Near the end of March, at the beginning of Passover, Rabbi Miller will begin his first passover observance at Congregation Beth Ami down the street on Mayette. Mordechai Miller took that position last year and is probably just about in his rhythm now. He might have gotten there ahead of my expectations, he’s been doing this for thirty seven years now, but he is going to lead his congregation as they prepare, doing the shopping and preparation, pulling the Haggadah off of the shelves again and teaching the parts to their children.
I imagine the joy of finding a new community, of finding your place amongst a new people, a fellowship that shares your values and your faith. Actually, I don’t have to imagine it. I had the privilege of living it seven and a half years ago, and a little time before that, when I became a part of the unruly mass that was and is Debbie’s family, and a little bit before that when Gloria Dei made me a part of their fellowship, a new member, a new beginning, a whole company with whom to walk together.
Tables will be set and prayers will be said and four questions will be asked by the youngest one gathered and amidst all of the centuries, millennia of tradition, amidst the preparation all done just so, a place will be set for someone who has not come in all of the observances since the beginning, yet the place is still set, out the door is still cried Elyahu N’va’ot! so that he will know that his place is ready.
A place will be set for Elijah, an empty chair, a place setting with silver polished and arranged just so in the anticipation that a stranger might appear in their midst, and that his coming might be a blessing.
But what happens when Elijah actually comes? Or someone who comes to us and sits in the seat, but isn’t Elijah, is just someone we have not met. What do we do when the stranger comes and asks us to pass the butter?
Well, look around. I imagine that if the stranger looked alot like us, northern european and mainstream and actually seeking a relationship with God, then we too have prepared a place for them. We too have left a chair, set the table, and we are all warmed up to rush to them and to greet them warmly because they are “our kind of people” literally, they are a lot like us and so we are ready for them.
But about six weeks ago I put this statement into the bulletin, then had a poster made for the narthex, and the plan was to put it into the bulletin at least once a month, to make these words ring in this hall all the time. Anybody remember this?
I read this out to the conference clergy meeting I was at on Thursday and one of my colleagues asked “What happens when that person comes, with piercings and colored hair and tattoos?”
I knew that it was a trap. It was a question meant to separate the lofty goal from the actual practice, to show how far there is yet to go, even in a congregation which prints this in its bulletin. I, however, was able to say, without pause, “we say, Hi Hannah, how’s college going, we’re glad you’re back. Because she is the daughter of the congregational president.”
I bragged on you folks. I do that from time to time. I told my colleagues that from my vantage point up here at the front of the church I have seen you approach and greet strangers to our fellowship, offer to guide them through the service, explain things, ask and answer questions.
I have seen you reach out and help them into their chairs, help them be comfortable, invite them to play bridge or to go out for coffee or lunch afterwards, to be present for the one who comes in and takes the place that had been prepared for them.
I have also heard you come up to me and say “Psst, Pastor, there are new people in the back, go and talk to them!” or words to that effect.
Nobody’s perfect. Nobody. I got into a fight recently on facebook, don’t worry, it ended amicably, but a friend of mine shouted about churches that demand tithing and shun people who cannot comply. Naturally my response began with okay, stop shouting, there are bad eggs in every basket and nobody I know does that. It felt odd to have to actually explain tithing to someone, to explain faith itself to someone, but it was also pretty refreshing.
Tithing, I said, is like any discipline. It is great, honestly, it feels great to be able to make the same commitment to God and the work of the church as you do to PG&E and the work of the franchise tax board.
But like any goal we have as Christians, like any goal we have as people, sometimes we fail to get there, in fact often we fail to get there. That’s the point of the confession at the beginning of the service, that’s the point of confession at all. We make a point of acknowledging that we are imperfect. Tithing is an internal struggle, a question of passion and commitment and it ought not be imposed upon you from the outside and the same thing is true for the stranger in our midst.
The goal ought to be unflappable welcome, unvarnished love, raw and vulnerable. The goal is all of that. The reality is often a little harder.
And that is true of everyone. Nobody is always the person that they want to be. Nobody without a strong streak of self-deception, that is. We’d all like to be better at this or about that, I’d like to be better about my back yard and not just the front yard. Most people would like to be better parents, spouses, sons or daughters, better pastors, God knows I’d love to be better at this job, my failings are before me every day.
It all seems hopeless, we’ve got this fabulous statement of openness and we’d love to actually be this people; but we know that we are not yet this people, we are not yet this good, not yet this open. Same thing with tithing. Same thing with parenting. Same thing with citizenship and parenting and everything else, it is all truly hopeless?
Ezra stands before the whole people and reads from the book of the law and all the people worship and pray, hands up, faces down. The word changes them when it is spoken aloud and they are reminded that there is a chance. They are reminded that there is a way, a hope, a path for them and for the whole,world where brother can greet brother, and no one stands as a stranger.
The word of God is like that. It paints a picture of what God’s will looks like and points to it and asks, “How ya doin’ with that?” And so often we run into the weeds when we look, and see how far we are from perfect, far from the picture of God’s own perfection and then throw up our hands and say that it is hopeless.
Jesus stands before the congregation and opens the book of the Law. He reads the words and just like in Ezra’s day everyone looks to Him for the answer, for the interpretation and He gives to them a speech I cannot give to you. He tells them something that I cannot tell you, at least not on my own behalf, he tells them, “Okay, that’s done!”
Goal set, goal achieved. Now we can go home and rest. Right?
Well, sure if you happen to be Jesus. If you are the Son of God then sure, the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing, this morning as well, Jesus is the answer to the question posed by the scriptures over and over again. “How ya doin’ with that?”
In Him is the fulfillment of the impossible task of being perfect, the impossible taks of being righteous. No longer is there the specter of our imperfections looming over us, condemning us for the frailties and failings that are part and parcel of being human, a new day has dawned and this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
We are freed from the demand to make things right on our own steam and empowered to be what we are. Good but not perfect. Brother and sister to one another for no better or worse reason than the fact that none of us are perfect and instead of seeing that as a weakness, it can become our strength.
It can draw us together. Common confession, common cause. Equally broken, equally hopeful. Not quite what we would want to be, already in the same kettle so lets learn to swim together, get to the edge together and climb the heck out together.
It is our commonality of weakness that is redeemed in Christ, fulfilled in this morning’s text. All of the righteousness that is just out of our reach because we are human is grasped by Jesus in the Synagogue and becomes the inheritance of those who claim his name, confess his redemption of our sin.
And that inheritance is not one of perfection, not unless you are ready to die right now, right here with Jesus for the sake of the world. The inheritance is the calling, the mission to draw together and hear the word and then worship, hands up and faces down, and then run home in celebration, gathering together as family and eat the fat and drink the sweet wine because the burden of perfection is lifted and we can get on with the real will of God which is not that we discipline ourselves and refine ourselves and test and burden ourselves because we are not good enough.
We can get on with the will of God because it is that we leave a seat open, in our hearts and in our homes and in our churches and in our government and on our police force and in our hospitals and everywhere we go for the one who is a stranger to us, who is not the one we were expecting or planning for or even the one we thought we wanted. The will of God is that we set a place for the one we did not want, the one we did not know we wanted.
In Ezra’s time the people were sent out to celebrate the hearing of the word by feasting, but also by sending out portions to those for whom nothing was prepared. Not just the stranger, but the neglected, the lost, the forgotten, the one for whom nothing has been prepared.
We have the goal of being the people we’d like to be, the people who will open their arms and set a place for the one whom we have not met and then welcome anyone who sits there, without judgment and without fear. Some days we do better at that than other days but it is not ours to fulfill the scriptures and their picture of perfect love. It is ours to use our weakness as a bridge, our confession as a badge advertising that not only are we not perfect, we don’t care that you’re not, we just want to be with you on your journey, here have a seat, we have a place set just for you.