A sermon preached on the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17 C) on September 1, 2019 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.
I suspect that most all of us have been to meal at someone’s table before – an invite to lunch or dinner; at a friend’s home or a banquet, or a church. Imagine yourself invited to dinner by a gracious host. What is that like? How do you approach the table?
Perhaps we are someone who looks to see where other people sit first. Or perhaps we are someone who likes to choose their spot and everyone else can fend for themselves. Perhaps we like to sit to the side and out of the way, or near the kitchen so we can help, or at the head of the table, or just near someone we feel comfortable with or want to get to know better. Perhaps we are a person who notices how the table is set or wonders if I will like the food or wondering why we were invited to begin with.
Our Altar Guild lovingly readies this Table every week. And Sue, our deacon, sets our Table.
My role as your priest is to extend God’s welcome to this Table by teaching and guiding this community in the ways of God’s Love in the Christian tradition. As such, Table fellowship is my first priority. It’s something I take very seriously. More than anything else we do at worship, we are formed as Christians by how we understand our relationship to this Table.
It’s here, if nowhere else, that we are invited to lay down our burdens and open our hearts. It’s here, if nowhere else, that we share a meal with people we may never wish to otherwise associate with. It’s here, if nowhere else, that we are asked to bring our whole selves to God.
And so, it’s here, if nowhere else, that we experience reconciliation with God. The gifts of God for the people of God. All are welcome at God’s Table.
This story from Luke alongside all of today’s accompanying scripture is unambiguous in the consistent Biblical imperative that we honor and care for all who come into our midst regardless of what we think of them, all who come to any table we set, whether metaphorical or literal. We are called to welcome the stranger in our midst.
And when we become overly self-centered and deny others the abundance that we’ve been given, when we seek to exalt ourselves and our own needs at the expense of others, God will act to overturn the injustice and oppression that has been created. Christ always returns to bring about God’s Kingdom.
When we talk about the return of Christ and the coming of God’s Kingdom, I think we think of these things in large, sweeping, earth-shattering acts. And they are, on occasion. But the over-turning of oppression and marginalization begin in our own hearts where Christ’s return happens in smaller, but no less significant, ways.
And it begins here, at God’s Table, where our hearts are fed by God’s Word and opened by God’s unbounded Love. Here, at God’s Table, where all are welcomed.
The Letter to the Hebrews is a somewhat troublesome piece of scripture. Those of you who attended the Rector’s Forum last March on Anti-Semitism in Christian scripture may recall that Hebrews was written by an unknown author in the last quarter of the first century after the fall of the Temple in 70 CE.
And it’s written to Jewish Christians who lived in Jerusalem, many of whom were considering giving up this new set of beliefs in Christ to return to an identification with Judaism in order to avoid persecution. Perhaps the only time in history when it was safer to be a Jew than a Christian.
Therefore, the language is decidedly slanted in its portrayal of Judaism because it was trying to convince people that belief in Christ was a better path. Yet, it’s one of the more beautifully written books in the Christian new testament. And it certainly echoes the teachings on radical hospitality that we find throughout the Gospels; Jewish teachings revealed and emphasized by the rabbi named Jesus.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
… when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
Both of these readings get to the core of why God calls us to this Table in the first place. Why does worthiness matter to us when it comes to who has a place at which table? Why do we get lost in the belief that worth must be proven?
Luke’s Gospel shows us the human desire to be seen and known as worthy. The human tendency to make sure we get the seat we think we deserve. And this is always at the expense of the other.
Because the belief is that love (power/prestige/wealth) is a zero-sum game. There is only so much to go around so I will get mine or I will be bitter that someone else has what should be mine… or I will twist that and believe I was never worthy to begin with so I stop showing up.
It’s as if we believe that life is some big game of musical chairs.
Never enough chairs when the music stops.
The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that that this person, whom we may call a stranger or deem unworthy, is, in fact, a gift to us. Rather than recognize that, however, we can get lost in the belief that this person is at best an inconvenience or at worst a criminal who deserves to be locked up in a cage on the border.
Because humans get lost in this tendency is exactly why this is instruction to care for the stranger in our midst is given to us over and over again throughout scripture, in many different ways through many different stories.
We get lost, I think, because inside of us, we’re playing out this worthiness game on ourselves all the time. All of us have aspects of ourselves that we are ashamed of, ways in which we believe we are unworthy. Things that we try to hide from even ourselves. Acts or thoughts or even beliefs that live in the shadowlands of our souls.
And sometimes our lesser angels hold sway and we succumb to these thoughts or feelings – believing things about ourselves or other people that we would never want others to know. Or doing things that bring a wave of shame through our consciousness.
And so many times, we take these parts of ourselves and fold them up tight and tuck them away in the back of our heart where we have a wall that protects us from feeling them and thinking about them. Until a bad day brings them all back into our consciousness and we become utterly convinced that we are the most unlovable or the weakest or the most fake or the least sane or the most tainted or whatever other story of unworthiness we have.
When we are locked in this cycle, we are also bound to the world for positive regard, needing approval or needing privilege or wealth or power… to counter those stories, to somehow prove our worthiness to ourselves. And we get into the “life is a game a musical chairs” thing all over again… believing there’s only so much love to go around.
And herein lies the power of the Table that Jesus has given us. It is here, where we are invited to realize that the worst things about us do not determine who we are. For who we are, who you are, is a beloved child of God. And that’s all that matters.
Those pieces of ourselves that we’ve folded up tight and tucked behind a wall mean nothing to God who loves you wildly and passionately because nothing you could do will ever separate you from the love of God.
That is the radical love, the radical hospitality of God. So when I say that all are welcome at God’s Table, I’m not just talking about every person is welcome here. I’m talking about every single part of me and every single part of you is welcome here.
There is light here enough for all the shadowy, folded places.
There is food here enough for all.
There is love here that is inexhaustible and outrageously lavish and there is no wall that blocks your way. No need to prove worthiness.
We experience separation from God only because we’ve put a part of ourselves behind a wall. The invitation to confession, is not so that we think badly of ourselves, it’s so that we unburden ourselves before God. We renew ourselves through confession. It is our invitation to allow God into those folded parts, behind that wall we’ve constructed. So that, hopefully, brick by brick, that wall is torn down completely and forever.
When we experience that freedom, that truly shameless belovedness… that’s when we really truly get it. Not just on an intellectual level, as an ideal to be achieved, but on a cellular level. It’s true forgiveness. An unburdening that we want to extend to others as we reach out to our neighbors during the Peace.
This communal reconciliation is God incarnate – the Body of Christ, living and breathing and celebrating God’s unbounded love around this Table where we affirm God’s love and receive it as the sweet food that it is. A food that nourishes us to go forth from this place and offer this forgiveness, this freedom to everyone – but especially to the strangers in our midst who, we know from feeling like we are strangers and outsiders ourselves, is a particularly painful and dangerous place to be because there are others who will take advantage of their vulnerability.
So we offer God’s Love as an extension of the reconciliation we have become a part of, having healed the folded up parts of ourselves.
Does it stick once we experience it? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. That’s why we keep coming back to this Table. To practice and learn and open and see ourselves and the world anew.
Now, more than ever, the world needs us to come to the Table.
The Latino mother in the cage at the border needs us to keep coming back to this Table. The poverty-stricken child being denied medical care needs us to practice our Table fellowship. The young black woman being beaten in a jail cell needs us to keep coming back. The man in the crosshairs of a white supremacist’s gun needs us to keep opening ourselves to God’s love at the Table. The gay and transgender teenagers need us to be at this Table as much as we can.
We come to be reconciled to God so that we may extend that lavish, radical hospitality to those who are most in need of it. We come to be fed so that we might feed the world.
All of us belongs at God’s Table.