A Messy Table

Paula Northwood October 7, 2018

Scripture 1 Corinthians 11:17–26

In our text this morning, we hear the apostle Paul scolding the church in Corinth. Apparently, the act of commemorating the Lord’s Supper, also called the Agape Meal or Love Feast, had turned into a free-for-all. The description sounds like a very messy table. Some were getting drunk while others went hungry, and Paul is making an attempt to bring them back to the true meaning of this symbolic meal. They have forgotten the reason they were gathered. They were losing touch with the true meaning of Jesus’s life and teachings.

This is not really surprising. Over time, we humans tend to lose sight of the goal, or we often distort it. Jesus was always pointing to a deeper relationship with God—with the divine sustaining life force. And instead, we get stuck on him. You may remember a popular TV show a few years back called “Glee,” which was set in a high school. One of the main characters was making a toasted cheese sandwich and, when he flipped it over, he could see the face of Jesus. Even though he was not particularly religious, he started praying to this cheesy Jesus. We see Jesus in all kinds of places: potato chips, tortillas, rust spots, not to mention the Shroud of Turin (that burial cloth that seems to have the face of Jesus). When I was a youngster, I painted a huge mural in my bedroom that at first glance looked like the side of a Holstein cow, but if you looked at it just right, you could see Jesus’ face, or at least what we think Jesus looked like. Why would I do that? You also might be asking: Why did my parents let me do that?

I liked that it was a mystery, a puzzle to be solved, but also a daily reminder of the one I was trying to follow. And so today around the world, we are celebrating World Communion Sunday. It is a call to the dinner table, the Agape Meal, the Lord’s Supper.

To gather around the table is not just to remember him with fondness, that he was a nice guy, or even to share memories of his miracles, such as “Remember the time he broke bread and fed 5,000 people.” No, it is to remember the radically inclusive table he created in their midst. He didn’t wait for them to come to him. He went to them. When Jesus fed people, it wasn’t to perform a miracle but to encourage people to think about sharing in a new way, where everyone has a place at the table and where the table comes to them. In his day, he included the widows, the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the Gentiles, the demon-possessed and even enemies. In our day, it is no different. The table is to be where we all gather regardless of social status, illness, addictions, vocation, color of skin, sexual orientation or gender expression. This is a dynamic, messy table where everyone is included, loved, valued and respected. But Jesus wasn’t starting a soup kitchen. What he was doing was radically different and more accessible to the poor and marginalized. He was creating a revolutionary way of solving not only physical hunger but relational and spiritual hunger.

Jesus is often quoted as saying, “The poor you will have with you always,” as if he meant there is no solution. It wasn’t a fatalistic comment. No, he was stating the reality that the systems we humans have created perpetuate food scarcity and poverty. Our way of doing things keep some people from having what they need.

As a church, we do so many good things. We house a food shelf, serve a meal once a month and, lately, through our Wednesday 100 Hands program, we have made hundreds of bag lunches for the folks living at the Hiawatha encampment. These are good and necessary things, and we will keep on doing them until we figure out a better way. But think about it—feeding others makes us feel good, but wouldn’t it be even better if we created a world where we didn’t need to give handouts? A world where we could sit down together equally valued and respected and simply share a meal? We need to work at deeper solutions. We have to ask what it is in our society that keeps people from flourishing. What is it in our church life that keeps people at arm’s length?

I have heard people say Jesus wasn’t political, that he responded to people only at a spiritual level. He said, “I am the bread of life.” Of course, it is a metaphor. He knew he wasn’t a slice of organic, whole-grain bread or a toasted cheese sandwich. He was offering his life as a radically new way of being in the world where everyone has a valued place at the table, and he dined with them in their homes, on the hillside and in the streets. One place where I think we come close is the monthly Discussions that Encounter. This is a meal where we share food and conversation with our African American neighbors. I encourage you to participate if you have not done so.

Sadly, here at Plymouth, there are folks who do not feel welcome at the table. We have to change that. Recently, the Leadership Council changed the title of the Racial Justice Task Force to the Racial Justice Initiative, not to diminish it but to raise it up, because a Task Force in our governance is time-limited, and racial justice and equity are values we are committed to for the long haul—and by that, I mean forever. We are just beginning to understand what that means. It means looking around and seeing what in our building is not welcoming. It means engaging people in compassionate conversations and being willing to truly listen. It means looking at our behavior and asking if it is inclusive of all people. It means thinking in a new way and doing the hard stuff to change it. It means not responding defensively when someone with less social privilege has the courage to share that they found something offensive and exclusionary. It means looking at our church systems as well as our country’s systems of doing things.

One of my nieces tells a story about how, after saying grace before a meal, she thought one of her sons said: “More Jesus, please.” And she thought, how wonderful that this kid wants more God in his life. But then he said it more plainly: “More Cheez-Its, please.” You know, the little orange cheese crackers. We need it all: a little more God, some good food and some laughter. We are living in a divisive, difficult time. It is especially traumatic for people of color, for people of minority sexual orientations and genders and for women. We need to gather around God’s table and nourish each other not out of charity but in equal relationships.

When everyone is actually eating at the table, it means that there is always the possibility of conflict, misunderstandings and heart-wrenching disappointments. In fact, it is guaranteed. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid the table. It means we should embrace the table in all of its messiness. It’s in dealing with the messiness in truth and love that we experience God’s grace in all of its fullness. And that gives us the courage to get up from the table and do the work we called to do! May it be so. Amen.