We have spent the summer exploring how liturgy – our worship of the triune God – calls us to justice, through things we discover and skills we develop.
We come this week to probably the most radical element of our worship together: the Meal.
“Radical” because this is a meal without boundaries. It’s a meal that transcends our human walls of race, class, gender, identity markers, and all the other ways we place restrictions on each other.
“Radical” also because this is a meal that transcends time. This meal happens here and now, but it also happens across the continuum of time. We are on this side of the table, and those who have gone before us – what the author of Hebrews calls “so great a cloud of witnesses” – are seated on the other side.
So this meal holds life, and it holds memory. It holds hope and promise. All of those held together remind us that this is “a shared meal of justice and love, where food is shared equally with all, where the goodness of God’s earth is respected and consumed only within limits, and where food and help are also sent to those outside this circle.” (Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things.)
-In this meal, we discover:
*the concept of living in peace with those with whom we share other tables: tables for meals, tables on the shop-floor, tables in the office, tables in the market – and a host of other tables.
There are people in our congregations with whom we do not agree on some things. That is the reality of the human family. In gathering around the table where Holy Communion is celebrated, we admit that reality and also claim that God’s love and grace is sufficient – there is so much more that unites us than divides us.
This is a critically important discovery to take out into the world. Luke’s gospel has the central motif of a meal running all through it – important things happen within the context of a meal. I think this is because sharing a meal has for thousands of years been the basic symbol of hospitality and welcome. A few weeks ago we heard the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the strangers traveling through their land, and of course they rushed to prepare a meal and show hospitality. The “meal” we bring to the world from this table might be actual food, enacted justice, or something else – but it is always God working through us in spite of our differences with others.
How many times have we heard stories told of when someone not only encounters, but actually gets to know someone they might have termed “other”? Over and over we hear of stereotypes shattered and friendships established. God truly can make a way out of no way.
*realizing our dependence on God’s providence
This is probably one of the most difficult concepts for American Christians to grasp. This, after all, is the land of rugged individualism. But where the idea of “rugged individualism” falls short is in the actual workings of democracy. A concern for the common good is essential for a democracy or democratic republic to function properly. Selfishness and hoarding for oneself only function to set oneself over again – if not above – God.
One of our offering prayers – prayers we share after we have collected gifts for the sake of the work of the church in the world – reminds us “through your goodness you have blessed us with these gifts: our selves, our time, and our possessions. Use us, and what we have gathered, in feeding the world with your love…”
When we acknowledge and recognize that everything comes from God, and that we are entrusted with things as stewards, it helps us to reframe how we use those things.
*experiencing the coming reign of God – but in an “already/not yet” way
A line from the beloved text “Let the Vineyards Be Fruitful” is “and give us a foretaste of the feast to come.” This foretaste is not in the food so much as it is in the character of the community seated for the feast: people from all times and places, from all walks of life, on all sides of the political spectrum, united as the body of Christ. This prayer asks that we might catch a glimpse of that feast.
In our “already” world, we might struggle with the idea of being united at the table with someone whose politics are the polar opposite of ours. We might chafe at the prospect of sitting next to THAT person whose choices make no sense to us. But Christ came to remove the walls that divide us, and reconcile us to our loving God and each other. While we squirm in the discomfort of the “already”, do we dare imagine what the “not yet” might be? Can we get our heads wrapped around the image of a banquet table where there is no division or strife – only rejoicing?
-In this meal, we develop:
*the skills of distribution and sharing across barriers
No one at my congregation is quizzed or vetted before they come to the table to be fed. Distribution is to everyone as they have need. The barriers of race or class, of gender identification or of mobility are consciously and intentionally removed. Just a few weeks ago I brought communion out to a woman who had distinct mobility issues; I will never forget the tears in her eyes when she realized that she was included without question.
*a sense of equality (and equity) and the valued place of all people and all creation
No one gets better bread than someone else. No one gets better wine than someone else. We provide white grape juice and gluten-free wafers for those who have need, in the interest of caring hospitality. If someone brings their dog on Sunday, and brings them forward for a blessing, we are happy to give it. God’s peaceable reign is for all of creation; we are called to embody that reign in any way we are able.
*an awareness of participating in the life of heaven
When we explained the Scandinavian church architecture custom of a half-circle communion rail – the idea is that those who have died are kneeling at the other side of the rail – there were audible gasps in the church. So the following All Saints’ Day we had people bring pictures of deceased loved ones and clip them to a frame behind the altar, instead of setting them on tables to the side. As the Eucharistic Prayer was prayed, we had an evisceral sense of what the Celts call “the thin place” – where the line between heaven and earth is so thin that you can see it for a fraction of a second. We were on this side of the table; our loved ones were sitting across from us.
But the life of heaven is not just at the banquet table for the feast. It is also knowing that as we depart from the feast, we take the character of the feast out into the world, so that others might experience the grace and love and mercy of God through our actions. The life of heaven is a life that transcends our lived experience, not to mention our words – but it is always around us.
*our practicing the virtues of justice, generosity, and hope
In this meal, we practice the virtue of justice when we proclaim “all are welcome at Christ’s table.” We practice the virtue of hope in our prayers that God will continue to work through Christ and the Spirit not only in this meal to form us into the body of Christ, but also to transform us for service in the world. We practice the virtue of generosity as we move from the table to do justice and mercy in the world.
Luther insisted that this meal enacts God’s movement in Christ towards us and beyond us. As we receive Christ, so we are moved to share Christ with the world.
This table of the meal, the Eucharist – becomes the table of the world. The gifts of God for the people of God. And the gifts of the people for the sake of the world.
THIS is the welcome table.
You may have heard the news report a while ago about the engaged couple whose groom called off the wedding just a day or so before the ceremony. Rather than have the caterer throw away all the food that was in the process of being prepared for the wedding reception, the bride’s family instead elected to feed the homeless in their town.
They could have fed their friends and relatives, all the while kvetching about the groom. Instead, they invited to the feast those who couldn’t repay them – as we’ll hear in our gospel text on August 28th.
Christ invites each one of us to a feast we cannot repay, asking only that we go and do likewise. That we instead pay it forward.
This indeed is the welcome table.