At the Table

Acts 11:1–18; John 13:31–35, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on May 15, 2022

At a recent meeting of the congregational care team, we had an exuberant conversation about how we will re-connect, as a congregation, over the summer. You will soon hear more details about the fun we’re planning—a series of backyard gatherings and a late summer ice-cream social. We want to keep these events light-hearted and at the same time, we want to be intentional about connection. This pandemic has changed us, in ways we are still trying to understand. We are different, and our ways of being church are different. There is a need to connect in a space that is open, caring, and curious. As we were discussing the idea of an ice cream social, someone mentioned folks who are diabetic and unable to eat sugar. How about a pickle social instead? another person suggested jokingly. . . . I love all things brine-y so I thought that sounded amazing. But alas, the general consensus was no way. In the course of this conversation, we laughed a lot, as I hope we will laugh when we get together this summer.

The remark about the need to keep dietary diversity in mind was an illuminating reminder for all of us; however. The table we set is about more than the food. We have to pay attention to the dynamics of the table, to how the table functions, and what that means for community. Is the table accessible and inclusive? Do our ways of coming together exclude people from full participation? What cultural assumptions and power dynamics are present as we gather? How do we hold space for a wide variety of emotions and experiences? Community isn’t something we can manufacture or force. But we can recognize and address the barriers that get in the way. We can be intentional about fostering genuine connection.

These same questions, dilemmas and tensions related to the table underlie both of our scripture readings this morning. Peter’s Jewish community was upset, not because Peter preached to Gentiles, nor because he baptized a Roman official and his family. No, they said to him, “Why did you eat with them?” The sharing of table fellowship was at the heart of their discomfort. Now, Christian biblical interpreters have often drawn from stories like this the lesson that Jewish dietary laws are problematic, that they are a hinderance to genuine community. That reading, however, is simply antisemitic. We all have dietary “laws,” whether or not we use that language. We all have likes and dislikes. We all have culturally specific ways of preparing and sharing food. We all have our beliefs about what types of food and practices of eating are healthy for us, for the community, and for the planet. The table is an intimate, familial space, a space of vulnerability, a space in which our diversity becomes apparent.It’s true that we can make space at our tables for the preferences and needs of guests.

The Spirit, however, told Peter “not to make a distinction” between his own community and the household of Cornelius. In other words, Peter was to move beyond the status of guest. He was to see himself as a member of Cornelius’ family sharing a common table in a community of equals. Peter had seen a vision of God declaring the unclean animals clean; that is, safe and healthy to eat. I’m guessing Peter didn’t abandon Jewish dietary laws once and for all. Most of the time, he probably continued to eat in the way that was spiritually and culturally meaningful to him. However, he received God’s blessing to make an exception for the sake of connection and community. So the point of this story isn’t to condemn or affirm either Jewish or Gentile eating habits. The point is to enable table fellowship, to make diverse community possible.

In turn, the Spirit urged Cornelius to seek out Peter—to share his table, to form a connection, to become a family. In the vision he had, the Spirit told Cornelius that Peter had “a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” This message was not a set of beliefs. It was an embodied, experiential Word. It was a meal shared at a common table. It was the gift of a living, loving, connecting presence—the breath of God, the fire of justice, the holy winds of transformation.

Yesterday, several church folks met at Crosby Farm Regional Park, near B’dote, the birthplace of the Dakota people, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. We teamed up with a staff member from Mississippi Park Connection and with some of the AmeriCorps volunteers that our church supported over this past year with our capital campaign funds. On this incredible spring morning, gentle sunlight bathed the deep greens of the fields and woods. Purple violets and a tiny painted turtle peeked out of the long grass. A swooping symphony of birds surrounded us. Our task for the morning was to remove last year’s burdock seed pods. Burdock is a non-native plant. It spreads quickly and takes up more than its share of the habitat. We learned that naturalists these days are shedding the language of colonization that labels such plants “invasive” and treats them like a hated enemy. Instead, they speak of “introduced species,”which acknowledges the responsibility humans have for their unfortunate migration.

Because of our grant, Mississippi Park Connection was able to increase the stipends they offered their AmeriCorps interns this year. This supplemental income made it possible for a more racially and economicallydiverse group to serve in these positions, which are often a gateway into jobs with the National Park Service. So in this one small, specific way, we are collaborating to address systemic racism. It was a privilege to meet the interns—Alanna, Kaisy, and Ze. They are enthusiastic about their AmeriCorps experience; it’s clear they love what they were doing. I’m grateful for the ways the interns welcomed us to their table at the sacred confluence of B’dote—offering us water and continually urging us to stay hydrated, sharing their knowledge and allowing us to work beside them. telling stories of their lives and inviting us to tell ours. 

Today’s Gospel passage contains Jesus’ central lesson about table fellowship. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.” Frankly, the command to love was not new. Love is the core teaching of most world religions, including Judaism. What I think Jesus meant was that he embodied love in a new way. Jesus gave this command to love during the last supper. And in John, the focus of the last supper was not the food, or the communion ritual. Foot-washing took center stage. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and then instructed them to do the same for each other. Love, according to Jesus, is embodied in acts of mutual service. And this dance of serving others and allowing ourselves to be served by them has far-reaching implications. There is no hierarchy at the table of Christ. Everyone is a Master and Lord, and everyone is a Servant and Friend. And living in that radically equal way critiques and transforms all our human power structures.

We always read this passage on Maundy Thursday, as the Roman empire prepares to murder Jesus. And we read it again today, during the season of Easter. To put it simply, resurrection is the promise that love is stronger than death. I see this concretely, each week, in the work of the Community Kitchen. Each Sunday afternoon, the boxes of rescued food pour in, and the crew gathers to sort and chop. And each Monday and Tuesday afternoon the kitchen fills up again with laughter and love, stories and political analysis, and of course, with the enticing smell of homecooked meals. Believe me, it’s a form of torture to sit in my office working quietly by myself with so much fun going on in the kitchen! And when the food is ready, something happens that I think of as a sacrament—that is, an outward, visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace. The food gets boxed up and packed into cars and sent out to our neighbors living outdoors, delivered with a friendly smile and a warm greeting. So I give thanks for our Community Kitchen partners. I give thanks that we can share our kitchen and our cleanup skills, and that together we can set this table. This table is, indeed, about more than the food. It is a table of inclusion, equity, and genuine connection. It is a table of mutual service that can transform the way we relate to each other. 

Friends, in this world of pandemic, hunger, and war, storms, fires, and white supremacists shooting up grocery stores, anxiety, abuse, dementia and cancer, love is still possible. It is still possible to love one another as Jesus loved us. It is still possible to serve each other and the world. It is still possible to share in the table of Jesus.And when we love and serve and share, our lives and the life of the world is renewed.

Alleluia and Amen.