Sunday, November 3, 2013

Table, altar, throne

I want to talk to you today about furniture. Specifically, this piece of furniture that we've moved and then set up a temporary smaller version thereof. It's one of the most prominent things front and center in our worship space, rivaled only by the cross hanging on the eastern wall of the sanctuary. Today's lessons give us the opportunity to reflect on this key fixture in our worship space, even as we are in the midst of discerning as a congregation about how we might best arrange our furniture here.

The Prayer Book has several names by which it refers to this key element of our worship space.

On several occasions, the Prayer Book calls it both the Lord's Table and the Holy Table. This is a table around which we gather for a meal.

On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread. After supper he took the cup of wine. We come to the Lord's table to eat and drink. And table fellowship was key to Jesus' ministry of radical hospitality.

Today's gospel talks about Zaccheaus. Zaccheaus, was a tax collector for the hated occupying Romans.  He had personally enriched himself in this position at the expense of his countryfolk. Zaccheaus was thus in disrepute among his own people. Outcast. Unwelcome. It scandalized the Jewish faithful for Jesus to announce that he was going to be Zaccheaus' guest. But Jesus made a point that his ministry was focused on seeking out and saving the lost. This included being the guest of those who were not considered polite company. By dining at the table of Zaccheaus, Jesus sent a powerful message about the reinstatement of those who turned away from their sins. Jesus' company at table testified to the radical reality of reconciliation.

This Holy Table is certainly a sign of present reconciliation, as we gather together, but also serves as a foretaste of the feast to come, the heavenly banquet. The radical inclusion of the outcast modeled by Jesus in table fellowship in his earthly ministry foretells the reign of God, who casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things but sends the rich empty away. The counterculturality of whom Jesus chose to dine with reminds us that the last shall be first and the first last.

So this is a meal table: we gather here, and are fed by our Lord. And in recalling the stories about with whom Jesus chose to be at table, we hear our own call to welcome the stranger, to visit the prisoner, to seek out the lost, and even echoes of the judgment of the nations: Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

But this is not only a meal table.

The prayer book also refers to it as an altar. Now an altar is a place where sacrifices are offered to God.

Our first lesson from Isaiah talks about the practice, demanded by God in the Law as given to Moses, of "burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts." The practice in the temple was to offer twice-daily sacrifices of animals to God, and more on special occasions. The letter to the Hebrews talks about this at length, and contrasts the offering of Jesus, our great High Priest. "Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself."

When we celebrate the Eucharist, we make present once again the one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross at Calvary, given once for all, "having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension; rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same." The old system of sacrifices of animals on the altar was replaced by the sacrifice of Jesus, given once for all, but every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we make that sacrifice of Jesus present yet again, here and now.

I can't pretend to understand how this sacrifice works, or why God calls for it. Indeed, the God who speaks through Isaiah says "I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats… they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them… Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow."

In other words, our God seems to reject sacrificial offerings in favor of demanding… wait for it… radical hospitality in the table fellowship we just talked about. But there is a powerful link between the sacrifice of the cross made present on the ALTAR and the radical fellowship made present at the HOLY TABLE.

A mentor of mine now helps run Manna House, a house of hospitality that provides showers, clothing, coffee, and a place to stay during the daytime to homeless people in Memphis, Tennesee. This ministry is an example of radical table fellowship at its best, as they try to see the face of Christ in all their guests. But reaching out to the outcast is not always popular. There are plenty of people who would rather that the outcast stay away. Last month, in their attempt to provide a safe space to the neediest in our society, Manna House volunteers had a run-in with the Memphis police.

As a local group reported, "On October 21, Memphis Police Department officers came to Manna House claiming they were looking for a suspect. A Manna volunteer approached the officers before they entered the property. On the public sidewalk outside of the house, she explained that Manna House sought to provide a safe space for the homeless. Therefore, under Manna's policy the officers could not come inside the privately-owned building without a warrant unless there was an emergency.

When the officers refused to produce a warrant or offer any other justification for their presence, the volunteer began filming. One officer responded by claiming the volunteer needed a permit to film, which is not true. When the volunteer refused to stop filming, the officers took her cellphone, placed her in handcuffs, and arrested her for obstructing a passageway, which apparently in Memphis means standing on a sidewalk to record MPD officers attempting an illegal search. Soon after the volunteer was arrested, a local organizer arrived, began filming, and asked that the officers identify themselves. In short order, the officers grabbed his phone, handcuffed and arrested him for obstructing a passageway, and, presumably for asking the officers who they were, tacked on a disorderly conduct charge for good measure.

Though all charges were eventually dropped and the cellphones returned, what both the volunteer and the organizer can never get back is the twelve hours they spent in jail."

Now there are certainly issues of constitutional law involved here. But even if there weren't, even if the police had the legal right to do these things, what could give these people the courage to extend radical hospitality to the least welcome, even at risk of their own imprisonment? Only the sacrifice of the cross.

Jesus lived radical hospitality, which made him a threat to the established order of the Roman Empire. The mighty Roman Empire used its full force to try to end the Jesus movement of selfless love. The enforcement apparatus of the empire publicly tortured and killed Jesus to say to all his followers and potential followers that this is the end that comes of those whose welcome of the outcast challenges empire. This is the end that comes of those who live as though God and not Caesar is king.

The salvation of God comes in the sacrifice of the Cross: the empires of this world threw all the evil they had at Jesus. They mocked him and tortured him and killed him. Jesus stood before the evil of the world, and somehow, through amazing grace, he didn’t use his infinite power to drive it off. He willingly accepted the worst torture and death they could give him.

He let evil do its worst, and it did not prevail.

And thus, we are free. We are free to live. We are free to love. We are free to share that radical table fellowship without fear, because of whom shall we be afraid? Love is stronger than death, and the cross does not have the last word.

And so, this piece of furniture, located beneath the cross, is both the ALTAR on which our Lord's sacrifice is made present yet again for us, to give us grace and strength, and the HOLY TABLE at which we join in God's radical feast of love and inclusion.

And yet there is a third image given by the Eastern Orthodox Church: what we call the altar or the holy table, they call the throne. It is where our Lord Jesus Christ is seated. Look at the decorated wall behind the altar, also known as a reredos, and the combined effect of table and backing does indeed look like a majestic seat. This tradition motivates such devotions as bowing to the altar, and facing it when we pray and recite our creed: we look to it as the place where God is seated in our midst, a locus to which we direct our prayers and a center to help us listen and meditate on God's word in our lives.

Now in many churches, especially ones of more formal design, the table is quite near the reredos, producing a combined effect that indeed looks much like a majestic throne. A small table in the midst of the assembly might look more like a bench than a throne befitting the Lord of Heaven and Earth. A throne suggests the transcendence and might of God; a small table in our midst not so much. And yet this is Nativity. Our title feast involves God becoming truly human and dwelling among us. The Lord of the Hosts of Heaven was born in a stable. And indeed, a charism of the ministry that God's people have done here since its founding has been to witness to the world that our transcendent God is also very imminent. Our table in our midst can indeed be the seat, the resting place of Emanuel: God with us. Gathered around the table, gathered around the altar, gathered around the throne, we know that God calls us to love and serve, that God is stronger than any evil that might threaten us, and above all, that God is with us.

We can conclude, in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, "Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."