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Come to the Table of Hospitality

Imagine this: it’s lunch time on the first day of school. None of your friends are in your class. You go through the food line and get your meal. You’re holding your tray, and you stand there for just a moment as you survey the tables rapidly filling with students. You don’t know where to go. You’re frozen for just a moment before you make yourself start walking. There’s a table not too far away with kids who look like maybe they could be friendly enough. But you don’t know any of them. They could also be the meanest bullies in school. You approach the table. “Can I sit here?” you ask.

Imagine this: you’re new at work, and just starting to feel like maybe, possibly, you aren’t a complete imposter and that perhaps you do in fact have what you need to survive in this industry. The boss calls you and several colleagues into a meeting, and as you find your seat at the conference table, you get your notepad and pen out, ready and eager. The meeting gets started and as your co-workers bandy ideas and solutions around the table, you wonder if your eyes are getting wider and wider. ‘What do I have to offer?’ you think. ‘How can I chime in?’

Imagine this: you’re sitting at a small table with your doctor on the other side. There are flyers and pamphlets spread out in front of you with titles like “What’s Next After a Diagnosis?” The doctor is talking, but you feel like you’re listening through tin cans and a string. Thoughts flow through your mind but you can’t take hold of any one of them long enough to stay focused. “Okay, what questions do you have?” the doctor asks. If you could think straight, maybe you would have one. Or a thousand.

Imagine this: you go into the lawyer’s office wondering how in the world things got to this point. How is this your life right now? You’re seated on one side of the table, your lawyer beside you. And across from you- someone you once loved, and their lawyer. You’re so, so tired of fighting. Surely there’s a way to move on peacefully, you think. Right? That must be possible. You take a big, deep breath as the lawyers start talking.

Imagine this: the sun has just gone down when you put the last bowl of food on the dinner table. It’s been a little while but tonight, everyone is home and gathered around the table to eat together. Dinner isn’t anything fancy, but it will be good and everyone’s belly will be filled. ‘I’ve missed this so much,’ you think, as you pick up your fork.

Imagine this: it’s been a long day, and you’re tired. Tensions have been high for a while as if you’re all waiting for something to happen. There’s a weird energy around the table and you’re ready for something to change. Jesus picks up the bread and offers the traditional Jewish dinner blessing of food and God’s creation, but then he says something unusual. “Take, eat; this is my body.” He does similarly with the cup, offering the traditional thanks for God’s saving acts, and then saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

So much of our lives happen around tables. Think, for just a moment, about the important conversations, meals, work, life that has played out around tables. Of course, tables are just pieces of furniture, but it’s an evocative thought. One that prompted the poet Joy Harjo to write her poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here.” She writes:

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.

It’s not insignificant that Jesus’ invitation to remember him requires us to gather at the table to eat and drink. But what are we doing at the table? What does it mean? Also, what is it even called?! We hear “The Lord’s Supper,” “Holy Communion,” and “Eucharist.” It’s enough to be at least a little confusing. The name thing is strange, and all 3 of those names can accurately be used in the Presbyterian Church. They all tell us slightly different things about what exactly is happening. “The Lord’s Supper” is a reminder that Jesus instituted this sacrament beginning with his disciples, and it is an act of God. “Holy Communion” helps us remember that through this sacramental act, we are communing with one another, we are made one. “Eucharist” means thanksgiving; we receive God’s gifts with joy. Eucharistia is the word used when Jesus gives thanks for the meal at the last supper. So yes, even in the name we learn more.

And in the words we pray and say over the meal, we offer thankful praise. We ask the Holy Spirit to be present with us, often with words like “pour out your Spirit on these gifts of bread and wine and on we your people.” We are reminded in our language and in the act that we are connected by our “remembering.” We remember Jesus, but we are also re-membered, brought back together with the church universal, all believers across time and space. This is the communion of the saints. As we break the bread and share the cup, we are, as Jesus said, communing with Christ’s body. Our Book of Common Worship says that we do this act “that the people may be nourished with Christ’s body, made one with the risen Christ, united with all the faithful in heaven and earth, kept faithful as Christ’s body, representing Christ in ministry in the world, in anticipation of the fulfillment of the kingdom Christ proclaimed.”

What happens at the Lord’s Supper is the transformation that leads us to be the kind of people we read about in Romans 12. Here is where we learn from God and from one another how to love, how to serve, to rejoice, to be patient. How to suffer and extend hospitality as God as extended hospitality to us. The sacrament of Holy Communion transforms us so that we might live as peacemakers, as ones who overcome evil with good.

In remembering Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the Eucharist with thanksgiving and joy, we learn who we are meant to be in every moment of our lives, at every table of our lives. The PCUSA Directory of Worship says, “The church rises from the Table and is sent by the power of the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s mission to the world.” This is where the rubber meets the road, you might say. And ultimately, here is the point of this “Come to the Table” series. What we learn at Jesus’ table should flow through our lives and be present at every table of our lives.

Go back to the middle school lunchroom- God’s hospitality towards us calls us to welcome others to our tables. At the conference table at work, we offer connection, encouragement, and support. Sitting with the doctor we take comfort and find faith. Facing adversaries across a table, we find a way to make peace and encounter forgiveness. At the dinner table, wrapped in love, we find joy, joy, joy.

Of course, this is not easy. Living out the pretty words of Romans 12 is gritty and hard. Perhaps it’s why Jesus said “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” That doesn’t make it sound easy or pretty. Rev. Mike Baughman reminds us though, that “Jesus didn’t say take up your lollipop and follow me.” We will spend the rest of our lives learning to let the Lord’s Supper teach us how to live in every arena of our lives.

In her spiritual memoir, Sara Miles talks about what she learned from Communion. Her first experience was as a 46 year old professed atheist. She writes, “Eating Jesus, as I did that day, to my great astonishment—led me against all my expectations to a faith that I had scorned and to a work that I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic morsel of bread, but actual food—indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, I was filled with a deep desire to become part of a body. I also realized that the basis of all the food service jobs I’d taken on to make ends meet was what I was meant to do: feed people.

I learned that the requirement for conversion wasn’t knowing how to behave like church folks, using religious vocabulary or even having a specific set of beliefs in religious doctrines. Transformation requires hunger, the same hunger I’d always carried.

I fed people. I took communion, and I passed the bread to others. Then I kept going, inspired and even feeling compelled to find ways to share what I’d experienced. I started a food pantry and gave away literally tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal at the church where I’d first received the body of Christ. I organized new pantries all over my city to provide 100s and 100s of hungry families with free groceries each week. Without committees or meetings or even an official phone number, I recruited scores of volunteers and raised 1000s of dollars.

My new faith vocation didn’t turn out to be as simple as going to church on Sundays or folding my hands in prayer. It was not about my being “saved” so much as my being transformed. My renewed purpose meant much more than talking kindly to poor folks and handing them a sandwich. I had to trudge in the rain through the projects, sit on a curb wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man; take a battered woman’s .357 magnum and lock it in the trunk of my car. I had to struggle with my atheist family, my skeptical friends. They see following God as an archaic superstition. My journalist colleagues never expected me to exchange blessings with street evangelists.

…I have found glimpses of an eternal core of Christianity: body-blood, bread-wine poured out freely, shared by all. I found religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: dinner where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcasts are honored.”

At this table, the Lord’s Supper table, we encounter God. We give thanks- Eucharist, we take communion in community, remembering all those, past, present, and future, across space and time, who come together. We are re-membered as a people in our remembrance. We are transformed by God’s grace. God’s hospitality is extended to you. Come to the Table, be fed, and eat with Jesus. Amen.

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