Tuesday, August 28, 2007

let every soul be jesus' guest (why we practice open communion)

The book of Hosea is a meditation on the love of God for his people. But this is not a typical “love story”. In the story a prophet of God is commanded to marry a prostitute, and have children with her.

Hosea is placed late in Old Testament, categorized as one of the “minor” prophets by the scholars, because of the book’s length, compared to Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. But there is nothing minor or insignificant about the content of this book. Flipping through the Bible it is easy to miss (it comes right after Daniel), but Hosea is worth knowing about.

The first three chapters of this prophetic book describe the relationship between Hosea and his wife, Gomer, which is a parable for the relationship between the Lord and Israel. It is a long and rocky relationship: there is anger, bitterness and self-destruction. It is a miracle that the relationship endures; but relationships do endure. It is the story of a love that will not let us go.

In the eleventh chapter of Hosea the perspective shifts slightly, from husband and wife to parent and child. Israel was adopted, out of Egypt, to be the Lord’s son. We might think that Israel would display gratitude for this act of rescue, even salvation, but no; instead, Israel called upon other gods, bowed to other idols, gave the credit to other benefactors.

God, in the parable, is somewhat bewildered.

“Who taught Ephraim to walk?” God asks. I did. I took them in my arms, I healed them, I was compassionate, I bent down to them, I fed them”. Not those others. Me.

You can hear the resentment, the hurt, can’t you? Ephraim, who represents the whole northern kingdom of Israel, these were God’s very own people. “They are determined to run away from me”, God says, they are backsliders. They’ve gone to the far country, Assyria, they have returned to Egypt, where they were slaves. Why would that do that? And you can hear, in the parent’s voice, if you listen more closely, something deeper: “What would they do this to me?”

Now think about the relationship:

“The parent owed this child nothing, but decided to love him, adopted him, delivered him from the place where he was being abused, taught him to walk, tended his hurts, protected him, nourished him…but he has made no response. The child has treated other people as his providers and not recognized who his parent was”…(472, Lectionary Commentary).

If you are the parent, what do you do? The story of Hosea is a parable for God’s relationship with Israel, with us. Here are the words that come from the mouth of God, this bewildered parent: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I give you up, O Israel! How can I make you like Admah and Zeboim---these were cities that shared the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah---how can I destroy you?”

Notice what happens: The child turns away from the parent, but the parent turns toward the child. God turns toward us: “My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim, for I am God and not human, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy…”

I want you to keep this parable in mind as you think about a simple idea in the New Testament. Jesus is mixing with the people, all kinds of people, and there is murmuring among the scribes and Pharisees: “He welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15. 2).

These two passages of scripture lead us into the very heart of God, into the nature of salvation and the experience of grace. God’s compassion grows. Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them.

The sign of God’s compassion is that the relationship endures. The sign of Jesus’ reception of sinners is that he eats with them. The sign of the relationship is the meal. A sacrament, defined in the early church, is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. How do we know that we are in a relationship? We come to this meal, we eat together, and it is grace.

Grace might be defined simply as something we do not deserve, something we have not earned, something we can never repay. Years ago I heard about an experience of a Lutheran pastor, and the story made the rounds. My friend had moved to the south from another part of the country, and met a member of his church for breakfast. He ordered sausage, eggs and toast, and when his order arrived he noticed a light colored grainy substance on his plate.

He got the attention of the waitress and asked, “what is this?” Those are grits, she responded. He thought for a moment. “I didn’t order grits”. That’s okay, she said, they come with it. She went about her business but my friend was perplexed. “Grits”, he mumbled to himself…he moved them around with his fork…she wandered by again. He looked up at her. “I won’t be charged for these, will I?” By now she is a little frustrated. “Honey”, she said, “you can eat them or you can leave them….they come with it; the grits are free!”

Any southerner knows that there are few analogies for grace that are more perfect than an order of grits. Grace comes to us as a gift. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Grace is something we do not deserve, something we have not earned, something we can never repay. Grace comes as a gift.

Jesus’ life and ministry was a gift; we see this throughout the gospels. He takes the loaves and the fish and feeds the multitudes. He tells a story about a dinner party and the invitation to guests, some who respond and some who do not. In his life, in his relationships, Jesus was always reaching out to others. At times some would complain about this. There was the idea that the righteous associated with others who were righteous, the clean ate with those who were clean and did not associate with those who were unclean. A physician goes to the sick, Jesus would remind them. The son of man came to seek and save those who are lost.

The core question was a simple one: how could a holy God be in relationship with an unholy people? How could Jesus (God forbid) eat with sinners? From a human point of view, it makes no sense. From a human point of view, there is no relationship. But, the prophet reminds us, in Hosea 11. 9: “I am God and not human…I will not come to destroy”.

Holiness does not destroy sin; through compassion, it saves. Perfection does not destroy imperfection; through love, it heals.

And so, God must wonder, how do I get this message across to my people, that I love them, that I want this relationship to endure, that I am the one who gave them life, not those other gods, that I want the best for them.

“We will sit down together, at a meal”. My son, Jesus, will preside. And he will eat not just with the worthy people but with the unworthy, not only with the righteous but with sinners, not only with the faithful but with the unfaithful, not only with the older brother who has done everything right (a story Jesus would share with those who were critical of him, as Luke’s gospel unfolds in the 15th chapter), but with the prodigal son who had done everything wrong. God seems to be saying, through one of his servants, Charles Wesley, who would come along much later, “Come, sinners to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesus’ guest, you need not one be left behind, for God [I] have bid all humankind”.

Come, sinners to the gospel feast. Come sinners, that’s all of us. And so we come, all of us, in humility. This was captured in the prayer of humble access that many of us learned, found in the Book of Common Prayer that John and Charles Wesley used and in the Methodist ritual (it is on page 30 of our hymnal).

“We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.”

It is grace. Now we do have a responsibility in receiving the grace. 1 Corinthians 11 tells the story of abuses of God’s grace among the early followers of Jesus, some arriving early and gorging themselves at the fellowship meal, others, the laborers, arriving later and finding nothing to eat. There was division in the church, and so Paul said, discern the body, examine yourself, then receive the grace of God. Eat your meal at home, and then come to the Lord’s table. When we do not share the grace of God with others, we bring judgment upon ourselves.

And of course, the grace changes us. In the prayer for humble access, we “partake of the Sacrament of Jesus Christ [so] that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us”.

As in the best of relationships, the couple take on the best of the other’s traits, the children exhibit the best of their parent’s characteristics, we receive this grace, something we do not deserve, something we have not earned, something we can never repay, and we want to live in this amazing grace. We want to become more Christ-like.

And so the invitation: Come sinners to the gospel feast.

The grits have been poured onto your plate, all is ready. God wants the relationship to endure. God says, my love will not let you go. And so it is not for us to say, from a human point of view, who can come to this altar and who cannot. It is enough to say that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. For all of these reasons we practice open communion.

Wherever you are in this life’s journey, whatever your experience of turning away from God has been like, whoever you imagine yourself to be in his sight, the table has been prepared, it is the Lord’s table, it is open communion, this is the spirit’s entry now, thank God that Jesus still welcomes sinners and eats with us.

Come sinners to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
You need not one be left behind, for God has bid all humankind.

(Hymnal, 616)

Saturday, August 25, 2007

turning fifty and other thoughts

I hit 50 on Thursday, and one of the Sunday School classes in our church threw a party on Friday evening, which included good food, friends from three of the churches I have served, an extended drama (thanks Lea) which included Wolfman Jack, commercials for metamucil, adult diapers, and other products, and fifties music. It was fun. It was good to see everyone, especially friends we don't see very often. And our older daughter was home from Chapel Hill and Toyko/Beijing.


Tomorrow is our "promotion Sunday" for children and youth, and it is fairly low-key. We will also consecrate acolytes and welcome new members. I am preaching from Jeremiah 1. 4-10, the Old Testament lection which is a favorite passage, and I am trying to connect that in some way to infant baptism. The sermon will eventually be posted on the Providence UMC website, under the "Churches" link to the right.


Summer reading: Doug Marlette's The Bridge is exceptional; Murakami's Kafka By The Shore is not a book I would choose from his corpus (read instead Dance, Dance, Dance or The Wild Sheep Chase. Not sure what I will dive into next.


I have been listening to the soundtrack from the film Once, which is perhaps my favorite movie of 2007. In the story an Irish street musican (who also repairs Hoover vacuum cleaners) meets a Czech woman who sings and plays the piano; both are estranged from relationships, and the story proceeds from there.
Glen Hansard, of the Frames, who also acted in the wonderful movie The Commitments years ago, is featured. The music is hauntingly beautiful, and I highly recommend the movie, which was filmed in Dublin (a great city). Check it out.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


The Oxford Institute was an amazing experience. The time together included an opening lecture by Will Willimon, plenary addresses by Methodist leaders from Africa, Asia and Latin America, a reflection on the 300th anniversary of Charles Wesley's birth, a cantata based on Charles' treatment of the parable of the good samaritan (luke 10), worship in the Christ Church Cathedral twice, eucharist both times, late night sessions at the Eagle and Child (the old haunt of Lewis and Tolkien), touring the gardens on the north side, crossing the Thames, reports on the ecumenical movement by Geoffrey Wainwright, Nestor Miguez and Billy Abraham, a serving of blood pudding (which I bypassed), and our working group, which wrestled with issues related to faith, technology and science. All of the information, including most of the papers (including an amazing one by Randy Maddox of Duke on Wesley's ecological thought) can be accessed at The Oxford Institute, under "Institutions and Foundations". And I have to mention that all of our meals were taken in the Christ Church dining hall, better known more recently as the dining hall filmed in recent Harry Potter movies.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

how hot is it?

Stuart Henry (of blessed memory), my professor of American Church History in Divinity School would remark about the classroom temperatures in Durham with the comment that "they must have us in training for hell". With several days of triple digit days behind us, and with no real change in the near future, I am wondering myself about the metaphysical implications....not to mention climate change.


Liz, our older daughter, will soon be enroute from Beijing to Raleigh/Durham. She has had a good time in China, seeing old friends and scouting out future job possibilities :-).


Abby, our younger daughter, is enjoying her last hurrah with high school friends. She will be a college student in a couple of weeks, which completely blows my mind.


Jack, our student from Haiti, returns in about a week. We have not told him about the heat. He remembers the mild spring days and the cool winter days of the North Carolina Piedmont.


My latest book, entitled Easter Services, Sermons and Prayers, has just been printed. You can learn more about the book, published by Abingdon, at amazon.com or abingdon.com. I will say more about it later, and of course it will have more relevance to all of our lives when we are actually approaching Easter.


Cujo, our cat, is the victim of an even more ferocious neighborhood cat (very bad scarring) so we are keeping him inside. With the heat, he does not mind.


The Charlotte Knights hosted the Richmond Braves, and I was all set to see the future Braves, but, with the heat, I chose instead to see two movies with my wife. One was the latest "Bourne" movie (Bourne Sororiety? Bourne Fatality? Borne Futulity?). The other was a prequel to Jane Austen's life (can't recall the title either). Very different movies, one a big hit with teenagers, the other one that appealed to a 97% female audience (approximately). Of course, I was very happy to be there with my wife. And it was cooler indoors than outside. Still, I had been waiting for this homestand for most of the summer.


I had a wonderful experience on Thursday with the order of Elders in Alabama-West Florida, and their Bishop, Larry Goodpaster, on the campus of Huntingdon College. My close friend Cam West is President of Huntingdon, and they are really modelling what it means to be a church-related college with integrity and enthusiasm. That evening we went to see the Montgomery Biscuits play the Chattanooga Lookouts. In between the seminar we enjoyed barbecue, not North Carolina barbecue, but still pretty good. In fact, I rarely eat barbecue that is not pretty good. Spiritual gifts, barbecue, minor league baseball...what a day.


So, now I am getting ready to go across the pond for nine days, to participate in the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies. You can google the institute and link to the 2007 Meeting, then the Working Group papers, and there you will find my contribution: "Creation, Justice and Hope: A Wesleyan Engagement with the Human Genome Project". I am there mostly to learn, however, and it should be very stimulating, intellectually.

My internet research also tells me that the daily highs are in the low 70s and the morning lows are in the low 50s.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

millenium development goals

This summer our congregation has been focusing on global poverty. We had been reflecting on Jeffrey Sachs' The End of Poverty and we have viewed the videoconversation between Bono (of U2) and Bill Hybels of the Willow Creek Community Church. A practical way of responding to global poverty is to become conversant with the Millenium Development Goals of the United Nations. These are widely agreed-upon objectives by political leaders across a wide (almost universal) spectrum, and all for the benefit of the poorest living on our planet, most in sub-Sahahan Africa. The Millennium Development Goals are:

Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
Achieve universal primary education
Promote gender equality and empower women
Reduce child mortality
Improve maternal health
Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
Ensure environmental sustainability
Develop a global partnership for development

For beginning inspiration in learning more about global poverty, our three leaders at the moment are Bono, Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Farmer (the subject of the amazing Mountains Beyond Mountains). The evangelical and mainline Christian churches are sensing that this focus is both a faithful response to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment and a way beyond the impasse related to issues that divide us. If you are in Charlotte on Sunday morning, August 5, Ron Robinson, professor religion and chaplain at Wofford College will lead a forum on this topic. Please join us at 9: 45. If you cannot be present, I invite you to explore this blog, particularly links to Africa University, Partners in Health, the Haiti Mission, and the One campaign.