GENERAL CONVENTION 2003


 

 

ARE WE AN IMPERFECT COMMUNITY OF FAITH?
By V. James Jeffery, Trinity, Reno, Nevada

Dear friends,
Shut your eyes and imagine yourself as a young child sitting at a meal in your home. Who was
there? What were they doing or saying? How did you feel? What did you do? In what ways
did that experience affect your attitudes, beliefs, and behavior in the years that followed?
I remember a meal with my parents and sister in the kitchen of our home, when all of a sudden,
the ceiling over the table began to drip water. It was coming from the bathroom above.
Evidently, after I flushed, the valve had not shut off the flow. My father was not a happy
camper, and the meal hadn't been a pleasant one.

In his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg writes about Jesus and the
table. One of the most characteristic activities in Jesus' ministry was an open and inclusive
table. Table fellowship then was not a casual act, as it can be in the modern world. It
represented mutual acceptance. Meals in Jesus' day were embedded with rules from the
purity system which governed not only what might be eaten, and how the food should be
prepared, but also with whom one might eat. Jesus is accused of `eating with tax collectors
and sinners,' (impure people, dirty people) and he is charged with being `a glutton and a
drunkard,'

The open table fellowship of Jesus was seen as a challenge to the purity system of the day. It
was.The meals of Jesus embodied his alternative vision of an inclusive community.The
ethics of compassion (you shall love your neighbor as yourself) led to an inclusive table
fellowship, just as the ethics of purity led to a closed table fellowship.

It is probably difficult for us who live in a world where we take for granted an attitude (at least
as an ideal) of nondiscrimination, to appreciate the radical character of this inclusiveness. It
included women, untouchables, the poor, the maimed, and the marginalized. For Jesus it
was no big deal—be compassionate, he taught, as God is compassionate; for everybody
else, it was a big deal.

All of this ties into the 6th chapter of John's Gospel, which is full of statements that were
offensive to those who heard them. Jesus says that he is God's own manna come down from
heaven to give life to the world. You and I may be used to hearing such talk from him, but
imagine hearing it for the first time from a human being who doesn't look all that different
from you.

In verses 53-59, he takes the offense to an even higher level by choosing really gory words to
describe what he meant. In all the other gospels, Jesus calls this bread his body. In John's
gospel, he calls his flesh—his skin and muscle tissue. In all the other gospels, he offers it to
be eaten. In John's gospel he uses the word for `chomp' or `gnaw,' so that a more literal
translation of his invitation goes like this: `Those who chomp my flesh and guzzle
my blood have eternal life; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.'

Barbara Brown Taylor observes that it sounds more like something from a butcher shop than
for a church. And when you add the fact that Hebrew scripture clearly forbids the drinking of
blood, you can understand why Jesus' followers began to pull away from him.

These things have added meaning right now when many people are uncomfortable in identifying
themselves with imperfect communities of faith. `Since the church has voted the wrong way, I'm
leaving,' or `I cannot belong to a church that has taken the stand this church has,' or I'm not
coming to church anymore because it is too liberal, or ...(you fill in the blank).

Our Presiding Bishop, in his last sermon at the General Convention, commended the delegates
this way: `The willingness of many of you who are deeply distressed by certain actions of the
convention to stay, quite literally, at the table, is a profound act of love for which the community
can be grateful. Some have felt obliged to leave the table. While we must respect their
freedom to do so, it is very much my prayer-—and I am sure yours as well— that they will
find themselves able to return. Their leaving diminishes us all.'

He then quoted the Sufi poet Rumi, `Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a
field. I'll meet you there.' `That field, he said, `is the field of the divine compassion where all
things are reconciled in ways that we can only dimly comprehend.'

There is no perfect church, anymore than there is a perfect God, writes Barbara Taylor, if perfect
means that I understand, agree, or approve of everything that goes on. If you become an
Episcopalian, you get a church that tends to deal with things out in the open, a church in
which disagreement is allowed, controversy included; you also get a church in which there
are liturgies so lovely they take your breath away, and a commitment to common prayer that
puts all our divisions to shame.

Wherever people are people, there will always be things that offend. But it is terribly important,
as difficult as it may be for some of us, to stay at the table, so that all of us can realize that
there are other people in this world, just as sincere as we are, who do not see things our way.
We need each other, to save us from self-righteousness. We also need each other to help keep
us in shape for God. Because wherever God is God, there will always be things that offend.
Like Jesus. Like fleshy bread and bloody wine. Like this church we call Christ's body, in
which we are grafted to each other as surely as we are grafted to him.

Do you wish to go away sometimes? Of course you do. I do. We all do. But where would we go.
Perhaps only to a church that has just one member (me). It is here that we hear the words of
eternal life. It is here that we sense the mystery of God. It is here that our faith is nourished.
What trials and offenses can we not bear? There is room at the table for each of us, for all of
us, for everybody. Amen.

Faithfully, V. James Jeffery, Rector

Preached at Trinity, Reno, Sunday August 17, 2003. The table exercise was one done by Fr. Eric Law at a conference on inclusiveness given in Reno the preceding Wednesday; I borrowed extensively from a sermon by Barbara Taylor Brown, entitled "To Whom Shall We Go?"- vjr

 

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