On Coming Home to Judsons Welcome Table

Ancient Testimony - Luke 22:14-19

February 06, 2011

by James W. Fraser

Before I start my sermon this morning, I just want to say how wonderful it is to be back at Judson after being away for most of the last eight months.  For new—or not so new—folks whom I haven’t met, I am Jim Fraser, and my wife, Katherine Hanson, and I have been living a mile and a half down a dirt road in Massachusetts while I have had that blessed gift called a sabbatical, from NYU.  It was terrific to be away, but it sure is terrific to be back, too; though I will say we picked quite a week to return to the City!  But I think our assignment this morning is to be sure that the warmth of this community, around these tables, offsets the cold of last week.

This time away was really important for many reasons.  I think both of us felt that after five years here we had to leave New York and Judson for a few months to realize how important it was to us to be New Yorkers and Judsonites.  While we were away we have—from our distance— mourned with Grace and with folks here at the passing of Susan Boyer, and we have celebrated in spirit with Ruby’s annual Teddy Cares concert.  And we have just plain missed everyone.  This doesn’t happen when you are here on an ongoing basis, but Friday evening we were both excited to hear the screech of the subway, and we said, “We’re home!”  And we are both excited to be coming home to this community called Judson; to be back at the welcome table of Agape Sunday, which does, in a roundabout way, bring me to this morning’s sermon.

As a long-time pastor I would guess that I have presided at more and less formal versions of communion—or agape meals— at least a couple of hundred times.  But one Sunday, a few years ago, was different.  I said the standard words of institution, “On the night he was arrested, Our Lord Jesus took bread . . .”  And after the service a delegation of my Sunday school kids came up to talk to me. They had a question:  “Did Jesus really get arrested?” As we talked it was pretty easy to figure out what was going on.

On the one hand, these kids had grown up in Sunday school.  They had taken communion often and they knew the stories—of Christmas and of Easter and of getting from the baby Jesus to the adult and to the resurrection.  On the other hand, they were in school, most of them in a relatively tough urban neighborhood.  They were just at that age when teachers and counselors and parents were all giving them the same warnings: don’t do this, be careful about that, if you aren’t you are liable to get arrested—and only bad people get arrested.

Suddenly, the Sunday morning words that were so familiar that they had lost their meaning took on meaning because of their other lessons.  Could Jesus be a bad guy?  How could it be that Jesus—of all people—could ever get into the kinds of trouble these kids were being warned so carefully to avoid?

But of course, that is the whole point of the message.

Jesus was, indeed, “a bad guy,” at least in the eyes of all the people in charge of defining what “good” was supposed to look like in his world.  And he did get arrested.  But in Luke’s story, just before his arrest, when he knew it was coming, he had this meal, this “last supper,” with his disciples, which whatever we want to make of it, has a lot to do with our celebration of agape, welcome, and unconditional love, which we celebrate on Agape Sundays.

So, in light of those two stories—Luke’s, and mine with my kids—I want to note a couple of things about what we are doing this morning.

Like Jesus, whose stories we tell, with more or less comfort at Judson, we too are a gathering of trouble makers.  I suspect there are a good number of folks here who have been arrested—some quite recently in demonstrations downtown—and a good many more who have been in a good bit of trouble of one sort or another, and even if they didn’t get arrested, they probably should have been.  We are not a gathering of folks who are doing just what the authorities in church and state want us to do in 2011.  We are—and our predecessors in this place have long been—a unique sort of outcasts.  Judson is not a place where the political in-group gathers.  Whether it is undocumented and not-always-welcome immigrants in the America of 2011, or people marching in Gay Pride, or artists pushing the envelope in theater or poetry or paint, or people assembling bleach kits to stop the spread of AIDS, or restaurant workers or sex workers or the homeless, or the left wing of the Democratic Party, Judson is a place where people who are on the margins of what is politically acceptable in the United States can come—and have been able to come—to meet, to organize, to start or end a march, or argue with each other, or to get a badly needed cup of coffee.  And it is not just that we let many different groups use this building, though we do; it is also the case that we who gather here are those people who in one way or another have chosen or been assigned by fate a role that is on the margins of what is sometimes acceptable politically in the United States of 2011.  Some are on the margins in one way, others in quite different ways, and some are less marginalized but have made a deep commitment to others who are more so.  Sometimes I worry that we get a little too proud of living on the margins; but over all, it is essential that we remember and celebrate our “on the margins” role.

But we are not only on political margins; we at Judson are also theological trouble makers.  Last week I read a piece by one of our Community Ministers, Julia Burkey, in which she described herself as “officially unaffiliated” as far as a religious connection went, and she continued, “I was doing interfaith work and I realized that in order to really participate, I needed to have a specific faith of my own, or I was not considered legitimate.”  But she then found herself asking, “What about the largest growing “faith group” in America: the unaffiliated? . . . I noticed a gaping hole in the interfaith movement, and I fell through it.”  Good point, Julia.  I don’t think you are the only one here with that problem: falling through a hole in official interfaith dialogue because you don’t quite fit the allotted seats at the table.  Something in liberal Protestantism is busy dying.  And something else—faith, spirituality, call it what you may—is busy being born.  And if we declare ourselves on the side of the new—of that which is being born, though we do not yet know what it will look like—we are going to get in all sorts of trouble with the old.  And Agape Sunday tells us we will not be the first ones to do so.

I hear the talk of the “death of God” theology but in my own faith, God is quite well; liberal Protestant churches are another matter.  But I am pretty sure that the way we connect to Spirit in the future is going to be very different from anything like traditional church life of the past.  I really don’t know the shape of what is coming.  In looking ahead, I tend to be informed by the wise words of the Tao Te Ching:

Trying to control the future
is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.
When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,
chances are that you’ll cut yourself.

But being open to where the Spirit is leading should be quite a ride.

There is something else about the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples: he needed them and they needed him.  Living on the margins is not easy.  Being deeply connected to other people—on other margins—isn’t easy.  It wasn’t for Jesus; it isn’t for us.  Loners do not make good envelope-pushers, at least not for long.  The loners may have their blaze of glory.  Those who live in—and commit to—community last for the long-term.

Several years ago I had the good fortune to host a talk by the radical Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire.  After Freire had spent some time outlining his educational approach, which demanded that teachers start not with their own agenda but by listening and hearing, really hearing, the community’s agenda, we got to the Q & A.  And a teacher in the audience said, “Professor Freire, I agree with everything you have said, but I am the only one in my school who thinks this way.  What can I do?”  And Freire responded, “No, you’re not.  There is one other teacher who agrees with you.  Go find them.  And then you can make a difference.”  And someone in the audience muttered the line from Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant that goes, “You know, if one person, just one person does it, they may think he's really sick and they won't take him.  And if two people, two people do it . . . And three people do it . . .  friends they may thinks it's a movement.”  Our job, at these tables, is to be well-nourished and well-connected movement makers.

We here at Judson are also a community at a particular moment in its history.  Judson has always been changing.  We don’t do static well.  And Donna’s sabbatical is a time to rethink the nature of ministry here—her’s and ours— and to celebrate Michael’s leadership, and to celebrate the leadership of everyone here, and to be ready to welcome Donna back, in due course—but to also know she will also re-enter a community that has changed.  We need each other—all of the many different “each others” that can gather here—and we have the chance to shape how we do that, how we make each other welcome and move ourselves from the comfortable margins into deeper community.

I also think it is important to say that when we gather around the Agape Tables we are also celebrating a community that is larger than we are.  Whether we are comfortable with “God language” or not, we gather to celebrate a community that is blessed with, filled with the Spirit/the universe/the unconditional love that floats over our world, whether we take time to recognize it or not.  I think it is important that we allow moments of silence to experience the Spirit’s presence, as well as moments of conviviality to experience each other.  On our Agape Sundays we rightly celebrate the joy of breaking bread or pastries or other goodies, and drinking wine or apple juice—with each other.  And so we should.  But I do wish that we could take a bit longer to invite the divine, by whatever different name we call her/him/it, to join us.  There are times for quiet and “practicing the presence of God,” as well as times for convivial conversation.  And, I think, we need both if we are to build a stronger community, and if we are to be a place where the new, in politics and spirituality, is to be born.

We who gather for Agape are not just gathering at Judson, important as that is.  We are also gathering in New York City, and this wonderful, desperate, pain-filled, and joy-filled city also shapes us in very important ways.  I love the poem I used this morning as the Modern Testimony.  I found it on-line and I can’t find anything out about its author, Sophia Devine, but she is on to something.  We have all experienced those moments of being “Alone in New York . . . and Alive in New York,” and we have experienced “This beauty that is New York.”  There is something about this city that makes us feel alive, alert, and full of energy in a way that places that operate with perhaps more sanity do not.  New York is, at times, a lonely place, but it is also a place to feel most fully alive.  Katherine says, “New York is a place where you aren’t defined by your back-story.  No one cares.”  New York is a place (unlike some other cities) where the new arrival and the life-time resident each add their part; where the religiously unaffiliated and the ethnically unidentified can join with the pious and the impious and the proud; where people of every and multiple sexual orientations can enjoy each other’s company; and where all can sit down together to experience the same confusion and the same unconditional love, on park benches, or in bars, or at these tables.

So we gather this Agape Sunday to celebrate the community of Judson, to celebrate this City of “beauty in those mean streets,” to experience the presence of the Spirit, and to celebrate and to share and to find yet new ways to share an unconditional love that invites us to these tables.


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