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The Table Before Us

Preached the 4th Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2018, at St. Mark ELCA in Chicago.

Relevant lectionary readings here.

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Grace and Peace are yours from our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Alleluia! Amen.

Peter and John were preaching and healing in the outer courts of the temple in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets.  Jerusalem, the very city which, less than two months earlier, had crucified Jesus – crucifixion, a public death meant to instill fear into others who might be tempted to follow in Jesus’ path. Crucifixion – a lynching reserved for protestors and insurrectionists, a death with a message – “learn your place”.  And in Jerusalem, the Apostles Peter and John go right to the seat of power. They go to the temple, the TEMPLE, the home turf of the religious aristocracy who had colluded with the Roman Empire and ordered Jesus’ death.   This is where Peter and John choose to do their preaching and healing. The belly of the beast.

Their astonishing miracles and Peter’s strong, sure voice starts to draw a mass of people around them. Folks in the temple are crowding around to see and hear what Peter has to say.  All this commotion draws the attention of the religious aristocracy and the police, who, according the passage just a few verses before our reading this morning, were feeling “much annoyed” about the whole thing.   And so to fix that problem, to tuck them away, they did what people in power do when they feel like some riff-raff, some “outside agitators” are disturbing the peace.  They locked up them.  They put Peter and John in prison.  Those powers and principalities couldn’t stop them, though, because just like Fred Hampton said, “You can jail a revolutionary but you can’t jail the revolution.”

Scripture tells us that about 5,000 people joined the movement that day.

The next day the police trotted the prisoners out in front of the council, the chief priests.  Annas was there and Caiaphas.  Annas and Caiaphas. If those names sound familiar to you, it’s because those were the very priests who had orchestrated Jesus’s death.  They were the ones who influenced the council, who had Jesus arrested, who ordered the police brutality against him, who accused Jesus and indicted him with trumped up charges, who defamed his character, who railroaded Jesus in a kangaroo court.  Annas and Caiaphas.  John and Peter were facing down Annas and Caiaphas, being confronted by them in a court system that they knew to be corrupt.

During their proceedings the council, full of members of the religious aristocracy, asked Peter and John a question.  Their question was, “By what power or by what name did you do all of this?”  They asked, “By what power or by what name?”  but what they were really asking is,

“Who do you think you are?”

Who do you think you are to come here, into our temple?  Who do you think you are to speak these powerful words and to do these powerful deeds?

They were asking, “Who gave you permission to do this?” but it wasn’t really a question.  It was a threat.  “Who gave you permission to do this….because we did not.  And this temple is under our authority. How dare you?”  ”

“Who do you think you are?  How dare you?”

And Peter stares these men, the men he watched kill Jesus, right in the face and he answers them saying, “We have our authority in the name of Jesus Christ.  The very same Jesus that YOU killed.  The very same Jesus that GOD raised from the dead. There is no. other. Name.”

Whooo.

Ya’ll.

That is some COURAGE.  That is some reckless hubris.

And from Peter.  PETER!  Simon Peter.

This is the same Peter, the SAME PETER, who less than two months ago ran away from Jesus, left him dying on that cross.  Peter, who denied Jesus three times. Peter, who refused to even be associated with Jesus out of fear for his own life.   Now this Peter is walking up into Jerusalem, up into the temple, saying Jesus’s name all over the place, causing a ruckus, getting thrown in jail and STILL, in his trial, he’s not invoking the fifth amendment or standing silently, still, Peter is saying, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”

What in the world could cause this kind of transformation?  What could change Peter from the guy who pretends not to know Jesus, to the guy who faces down, with Jesus’ name on his lips, the very people who ordered his killing?

Peter had encountered the Risen Christ.  Peter had been changed, by the Holy Spirit.

Peter knew what it was like to walk through the darkest valley.  Peter knew well, the valley of the shadow of death.  He used to be afraid of those shadows, that fear used to run his life. But now Peter fears no evil. Peter knows that God is with him.

It’s Good Shepherd Sunday.  You might have noticed that a lot of our readings have shepherd imagery in them, like the 23 Psalm that I just paraphrased. But my favorite verse in that Psalm is the verse that comes just after that part: “You (God) prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.”

In the shadow of the deepest valley, our enemies expect us to cower in fear.  They think that with the threat of death all around us, that they can make us bow down to their will, on trembling knees. The powers and principalities, our enemies, they think we should be in mourning.   They think we should give up, they think we ought to be licking our wounds, or scared, or in hiding.  But even, especially, in the shadow of the valley of death, when it doesn’t look like a time for celebration God is there, preparing a feast.  God prepares before us a table in the presence of our enemies, a table so lavish and luxurious, a party so over the top that our cups are literally spilling-over.
They think it’s our funeral.  But God says…it’s time to party.

When people or systems are plotting your death, every smile, every ounce of joy, every celebration, every shout of alleluia, is resistance.

I learned this kind of joy-as-resistance from young Black organizers when I was in St. Louis during the Ferguson Uprising.  For about the first 6 months or so, there were non-stop protests happening.  No matter what time, day or night, literally 24/7 there was at least a few people holding vigil outside the Ferguson Police Department.  Those protestors went right to the source, right to the seat of power, to stare down those officers and chant Mike Brown’s name, to let them know that we wouldn’t forget what they had done to Lesley’s son.  And because there were folks there 24/7, all day every day, sometimes those folks had to eat.

Enter Cathy Daniels – better known as Mama Cat.  Mama Cat held vigil with us and she marched with us, although she moved slow sometimes, because she had a bad knee.  But what Mama Cat most loved to do is feed us.  “Food can heal you,” she always says.  “Everyone has an important role in the movement, it just so happens that mine is to care, to comfort, to nourish.”  And so she did. Every week outside the Ferguson PD, Mama Cat would bring over or cook out food for hundreds of Ferguson protestors.   And wow, could Mama Cat cook.  She would prepare a table before us, across from the police station, in the presence of the people who tear gassed us, who shot rubber bullets at us, who tried to get us to cower, to run away in fear.

And so while many of our protests were serious and somber, at other times, they were filled with joy.  There was dancing, food, a party.  There was a stubborn kind of community that formed around these tables, a community of full bellies, a community of hope, a community of resistance that said, “You think you have the authority to steal all of these things from us, but there are some things you cannot take away.”

It’s Good Shepherd Sunday, but we could really rename this Sunday “God the Petty Party Planner Sunday.”  Because showing up in the shadowy places it would be least expected and throwing a big ol’ party in the face of our enemies, is one of God’s favorite things to do.  God resists, God protests, alllllll those death dealing forces, and God does it in grand, delicious style. God takes our shadowy tombs, and turns them into a bright Easter.  God sets a table before us in the presence of our enemies, feeds us with God’s own body, and tells us we never have to be afraid again.

What would it look like if we believed God, the God that turns our mourning into dancing and our funerals into feasts?

How might we be changed, like Peter, if we believed that with God with us, we never had to be afraid again?

Would we cast off societal constrictions and oppressive rules in favor of bringing others into the fold, inviting outcasts to the party? Would we cast out demons and cast off chains?

I think we would love better.  I think we might be healed.

And when the world, confused, asks us from where we draw our power, under what authority we dare to live such in such a way, let us say, boldly the name of Liberation and Love:

“Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”

Amen.

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