We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Table

TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Proverbs 25:6-7

Psalm 112

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Prayer of the Day: O God, you resist those who are proud and give grace to those who are humble. Give us the humility of your Son, that we may embody the generosity of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But 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.” Luke 14:12-14.

The 2-4-6 dinner, so named because that is the address of the Methodist church in which it is held, was one of many unfortunate casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a weekly occurrence throughout the winter months here in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Organized and run by a consortium of civic leaders, church members and volunteers, the dinner was hosted each Tuesday evening in the church basement welcoming as many as two hundred people. No reservations were necessary. There were no conditions nor any requirement to demonstrate need. Though there were plenty of food insecure folk who came to us regularly, they were not the only attendees. Many senior folk, who live alone and experience severe isolation during the long winter months here on the Outer Cape, found company and friendship. Young AmeriCorps workers housed in various settings throughout the forests of the National Seashore welcomed the opportunity to gather and socialize under one roof, a luxury where most of the local bars, restaurants and clubs are closed for the season. There were musicians who graced us with music on the church’s ancient piano as lively conversation was had at each table. Of course, welcoming a crowd of this size in close quarters was out of the question once the pandemic set in. Though 2-4-6 continued to provide food assistance via take out, it was not the same. Now with vaccines and effective treatment for Covid, we are seeking safe and responsible ways to re-start the dinner.

My experience with 2-4-6 stands in stark contrast to other feeding ministries with which I have been involved. At my last congregation, we prepared meals on a monthly basis for the Walk In dinners at the homeless shelter in Hackensack, New Jersey. In addition to persons staying at the shelter, the dinner was attended by people from all over Bergen County experiencing food insecurity. We did all the preparation at the church and brought our food to the shelter. The dinner was managed by shelter staff. Guests stood in line outside until the dinning room opened. Staff ushered them indoors and we stood behind a counter with food warmers, glass sneeze barriers and a steel shelf on which to place plates of food. On the other side of that divide were the recipients. We would dish up a plate of meat, potato and vegetable for each person. Deserts were at the end of the line monitored by staff. Though we always greeted each person and did our best to personalize our work, we did not otherwise interact much with those we were feeding. Giving “seconds” was strictly forbidden under the rules of the center. I have to confess that I broke that one more than a few times, for which I was reprimanded by the staff. “Pastor, I know you mean well. But when you make exceptions, you make it impossible for us to maintain order here.”

I do not wish to denigrate the fine work of the staff at Hackensack Shelter for the Homeless. They are some of the most faithful, committed and compassionate people I know. They provide life giving aid to people in desperate circumstances, serving meals to families with small children barely able to pay their bills as well as homeless women and men . Among those served are a few folks that are mentally ill and emotionally disturbed. The rules strictly enforced by the staff help to ensure that the Walk-In dinner is a safe place for everyone. I want to emphasize that feeding the poor and sheltering the homeless is everyone’s responsibility and the duty of every humane society. But I also believe that Jesus asks much more of us than that. Jesus calls us to invite the poor, the hungry, the lonely and neglected to be honored guests at the Messianic banquet. Jesus never simply provided food. He prepared a meal, a blessing and an opportunity for community to develop and grow.

Understand that a meal is something quite different from “grabbing a bite,” “raiding the refrigerator” or “grab and go.” Meals are meant to be shared. They bind families together. Old and corny as it might be, the shopworn saying is true. “The family that eats together stays together.”  Meals are where stories are told and retold, where important events are celebrated, where we get to share and hear about each other’s day. Potlucks, picnics and repasts are occasions for building, strengthening and repairing community. Through shared meals the tendrils of compassion extend into the lives of all who partake in them and everyone they touch. Meals are the glue that holds families, communities and churches together.

Jesus understood the importance of meals. Sunday’s gospel takes place in the context of a meal. That is common place for Jesus, particularly in Luke’s gospel, where it often seems that Jesus is either at, going to or coming from a meal. He eats with outcasts and sinners. He goes to dinner at the home of prestigious religions leaders. When Jesus speaks of the coming reign of God, he often describes it in terms of a wedding feast. Most important, Jesus’ final evening together with his disciples was a meal in which he vowed to be present with them whenever the bread is broken and the wine poured. The meal is what makes the body of believers the Body of Christ. Through the community created by the eucharistic meal, God aims to bind up the cracks, crevices and divisions that threaten God’s good world.

One line in the Twenty-Third Psalm has always intrigued me: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Psalm 23:5. In a psalm that is comforting over all, that verse strikes a dissonant and disturbing chord. I don’t think I would have much appetite if I had to eat dinner surrounded by enemies. I would much rather be surrounded by family, friends, people with whom I feel comfortable. But Jesus does not afford us that comfort. He instructs us to do quite the opposite. Invite the poor, the crippled and the lame. Invite people who might well be your enemies. Perhaps God sets a table for us in the presence of our enemies because it is the only way God can make us understand that the table we set for ourselves and our loved ones is too small. Perhaps God sets a table for us in the presence of our enemies because God knows that the table is the only thing powerful enough to overcome our fear, hatred and prejudices toward one another. Maybe the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth comes by asking a stranger to dinner-and recognizing in the breaking of the bread the presence of Jesus.

Here is a poem by Joy Harjo speaking elequently to the formtive power of the table. It is force that I believe God would have us extend to the ends of the earth. But for that, to borrow a phrase from the movie Jaws, “we’re gonna need a bigger table.”

Perhaps the World Ends Here

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.

Source: The Woman who fell from the Sky (c. 1994 by Joy Harjo, pub. by W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.) Joy Harjo (b. 1951) is an American poet, musician, playwright, and author. She served as the 23rd United States Poet Laureate, the first Native American to hold that honor. She was also only the second Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to have served three terms. Harjo is a member of the Muscogee Nation. In addition to writing books and other publications, Harjo has taught in numerous United States universities, performed internationally at poetry readings and music events and released seven albums of her original music. Harjo is the author of nine books of poetry, and two award-winning children’s books. You can learn more about Joy Harjo and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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