Sunday, May 19, 2019 “An Indiscriminate Blessing at God’s Table”
The message for Sunday, May 19 “An Indiscrimiante Blessing at God’s Table” by Pastor Erik Goehner, heard during the 8:00, 9:30 and 11:00AM Worship service.
Fifth Sunday of Easter “An Indiscriminate Blessing at God’s Table” Acts 11:1-18 5/19/2019
Barbara Brown Taylor is recently retired from being a religion professor at a small Christian college in Georgia. As she taught about world religions to students over the years she found herself coming to appreciate aspects of faith that were different from her own Christianity. Some of this happened through her studies, but it often happened during the field trips she took students on to different communities of faith.
She writes about one of those field trips to a Hindu temple in Atlanta in her book, Holy Envy, Finding God in the Faith of Others. They went to the temple with another professor from the college who happened to be a Hindu. At one point the Hindu professor brought them over to the railing near an altar and a large statue of the god Vishnu. Barbara Brown Taylor says she thought at first they were going to get a little introduction about who Vishnu is and some historical background. Instead the priest began to chant some kind of song and she realized that the Hindu professor had asked the priest to do a blessing upon the group and their studies.
The priest lit a lamp then mixed some liquid which he offered to the group. It tasted like water. Next, the priest put a crown just above each person’s head. Finally, he began going to each person with a bowl of whole almonds, offering each of the students one of the nuts to eat. Professor Taylor writes that she had never been offered almonds at an altar rail before, but she could recognize a sacrament when she saw one. Many of the students left or turned down the almonds. Taylor said she could imagine the priest thinking, “Why are you here if you do not want the Lord’s blessing? Why would you not want Vishnu’s almonds?”
Taylor herself was struggling with whether or not to accept the almonds. Part of her brain was wondering if God might strike her down with lightning for participating in another religion. But she decided to trust in the aspect of God that was beyond her understanding and accept the gift from the priest. She thanked God for the food and the chance to pray in another religious tongue.
On the way home Taylor said she reflected on the hospitality of the Hindu professor. She had welcomed them all at the high altar in her faith’s temple without asking what they believed. She had enlisted the priest to offer the class special prayers. She didn’t judge them whether they had participated or not. She seemed to simply have open arms from the beginning of the experience to the end. There seemed to have been no prerequisite for the blessing. It had been indiscriminate and unexpected.
Peter has a similar experience in our reading from the book of Acts today. He is asked to go visit a Roman Centurion. A Centurion was a commander in the Roman army which was occupying Peter’s homeland of Israel. This Centurion was said to be generous and respected God, but was clearly a gentile, which meant he was not Jewish. He did not practice the Jewish faith and was therefore considered unclean. He was someone Peter should not be hanging out with and certainly not eating with.
But then Peter has this vision in his sleep with of lots of unclean animals on a sheet and voice from God telling him to get up and eat. Peter takes this as a sign that he should go see the Roman Centurion. It turns out the Centurion had a vision as well and asks about Jesus. So Peter tells him the good news about the resurrection. As he is talking the Holy Spirit suddenly comes down upon the gentiles in the room in the same way it came down upon Peter and the other disciples.
Peter is amazed that God’s blessing seems so indiscriminate. He had believed that only certain people could receive God’s blessing in such a manner. He had believed that God did discriminate between Jews and Gentiles, but now his perspective has been radically changed, and it began by his willingness to eat at the same table with these people who were different from himself.
It is this issue of eating with unclean people, however, that gets Peter in trouble with some of the other early followers of Christ. They are questioning Peter’s actions and wondering why he would eat with such people. “Table fellowship was crucial in Judaism at the time. The religious tradition was a part of a broader Middle Eastern culture where the choice of table sharing was a vital indicator of who was in your tribe and who was not. Indeed, it could be said that one of the major reasons that the religious authorities of Jesus own tradition did not like him was because of his unsavory choice of table companions; he ate with too many sinners for their tastes, thereby making himself unclean in the eyes of those who determined such things”. (John Holbert)
Jesus knew about the power of a meal to bring people together. Peter experienced that power when the Holy Spirit came down as he sat at a table with the Centurion and the other Gentiles. He said that the Spirit told him to go and to not make a distinction between them and us. When he did so he realized how God’s blessing could cross the walls that people build between each other.
The power of sharing a meal is still a way in which people can experience blessing despite deep differences and divisions. This is true even in one of the world’s oldest on-going conflicts. We have in our sanctuary right now a traveling photo exhibit from Palestinian photographers. These photographers were trained at a college supported by the Lutheran church in Palestine and the Holy Land. Some of the photos make reference to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and some show the literal walls between these two people. In the midst of the conflict, however, there are glimpses of unity as Arabs and Israelis share a meal.
One example of this was in 2015 during a time when the tensions between Arabs and Israelis was heating up again. In an attempt to bring a sign of peace and unity in the face of the escalating violence between the two groups, an Israeli restaurant used the mutual love of humus as a means of promoting peace. The eatery just north of Tel Aviv did this by offering a 50 percent discount to Jews and Arabs who eat together. Their Facebook page promoted the offer by saying, “Scared of Arabs? Scared of Jews? With us there are no Arabs, but also no Jews. With us there are [just] people!,” Along with an atmosphere that welcomed people from both backgrounds, the café had “genuine excellent Arabic hummus and excellent praiseworthy Jewish falafel with free refills, whether you’re Arab, Jew, or Christian .”
The restaurant shared the photos of some of the Jewish and Arab people who have come to dine in response to the post. The restaurant’s manager said the response to the idea has generally been positive and that he has served several diners who came from both backgrounds. He seemed hopeful about the region’s future. “If there’s anything that can bring together these peoples, it’s hummus.”
More recently, a group call Olive Oil without Borders is bringing together Palestinian and Israeli farmers to share experiences including time spent around a meal. In 2017 an American cooking show sent a host to see some of the work of this organization. The host went to the West Bank olive country, to the farm of an Israeli olive oil maker name Ayala Meir in order to attend a traditional kibbutz dinner. At the dinner they were joined by Meir’s family, but also a number of their Palestinian friends from across the border wall. Meir said,
“Olive oil is culture. It brings people together. This is now the season that Jewish and Arabs and Muslims and Christians meet together. We all love this product. And it’s a way to know our neighbors. Actually an ancient olive tree is [a symbol] of many individuals living in the same house. Every branch has a different root system [but it joins to the same tree].”
Just a few days ago a Palestinian businessman Sheikh Ashraf Jabari hosted a several key Israeli leaders from Judea and Samaria for an Iftar meal, the festive meal Muslims throughout the world enjoy upon breaking their dawn-to-dusk fasts throughout the month-long Ramadan festival. The meal featured kosher food so that the Orthodox Jewish Israelis could enjoy the feast as well. Jabari told his guests it was a great honor to host all of them in his home. He said “The meal is a reinforcement in light of the ongoing trend in which the economic-business relationship and the strengthening of relations and friendship lead us all to a more positive place.”
This meal an example of the growing trend of Palestinian business leaders choosing to set aside political issues to focus on improving economic prospects for the Arab sector. As Jabari said, “Breaking the fast together at a joint meal in Hebron clearly symbolizes our ability to bridge all gaps.”
To me these are powerful examples of how when different folks gather around a table called by a spirit of unity the walls between “them and us” can begin to break down. There can be a realization that God’s blessing does not discriminate between tribe and nation, but can fall upon all of humanity.
We give witness to this power when we gather around the simple meal we call Holy Communion. When we share communion we experience how despite all the baggage of division and discord we might bring to the table, God’s blessing can fall upon us anew and give us a fresh start.
The last three weeks several of our church families have been gathering together to learn more about what Holy Communion means. We have eleven children between the ages of four and twelve who will be doing their first communion this Sunday. They have been coming to the table, but I am excited to welcome them more fully to the meal since God’s blessing also does not discriminate based on age. As we all share this communion today we too are reminded like Peter, that the Holy Spirit tells us to go out into the world and to not make a distinction between them and us because God’s love shows no partiality and God’s blessings are meant for everyone. Amen.