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May 15, 2022
So much happens at tables. Celebrations and consolations. Families are made stronger, and families hurt each other. Treaties are negotiated and broken. What are the significant table moments in your life?
I remember so many. When I graduated from seminary, my family hosted a dinner at my favorite restaurant in Berkeley. Lots of my favorite people were around that table – members of my family and friends who had become family, gay people and straight people, Christians and atheists. Different cultures and geographies and generations and histories. We ate and told stories and laughed together at that table.
Many years earlier I was making plans to attend a significant event for the child of one of my good friends. There was going to be a gathering afterwards at a local restaurant. My friend called me ahead of time to ask if he could seat me at the table between his divorced parents. “They’ll behave if you’re there,” my friend said. The good news is that they did behave. The bad news is that a dinner party isn’t much fun when you’re worried that at any moment you might have to referee a fight between two fully-grown adults.
The table I would really like to forget – maybe you too – is the table in the middle school lunchroom. The table where I sat and ate lunch with my friends – until the day when, for reasons I did not understand, I was suddenly not allowed to sit with them anymore. I wish I could time travel to tell 8th-grade Christa that everything would work out, and there would be plenty of tables and plenty of friends and plenty of seats in the years to come. But at the time, my heart was broken.
Our gospel today involves a little bit of time travel. It takes us back before the appearances of the risen Jesus, before the empty tomb, before the crucifixion. This piece of John’s gospel comes from the night just before Jesus is hauled off to be killed – a night on which he gathers around a table with the disciples. You notice how Judas slips away at the beginning of the part we heard today? Judas is heading out to rendezvous with the religious and political authorities and lead them to a place where they can arrest Jesus.
Those of you who have heard me preach on Maundy Thursday over the years know how remarkable I find this fact. During his last meal before he dies, Jesus shares the supper with Judas, the person he knows will betray him and hand him over to be killed. Jesus also shares the supper with Peter, the person he knows will deny him three times later that night.
So when Jesus says love one another as I have loved you, he is not talking about an abstract, superficial, conditional kind of love. It’s a generous, merciful, incomprehensible love.
Fast forward to the book of Acts, where we find Peter, that same three-time denier of Jesus, after the resurrection. Peter is doing his best to tell people about Jesus. For Peter and his friends, people fell into clear categories. They and their families are Jewish, and all of these other people are Gentiles. There are laws that Jews observe – laws about what to eat and what not to eat, among them. These are not arbitrary rules. These strictly observant ways of living have helped the Jewish people hold on to their identities as people of God in times of being conquered by armies that worshipped many gods and times of exile when they were surrounded by strangers in a strange land.
But now Jesus has told Peter and the others that the mission will be much larger than they could have imagined. Jesus has sent the disciples out, as we hear in the first chapter of Acts, to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Jews and Gentiles alike are invited into this growing community. In the chapter just before what we heard today, a Roman soldier named Cornelius and his entire household have been baptized, and Peter has spent several days at Cornelius’ house, which we can only imagine involved lots of time around tables eating and sharing stories and laughing together.
That’s what gets Peter into trouble with some of his Jewish friends, who criticize him for being careless about the dietary laws by eating with Gentiles. That’s when Peter tells them about a vision that God had recently sent him, a vision in which God signals that it’s OK to broaden what is acceptable to eat, which really means that it’s OK to broaden who can be part of the Christian community. The Holy Spirit, Peter is learning, does not discriminate. As Peter says: “If then God gave them [the Gentiles] the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Who was I that I could hinder God? That’s a question we should ask ourselves more often. The book of Acts is about an ethic of belonging, one that keeps on expanding. That belonging often shows up as hospitality – people gathering together, eating together, sharing a table together.
Who are we that we could hinder God? Who is missing from our tables? Who might we invite? Who needs to be told explicitly that they are welcome because they’ve been sent away from so many other tables?
I find it hard to love the way that Jesus does. I don’t know how to love a man who deliberately goes to a grocery store in a black neighborhood and kills ten people. I don’t know how to love people who go after vulnerable women. I don’t know how to love those who threaten the well-being of transgender teenagers.
I’m not saying for a moment that Jesus approves of what mass shooters and white supremacists do or what they believe. But I know he loves them. He would feed them. He wants to be in relationship with them in such a way that they turn away from their weapons and their hatred and toward an ethic of love.
I also know that Jesus pulls up a chair right next to him and says to those who have been hurt again and again by the violence and racism and hatred of the world: “I have a seat for you here. Have some food. Relax. Be yourself without being afraid.”
U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo has written a poem about tables, which opens with the line “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.”
Think about all the things you’ve experienced around tables. Think about how we might give shelter to people around this communion table. What kind of community awaits us around the table? The Holy Spirit is still insisting that we dream bigger dreams.
Listen now to Joy Harjo’s poem as a prayer of thanks and a prayer of challenge, a reminder of what has been and what kind of community is possible.
Perhaps the World Ends Here[i] by Joy Harjo
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] “Perhaps the World Ends Here” from The Woman Who Fell From the Sky by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 1994 by Joy Harjo.
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Join the fun this summer as we experience the ride of a lifetime with God!
Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.
Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm
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