“At God’s Table”

One of the first things I noticed about you, Daniel, is that you are always setting a table. Getting out coffee and tea and all the fixings. Putting together a nice little spread from the church freezer. Bringing gourmet donuts, to-die-for pastries from Alma, or coveted Colorado peaches to a meeting. This impulse to show hospitality, to express an abundant welcome is about more than food, though. It’s your heart; it’s who you are. I saw this in so many ways. Here are a few of them: when you knew, intuitively, how to connect with our children and youth, especially the ones who need a little extra support; when you made space for us to share both pain and resilience through cardboard testimonies; when you prayed for those you stand with and serve in your immigration work beyond First Church. I even saw this when you slipped little plastic spiders into a confirmation mentor’s soda. (Yes, you did that!)

Today’s parable places the table at the heart of the kingdom of God, God’s new climate. In Jesus’ time, and still today, communal meals both mirror and create the world we live in. In their book, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh explain:

Meals in antiquity were what anthropologists call “ceremonies.” Unlike “rituals,” which confirm and effect a change of status, ceremonies are regular, predictable events in which roles and statuses in a community are affirmed or legitimated. In other words, the microcosm of the meal is parallel to the macrocosm of everyday social relations. (367)

Accepting a social invitation in an honor-shame culture created a binding obligation for the guests to return the favor. This simple mechanism served to separate people by economic status. The rich never invited the poor, because the poor could not repay them. In today’s parable, there is an invitation ahead of time, and then a reminder when the day arrives. Malina and Rohrbaugh say, “Such double invitations are well known from ancient papyri. They allowed potential guests to find out who was coming and whether all had been done properly.” The authors add that the excuses offered by the invited guests “are an indirect but traditional Middle Eastern way of signaling disapproval of the dinner arrangements.” (365)

Though ninety percent of people in those times were farmers who lived in villages and small towns, this parable is set in the city. Cities in the ancient world were built for the purpose of serving the elite. Not unlike today, the infrastructure of cities created physical, spatial boundaries that in turn reinforced social boundaries. The elite lived around the temple and palace in the inner space of the city. The small group of peasants who provided them with goods and services lived in a separate area of the city. And outside the city walls lived everyone else: day laborers, beggars, prostitutes, and traders. They were let in to the public square of the city during the day and locked out at night. (p. 368) Dinner parties in those days began in the late afternoon and extended far into the evening, past the time when the city gates were locked. (366-67) So in his anger at his peers’ rejection, the host invited the poor not only inside his home, but inside the city, for the night. Extending this welcome to those who were systematically excluded from sharing the community’s wealth was not an act of charity. It did not reinforce existing social dynamics, making the rich man feel good about himself, but changing nothing. No, the host’s decision disrupted the city’s whole way of being, upended everyone’s sense of what was normal or legal or right. Everyone was invited into the same part of the city, and to the same table, invited to eat the same food on the same terms. No restrictions, no exceptions.

It’s really important to me, and to my spouse Jen, to have our family eat together. Sometimes the gap between what I hope for at meal times and what actually happens is really frustrating. When I lighten up a little, it also makes me laugh. Table grace is a small example. Most of the time, someone is eating during grace, or serving food, or talking or shouting, or leaving the table to play, or pinching their sister . . . As I mentioned a few weeks ago, right now I’m reading a book on parenting called Bless This Mess, co-authored by a UCC pastor and a psychologist.  After a particularly rough set of family meals, I read Jen this passage:

[Not] every family dinner will be the picture of domestic bliss. But that’s not why we eat together. When Jesus sat down with his disciples and fed them what turned out to be the first Communion meal, he also fed Judas, who was about to hand him over to be executed, and Peter, who would deny him in public after his arrest. This bears remembering next time you or your partner cooks a lovely dinner at which ungrateful kids bicker, complain, or pick. But Jesus sat down with his chosen family anyhow, warts and all, for love’s sake—and to make memories: “Do this,” he said, “to remember me.” (181)

It’s undeniably hard work to show up at the table God sets for us. It takes non-defensive listening, uncomfortable honesty and an actual willingness to change. As we sit, eye to eye, with one another, at the same table we also have to sit with all that wounds us and divides us, with our blind spots and our complicity in the oppression of others. And yet, when we choose to come to God’s table, on God’s terms, we will find that Christ sits beside us and between us, inviting us into unexpected grace, healing love and mutual transformation. There’s a lot on the table here at First Church today.

Today we are giving thanks for the ways that we have shared God’s feast with Daniel: for all the ways he has welcomed us, taught us, cared for us and challenged us. We are giving thanks for the Noisy Offering and games of Sardines; for dialogue sermons and for the formation of the Faith Formation Team; for holy mischief; for small groups and for urgent calls to do justice. Today, we are also grieving—grieving the loss of Daniel’s ministry among us, and grieving the pain that has been added to our parting by the mistakes I made, and your leaders made, in this process. We stand in need of healing, and healing will take courage and honesty, intentionality and time.

Today I think we can also give ourselves permission to be excited, to celebrate that our God can make something good out of a mess. With our financial gifts for Daniel’s new immigration ministry, we will support him in doing work he is called to do, work that makes use of his gifts and passions. And we will build on our own history of setting a table of abundant welcome right smack in the middle of an inhospitable, unjust and inhumane world. In this time when all that we hold sacred is under threat we have an important opportunity to leverage our resources to support and advocate for our immigrant neighbors.

Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook contains recipes and stories gathered by those who have worked around the globe with the Mennonite Central Committee. The cookbook, is, more than anything, an account of people who come from places of plenty attempting to share a common table with those who have very little. It is a story of the well-fed receiving generous hospitality from those who often go hungry. Nelson Weber, from Reading, PA, describes the experience this way:

During the civil war that eventually ended the Somoza family rule in Nicaragua, I worked with a village of Nicaraguan fishing families. . . . Whenever I visited the village, Paulino, one of the community leaders, invited me home for a meal. I always felt uncomfortable being served part of their meager rice-and-beans rations, but I felt especially bad when his wife, Teresa, included a fried egg, perhaps armadillo, or fish they had caught, or maybe even some chicken. . . . I tried to make excuses about why I couldn’t stay to eat. I even arranged my visits so they wouldn’t fall near mealtime. But Teresa was always able to put something together at a moment’s notice, and Paulino insisted that I eat. “Most of the people in our village do not want to share their food,” Paulino said one day. “They say their rations barely reach from one week to the next. But we like to share with everyone who visits here, and we’ve noticed that even though we share, we always seem to have plenty.” (p. 72)

We humans have set a table with the lies of fear and scarcity, greed and violence. Our ceremonies of exclusion deny the interrelatedness of creation and mar the earthly table we all share. And the catastrophic impact of our actions is becoming more and more clear with every passing moment. Even so, let us be rooted here. Connected, hopeful, vibrantly alive. Because we can trust that another kind of feast is possible. For God has implanted abundant welcome and mutual hospitality in our souls and the soul of creation. The banquet of love and justice is the heart of who we are, the pattern of reality itself. God invites us all to the table. How will we respond? Amen.