Sunday, August 29, 2010

And They'll Know We are Christians

Back in the 1970’s this was a popular church camp song. If you remember it too, feel free to join in as we sing.

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored
And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we'll guard each one's dignity and save each one's pride
And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love

I learned this song was written in 1970 and I sang it in elementary school. Now you know something about me and based upon how many of you joined in I know something about you as well. But recently I asked people to fill in the end of the sentence “They’ll know we are Christians by our ________________.” The most popular answer was not “love” but “potlucks.” One person said she wasn’t sure if she should say they’ll know us by our love or potlucks but that they were both pretty much the same in her opinion. She’s right that how we interact at our church gatherings like potlucks says a lot about us. So what do our gatherings say?

We envision a communal experience that expresses our identity and demonstrates free and generous hospitality and if you are like me growing up in the Midwestern US, throw in a little pioneer spirit. But I would suggest we struggle to live out this vision, confronted with our own structures, just like the Pharisees.
• Raise your hand if your church has “kitchen ladies, and keep it up if you know this is not an open group”
• Raise your hand if when you have a potluck you tell people to sign up, keep it up if you ask them to tell you what kind of food they are bringing.
• Raise your hand if you know that someone will be looked down upon who comes to the potluck empty-handed or who did not sign up. If someone is not on the list and extra seats need to be set up, there is a sigh. I saw some head nods on a fair amount of these questions.

• These are some of the ways that we “domesticate” hospitality and rein in the welcome.

And if you observe our meals from the outside, there is the flurry of activity before the meal. People are bringing in their contribution. Some “up the game” by bringing it in a Longaberger basket, or with a cute label, promising to share the recipe with select people. Some people slyly move another person’s dish so theirs has pride of place. Meanwhile, others are dispatched to secure seats with friends, family and the question is “Did you get us our table?” It is pretty absorbing but, what is it like to be the stranger; the single person; the person with the bad leg who struggles to get to the basement only to find themselves on the edge? One elderly widower who struggled with mobility said he quit coming to potlucks because it was too humbling to have to ask someone to make room at their table much less help him get to the food. Right about now I am wondering if we CAN sing “they’ll know we are Christians by our potlucks?”

Communal meals among worshippers are nothing new. Jesus was invited to such meals, and today we hear he did some people-watching. All around him people are scurrying and jostling to get the best places, walking around “on display,” making sure their status was intact. People who were holy and proper. The two people who are on the edge at first are Jesus and the man with “dropsy”- today we would call it edema- filled with fluid, bloated and dying of thirst. Right in front of them-Impossible not to see him, yet ignored. Because while it was important to give charity to those in need, it was never on their radar to sit at the same table and eat and drink with such a man. No Pharisee would do that. In fact the word “Pharisee” means “separate”- to separate themselves from the world as a sign of being dedicated to God.
But at some point the separateness stopped being about God’s desires and started being about their desire for status. Here’s how far they took separateness in worship, in dining and in their understanding of who God would deem worthy. The following people were excluded:
no one paralyzed in the feet or hands- no arthritis, no one lame, no one blind, no one unable to speak clearly, no aged people who totter, no one who cannot stand still, no one with any visible blemish or impurity.

That’s a pretty long list- It’s a wonder anyone was even there. Add to that list women and children. I can safely say few of us would fit the bill- no hope for God’s favor. This is why the Pharisees were always so critical of Jesus and his dining habits. This is how blessed we must count ourselves that Christ has given us a seat at the table!

One author states, “all of our efforts to domesticate or rein in hospitality are like clouds blotting out the sun of God’s generosity. Jesus spent his whole life breaking through that cloud to bring fresh healing in the sun of God’s love.” Maybe we need to acknowledge our own lists that diminish our living hospitality toward others. The challenge of Christian hospitality reveals our struggles to reconcile different cultures, different beliefs, different abilities, lifestyles and needs.
God’s view of hospitality calls us to fundamentally reverse our views. Christian hospitality is different than just being nice. It is our reflecting God’s gracious hospitality toward us and re-enacting the feast as a foretaste of the feast to come. We are the invited who invite, but the invitation is not to our table, but to Christ’s table. We called to draw others not to ourselves but into the kingdom of God. We do this not because of what it earns us, power, status or indebtedness, but out of sheer gratitude for God’s grace and love toward us. This hospitality is about more than building a better potluck.

But thinking of our meals may be a good place to start. Think of the joy you feel when sharing a meal with those closest to you, to know you belong. Think of the wondrous grace of knowing Christ has made a spot for you. We hear the words “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.” Are you willing to bless ANYONE? This is what we are called to share- to tell others who are hungry for a welcome that there is room. That we will sit and share face- to-face, rubbing elbows, sacrificing our needs and lists and using God’s list instead. To bring healing and dignity and blessing and I think is why healing and breaking bread appear together so often in Luke as we hear a calling to more than just swapping lists of who is in and who is out.

We’re called to embrace a much larger view of the table, where we have been told we need to get out the leaf to make the table bigger, and bigger. And to not just gravitate toward people and places we know will bless us- that doesn’t place God at the center. Instead, to seek those people can’t give us anything. This kingdom living stretches us beyond our boundaries. It’s countercultural. But this is how we are invited to reclaim hospitality as a Christian practice. To constantly ask who is on the margins, including those who don’t take an invite for granted, and greeting them as “friend” and as equal. Living out the literal meaning of the word “hospitality”- showing the depth of love and affection we have for family toward those we see as strangers in a bigger and bigger table.

It ultimately takes us all the way to the cross to live Jesus’ command to love our enemies and to bless them as we break bread together. Blessing and challenge, but when we continue respond to God’s grace in this way, they really will know we are Christians by our love.

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