Table of Joy

Table of Joy

The Authority of Jesus Questioned
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why, then, did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

The Parable of the Two Sons
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not,’ but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same, and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him, and even after you saw it you did not change your minds and believe him.

Matthew 21:23-32 (NRSVUE)

Friends, imagine with me for just a moment a child’s birthday party. There are balloons and streamers, presents and games, cake and ice cream, candles and wishes, and singing. There are other children and neighbors, maybe grandparents and aunts and uncles and friends. You can hear giggling and laughter. What a day of joy and celebration!

On the first Sunday of October each year, we celebrate World Communion Sunday. Maybe it’s not quite the excitement of a child’s birthday party, yet it’s another day filled with utter joy and celebration. World Communion Sunday calls us to experience communion in the context of our global community of faith. What that means is, as we gather at this physical table here in Oldtown, we are joining with brothers and sisters in every culture, race, and ethnicity around the world, breaking bread and sharing the cup to remember and affirm Jesus as the Head of the Church, not just here in Oldtown or only with Congregational or UCC churches, but remembering that we are part of a much wider and richer and more expansive body of believers who are unique and diverse in their own traditions and rituals, but connected as one the Body of Christ.

Friends, whether our brothers and sisters are sharing communion in a grand cathedral, a mud hut, outside on a hilltop, in a meetinghouse, or a storefront, we are all celebrating communion in as many ways as there are congregations. World Communion Sunday can be both a profound worship experience and a time to open our eyes and our hearts as we learn more about our wider community of faith, remembering that we are a part of something so much bigger!

Okay, well, today in scripture, we heard the chief priests and elders asking Jesus questions about his authority. Can you imagine how Jesus must have felt, being questioned by the leaders of Israel about his worthiness and his right to be there? Unfortunately, some of us may understand that situation more than others, having been judged by the church in the past. And if that is true for you, please know that this is a safe place where you are always welcome and loved just as you are!

Then we heard Jesus tell the parable of the two sons. As you may or may not remember, parables are stories that Jesus told to help people better understand the kingdom of God and how, as followers of Jesus, we are all called to live. I like to think of the parables as “a place where the rubber hits the road,” as they say. Parables put flesh and true understanding to the bones of “yes and no” questions and “in or out” judgments. Now they may sometimes sound confusing, and they contain many layers of information, each of which can be understood differently by the listener depending on where they fit in the story and how the story affects their life. But parables were important to Jesus because he looked beyond the yes or no and right or wrong answers to litmus test questions that the priest and the elders held so tightly to. On the contrary, Jesus looks not at what we say but at how we live our lives.

We can all sit here in worship and call ourselves believers. We can wear a cross around our neck for everyone to see and tell people that we are good church-going Christians. And we can even believe it ourselves. But if we are truly going to be believers and followers of Jesus, our actions must match our statements.

So if we sit here in church, praying and singing with our hands folded nicely, but when worship is over, we head out into Maxcy Hall and fight with our neighbor, or talk about them behind their back, or judge people for the things we don’t like, or push our way to the front of the coffee line because we think we deserve the first choice of desserts, we might want to rethink our words and our actions.

Okay, so what does this whole parable of the two sons really mean? Well, as we heard, there were two sons, and their father asked each of them to go out and work in the vineyard. The first son said, “No, I won’t go,” but then later changed his mind and went to work like his father asked. The second son immediately said, “Oh yes, father, I’ll go,” but never went.

Later in the parable, Jesus says that the first son is like a tax collector or a prostitute–in other words, outcasts of society because they followed their heart and believed John the Baptist. They accepted “the way of righteousness,” turning their lives around even though they had made poor life choices in the beginning.

And the leaders of Israel, the chief priests, and the elders? They are like the second son who claimed to be good and righteous but did not do their Father’s will because they followed their heads and their own authority got in the way of their ability to understand and follow through.

Folks, unfortunately, many of us are like the second son, the elder brother, the law-abiding Pharisee, the respectable religious type. You know, like the workers we heard about last week who had been working all day in the fields only to be treated just like “those other people.” We are the resentful ones who don’t want those other people to receive God’s grace because we have worked harder for it. We trust in our respectability, our rightful place, and our good works more than we trust in Jesus, and we feel frustrated when scripture says that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going to heaven before us “good religious types.” Because we know how to be respectful when we come to the communion table, we know what it means and how it should be done, and we don’t like when others put their own judgments and rules at the table, though deep inside, we quietly judge others the same way.

Yikes! We have traveled down quite a spiral this morning, haven’t we?

Well, let’s think back to that child’s birthday party again, where friends and family and neighbors were all invited, no questions asked. The party was filled with joy, not judgment, and celebration, not rules and questions of worthiness. Friends, today we celebrate our common communion table with people all over the world. It doesn’t matter if we are celebrating in a mega-church or in a sacred little shack. It doesn’t matter if we are celebrating on the busy streets of Boston with the homeless or at the Vatican with Pope Francis. It doesn’t matter if we are gathered with hundreds of other Christians or just a few. And it doesn’t matter how we got here, what we have done, or where we have been. All that truly matters is that we believe in the one who welcomes us here because it is Jesus that makes this a Table of JOY, and He is the one that makes our communion experience and our faith complete.

So brothers and sisters in Christ, I hope you experience joy at the Table today. I hope you feel unity with sister churches and Christians around the world. I hope you come not because you must, but because you may. And I hope you don’t feel like you have to be someone that you are not because, with joy, Jesus welcomes you and loves you as you are.

My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen.


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