When we partake in Communion, God is calling us to give special consideration for the least of these
This table doesn’t stop with God’s universal love. We must also understand that God has special consideration for the “least of these.” As I said earlier, God’s perspective is complementary and paradoxical. I said that God doesn’t just save from the outside, but from the inside. Let me say it the way my ancestors talked about it: God sits high, but looks low. God sitting high is God’s universal love. God looking low is God’s special consideration for the least of these. The Communion table cannot simply celebrate God’s universal love and neglect God’s constant consideration for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the least of these. This negligence does a disservice to God and to the world God loves. Many Christians are fine talking about all that universal love I just talked about. But ultimately, we neglect the other side of God’s love to our detriment.
Hear the words of the prophet Amos:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos, under the power of the Spirit, prophesied these words over 2700 years ago. And this is his observation: rituals and worship that celebrate God mean nothing if we do not match our worship with justice and righteousness. Let me say that again. God doesn’t care about our worship, sacrifice, and praise unless our worship and praise is matched with an unquenchable thirst for justice, love, and mercy. Paul said it another but similar way. We could speak in tongues, we could give our bodies up to be killed, we could have wisdom, and we could do all kinds of things (like move mountains) that show we are close to God, but if we don’t have love, then we are nothing. Amos puts a finer point on the matter. And so does Jesus. In Luke, Jesus came for the captive and the sick, an eternal Jubilee Year (see Leviticus 25). In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus told us that not everyone who confessed him as Lord would enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who visited the sick and imprisoned, only those who clothed the naked and fed the hungry. Amos says that only those who practice justice and righteousness are worthy of praising God. We must understand what Amos, Jesus, and Paul are talking about. Because this communion will mean nothing if we don’t get this right. If we don’t get this “justice and least of these” thing right, then God is saying to us, “I despise your gospel songs, and your Holy Ghost foot stomps and claps. I’m tired of your “Amens” and your preaching. I detest your call and response and hymns. Do you think I care about your empty Communion services, your tithes, or your offerings? Is this something that pleases me? But let justice roll like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!”
Yes. This meal must remind us of the least of these and the demands of justice. The least of these: The Bible calls them the poor, the widow, and the orphan. These are not designations of morality. I need you all to hear me. Being impoverished, a widow, or an orphan is not a sign of sin. These stations in life have nothing to do with being a sinner. These terms were ancient Israel’s way of speaking of those whom their community could easily forget, exploit, and oppress. In a patriarchal society like ancient Israel, if you did not have a father then you were in trouble. If you did not have a husband, you were in trouble. If you did not have the means to sustain yourself, you were in trouble. The poor, the orphan, and the widow were the folk who were easily unlovable, not because they did anything wrong, but because they were deemed of lesser value to the community. As descendants of slaves, this ancient community knew that their oppression and cruel slavery was sinful, but their enslaved ancestors were not considered evil. The “least of these” was Jesus’ own way of talking about a community’s “unlovables.” The least of these are those who are of least value and “disposable” to any given community. In Corinth, the poor were of less value, not because they were sinners or morally upright, but because they were poor and poor people are routinely considered less than rich people. The rich people in the church in Corinth did not treat the poor as equals and allowed them to go hungry even during a sacred meal. This is the world we live in, where rich and poor can live side by side like Lazarus and the rich man, yet only the dogs will come lick the sores of the poor. Animals have more compassion than those with the means to alleviate and divest themselves of injustice. God has a special consideration for the least of these because they are often closest to death. The least of these bear the brunt of injustice, the weight of our collective scorn and sin; the least of these are demonized by the powerful and we justify their existence by heaping our sin on them and claiming that their lot is deserved because of their own personal and collective sin.
God has special consideration for those who are collectively unloved and closest to death. The least of these are different in every community. We saw them last week in Baltimore, and while many demonized them for being angry and rioting—and I don’t absolve anyone who burns property—many in the media and even my own friends failed to mention that before the property was burned and before peaceful demonstrations had gone on for over a week, Freddie Gray was killed like so many others, and poverty reigned and social services were cut, and folks were forgotten, and industry was shipped overseas… And a community no longer even has the scraps from the rich man’s table. Oh yes, you can tell a lot from a meal. You can tell even more when there is no meal to be had.
Therefore, Communion should not only remind us and call us to practice God’s universal love. This sacred meal should also remind us that God looks low. This meal reminds us that injustice is in the world and that God doesn’t want our praise and worship if we won’t seek justice, love, and mercy. Communion invites us to match our worship and remembrance of God with an unquenchable hunger and thirst for love, justice, and mercy. This meal reminds us that Jesus did not simply die for our sins. Jesus was murdered because of sin. While we memorialize the death of Jesus, we must also mourn and lament his death. He, like so many in history, should not have been killed. Again, we too must sit high and look low. We must rejoice together and we must weep together. We celebrate this meal and we lament this meal. This is the prize, saints.
We lament Jesus’ death because he represents the least of these. These are the ones whose lives are cut short due to violence and oppression and betrayal. These are the children who are born into the world they did not create but are saddled with hunger and the scorn of the world. This meal must remind us that while food gives us life and should be enjoyed by all, there are those in this world who have little to no bread and are on the brink of death. And believe me, the overwhelming majority of the poor have no bread not because they are lazy or they don’t work hard or because they are inferior or because they are worse sinners or loose or whatever other justification we use for them… they have no bread because others are hoarding the bread and still desire more. This is not an issue of race. This is an issue of the least of these. Race is a designation that the ancestors of this country first created to designate lesser and greater, red, black, and white. I did not create these terms, and quite frankly, I see race only as a social construction. But the legacy of race and racism as a basic criteria for creating the least and best of these for the American community is real. And like the rich man in Corinth who hosted the dinner, yet let those poor folks go hungry, we too must say with Paul, that humanity shows contempt for God and the humiliation of the least of these when we claim that just because we are under the same roof called “nation” that means we are equal. We may be under the same national roof, but some enjoy and get drunk on the full benefits of the Constitution while others starve…
This meal calls us to remember the least of these in our communities, in our country, and in our churches. Jesus told us a parable, and both the righteous (sheep) and the unrighteous (goats) called him “Lord.” “Lord,” they said, “when did we see you in jail, or sick, or hungry, or naked.” And the God who became flesh, the God who sits high but looks low, the God of universal love and special consideration for the oppressed–our God will say back to us, “As surely as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” This meal calls us to remember broken spines, persistent hunger, generational poverty, elderly abuse, miscarriages of justice, and the fact that being sinless won’t save you if Boss Man gives 30 pieces of silver to the wrong disciple… This meal shows us that money and ambition can destroy lives and community. This meal shows us that imprisonment on false charges can benefit the powerful. This meal shows that a body was broken and blood was shed at the behest of religious authority and under the auspices of state sanctioned murder. Have mercy Lord. This meal calls us to remember the least of these. The wafer and grape juice, the bread and the wine, call us to seek justice and mercy, not only by helping out the less fortunate, but by actively transforming injustice into justice, death into life, fear and hate into love. This is our task of daily resurrection.
It’s more than a meal.
© 2015 M. J. Sales