Pentecost 11, Lectionary 19B
Transformative Lovingkindness, Pastor Fred Kinsey
It was a long train ride, and I guess I looked like I could use a bite to eat. My solitary quest during my J-term break was to see as many countries as possible, using my 30 day Eurail Pass. I had been to Germany and France, England and Scandinavia, and now I was determined to see the Acropolis in Athens. In Hungry I had met a student who showed me the sights in Budapest. But he seemed on edge, perhaps taking more of a risk than I knew, to be seen talking with a western tourist. This was back in my college days before the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall came down.
I wasn’t sure exactly which Balkan country I was in as I passed through what was Yugoslavia at the time. Though I always imagined it was Macedonia, where Paul started churches in Philippi and Thessalonica, it could have been Kosovo, Bosnia or Herzegovina.
I sat in a compartment with 6 seats, 3 on each side, facing each other. An older gentlemen, in a formal but somewhat frayed woolen coat-jacket, sat opposite me. At noon, he began getting out his lunch from his bag, well wrapped in paper and tissues. He broke his sandwich in half, looked over at me, and saying something in a language I didn’t know, he reached over to offer it to me. I politely declined, not wanting to take his meal, and, because that’s just what I was taught to do. But more insistently, he pushed the food my direction. And, as it was nearly in my lap now, I graciously took the home-made bread with cheese and a greasy looking sausage, in my hands and took a bite. Delicious, I told him. Thank you very much. He nodded his head, smiling, as if he understood me. But our words were not what communicated between us, it was the gestures and expressions, the symbols and gifts, offered.
Elijah, the prophet, was all alone, a day’s journey into the wilderness, when he sat down finally, under a solitary broom tree, despondent and depressed. Having done battle with the false prophets of Baal, Elijah is fleeing for his life under threat of death from Queen Jezebel. And so, exhausted, he falls asleep. That’s when an angel gently taps him on the shoulder to offer him a hot meal, and fresh water. Elijah ate and drank, and then fell back asleep. A second time the angel came and whispered in his ear, “get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” It might have been a dream, except that the food was real, which gave him the strength he needed to journey 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of the Lord, Mt Horeb.
Angels come to us with a message or a meal, in times of trouble or transitions. And it makes sense that Elijah is sitting under that broom tree. In scripture, many leaders find enlightenment under a tree. Abraham and Sarah sit under the oaks of Mamre when angels visited them with the news of a child, Deborah was under a palm tree, Nathaniel and the Buddha, both under a fig tree, and shorty Zacchaeus climbed up in a sycamore tree, before his life changing encounter with Jesus.
Have you ever been visited by an angel? A flesh and blood stranger who offered you food, or delivered a message from God, in your time of need? Whether on the train or bus? Under a tree, or a street sign? When we gather around the communion table, are you surprised by the presence of holiness? Made alive by the overwhelming truth of the bread of life given for you?
It turns out that Chili Peppers are the next miracle food! – at least according to a Harvard study claiming that “those who ate spicy foods six or seven times a week had a 14% lower risk of premature death” and “also showed a lower risk of death from cancer, heart and respiratory diseases, than people who ate spicy foods less than once a week.” Rick Bayless, when asked his opinion, said, it makes sense. You can experience it when you eat hot food, that sense of your heart beating faster, your energy level increasing – you feel alive!
But the bread of life is not just about fine dining and living a bit longer. The bread of life is about living a new inquisitively-involved way of life; entering the journey, the holy encounter, which starts now, today; finding rest under the tree of life, and participating in the resurrection life and the realm and kingdom of God.
On the train or bus, at work or school, when Jesus, the bread of life, taps us on the shoulder, and says, “get up and eat,” this is an invitation to new life, an invitation to a meal that fills us for the journey ahead.
Theologian N. T. Wright has said that it was the new ethic of love, and the practice of kindness, that defined, and set apart first century Christians from the other Gentile cultures they encountered, and made the movement so overwhelmingly attractive, it grew steadily on its journey towards acceptance. It wasn’t just a sentimental, feel-good, nice-ness, but a transformative ethic that brought people together, and also reached out to love your neighbor as yourself, reducing violence. Or as Paul said, it, put away bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.
So, in a word, be kind to one another, Paul says, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Is this possible? Can we be kind without being totally taken advantage of in this day and age? When we must have awareness of our children being bullied at school, and when the ruthlessness of our market place condones “doing whatever it takes” to get ahead – is kindness an option?
The kindness that Paul talks about, comes from his Jewish heritage, which he knew in Hebrew as, hesed, translated in the Bible as, lovingkindness. The covenants God made with God’s people were always sealed with the lovingkindness of the Lord, for God’s chosen ones, forever, in perpetuity. Or as the prophet Micah said, we are “to do justice, and to love kindness – hesed – and to walk humbly with y/our God.” So that, our kindness, reflects and is empowered by God’s kindness.
I am the bread of life, says Jesus. Your ancestors, on their journey from Egypt through the wilderness to the Land of Milk and Honey, were fed on their way. With nothing in the desert, God provided mana from heaven, and it got them through, and taught them to trust in the one sovereign God. But it was a kind of famished craving, that came back each day, and some, like Moses, died out there before reaching the Promised Land. I am the bread of life that comes down from heaven, said Jesus, so that one may eat of it and not die. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh – my Self.
Each week, we gather around a table that serves the bread of life that never fails to fill us, and unite us, and sustain us on our journey, with our brothers and sisters around the world. The words are simple, but powerful – given for you. The gesture and symbolism of sharing this meal together is unmistakable – a gift and promise of eternal life, freely given – a lovingkindness that is healing and salvific.
At the table, we also gather under the tree that we call the cross, and here, the angels whisper in our ears, “Get up and eat.” You have been raised to a new life in Christ. Wherever you travel, the Bread of Life and Gift of Heaven, are there. So, “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”