The Family of God

Part I of the Advent series “A Family Christmas”

Genesis 1:26-28; Matthew 3:13-17

christmas storyThe first Sunday in Advent is always a time of anticipation. The decorations are up, Christmas music creeps into our consciousness, cookies are being baked, gifts are being purchased and wrapped. It’s a time for traditions, a time when we harken back to Christmases past, memories of family and friends. Indeed, when most Americans are asked to name what Christmas is really about, they will say it’s about gathering with family.

The family Christmas is a deeply ingrained image in American culture. From those old Currier and Ives images from the 19th century that still adorn Christmas cards, to the memories of idyllic Christmases in the 1950s and 60s that stay at the forefront of Baby Boomers (the same people, like me, who will watch Ralphie try to get his Red Ryder BB gun in A Christmas Story over and over again on Christmas Day), we all have in mind what the “perfect” Christmas looks like. And every year we do our best to keep that tradition going.

Christmas-depression-The shadow side of the perfect Christmas, however, is the fact that many people do not experience it. According to the National Institutes of Health, 45% of people dread Christmas. It’s the time of year when health professionals see the highest incidence of depression and attempted suicide. Many people endure this season with a high level anxiety, mostly because the “perfect” Christmas isn’t working for them. Most pastors will tell you it’s the time of year when more people get really upset about little things—like the story I’ve told you before about the guy in my first church who threatened to leave because we didn’t sing The First Noel as the second hymn on Christmas Eve. The perfect Christmas is easily ruined. In fact, most of the Christmas specials we grew up with on TV remind us of that fact. Whether it’s The Grinch That Stole Christmas, or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, or A Charlie Brown Christmas, we’ve learned that Christmas is always a hair’s breadth away from disaster. Couple that with the fact that our families aren’t exactly perfect and our perfect Christmases are always set up for disappointment.

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Luke 17:11-19

crowded airportWell, it’s Thanksgiving week and it’s a time for people to travel—or, more accurately, it’s time for people to get stuck in airports during what is always one of the busiest and most expensive times of the year.

Traveling like that seems to always involve interruptions, especially if you’re making connecting flights in Chicago or Atlanta. We Methodists don’t believe in purgatory, but O’Hare and Hartsfield airports might make one think it’s an essential doctrine. If purgatory is the place between heaven and earth, as some Christian traditions have professed—a place of nothingness and suffering where sins get purged before one gets to heaven—then airports are the practical equivalent. They are the nowhere between two somewheres, a place where we suffer bad food and high prices, endless waiting, and apocalyptic boredom.

Of course, if you’re paying attention, you can also encounter some interesting people and situations that will actually make you a little thankful. In 2006 I was in the UK for two weeks on a study trip, and the day before I was to fly home was when the plot to bomb aircraft with explosives contained in toothpaste tubes was discovered and foiled. When I got to Gatwick airport the next day, they weren’t letting anyone on the plane with any carryons whatsoever. This, of course, backed things up to the point that I missed my connecting flight in Atlanta and had to spend the night in the airport with absolutely nothing (most of the shops were closed when we got there). I went to the Delta ticket counter to see what was happening and it was an absolute madhouse. People yelling, angrily dialing their cell phones, cussing out the Delta desk people. As I stood in the hostile service line I saw one of the gate attendants looking very depressed and on the verge of tears. She had had just about enough abuse for one human to take.

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Sunday Dinner: The Case for Weekly Communion

I Corinthians 11:23-26; Luke 14:15-24

The old bridge to Tunnelton, PA.

The old bridge to Tunnelton, PA.

In a couple of weeks, many of you will be heading over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving. When I was a kid that’s what we actually had to do to get my grandma’s house—travel through the backwoods of Indiana County, PA and over a rusty and rickety steel bridge to finally arrive at their little farmhouse to burst in an smell the aroma of roasted turkey and the best stuffing on the planet.

Grandma always set out the good china for Thanksgiving, just like she did for Sunday supper most weeks. Her table was a wonder—ever expandable with multiple leaves, always room for another place setting. Old creaky dining room chairs surrounded it and an assortment of others that folded out quickly in case of extra company. Various serving utensils, bowls, and platters filled ever space not taken up by someone’s dinner. On holidays grandma made what she called her “special drink,” which tasted exotic and sophisticated when served in a glass goblet that matched the place setting. Actually, I found out later, it was just cranberry juice and ginger ale—but to an 8 year-old it was as fine as any wine one could imagine.

tableThat table had seen some 60 Thanksgivings and thousands of meals over the years. It was at that table that I ate Captain Crunch for breakfast (which I wasn’t allowed to have at home, but grandma kept a secret stash) and ate bacon with my grandpap like a real farmer. It was in those chairs by the table that I got skinned knees patched and kissed, where I listened to old stories about people long dead, and where we mourned the passing of both grandparents a few years later. That table, in many ways, was the center of my young life.

You probably have some table stories as well. It’s interesting that in most homes we have a lot of rooms for people to sit in and entertain themselves, but invariably everyone always gravitates toward the table. When we moved here we spent a lot of time picking out furniture, but the one piece of furniture that Jennifer cared about the most was the table. Having grown up in a large family, she knew that the table is the most valuable place in the house.

Some recent studies have confirmed this. The statistics reveal that when families eat together regularly it dramatically lowers the rate of obesity in children. In fact, kids who eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week have less trouble with drugs and alcohol later in life; they eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents than children who eat at the table with family less often. Turns out that we gravitate to the table for a reason. It’s really the center of life and health for the family.

Jesus at tableIs it any wonder, then, that Jesus also saw the table as the most important piece of furniture in the house? It’s tough to read the Gospels on an empty stomach because it seems that somewhere in most of the chapters Jesus is pausing to eat a meal with someone. He ate with despised tax collectors and other assorted sinners as well as dining with the religious elite. He was clearly a popular guest at any table, and his dinner conversations were always interesting and occasionally provocative. Even some of his stories were about tables, like the one we read earlier in the Gospel of Luke—stories about inviting everyone and setting up extra places where people could enjoy the food and the special drink.

And then, of course, Jesus hosts the most famous meal in human history—his last supper with the disciples. That meal was, of course, an echo of the Passover meal—another special occasion that celebrated Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. The Passover meal was a reminder to the family of God that God had done something powerful for them, and the foods on the table all symbolized God’s provision. At his last meal with the disciples Jesus took those symbols and reinterpreted them. This would be a meal that announced to the whole world that God was doing something even more powerful—another liberation meal, but this time is was the liberation of all of humanity from slavery to sin and death. The sacrificial lamb of the Passover feast was still the main course, but this time he was also the host of the meal, and as he broke the bread and shared the cup he told his disciples these were the signs of what God had done for the world—the grace and love of God expressed not so much in words or concepts, but in a meal at a table.

That’s why, like at home, the centerpiece of our sanctuary is the table. It’s here that we gather as the family of Jesus for Sunday dinner each week. The good china is laid out, the white linen cloths washed and bleached to a gleaming shine. Extra places are set for visitors. Everyone is welcome.

A couple of years ago we went to having communion every week in our worship services and people have asked a lot of questions about that. After all, it’s not something that most United Methodist churches do. Most of them offer it once a month, some even as little as once a quarter. Most Methodists expect a sermon every week but some people are surprised and maybe even a little put off we have the table set every week as well.

For example, some people think that having communion too frequently will lessen its impact—that it won’t be “special” if we do it all the time. That was the argument I heard once on another trip to Israel, when my group was traveling with folks from another church in a different denomination. We had been out touring on a Sunday (which is Israel’s Monday) when, before we got off the bus, I invited anyone to come to a service I’d host that evening where I’d be sharing Holy Communion. From the back of the bus I heard a stern voice. “You can’t do that,” the pastor of the other church said. Really, why? “Because we’re having communion at the Garden Tomb on Thursday and if you have it now it won’t be special then.” Apparently, in their context, communion was only reserved for special occasions, which usually also involved crying vociferously, as we found out on Thursday at the Garden Tomb!

communion42Some cite the logistical problem of doing communion every week (it’s a lot of work). Others object to how long it takes. In one church I served, our attendance went down every communion Sunday because people thought church would run over and they’d miss the crucial two hours of pregame shows before kickoff or be late to Sunday brunch (I’ll pause while you consider the irony of that last statement—we don’t want to eat communion because it will make us late for a meal!).

But what all of these folks miss is that the table is the center of the church’s family life. It has been that way since the time of the early church. The table was the most important part of their worship together—it was where they broke bread each week to remember, which is why Paul is so concerned about instructing the Corinthians on the practice. Paul writes to them because they’ve been doing it wrong—the wealthy were getting there before the working people and eating up all the food, so Paul says to them—hey, this is Christ’s meal and he’s the host. You’re not eating this meal in order to pig out, but as a remembrance, a re-embodying, of what Jesus has done. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” It’s a meal with a message!

Paul also reminds the Corinthians that this table fellowship was the tradition received from the Lord who said, “Do this…” Indeed, this was John Wesley’s primary reason for pushing the early Methodists to weekly communion. In his sermon The Duty of Constant Communion he puts it like this:

“It is the duty of every Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper as often as he can. The first reason why it is the duty of every Christian so to do is because it is a plain command of Christ.”

Why do we do this so often? Because Jesus said so!

Wesley, like those in the early Christian church, believed that communion is a vitally important means of grace. He goes on to say that this grace “confirms to us the pardon of our sins, by enabling us to leave them. As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: This gives strength to perform our duty and leads us on to perfection. If, therefore, we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, the we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord’s Supper.”

If daily meals are important not only for our nourishment but also our fellowship with family, then regular communion is vital for our spiritual nourishment and our cohesiveness and love as the family of the church, the family of Christ. I’ll ask you the same question I asked my pastor friend on the bus that day: “Do you eat dinner every day?” Is it always special? Then why do you do it? You eat because you need it! And from the beginning the Christian church has said, we need this—which is why Jesus commanded it. We “do this” because it’s the family meal that nourishes and sustains us in the grace of God revealed in the broken body and shed blood of Jesus.

I am convinced that a lot of the dysfunction in our denomination and in much of the Protestant world today is the result of failure to eat together regularly at the table. If regular family meals prevent obesity, substance abuse, truancy, and bad grades in children, then regular communion prevents consumerism, narcissism, absenteeism, racism, sexism, and bad theology in the children of God! Here at the table we’re reminded that we’re all sinners saved by God’s grace alone. Here at the table we discover not a list of things we have to do but rather we are confronted again and again with what God has already done. Here are the table we discover that no matter what race or gender, no matter whether we’re rich or poor, no matter if we’re full of faith or barely hanging on, that there’s a place for us. Jesus is the host and we are his guests. There’s always more room at the table.

intinctionIf you pay attention to the liturgy of communion you’ll hear again the invitation to the meal. After the giving of the Word, we move toward the table in response to what God has said to us in Scripture, sermon and song. We hear the invitation—that Christ invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and who seek to live at peace with one another. It’s an open invitation, but we must get ourselves washed up for dinner, first. We pray together the prayer of confession, where we expose the dirt of sin and brokenness on our lives and allow God to wash it all down the drain. We hear the words of assurance that when we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

And then we pass the peace of Christ. It’s an opportunity for the family to solve our differences and acknowledge each other before we come together to the table with clean hands and pure hearts. Imagine if we practiced that in our homes before every meal! How might things be different?

The liturgy of the Table is called The Great Thanksgiving. Notice how it flows. It begins by pointing us upward, into God’s presence. We “lift up our hearts” and we lift up our praise for what God has done in creating us and loving us in spite of our sin. We join the whole church on earth and “all the company of heaven” in praising God’s holiness, which is seen most clearly in his Son, through who’s suffering and death created a family of people redeemed by his blood.

And then we reenact the words of institution, just like Paul reminded the Corinthians. We remember what Jesus said and did at that last supper. We break the bread and lift the cup—these are the signs that point to his sacrifice on our behalf. We remember God’s “mighty acts in Jesus Christ” and proclaim the mystery of the Gospel: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Past, present, and future all collide and collude when we come to the table.

Then we invoke the work of the Holy Spirit to consecrate these common elements and make them uncommon in their meaning. As Methodists, we believe in Christ’s real presence at the meal—that the elements remain as they are, but that Christ’s presence makes this meal holy and powerful every time we share it. And then we pray that the Spirit will make us one as the family of Christ and one in ministry to all the world. It’s here that we join in the great mission of the Body of Christ and see the elements as a common language of grace and peace. And then we are sent out into the world to embody that grace until the day when Christ returns and we feast with him in person in his kingdom as people redeemed and made whole again.

It’s been said that there are three sentences that every human being wants and needs to hear the most in order to live a full and abundant life:

I love you.

You are forgiven.

Dinner’s ready.

I heard all three of those sentences at the table at grandma’s house. But even more, we hear them in the liturgy of this table. We hear how much God loves us. We hear that we are forgiven. And we are invited to dinner again, no matter how far away we’ve strayed.

That’s what Sunday dinner means here, and that’s why we share it every week. We not only hear the Word of God, we can touch it and taste it. We come with a hunger and thirst to receive he special meal and the special drink, which reveal to us the fact that God has prepared the table. It’s a means by which God conveys his grace and love to us. We can take it into ourselves and convert it into energy for spreading it to others. We proclaim the Lord’s death for us and we go to embody his life for the world. It’s thanksgiving, each and every Sunday.

God loves you.

You are forgiven.

Dinner’s ready.

Let’s eat!







How to Hear a Sermon

George Whitefield (1714-1770)

George Whitefield (1714-1770)

George Whitefield is perhaps the most famous American preacher that you’ve never heard of. When we think of great American preachers we might name Billy Graham, or Rick Warren, or to go back a little ways we might name a host of others like Charles Spurgeon or Jonathan Edwards. None of them, arguably, had more impact on the spread of Christianity in America than Whitefield.

In truth, Whitefield was probably the most famous religious figure of the 18th century. Born to a poor family in Gloucester, England, Whitefield got interested in the theater at an early age and put himself through college at Oxford by waiting on the tables of wealthier students. While he was at Oxford, he fell in with a group of other students who called themselves “The Holy Club”—a group led by John and Charles Wesley, the founders of the Methodist movement. Under the influence of the Wesley brothers, Whitefield became a zealous Christian and became ordained a deacon in the Anglican church.

As he began to preach, he found that crowds began to gather—attracted, no doubt, by the theatrical flare he gave his sermons. That was unusual in an age where preaching was generally dull recitation from the reading of notes. Whitefield, on the other hand, portrayed the lives of biblical characters as an actor would. He cried out, he danced, he screamed. One of the most famous actors in England at the time, David Garrick, said, “I would give a hundred guineas if I could say ‘Oh’ like Mr. Whitefield.” He was that good.

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Life as Liturgy

Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 12:1-2

My artwork in the back of the NAS Bible I carried with me (and doodled in) during my teenage years.

My artwork in the back of the NAS Bible I carried with me (and doodled in) during my teenage years.

We begin a new series on worship this week. I think it’s interesting because, in the main, most of us who come to worship never actually learned how to worship, or even why we worship. When I was a kid growing up I kind of learned to worship by osmosis—you know, just kind of figuring it out as I went along. Like most kids I found most of it pretty boring—mostly just sitting and listening (or not listening). If you look at my Bible from my teenage years, for example, you can see that I drew battleships in the Mediterranean Sea on the maps in the back during worship. For years I saw worship as a Christian obligation—something you had to do before you got to the good stuff.

But one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that worship isn’t just a Sunday morning ritual—it’s actually the most important thing that we do as Christians. In fact, if we do it well it tends to permeate everything else in our lives and in the church. Our discipleship, our service, our love for God and neighbor, eminates from the practice of worship. It’s worship that begins to form us as the people of God.

I saw this when I started really diving into the Scriptures instead of drawing in them. The passage we just read from Isaiah, for example, is extremely powerful. Isaiah has a vision of being in the temple (do you ever dream of being in worship?) and suddenly he sees God—God actually shows up! The angels praise him. Isaiah realizes that compared to the holiness he sees around him he is “a man of unclean lips.” An angel takes a coal from the altar and touches his lips, cleansing him from sin. And then Isaiah hears the voice of God—“Whom shall we send and who will go for us?” And all he can say is, “Here am I. Send me!”

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