Sunday, November 1, 2009
Bread for the Journey
Luke 22:1, 14-28
The dispute over who is the greatest among the disciples is recorded in some way in several gospel accounts. In fact the Mark version of the argument was the central text in our worship even just about a month ago. I have to admit, for this reason, I felt a temptation to deviate from the worship and devotional materials provided by the Finance and Stewardship committee for this stewardship season. It was feeling a little redundant at first. But, obviously, I didn’t. Yes, we have heard the same basic outline – the disciples argue about which among them is the greatest, but we also have differences to the story, differences that bring us a different word from God.
In Mark, we heard about them arguing on the road immediately after hearing Jesus’ second prediction of his suffering and death – the argument pointing out their total cluelessness over what Jesus thinks it means to be great. In Matthew the argument comes after a teaching about taxes and the question of honoring the rules of the status quo. The argument we heard today, though, takes up an entirely different meaning because of where and when it happens.
It doesn’t happen on the road. It doesn’t happen in front of the crowds. It doesn’t happen while Jesus is out and about in the countryside ministering to the crowds and introducing his disciples to a new way of life. It isn’t during a test posed by his challengers. It happens here. It happens at the table, a very specific table, the Passover table, the last table Jesus will share with his disciples on this side of eternal life, and that setting makes all the difference.
The Passover celebration brings with it a deep and abiding connection with history, the saints of the faith, those remembered as the greatest of the faith tradition, like Moses or Elijah, who figure prominently in the Passover liturgy and traditions.
Take Moses. He was raised a foreigner in the palace. He never fully fit in. We see him struggling as a young adult with who he really was, where he really belonged. Then he is called to lead, but he has a speech difficulty. It doesn’t seem like a great match, really. Identity crisis, self-esteem problems, problems with public speaking. And this is the guy we remember for his obvious greatness? I’m sure it didn’t seem so great in the moment. Even the Israelites he helped liberate complained against and about him. Why didn’t you leave us in Egypt to die, they cried while wandering around in the desert for 40 years? That doesn’t sound so great.
Then what about Elijah and the other prophets? Sure their words to the people of Israel and Judah are inspiring and admirable after the fact, but hardly anyone would consider them great in their own time. Preaching to the people, hounding them even, calling them to repentance and a new way of living before God, rarely won them friends and great influence. It hardly seemed to work at the time. Despite their efforts, God’s people still ended up in exile in Assyria and Babylon. Their homeland and their temple destroyed more than once by occupations from all sides. Elijah and the other prophets – they had their moments, but in terms of overall effectiveness in their jobs in their generations – not too many would be considered great.
Yet the greatness of these saints isn’t doubted today. They, their words, and their work are honored in memory, lifted up in ritual, studied for emulation and spiritual growth. We know they are great and don’t doubt that or dispute it, but what made it true?
I’d say it was their faithful service. Their faithful and humble service to God and others. Their response to God’s call to put the needs of the community above their own reputation, their own comfort, their own popularity and credibility, even their own desires, in order to follow God’s call and be sent to serve the people. Moses had a pretty cushy life in the palace. He had power over others. He lived in luxury with servants serving him. He was pretty disconnected from his oppressed ethnic and religious community, and could have continued living that way if he could have just pushed down his worries about the way the people were being treated. He could have continued to live in a position of authority over the slaves. But he didn’t.
Yes, he was the leader of the Israelites, but his leadership was in obedience to God, for the good of the people. He served them by working for their good, risking his power and his position to free them from Pharaoh, going on their behalf into the dangerous and overwhelming presence of God, enduring the discipline of God for their transgressions. Moses was great not because he wanted to be or tried to be or even ASKED to be. Moses was great because he humbly served God and his community.
And what now of the circumstances of this dispute among the disciples in Luke? What significance do they lend to its meaning for us today? It was the observance of the Passover. It was the time when the Jewish people of God remembered and celebrated the miracle of their exodus from slavery in Egypt, the leadership and faithfulness of Moses, Elijah, and the other saints who preceded them. It was the time of year when they honored and worshiped God for sending them a leader, a servant of God’s will and a servant of God’s people, who led them into the Promised Land, a time of year maybe, when they who lived under the rule of the Romans again longed for a sign of their chosenness, their greatness before God and the world.
It was also, we are told, when the hour had come. Satan had come to Judas Iscariot. He had conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple about how to betray Jesus. He was now on the lookout for his perfect opportunity when no crowd would be present. Having entered Jerusalem a few days earlier to shouts of, “Blessed is the king!” Jesus and the disciples were huddled away in a borrowed room in a town that was turning hostile. Daily, he was preaching to crowds peppered with spies who were out to catch him, to challenge his word and question his authority.
But even in the face of this hostility he continued his ministry, he continued to serve God. Cleansing it first of all injustice and greed, Jesus preached in the temple to everyone who would listen. He faced challenge upon challenge from this opponents, standing up for the message God sent him to deliver. He wept and prayed over the city of Jerusalem.
He didn’t hide away to protect himself. He didn’t stay out of the limelight to put his safety first. He didn’t relish in the crowd’s shouts from Palm Sunday, “Glory in highest heaven” excusing himself from the dangerous and foreboding work still to be done. He didn’t leave the people who had not yet heard, not yet believed his divine message out in the dark. He served them. He served them with love and served them with urgency. He served them as God had sent him to do. He served them, setting aside his safety. Setting aside his concern for his future, he served them. And likewise he served the disciples at the Passover table.
Likewise he serves US at this table. He serves us. Jesus is the host of the celebration we share today. He has provided the gifts, the bread we will break together, the cup we will pour for all. He provides the seed and the wind and the rain that causes it to grow. He gives the life and energy and means to those who harvest and ship, who pound and mill, who bake and press, who sell and buy, who prepare and serve these elements to us this day. He is the host, and the source, and the grace-filled Spirit we receive in this sacrament, but he is also the servant, the one whose body was broken that we might have life, the one who meets all our needs, satisfies our deepest hungers, and the one whose blood was poured out to quench our most desperate thirst. He is the example for us to follow. He is God calling us join his ministry.
The Israelites in Egypt ate the Passover with their traveling pants on, their shoes on their feet, their walking sticks ready to go. They ate their meal in a hurry, knowing that it wasn’t an end to their story itself, but it was just the beginning of their journey. This is how we should eat at the Lord’s Table. This is how we should worship in God’s presence. Our traveling clothes should be on. Our shoes should be on our feet. Our walking sticks should be in our hands, because this table, this grace, this love and forgiveness of God that we receive together in the sacrament is not an end in itself. It is just the beginning.
It is our bread for the journey. It is the sustenance we need for our lives of service to God and others. It is just the beginning, the example even, of our life in Christ. As he has freely given himself to us, so we are called to greatness, not through some special status at his right hand or as a guest of honor at the banquet. We are called to greatness by freely serving others as he serves the world, selflessly, indiscriminately, and among the least of these, the outcast, the shunned, the discarded of society. We are called to greatness not that will be recognized in this time, in this age, but greatness that will be recognized by God when someday we will join the great cloud of witnesses who are blessed to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”