Sunday, September 1, 2019

A Seat at the Table



Last Monday afternoon, a group of folks descended on Faith church and began moving around tables and chairs, bringing in mountains of school supplies – backpacks, lunch boxes, binders, highlighters and rulers.  In the course of an hour they had transformed our hallway and our fellowship hall into a festive, practical place for families facing homelessness to gather and receive some love in the form of food, fun and school supplies for the kiddos. 

Then on Tuesday morning, a new wave of volunteers arrived, ready to staff tables for free books, to help kiddos make nametags for backpacks, play bingo, make a craft, play a game and eat some pizza and Doritos.

And then the families arrived!

Families with many different colors of skin, textures of hair, sizes of body.  Families comprised of grandmas, aunts and uncles, step siblings, moms and dads, moms and moms, dads and dads.  There was so much laughter as they gathered up pizza and a drink, some choosing cheese, some choosing pepperoni, some choosing veggie.  I was aware that I was watching a feast, humble as it was. I was watching the extension of this table right here … and every table at which God gathers God’s own for sustenance that is purely a gift of grace.  

I was watching bread and wine taken, blessed, broken and given.

Manna.  Holy provision.  Not because it was earned but by the grace of God.  Sure, lots of people wrote checks and gave school supplies to make the “stuff” of the event materialize, and our staff and our cleaning crew and our building were all involved in making the work possible, but all of that generosity, all of the gifts were ultimately gifts by the grace of God. Gifts of God for the people of God, people we don’t really know but who are encountering a hard thing – homelessness.

Our gospel lesson this morning features Jesus teaching about table fellowship.  Having been invited to a banquet feast at the home of a leader, he takes the occasion as an opportunity to do some teaching.  As he watches the guests carefully choose their seats, either claiming or avoiding seats of honor, he describes the best way of doing this – of humbling oneself by taking the lesser seat.  Perhaps the host will invite you to take a more honored seat.  But if you begin in a humble place, then you are not embarrassed by being asked to leave when a more important guest arrives.

(We don’t live in the same rigid social society into which Jesus is speaking, although if you’ve watched enough Downton Abbey, you know that not so long ago, British social society was carefully ordered that way. And for so many years, weddings have had protocol about how sits where in the sanctuary and the reception…and more and more newlyweds are tossing that protocol aside to encourage everyone to just be in community!)

But Jesus goes on, as Jesus often does, to push the issue a little further. He schools his host – when you invite people to your house, don’t invite your friends, and those who will reciprocate.  Nope.  Invite those with need. Those who cannot repay your hospitality, your generosity, your kindness.  What you get out of that is relationship and righteousness.  Simply put it is the right thing to do.

Now, it’s kind of uncomfortable to hear that the purpose of sharing our banquet feast is NOT to be with our friends, but instead to feed the hungry and shelter those experiencing hard things.  It’s really hard from our place of relative comfort and privilege to hear that God’s intent for our sharing is for someone other than our chosen friends.

But it is also a reminder that this is the seat we take at Christ’s table. The seat we take is that of one who is in need…one who might not deserve the place of honor that we receive time and time again.  We who are all in need of God’s grace and inclusion, we who are none of us sinless, guiltless, without blemish. All of us spiritually hungry, needing to be fed.

It is important that we recognize what happens when we break bread together here on a Sunday morning…God meets us here and delights.  And then it is our turn to turn the banquet feast outward…to push the table beyond these walls and open our homes, our hearts, our building…to show up and provide sustenance for folks who do not know they are invited to the feast.

Carrie Newcomer is a folk singer who has done amazing work with peace and justice, and her music frequently includes images of church, of prayer, of God at work.  One of my favorites is a little tune called Betty’s Diner.  The song describes the unvarnished lives of the regulars who show up in this place with it’s steamy front window, chrome everywhere, and red checkered table cloths.   There they are received day in and day out by Miranda…who welcomes them warmly, brings them a hot meal and good coffee, while listening and keeping up with their lives.

The refrain to Betty’s Diner goes like this:

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold
Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She's heard it all so she don't mind

Don’t we all long to be received and known so well?  Don’t we all want Miranda to fill our cup with something kind, and place nourishing goodness in front of us?

Sort of like what happens at this table?

Being received and nourished and loved, covered over with grace changes us.  To have God tap us on the shoulder and invite us to a special spot just for us changes us. To have it happen again and again and again changes us.  And when we are changed, and we go out and offer the same to others, they are changed.  And on and on it goes.  

This is experience and understanding is central to our Methodist beliefs – we are being transformed by grace and by that transformation becoming perfect in love.  So far from “perfect” by the world’s standards. But perfect in God’s love.

As a church, extending our table means watching for the places we can touch another life.  We open our building to AA groups, to counseling, to Scouts, to local employees who need a spot to study scripture away from the office...and each of those connections represents a way to expand the table.  When our volunteers serve meals at the shelter, when they engage in advocacy work around homelessness and healthcare, those connections are a way to expand our table. When our young people head out to do mission work, they expand our table (and they are received at a table unfamiliar to them...)

We are changed.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.
Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.


May it be so. And may our table be endless with seats for many.



Sources:  "Betty's Diner," Carrie Newcomer, copyright BMG Rights Management.  I overflow tih gratitude for the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless (https://mcch.net/) and their team of staff and donors for showing us ways to extend the table.

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