This past week, I attended an event called “Omaha Table Talk”, a program run by a local organization called Inclusive Communities which brings together a diverse group of people from around Omaha for conversation over dinner about topics related to building a more just and tolerant community. They do this every month in different locations with different topics. This month’s event took place at Big Mama’s Kitchen on North 45th St., to talk about North Omaha. Nearly 150 people, from all over the city, from very different walks of life, gathered to first listen to several North Omaha leaders talk about the gifts and challenges of their community, and then in table groups of eight or nine people to talk about our prejudices, impressions, and how we can be agents for understanding andconnection. I sat with a table full of people I never would have had a chance to meet otherwise. It is a fantastic idea, and it was a great event. The next Table Talk will be in South Omaha on August 5th, I absolutely won’t miss another one, and I hope that some of you will join me.
Even though it was not a church event, it struck me exactly the kind of thing followers of Jesus ought to be doing. It’s precisely the kind of thing Jesus himself spent most of his time doing. In our gospel lesson for today, his reputation as a healer and teacher has grown so large that huge crowds gather around him wherever he goes, so much so that he can’t even get a few hours off for dinner with his closest disciples. Far from being annoyed by the constant crowds and demands, which would have been understandable, we’re told that Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
Everywhere Jesus went, his compassion, his healing, and his teaching gathered together scattered, diverse, hurting people from all walks of life, and made them into one flock. Jesus constantly scandalized people by his willingness to associate with the unclean, to break gender barriers, to show the same compassion to those who were hated for their abuse of wealth and power as he did to those who were poor and helpless. Jesus’ ministry always involved gathering people who were different and divided, and turning them into family.
For us who follow Jesus, the purpose of our lives is to do the same thing. The catechism at the back of the Book of Common Prayer tells us “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Think about that for a minute. Our mission as the church is not to make more church members, it’s not to make people believe certain doctrines, or to get people to be just like us. Our mission is to do exactly what I saw happening at Omaha Table Talk the other night: to bring healing and reconciliation where there is hatred and division. For a long time, Christians have given the impression that we are concerned primarily with a narrow moral agenda, and getting more people to think, act, and believe like us. The diverse throngs of sick and broken people that wouldn’t give Jesus a moment’s rest remind us that Jesus was in the business of doing exactly the opposite. Jesus spent his whole life crossing boundaries, breaking down barriers, and building bridges.
This work seems especially important at this moment in history. In our time and place, God’s children are as divided from one another as they have ever been. There’s a fascinating book from 2008 by Bill Bishop called The Big Sort, which shows with meticulous demographic data how, over the last thirty years, Americans have systematically segregated themselves into neighborhoods, jobs, and lifestyles that almost guarantee you never have to really deal with someone completely different than you. If we want to, we can choose what to read, watch, wear, buy, and who to talk to so that we are sealed up in your own political, cultural, and religious echo chamber, where everything confirms what we already think.
As followers of Jesus, we’re called to always be cutting against that trend. It’s one of the things I love most about Trinity Cathedral. I see us trying to do that everywhere. Our Sunday morning adult forum gathers a group of people who share very different perspectives and opinions in a loving, trusting community. Our Wednesday lunches gather people together to share a meal who would otherwise never have a chance to encounter each other. A few weeks ago we had a crazy mix of homeless people, members from Trinity, from other area churches, and our Vacation Bible School kids. If that isn’t the kind of thing Jesus would have us to, I don’t know what is.
We practice it every week in our liturgy. The music so many of us love so much is a way we practice bringing unity out of difference. Voices from all of us different and distinctive individuals are united as one voice whenever we sing. Music can be an icon of what God is always working to do through us, bringing harmony where there is discord.
We practice it every week as we gather at the altar. Some of us come with great faith, some of us come with little faith, some of us might come wondering if we could ever have even a little faith. We come with joy, with sadness, with doubt, with fear, with hope. Whoever, and wherever we are, we become one body, because we all share this one bread of God’s abundant, barrier-breaking love.
We receive it in here so that we can show it out there. Just think about what would happen if each of us committed to finding a way, even just once a week, to spend some time listening to someone who is different, who you might not agree with, who you might not otherwise even meet. It’s by crossing those boundaries, listening to those we otherwise shut ourselves out from, that we become the temple through which God can transform a broken and divided world.
There’s a great invitation to communion that is used by the Iona Community in Scotland which sums up God’s invitation and challenge to us: “This is the table, not of the Church, but of the Lord. It is to be made ready for those who love God and who want to love God more. So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little, you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time, you who have tried to follow and you who have failed. Come, not because we invite you: it is the Lord, and it is the Lord’s will that you who want God should meet God here.”
Hear that invitation this morning, and then pray that you might use your whole life to show that same invitation to everyone you meet. Amen.
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 Bishop, Bill. The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. New York: Houghton Mifflin. 2008.S