must be willing to let it be lifted. When Jesus said to Lazarus, “Come out!” Lazarus might have chosen to stay in the tomb. (John 11) Even when he did come out there was work to be done: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (11:44) “Remove the veil of darkness, the covering of death!” And the next scene is a feast – “they gave a dinner for him…” (John 12)

Jesus has now given this ministry to his disciples. We are given the privilege of speaking these word to one another and the world that Jesus has spoken over us:

  • Come out of your tomb – God’s power and our response
  • Have the veil of darkness removed – the support of our community
  • Join in the feast

Now this could all lead us toward a name-it-and-claim-it prosperity gospel or some Polly-Anna-ish version of our faith that says if we will just believe in Jesus then everything will work out great for us. This of course is not true, at least not in the present physical realm. We know at least three reasons for this:

Paul offers us some very useful counsel at this point as he writes to his friends in the Philippian church in chapter 4:4-9. He tells us how to pray. He assures us not that everything will magically be fixed, but that we will receive peace in heart and mind, even in the midst of difficulty. Then Paul proceeds to tell us how to manage our thoughts, where to focus our attention. He says, “Don’t worry,” but he does not leave it at that. He understands that we have some choices that we can make:

  1. Where we look for strength and security (ourselves or God)
  2. How we respond to situations (Fear and grasping or gratitude and generosity)
  3. How we treat other people (with harshness or gentleness)
  4. What we think about (what is difficult and dark or what is good)
  5. What we do as a result of these thoughts (what we want, or what Jesus has taught us)

When we who are people of faith and have known the goodness of The Lord and the bounty of His feast find ourselves in trouble, Paul offers us a way forward. If we will make ourselves available to others in openness and generosity of spirit, they will tell us where they hurt and struggle and need support. God will then work through us to offer them hope, to welcome them to

the feast that is prepared for all people.

Virtual Ash Wednesday

Secular and religious people have many important things in common. One of those, that is being remembered and honored by Christians today, is the need to experience repentance and forgiveness. Who among us has not fallen short of the moral, ethical or relational standards we set for ourselves, to say nothing of the standards others try to set for us? When I fail to honor the sacredness of friendship and love. When I make a promise that I am unable to keep. When I speak words in anger or fear that assault and wound. When I neglect my duty to nurture and care. When I tear down rather than build up, degrade rather than construct, poison rather than nourish. When my silence supports systems of oppression, particularly when I then gain in the process.

When I do these things, what then? How can I move from this position to a status of restored relationship? What can I offer, what do I need to receive? Who can help?

In my own life, I have found the story of Jesus to be a compelling witness to my own brokenness and frailty and lack, because he shared in it, even to the point of death and fear of the same. For me the greatest pain in my own failures is not that I have committed them, but that I may be unable to experience restoration. What if things can’t be repaired (some can’t)? What if time runs out and I never get to say, “I’m sorry,” and hear, “You are forgiven”? What if… I live not in certainty, but in hope.

I hope that you know where to turn, to whom you can go, to find the help that you need when you face these issues in your own life. I also hope that you are able to extend compassion and mercy to others, not because they deserve it, but because you need it too.

Learning to Ask Questions

Notes for a sermon from 07152012

Mark 8:27-38

How many of us had a teacher in school who said, “There are no dumb questions”?

And yet, what percentage of our education was about asking questions versus memorizing answers or collections of information?

We learned who did what to whom where and when.

Did we learn to ask and explore why?

We learned that John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 at the Ford Theatre during a production of “Our American Cousin”.

Did we learn to ask why? Or what other explanations there may have been? No.

We learned that Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 near Dealy Plaza.

Did we learn to ask why? Or what other explanations there may have been? No. Oliver Stone asked these questions in his 1991 movie JFK, but he was mocked by many as a conspiracy theorist.

Why do we mock someone who questions the predominant view? Why is the skeptic ridiculed?

I want us to think together about the role of questions in our faith, and how we might learn to ask questions.

Listen for the word of God in our scripture reading from Mark 8:27-38.

In this text we hear Jesus ask the disciples two questions. “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” Why did Jesus do this? Why ask questions of the disciples, and why these questions?

Are we to conclude that Jesus did not know what people thought about him? Was Jesus doing what many of us have done – wondered what other people thought of him? Have you ever been in a group and wondered what the people around you thought of you? Have you secretly wished that you could read their minds and know what they thought? Or perhaps you decided you are better off not knowing what some of them think.

And then the focus shifts from the crowd to Jesus’ closest associates. “Who do you say that I am?” Never mind what all those strangers, groupies and hangers on think. What about you, my closest companions – what do you think of me? Who do you think that I am?

It is important to recognize that this question is not asked in John’s gospel – there would be no point, because by the time John is telling his story of Jesus, we have a messiah who is boldly standing in the market and in the temple making “I am” statements to anyone who will listen. John’s Jesus tells everyone who he is, so there is no need to ask what people are saying.

Not so with the Jesus of Mark. In fact, Mark’s account, likely the earliest written of the four biblical gospels, includes what is called the messianic secret. Here we see Jesus repeatedly heal people and then require that they tell no one what has happened to them or who has accomplished this work. Mark’s Jesus is determined to keep as low a profile as possible. So then it makes sense for Jesus to ask, “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” Because Jesus had been pretty vague and evasive about who he is. He kept talking about himself in the third person as the Son of Man – 13 time in fact (8:31, 38; 10:33, 45).

But again, we are left wondering why he is asking the questions. Is it because he doesn’t know the answers? Perhaps, since scripture is clear that Jesus’ knowledge was limited – in Mark 13 we learn that only the Father knows the details of the consummation of history – the Son does not know. So it is reasonable to think that he lacked other information as well. Yet we also know that Jesus seemed able to know the thoughts of the Pharisees when they doubted him.

This line of our questioning is worthwhile in itself. It invites us into a deeper curiosity about Jesus and his ways, in which we are to walk.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Jesus is not seeking information – either he already has it, or doesn’t really need it. Jesus’ interest is not to be told what others think about him. Jesus’ desire is to invite the disciples into a journey of reflection and discovery. Perhaps they had not really stopped to think about all of the different things that were being said about Jesus. “Some say John the Baptist” who by this time had been beheaded. “Some say Elijah” who it was said would precede the Messiah – which is why Jesus said that John came as Elijah. “Some say one of the prophets” – a leader after the example of the Old Testament prophets who came to call the people of Israel back to more faithful worship in their covenant relationship with God – to restore justice and lift up the downtrodden.

It is worth our stopping to note these three things that were said. Jesus’ behavior fit into some preexisting categories and familiar frames of reference – Prophet, Elijah, John the Baptist. Jesus was unusual, but not unique in the way others saw and experienced him.

As we think about who Jesus is to us, we might stop and spend some time asking Jesus’ first question for ourselves. Who do the people around us say that Jesus is? Who do our neighbors and coworkers think Jesus is? Who do the people at the mall or the ball field know Jesus to be? What can we learn about Jesus from asking this question humbly and really listening to the answers? Are we willing to do this, and then to listen to what other people say? We will talk next week about learning to listen and hear. For now, it is enough to learn to ask questions. The questions Jesus asks of his disciples, we might ask of ourselves.

It does not stop there though. Jesus also asks, “Who do you say that I am?” This is so important. Jesus has not said publically that he is anything other than the son of Joseph the carpenter and Mary from Nazareth. In Mark’s gospel we do not even have the benefit of the Holy Spirit’s confirmation at Jesus’ baptism, nor Jesus public proclamation as he reads from Isaiah 60 in his home synagogue. We have to figure out for ourselves from the evidence given – from watching and listening to Jesus. And after a while, he asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter’s answer is the only one we hear, and that answer is partial. “You are the Messiah.” In contrast to the answers of others that Jesus is one who would precede the Messiah, Peter has determined, perhaps in conversation with the other disciples, that Jesus is the Messiah. The messiah was to be a political revolutionary – we might liken him to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson rolled together – a wise military and political figure who would bring freedom and would become the next king of Israel, deposing both the Emperor and his todies – Pilot and Herod.

Mark’s Jesus also does not say, “Blessed are you, for only God has revealed this to you.” (Matthew 16:17)

He says, “Don’t tell anyone!” “Sternly ordered” is how Mark puts it.

That’s not really our point here, but it is interesting, how Mark handles the story of Jesus.

Anyway, back to questions.

If the questions are intended to prompt reflection on the part of the disciples, then Mark intends that we do the same – that we wonder about who Jesus is; that we learn to ask these questions.

Why not just tell us who he is? Why did Jesus approach his ministry in this way? Why did Mark tell his story in this way? What is with all of these questions? Would somebody please just give me a straight answer for a change?

Well, it won’t be Jesus. Did you hear how Jesus answered the question asked of him – by asking his own question? Granted, the Pharisees were trying to trick him, but still. Jesus certainly could have given a direct answer if he had wanted to. Again, there is something about questions.

We have one other question to consider.

Jesus calls a blind man to him and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Is he serious? The man is a blind beggar. What does Jesus think the guy wants? Though to be fair, Jesus does have a history of not meeting the most obvious need people have. Remember the paralytic on the mat who was lowered through a hole in the roof by his four friends (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus pronounces that his sins are forgiven first, and only later proclaims physical healing. Over in John’s gospel Jesus asks a man who has been ill for 38 years whether he wants to be made well (John 5:1-9). That sounds like another crazy question, similar to the one addressed to the blind man from Mark’s story.

Why ask these questions?
Does Jesus not know what they need? Can he not guess what they want?
The answer to both these questions is probably yes. So what is going on?

Again, I’m suggesting that Jesus wants these people to think about what they want and need. Mark is asking us to do the same. We need to learn to ask ourselves these questions and make them the object of our meditation and prayer. What do I really want? What do I really need? Do I really want to be made well? Am I willing to accept the changes that will entail? If I pursue the dream that I have, if I pursue wholeness and vitality and a life lived fully for God, what will it cost me? What is at risk? Bartimaeus had only known blindness and begging for his whole adult life – he would have to completely relearn how to function in society. None of his old coping mechanisms or ways of relating to others will work any longer if he accepts healing of his blindness. So Jesus is right to ask him and us this question. Mark is right to ask us this question. We are right to ask ourselves, and one another. What do we want God to do for us? Do we want to be made well?

I want to suggest one final thing. I think that questions about God are the most powerful language we have. It is more powerful to ask someone a question about God than to make a statement about God. When we ask someone about what they want or need, or about who they understand God to be, we are engaging their own faith. When we tell them what we think they need, or what we think the right answers are, or even who we think God is, then we are not engaging the part of their brain where faith is formed. The part of the brain that takes in data is different from that which dreams, imagines, asks and discovers.

Considering Baptism?

Are you or someone you know considering affirming your faith in Jesus Christ through baptism?

Perhaps you have never made a public confession/profession of your faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and accepted his as Savior and Lord of your life an of the world, though you have been loving and following him in your heart.

Perhaps you do not know quite what it would mean for you to follow Jesus as one of his disciples.

Perhaps you are a parent, grandparent or other adult who is guiding a child toward faithful discipleship to Jesus, including profession of faith and baptism.

Or perhaps you are one of those who had a baptismal experience in your past and is seeking a way to reaffirm that experience – not unlike those Christians who go on a pilgrimage to Israel and walk into the Jordan River to remember their baptisms.

If any of these scenarios describes you, why not have a conversation with one of our ministry staff or elders. We would love to visit with you about your experience and interest in baptism and explore how we can journey with you in faithfulness to Christ.

Please feel free to share this with your neighbors, family and friends.

The baptistry is full, and the water is comfortably warm. What are you waiting for?

Ken G. Crawford
214-288-1663

For further reflection, consider reading:
http://kengcrawford.com/2008/11/13/thoughts-on-christian-baptism/

http://kengcrawford.com/2012/10/22/through-baptism-into-christ-we-enter-into-newness-of-life-and-are-made-one-with-the-whole-people-of-god/
http://kengcrawford.com/2012/10/22/baptism-as-a-beginning-of-being-beloved/