Sermons That Work

Sit Up Straight!, Proper 17 (B) – 2006

September 03, 2006

“Sit up straight! Elbows off the table! Napkin in your lap! Wait until everyone has been served before you begin to eat! And close your mouth when you chew!” The rituals associated with eating begin early in a child’s life and grow more complex with our journey toward maturity. In every culture these rituals are one of the ways the “in” group holds itself apart from the “out” group. Those who are like “us” eat the same foods the same way “we” do. Perhaps one of the more curious and exciting adventures we ever embark upon is our first awareness of these differences, the very first time we venture away from home to eat dinner with a family other than our own. At their house can one get dessert without eating everything on the plate? What is that stuff on the plate, anyway? So many differences define us: Is belching after dinner an expected compliment for the host or an embarrassment to your mother? Do they eat dinner with a fork, their fingers, or chopsticks? Is cold spaghetti or Cocoa Puffs one of the mainstays of their breakfast diet? Though we can laugh at the mystery of our differences, when it comes to food, at the time the Gospels were written, food laws were a serious matter for Jews. Many struggled to hold on to their identity after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Enforcing rules and regulations for maintaining purity was one way to maintain a sense of themselves as the people of Israel. It was God’s commandment, after all, not unlike the admonishments of parents to “mind your manners and remember who you are” in the foreign land of a friend’s home. Listen up Israel, says Moses, to the Israelites. Folks will notice how you behave, and folks talk. Do what God tells you, and your upbringing will honor God. They will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people.” For Jesus the food laws became critical arguing points to challenge the exclusion of Gentiles from the kingdom of God. A new identity for Israel was unfolding and it required a shift in understanding the purpose of the law. Table manners are not after all meant for banishing to the basement those who aren’t worthy enough to eat. They are meant to help make dining a pleasurable experience for everyone. But the controversy over food laws persisted, and in the early Church reflected tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians that kept them from table fellowship together. Today, for us, other controversies keep Christians from coming to the table together. Opinions about policies having to do with genetic research, war, medical care, education, the environment, and gender give us all the opportunity for violent disagreement, if we let them. Each of these areas of contention represent deeply held convictions about how we are to live. These convictions in part, tell us who we are. When they are challenged, we get scared. It feels as if our very existence is threatened. And it is fear, ultimately, that fuels the evil intentions of the heart. What defines us? Jesus perhaps might have said, it’s not so much that “you are what you eat,” but “what’s eating you.” Jesus reassures us that what we need to worry about isn’t whether we get the rituals exactly right. What we need to reflect upon is how willing we are to reach out to the people across the street who see things and do things differently than we do. We are to be doers of the word, and not merely “hearers who deceive themselves,” James writes. Jesus challenges us to see beyond the differences that threaten to isolate us from each other. He calls us to be together at the table so that we might find we have more in common than our evil intentions. Eucharist, pot-luck suppers, coffee hour, pizza parties, picnics, cookouts — we are called together to gather to at the table to remember that we all depend upon the grace of the One who loves us. We come together again and again to give thanks and to be sent out once again humbled by that revelation. How do we show it forth, not only with our lips but in our lives? James suggests one specific practice: Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; Anger does not produce God’s righteousness. The story is told of a family and friends gathered for a special dinner that called for the best china and everyone’s favorite recipes. All were seated at the table, waiting hungrily for the turkey to be served so dinner could begin. The proud cook strode through the doorway, the weight of the platter straining her grip, and she tripped on the carpet’s edge. As she fell, the turkey slid across the floor. There was a moment of dead silence before the hostess declared in a bright voice directed to the cook: “It’s no problem, everything is all right. Just take that one back to the kitchen, and bring in the other one you prepared as back up.” Of course, there was no second turkey. But a turkey appeared, moments later, nevertheless. Dinner was served. Jesus challenges the purity laws so fiercely protected by the Pharisees and scribes who have come down from Jerusalem. It is in the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law that God’s will is to be found. Pure and undefiled religion has to do with caring for others in distress, not stressing over pure religious practices. Life in God, the creator of all, is our common ground, not the source of our differences. But the evil intentions that divide our hearts speak across cultures and religions, too. What distinguishes us as Christians is what we do with our experience of this evil — and who we offer it to for redemption. What makes us Christian is not ritual or customs, what we eat or what we fear. What defines us ultimately is our faith in the great redemptive love that calls us into being and commands that we be reconciled with one another. A common thread runs through the diversity of our response to that command. As the old folk song proclaims “We are one in the spirit, we are one in the lord. They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, they will know we are Christians by our love.”

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Christopher Sikkema


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