4 Easter, Year A
4 Easter, Year A
Psalm 23, often fondly referred to as “the Shepherd’s Psalm,” is, without doubt, one of “the” most popular passages of scripture. In it, as in today’s gospel, we’re given a very comforting picture of God as a Good, Loving, Caring Shepherd. Today, I invite you to explore with me a little one verse, in particular, verse 5, which I think is quite timely, given the tragic conflict in the Middle East right now. The psalmist in verse 5 says: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” This verse underscores the power of table fellowship; of sharing a meal together. In sharing food with others, even enemies can become friends by being reconciled with one another.
The following story is a good example of how enemies can be drawn closer to one another by sharing food, music and other things in common.
One Christmas Eve in 1914, the first year of World War I, a strange quiet had settled on the western front. It was a welcome respite for a group of lonely English soldiers who had become all too familiar with the roar of the cannons and the whine of the rifles.
As they reclined in their trenches each man began to speculate about the activities of loved ones back home. “I can almost hear the church bells,” a stout man from Ely said wistfully. “My whole family will soon be walking out the door to hear the concert of the boy’s choir at the cathedral.”
The men sat silent for several minutes before a thin soldier from Kent looked up with tears in his eyes. “This is eerie,” he stammered, “but I can almost hear the choir singing.”
“So can I,” shouted another puzzled voice. “I think there is music coming from the other side.”
All the men scrambled to the edge of the trench and cocked their ears. What they heard was a few sturdy German voices singing Martin Luther’s Christmas song, “From heav’n above to earth I come, to bear good news to every one. Glad tidings of great joy I bring to all the world, and gladly sing.”
When the hymn was finished, the English soldiers sat frozen in silence. Then a large man with a powerful voice broke into the chorus of “God rest ye merry gentlemen.” Before he had sung three bars a dozen voices joined with him. By the time he finished the entire regiment was singing.
Once again there was an interlude of silence until a German tenor began to sing “Stille Nacht.” This time the song was sung in two languages, a chorus of nearly a hundred voices echoing back and forth between the trenches, “Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright…”
“Someone is approaching!” a sentry shouted, and attention was focused on a single German soldier who walked slowly, waving a white cloth with one hand and holding several bars of chocolate in the other. Slowly, men from both sides eased out into the neutral zone and began to greet one another. In the next golden moments each soldier shared what he had of his food and drink with the enemy. Then they started sharing their battered, but treasured pictures they carried of their loved ones back home.
On Christmas day, men from both sides again joined together, even visiting the other’s trenches. In a few days, unfortunately the war continued. For some, however, it was never the same. It was more difficult for many to treat the other side as “the enemy.” They too had faces, were real live people, with families like us. They too had hopes and dreams of good will and peace, like us. 1
These soldiers, like the psalmist, discovered that in the sharing of food with each other, it is more difficult to regard the other as one’s enemy. Of course, in the life and ministry of Jesus, there were several instances where he sat down at the table and shared a meal with not only his disciples and friends, but also strangers and outcasts, who were labelled as tax collectors and sinners. Most “respectable” people in society avoided such people and even believed that to associate with them made one “unclean.” Jesus would have none of that, and by eating meals with such outcasts, tax collectors and sinners, he was showing them and telling them that he accepted them and loved them as people of God, as he says in the tenth verse of today’s gospel: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” That means unconditional love and acceptance; that means health and healing; that means friendship and reconciliation among enemies; that means regarding everyone and anyone as one’s neighbour.
Our society, even the religious community, works on the basis of mutual invitation. Lutherans invite Lutherans. As long as we conduct ourselves in such a way, we have the convenience of speaking our own religious and cultural language. Intellectually and spiritually we live comfortably. But Jesus is not enthusiastic about it. The real meaning of hospitality is found in inviting someone who cannot repay you, someone who is unfamiliar to you. Then the concept of invitation—hospitality—receives a Christ-related meaning. Christ is the Hospitality of God toward us. He invites all of us, from all languages and cultures, to every meal of love or generosity or reconciliation; and, of coarse, to the great feast, the Lord’s Supper, the feast which none of us can repay.
Christian mission hospitals that specialize in meeting the medical needs of the poor are doing what Jesus commanded. The free distribution of food, clothing, shelter and medicine in areas devastated by war, famine and earthquake is what Jesus was talking about. These all point to Christ, who invites us as the Hospitality of God. 2
Thanks to God who offers us the abundant life, we are offered to join in the great feast of plenty. In table fellowship hospitality is offered and barriers soon disappear as enemies sit with each other, share their doubts and fears; their hopes and dreams and are able to be reconciled with each other.
In the ancient near Eastern world, hospitality could be a matter of life and death. Often once a person crossed the threshold of someone’s home, the host would not only feed them, and provide them with a place to sleep, but also protect their life from harm, even if they were an enemy.
As the conflict in the Middle East continues, maybe if there were more Israelis and Palestinians who were able to meet together over a shared meal—maybe then the barriers of prejudice and hostile hatred could be overcome. Maybe in table fellowship they could come to see the Hospitality of God at work in and through them. Maybe then they might be able to see a friend and a neighbour, a person of God, and not an enemy. Then too all could taste and see that the LORD is good and wants everyone to live the abundant life—whether they’re Irish Catholics and Protestants, Pakistanis or East Indians, rich or poor, male or female, Israeli or Palestinian.