From a practical perspective our table manners say a lot about who we are and what we believe about ourselves and others, love and life. In our dining rooms and living rooms, coffee shops and lunch counters, at school and work, fellowship hall and especially at the communion table who do we invite? Welcome? And include? Who do we see? Talk with? And Listen do? With whom will we break bread, share a cookie or piece of cake? Who do we follow? Who is the host? And who can lead?
Follow Jesus through story after story and one thing seems really, really, really clear; Jesus liked to eat! From wedding feasts to fish fries, while raising the spirit of friends and visiting strangers, in the upper room and the occasional flash mob in a field with five thousand. With saints and sinners, prophets and prostitutes, intimate friends and would-be-followers, he breaks bread with diverse people from all walks of life, genders, ethnicities, religions and spiritualities, economic status, ages and physical abilities. And along the way he upsets the comfortable, offends authorities, breaks rules, tears down walls, and violates polite practices that limit God’s grace, Christ’s life and the Spirit of Love.
I have been blessed over the years by serving congregations, including Greendale People’s Church, who invite all people to participate in communion and believe that all are called to participate in Christ’s ongoing work to heal broken relationships and our fragmented world. Over and Over again, I have witnessed the transformative power of God’s grace and Christ’s love resurrecting hope in persons who have been pushed aside and even rejected by society, family, friends and other churches and faith communities.
Just this week two very different people entered this building, found their way to my office, sat down, and courageously shared their story. I listened through their tears as these strangers and neighbors shared their hurts, hopes and fears. Would they be Unwelcome? Judged? Rejected? or leave feeling even worse off because they visits a church - our church; congregation; place of worship; community. You see, nothing about their experience in other faith communities, our space or signage indicated that they would be welcomed, included, celebrated or loved!
In one congregation we ended worship one Sunday by planting an Olive Tree from Israel as a prayer that God’s love and dream for peace might grow in our community, city and world.
As I stand and watch congregants add a handful of dirt to the base of the tree, I dust my hands together and try to avoid getting my clothes too dirty, a voice breaks through the background chatter and I hear - or think I hear - something like – “…learn how to do that…”
I look around and wonder if I’m overheating in the sun. I’m about to move on when I hear this firm, urgent voice, “I’d like to learn how to do that!” A gentle tug on my sleeve directs me to the inquisitive, excited, wide-eyes of a nine or ten year old girl.
I search for words. She tires of waiting and repeats her question-request-plea once more; “I’d like to learn how to do that!”
“Do What?” I ask.
Before she can respond, her mom swoops in to rescue us, “I’m sorry Pastor, Communion! She’s wants to help with communion.”
Tone, head nod, a glare and eye roll confirm that this is not the first time they have discussed this topic.
I know through the stories the mom has shared of her challenging journey. The pain and disappointment she experienced when she was prohibited from receiving bread at the table due to circumstances, choices and a life journey that did not meet with other’s approval. The issue could be one of many, for her it happened to be that she had a child out of wedlock and that offended the sensibilities of the powers that be. She shared how it took years to find the courage to give God and church another try, and even now how she struggles to believe that God’s love and grace include her. “I passed by the church week after week. I kept thinking about your sign outside that says everybody is welcome and then one day I saw your rainbow flag. I’m not gay, but I figured if you welcome LGBT people, maybe you might also welcome someone like me.”
What we believe about God, as individuals, groups, congregations, is revealed in the unintentional and intentional ways we make space, place and time to invite and include, listen and see, and commit to join with and even follow the lead of others – or not.
This is the powerful point of Jesus’ table fellowship, as well as his life, death and resurrection. A point he makes on the night when he was betrayed. It is the night of or before Passover, a time when they remember the great story of God’s saving grace, how God liberated the people from oppression and captivity, was with them on their journey through lifeless desserts, deep nights, challenging circumstances, wilderness wanderings, chaos and circumstances that threatened to overwhelm. In the final hours of his last days he reclaims and reframes this ancient story, connecting in his story and their stories as part of God’s unfolding story. And look the people who are present. Many are people unwelcome elsewhere, people whose life circumstances place them on the religious, economic and political periphery. Remembering the power of God’s unfolding story, breaking open of the bread and our lives, sharing the cup, grace and forgiveness he transforms this meal and table - every meal, table, place and time where we gather, remember and share - as the point, place, and time in which God’s love reigns, Christ’s light rules and the kingdom of God draws near. It’s not and never ever too late.
It is the old, old story renewed, reclaimed, and reframed as it is retold. “Yet even now” the prophet Joel invites the people to remember the goodness of God’s love – once more.
“Yet even now” when fear and fragmentation, comfort and convenience obscure and obstruct God’s enduring love.
“Yet even now” when leaders choose fear over love, disrespect the poor, forget the hungry, and confuse our ways with God’s way;
“Yet even now, God says return to me!...for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
“Yet even now” we are all invited and called to share this feast of love without fear, grace without guilt, and reconciliation rather than retribution.
Two Sundays later this persistent young lady proudly stands in front of the congregation and serves the communion bread.
“So, how was it?” I ask following worship.
“It was fun!” she says smiling from ear to ear.
“Great!” I turn to greet another person when a firm tug on my sleeve tells me we are not finished yet, eyes twinkling in the sun, “I’d
STILL like to learn how to do that.” she shares.
Mom once again intervenes, guides her to fellowship hall where a little while later I catch up to them, “I’d still like to learn how to do that!” she persists.
“Do what?” I again ask. Mom explains “She wants to stand at the table, break the bread and say the blessing!”
“Yeah, you know – not just stand there and hold the plate and cup.” Without the language or theological training this nine or ten year old girl wanted to lead the people in consecrating communion!
After practice, preparation and long conversations with mother and daughter, a few months later this young lady and her single, Latina, mom stand at the table, “Communion is like the time we were at my mother’s house,” mom begins.
“Someone rang the doorbell and when Grandma opened the door there was a stranger!” the young lady interjects.
“They spoke briefly, we do not know what they said, however my mother (grandma) went to the kitchen, made a sandwich…”
“… and put it in her best Tupperware! You know the ones we’d get in trouble for losing!” says the young lady.
“And she put it in a bag with some fruit, a little change and granola bars. He thanked her and left.”
“And we never, ever saw him again – not even to bring back the Tupperware!”
They bless the elements, serve the congregation, and return to the table. They each break a small piece of bread, pause to give thanks and then serve each other a bit of bread and drink some juice. There is hardly a dry eye in the room. Through their presence and story, we glimpsed a love so big and grace so courageous something shifted in the life of all present.
Joel’s words, Jesus’ gesture, the Lord’s Supper, and this small girl and her mother remind me of the fierce love and courageous hope we find in community with one another. A love so big we invite, visibly welcome and celebrate our diverse journeys and spiritualities, learn to listen through our shared stories, and lovingly grow to be more together.
This is the incredible creative power, promise and potential of a community such as ours in a time such as this. We are free to simultaneously reclaim and deepen the meaning of our faith and spirituality as we welcome and invite, include and make space to remember, reconcile, and return to God’s way of love, Christ’s light and the transforming Spirit that sets of free once more.
May God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit be our guide on this journey,