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Monday, April 25, 2016

Called to God's Table

          In angst-ridden poetry, thinkers, whose ponderings pour out beautiful verse or angry verse, express their questions, their frustration, and their confusion.  In those questions see this: see a person desperately seeking God.  Even if his language is raw and strewn with bitter, atheistic sentiment, deep down he – the critic, the skeptic - needs what only God can give, and he or she, the poet knows she needs it.
God smiles and invites that person.  “Come, drink.  Come everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” Thirsty for truth?  Come.  Thirsty for hope.  Come.  Are you literally thirsty because you live where clean water is hard to come by?  Come.  Come to the living waters of God.  Everyone who thirsts, come.
          I saw a man crawling along the sidewalk.  He has some kind of degenerative condition either in his legs or in his back.  His body is contorted in a shape that doesn’t appear human as he uses his hands to drag himself, useless legs and all, up the street.  He’s extremely poor in a country that is, for 95% of the people, extremely poor – Ethiopia.  So for him there is no treatment, no surgery, no physical therapy, no wheelchair.  His condition begins as a pain in the back or legs and then gets worse and worse until his legs no longer work and he has to continue on by dragging himself through the dirt, using his hands as his feet.  He’s poor.
          To him, God says, Come!  Come buy wine and milk.  Come, and without money, eat your fill.  Delight yourself in God’s rich food. 
          Through his prophet Isaiah, God reminds the world that He is a God who calls and invites.  Noah was called to be part of the story when God started over.  Abraham was called to a place he did not know.  Moses was called to face the enemy and lead God’s people to salvation.  Jonah was called to lead the enemy to salvation.  And in Isaiah 55, God calls the thirsty to drink God’s living water and the hungry and starving to feast at God’s table. 
          God calls us – each one of us.

          When I was a college student, I remember receiving invitations from theological seminaries.  We were invited to attend weekend programs with titles like, "Come Explore your Call."
Or, "A Weekend of Discernment."
Or, "What Plans does God have for your Life?"
Nearly every seminary had a program where they recruited college juniors and seniors who studied in religion departments or participated in campus ministries.  The recruitment was based around the question Are you being called into vocational ministry?
          Now, some 25 years later, I have to ask, is it only "vocational ministers" who are called by God?  Is it that someone decides to be a lawyer or a teacher or an accountant, but is called to be a pastor?
          I think all who turn to Jesus are called by God.  I believe God even calls people who have not put their faith in Him.  In Luke 15, it says he seeks the lost.  God goes out of His way to draw those far from Him into His embrace.  Maybe in terms of one’s profession, people wait tables or hammer nails to pay the bills not because God called them into food service or construction.  I am under no illusion that everyone is working in a job to which God called him or her. Sometimes we do jobs because we need to work.  That was my story when I was high school substitute teacher many years ago.
However, all Christians whether pastors, waiters, truck drivers, nurses, or college professors are called by God.  Furthermore, table-waiting or trash collecting can indeed be a call for a season of life even if not for a life time.  Every person who is part of the body of Christ is called by God.  In most jobs, we have the opportunity to live as called persons who give witness to the love of God and the life we have in Jesus’ name.
          At HillSong, we are going to spend five weeks in a church-wide emphasis exploring God’s call on us.  Specifically, we will consider what it means to live our lives as part of a bigger story.  We will look at the story of God and how God calls us to be part of it.  What do our lives look like when we live daily with a sense that God is summoning us?  Who are we as a people and as individuals when we live in God’s calling? 
Each of our small groups will be given thought-provoking questions to include in their prayers times as they engage with what we do on Sundays. 
I described the man I saw in Ethiopia, the one crawling along with a back and legs bent in ways I have never seen.  Can any two people be less alike than me, a healthy, educated, middle class American, and this Ethiopian man who lives in a completely broken body – mangled because no medical care is available to him? We literally and figuratively are worlds apart.  And yet, he and I share this.  The water we both need for life and the food that makes us both rich beyond the dreams of the wealthiest people on earth cannot be earned or acquired but only received from God as a gracious gift.  In Isaiah 55, God declares that He wants to give that gift.  He wants to give both me and that man and also you the living water and the sumptuous food set on Heaven’s table; moreover, he calls us to that table!
God does not silently sit at the crossroads and hand out blessings to whomever happens to stop.  God proactively reaches out and invites.  We are summoned to God’s table.  In fact, in Jesus Christ, the eternal God, steps out of Heaven and into our time-bound world as he takes on himself all the pain of the fall and of sin and death. Jesus coming in the flesh is how God hand delivers the invitation to each of us. 
Two ways we live in our calling and enact the gift of God are the Lord’s Supper and communal meals.  Of the Lord’s Supper, also called the Eucharist, James K.A. Smith says, “it is a normative picture of the justice of the kingdom of God.”[i]  The broken Ethiopian man and you and I and Donald Trump[ii] and any other person we can envision all have an invitation and we each have equal standing.  We each come to God’s table unworthy.  We are not invited because we deserve to be there.  We’re invited because we don’t deserve it.  Jesus died for us while were yet sinners.  The broken bread evokes the reality of his broken body.  The dark juice is his spilt blood – shed for us.  The justice of the kingdom; here, all come because of God’s grace.
Smith also says the Supper constitutes us as an eschatological people.  With that fancy theological verbiage he means we are directional – living toward the end and then toward resurrection.  In the resurrection, the broken man will not be broken.  I will not be a rich American in the present sense, where I am wealthier than most people in the world.  In Christ we are all called to inherit the riches of God.  Participating in the Supper reminds me of where we are going and it reminds me to work for justice while we are on the way there.  In the case of the man I saw on the street, I did not work specifically to empower him other than through my prayer.  But I was in Ethiopia as a part of a HillSong trip to join in an effort to help other people who are materially poor, but relationally filled with abundance. 
At the table the justice of the kingdom sets us all – the crippled man, Trump, the people we visited, you, me – as equals and we all, in Christ, look forward to eternity at God’s table where Isaiah 55 is no longer a prophetic anticipation, but an eternal, literal reality.  We go from working for justice to living in perfect justice in God’s physical presence.  We go from praying for that time when we can eat and drink without cost or limitation to eating and drinking without cost, enough for everyone.  We are called to God’s table and we enact that call by taking communion in worship with other believers.
Another way we enact and anticipate the call of God is by sharing table fellowship; eating together.  After worship today, we’ll have lunch together.  We’ll eat food prepared by us and provided by us.  We each bring something to share.  Is it clear that this is much more than a biological act?  All animals take in food and their bodies convert that food into energy needed for life.  When we sit together, we eat food that has been carefully, lovingly prepared. We sit with old friends and new friends.  We laugh, reminisce, retell old stories and hear other stories for the first time. 
In all this we enact, or “live toward,” the community in which we will spend eternity.  We could reduce the significance of it all by saying, “Well, it was a nice potluck at church this past Sunday.”  That would be a true statement, but also an incomplete one.  The “nice potluck” is a gathering of the people of God in joy.  We don’t come just because it’s the best choice among many options for how to spend a Sunday afternoon.  We come and eat together and join our hearts to each other because we are called to this.
The enactment is also anticipation.  We are called people – called to have lunch together but also called to spend eternity together.  When our bodies and our souls feel things we would describe as “contentment” or “happiness” or “satisfaction,” those words are the best we can do in communicating what is happening.  But those descriptors fall short in portraying the feelings we’ll have when we sit at God’s table in the resurrection.  What we do today in taking communion and then in sharing a meal together whets our appetite for the table God has set for us. 
Smith calls the Lord’s Supper a meal “to go” because it is but a “foretaste of the feast in the Kingdom.”[iii] As persons called to God’s table we spend our lives moving toward God and bringing others with along the way.  Three spiritual practices of answering the call to God’s table are (1) participation in communion with the church, (2) participation in community meals like today’s potluck in a community of brothers and sisters in Christ, and (3) the offer of hospitality to one another and to strangers outside of the worshipping context. 
Two of these spirituals practices can be done within the next hour – the Lord’s Supper and a meal enjoyed together.  The third, hospitality, is one I pray each of us will explore in the week to come.  Hospitality can take countless forms.  Experiment with it.  Discover how you will extend hospitality to another person.  I think you’re called to this. We all are.
And the words of the call come from God through the prophet Isaiah. 
“Everyone who thirsts, come.  You that have no money, come, buy, and eat.”
“Listen carefully and eat what is good and delight yourselves in rich food.”

[i] J.K.A. Smith (2009), Desiring the Kingdom, Baker Academic (Grand Rapids), p. 201.
[ii]This reference specifically to Donald Trump comes as he is most likely to be the Republican nominee for president in the 2016 race.  His polarizing campaign has been viewed by progressives as dangerous as with great bombast he continuously says xenophobic, racist things.  The Republican establishment has gone to great lengths to defeat him, yet he continues to win primaries.  At this point, just mentioning his name in a sermon, especially suggesting that he would sit at a communion table, is enough to raise hackles in the crowd.
[iii] Smith, p.200.

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