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Centering our stories in God’s Story…

November 4, 2009

Strasburg Mennonite Church Renewal Meetings

Tuesday evening:  Luke 19:1-9

 “Where We’re From” (SMC 60s and older SS class, p. 20)

Once a month we center ourselves in God’s story in a special way at Sunnyside MC.  For about 12 years now we have been celebrating Communion once a month.  We do this to remember that while our individual stories, our family stories, and our congregational story have shaped us deeply, we are continually being invited to center ourselves in God’s story.  Gathering around the Lord’s Table helps us to do this.  To see our stories through that larger salvation story—not just individually but as a community surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  The liturgies we use give us the language to place ourselves within that story.  Much like the shabat tradition in Jewish families, each time we come to this Communal Table, the past and present come together.  We identify our stories with God’s Story and the story of God’s people throughout history. 

Share one of the Communion liturgies we use as an illustration of this.  Communion Liturgy Power Point

Why is the Communion Table an important expression of centering our stories in the larger Story of God?  Over and over again throughout the history of the church there have been divisions that have marred the church’s ability to reflect unity in Christ.  We (the Church) have not found a way to embody Ephesians 4:4-6 over time—particularly in the last 500 years.  “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

 Refer to last two slides of Communion Liturgy PPT…which provide a picture of the church family tree.  38,000 denominations in America alone.  The pattern of looking to Word and Spirit alone has not been able to keep us at the Communion Table together in the Church.  Does this picture reflect the working of the Spirit?

What is the Spirit saying to the churches?   Perhaps we will only be able to discern the answer to that question as at the Table that uncovers the reality of the crucified Lamb of God who is the Risen and Coming King of the Ages.  It is a Table that calls us to a mutual submission that subverts the strong current toward independence and the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.  So the sending charge and blessing (Communion Liturgy) commissions us for our ministry of reconciliation in the world—a ministry that sends us to other tables to give and receive hospitality.  To reaffirm our identity as a people of Christ’s peace in a hurting world.  To reaffirm that we are called to be a people who seek to bring healing where there is disunity among Christians. 

Today we heard the familiar Zacchaeus story.  How might this story shape us as we seek to center our stories in God’s story?  Do you remember the song? 

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed him by, He looked up in the tree,
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down from there;
For I’m going to your house today, for I’m going to your house today”

We identify with Zacchaeus from little on up.  Perhaps because he is short in stature, perhaps because he climbs trees.  Whatever the reason, this song and story captures our childhood imaginations.  I believe there is more to this story.  This story speaks to us about missional table practices and how we relate to others who have not lived up to our bounded-set understandings of righteousness. 

Who was Zacchaeus?  We know about his height.  But this was not the reason he was looked down upon.  He was a chief tax collector and was rich.  His occupation was dependent on supporting the Imperial system set up under Caesar Augustus.  Pax Romana provided roads and military defense with a price.  The hand of Caesar reached into Palestine at the time of Jesus.   Even temple worship had been corrupted by its relationship with empire.  Temple worship had become a market-driven reality.  Jesus confronts this a number of times in the gospels. 

Zacchaeus is an Israelite by birth who has cozied up to the Roman system.  He has personally benefitted from the oppressive system that placed a heavy tax burden on the religious faithful—especially on the poor.  People resented Zacchaeus for this very reason. 

We also see in the story that despite Zacchaeus’ wealth, he is searching for something.  He is apparently searching for something that money can’t buy.  So he climbs up in a tree to get a glimpse of the itinerant Rabbi, Jesus, who is passing by.  Can you imagine Bill Gates climbing up in a tree to catch a glimpse of the traveling Rabbi? 

When Jesus came to the place, he looked up…  I wonder what caught Jesus’ attention.  Was Zacchaeus the only one in the tree?  Was Jesus aware of the hunger in Zacchaeus’ heart that would send him into his perch overhead?  Perhaps there was nothing out of the ordinary.  Perhaps it was that Jesus had eyes to see the missional table possibilities along the way.  He was not so driven by his agenda, by his schedule that he missed the opportunity right in front of him.  Or above him to be most precise. 

I wonder if that isn’t the case more often than not.  That it’s the intrusions, the things along the way, that provide the opportunity to meet Jesus at missional tables.  Our routine of work and raising families may be well and good, but if we are going to encounter Jesus at table, it will likely mean that we need to make room for interruptions.  It may mean we even are willing to invite ourselves (or be invited) to someone else’s table from time to time.  It may mean that we are willing to divest ourselves of the power that goes along with being the host—with always being in the position of giver and not willing to humble ourselves and receive.   

Jesus models a freedom that goes with this level of humility.  We saw it at the Samaritan well in Sychar—he asks for a drink.  We see it here—Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home.  Zacchaeus is thrilled and readily gets out of the tree.  But not everyone is happy.  The crowd grumbles.  Perhaps they are stuck in bounded-set thinking that is fearful of what message will be sent by Jesus associating with a “sinner.”  Perhaps they are baffled by Jesus’ willingness to be at table with someone who quite obviously has sold out to the wrong things.  Is Jesus condoning the behavior, the values of Zacchaeus?   Jesus is undeterred by the grumbling of the people.  He goes to Zacchaeus’ house.

What about us?  Where are we in the story?  Individually and as Strasburg Mennonite Church?  Historically, our communal story as Lancaster Conference Mennonites has called us to mind the boundaries.  Whether it was dress, or other practices of discipleship—we have clearly been a people who have understood our faith in Jesus as one that called us to be separate from the world.  Non-conformity to the world was understood in very specific ways.  The boundaries have shifted over the years, but I wonder if there is not an underlying disposition still very much conditioned by our “come out from among them and be ye separate says the Lord” story.  Perhaps we have not learned how to encounter Jesus at table with Zacchaeus, with the Samaritan woman, because it would mean letting go of our bounded-set thinking and trusting that Jesus is present at those tables already. 

But here is Jesus, our standard of holiness, taking the risk of being labeled  as something or other as he relates to Zacchaeus.  Here is Jesus, embodying the good news that extends to all people and invites them to reconciliation with God and the community of God’s people, even before they have their act together.    

Again this is a story of transformation.  This table encounter of inviting oneself to be the guest, of being willing to receive the table ministry of another, leads to transformation for Zacchaeus.  We don’t know what all Jesus and Zacchaeus talked about over the meal, but we do know the conversation had a profound impact on Zacchaeus.  His heart is changed.  We know this because we see a different relationship with his money.  Greed and hoarding are transformed in to generosity and justice toward others. 

Then Jesus reaffirms Zacchaeus’ place at the communal table of God’s people.  “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  We see that it is love that allows Jesus to reach out to those beyond the bounded-set standards of righteousness without fear of compromising his message.   Jesus is free to meet a Samaritan woman with a terrible track record in relationships.  A woman from a despised class of people is included at the table in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus is free to invite himself to the home of a wealthy lost son of Abraham.  This same Jesus is present at our tables.  He is able to radically transform our stories in such a way that we are able to embody the same love that Jesus did.   

May we hear and see Jesus in our midst and may we trust the gracious invitation to come to the table where he is present.  The table where he is extending radical grace to all who are hungry.  May Jesus himself be bread and drink for our journey.  Here at Strasburg Mennonite Church, at Sunnyside Mennonite Church, in Lancaster Mennonite Conference and throughout the body of Christ.

 AMEN.     

Invitation to reflection, listening posture, what the Spirit is saying.  Describe what the opportunity to respond will look like tomorrow.  Four stations:

1.  Confession:  papers, writing utensils, urn to confess where we have missed Jesus at table, where we have placed our individual and congregational (tribal) stories at the center and contributed to the pattern of brokenness in the church and in the world.

2.  Dirt:  reminds us that we are earthy like Peter.  That even though we have good intentions and want to get it right, we fail…we betray Jesus…  Dirt reminds us that we are from dust, that we are weak.  That we need the Spirit (ruach-breath) of God to breathe life into our tired living.  Dirt also speaks to the goodness of creation that we offer up to God as worship.  Dirt reminds us that the spiritual and physical must come together–that renewal needs to be expressed in our physical life.

3.  Water:  to remember our baptism…to reaffirm our baptismal identity which calls us to center our personal and tribal stories in God’s Story.  Baptism calls us to humility and mutual submission in the body of Christ.  Our baptism call us to express our oneness in Christ across differences, to stay in relationship even when we disagree about boundaries. 

4.  Oil:  annointing for healing and for empowerment to walk in the way of Jesus, to live into the mystery of the resurrection, to express love which calls us to meet Jesus at tables with others beyond our community.

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