A Communion Meditation preached by The Rev. Tim Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, April 1, 2001, Lent 5, dedicated to the Joseph Lane and Amber Varga on their baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
Part VI of VII in Lenten/Easter Series: "Diversity in Christ: Woven Together in God's Love"
Amos 5:21-24; and Luke 9:10-17
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
A group of devout Christians once lived in a small village at the foot of a great mountain. A winding, slippery road with hairpin curves and steep precipices wound its way up one side of the mountain and down the other. There were no guard rails for the road was too steep to build such things. As a result, fatal accidents were frequent. The Christians in the villages' three churches decided to act. They pooled their resources and purchased an ambulance so they could rush the injured to the hospital in the neighboring town. Week after week, church members gave faithfully, even sacrificially, of their time to operate the ambulance 24 hours a day. They saved many lives, although some victims remained disabled forever. This ambulance service became the major mission of the Christians in the town.
One day a friendly visitor, a brother in Christ, came to the town. Puzzled by what he saw, he asked why the townspeople did not close the dangerous road over the mountain and build a tunnel instead. Startled, the ambulance volunteers, led by the pastor who started the mission, quickly pointed out that this approach, though technically possible, was not realistic or advisable. After all, the narrow mountain road had been there a long time and their ambulance service was a successful mission of the church. Besides, the mayor would bitterly oppose it. (The visitor had not done his research. He soon found out the mayor owned a large restaurant and service station half way up the mountain).
The visitor was shocked that the mayor's economic interests and their mission to the injured mattered more to these Christians than the multitudes of human casualties. Somewhat hesitantly, he suggested that the three churches should gather together and speak to the mayor. After all, he was an elder in the oldest church in town. He went on to suggest that they might elect a different mayor if this one proved stubborn and unconcerned.
The Christians were shocked. With rising indignation and righteous conviction, they informed the young radical that churches dare not become involved in politics. The church was called to preach the Gospel and to offer mercy and care to those in need, they said. Their mission was not to dabble in worldly things like changing social and political structures. Didn't he read his Bible? Didn't he know these things?
As the maimed, the lame, the injured, and the families of deceased victims listened to these arguments, they couldn't help but wonder how a tunnel would have saved their lives from the fate of dismay and dismemberment. Nevertheless, they were thankful for all their friends on the ambulance crew had done for them.
Finally, the visitor left town. Perplexed and disappointed, he couldn't help but wonder if the more spiritual and "Christian" thing to do was to operate ambulances that pick up the bloody victims of destructive social and political structures or to change the structures themselves? (Based on a story in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ronald Sider, 20th Anniversary edition, Word Publishing, 1997, pp. 223-224).
Ambulance Drivers or Tunnel Builders - which are we? Which will be choose to become as the need calls to us to become? The age of affluence and poverty in which we are living calls us to make compassionate decisions to care for the those who are hurting and hungry. Our world today calls us to simplify our personal lifestyles and decisions to share our resources with those who in poverty. But, we are also called to change public policies and structures which cause injustice in our city, nation, and world.
In our scripture readings today, Jesus feeds the multitudes through the miracle of multiplication of loaves and fishes. While Amos calls for justice to roll down like water and righteousness like an everflowing stream. The prophet cries "Justice" and the Messiah changes lives and feeds people. Both are needed. Both are transformational. The justice cry void of food for people is useless. But, the meals on wheels without transformational justice are meaningless. But, upon closer examination, both prophet and Messiah blend food and action in their calls for justice and righteousness.
Throughout the centuries, the relationship between the gathered institutional life of the church and the church's witness in the world has been a concern - just as it was for Amos in his time! From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr. and beyond, the church has more often than not, focused on institutional self-preservation to the detriment of justice action. The result has been the encouragement of people living their lives for the church, rather than living their lives for God in the world. Amos calls us yet today to have worship, whose integrity is rooted in clear expressions of justice and righteousness on behalf of others. If we leave the sanctuary, unready and unwilling to make personal and societal changes then, our worship - even though it might seem beautiful, is hollow.
I experienced such worship at Christmas in 1984 at Yale Divinity School. Along with clerical workers, a handful of other fellow students, and other labor supporters, I spent the fall of my Senior Year on a picket line, outside the gates of Yale Divinity School. The wealthiest university in Connecticut and one of the richest nationwide, paid terrible wages to its mostly women workers. So they went on strike to gain fair wages. From September to mid-December, I organized all my classes to be held off campus (with the reluctant support of professors), and then walked the picket line whenever I could. Just before Christmas the strike was suspended and we returned to celebrate Christmas inside the gates.
That Christmas, the worship liturgy in Marquand Chapel never seemed more perfect. The music, the preaching, the community together again after months apart. I felt as though the entrance to heaven itself would open before through our candlelight worship. Then as I was singing, "Silent Night" the images of my clerical workers families, many of which depended solely on their mothers for food and for income, came into my minds' eye. I saw them at their Christmas celebrations with nothing on the table and I looked around the Chapel and I saw ministers in the making who had not suffered a bit during this strike and had been inside the gates seemingly unconcerned about the history of the months that had proceeded. And I found myself angered, very deeply angered by all the injustice wrapping around in that event. Perfect worship, less than perfect witness. We stood indicted as our worship failed to meet the needs of our sisters and brothers in need.
Like Amos, Jesus found a way to overcome injustice and greed with the miraculous grace of justice action. In the miracle of feeding the 5000 men (and I do emphasize men because the Bible stops there) the only miracle recorded in all 4 gospels, I might add, Jesus encountered a crowd of hungry people. Not only hungry for his teachings, but as the day wore on, hungry for dinner. It was time to eat and the people wouldn't share what they had, as far as we can guess. There are two explanations for the miracle and you may have heard them both before. The first is that Jesus called forth manna from heaven, that came upon the hillside. The second one is the one that I tend to move toward and that is, that when it came time to eat, all Jesus had to eat was 5 loaves and 2 fishes for the disciples and himself as they had gathered to be together in that time. But as he brought what he had and laid it out in front of people, they reached inside their cloaks, pulled inside their pockets and discovered they also had food which they didn't want to share when they found out that the others around them were hungry. So he broke through the most difficult part, he broke through the part of disdain and distaste for others in need. The disciples laid it out on the ground. Unselfish compassion inspired miraculous events and overcame the selfishness of that scene. That's just a wild interpretation.
To make the choice for justice for tunnel digging and not just simply ambulance driving requires a shift from greed to God and living into questions. We here this question, we see it wrapped on wristbands, on necklaces, on T-shirts or perhaps around our arms. "What Would Jesus Do?" The answer is clear that Jesus would require justice as he acted on behalf of others. As we turn to this meal of liberation, this meal of justice if you will, at the Lord's Table, we are mindful that he seeks even now to feed us all and I end with a story of a community of faith that chose tunnel digging and not just ambulance driving.
Twenty years ago, East Minister Presbyterian Church in Wichita, KS was in the middle of a building plan. They were raising over half a million dollars to add a new wing of the building. And then an earthquake in Guatemala hit. What they decided to do was to cut their building plan more than in half and send the rest to Guatemala. In the process, they rebuilt 26 churches and 28 homes of pastors in Guatemala. Later they established, by themselves, a seminary in Guatemala. Through all of this they not only built their new wing on schedule, but their membership grew significantly because people not only around Wichita but far reaching in the area outlying, found out that this was a community of faith that lived what they said they believed and made a difference in the world. Buildings, not for themselves, but for the body of Christ. Food, not for themselves, but for others unselfishly given.
We know the answer to the question. Which will it be? Serving or being served? The answer is to serve others. The question is: How will we do it? The answer from Amos and Jesus, through a spirit of justice action. Amen.
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