All are Welcome at Our Table, by Carol Bridges
“One Sabbath day,” the narrative begins. Those three words would have set up specific expectations in the minds of this story’s first hearers. Taking seriously the command to “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” religious authorities devised a complex set of rules governing what could or could not be done on Sabbath. If it was work, it was forbidden. In contemporary understandings of Jewish law, especially among the Orthodox, driving or cooking or even turning on a light are considered work. For a time, Allen and I lived in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Atlanta. Every Saturday, we felt the connection to these ancient Sabbath laws as we watched families in traditional garb walking to Shabbat services.
In today’s reading, Jesus challenges strict Sabbath rules. One Sabbath, Jesus and the disciples are walking by a field. They’re hungry. Jesus plucks some grains of wheat and feeds his friends. In the next scene—the same Sabbath—Jesus heals a man’s withered hand. Plucking grain and healing people were considered work and, thus, were infractions of Sabbath law.
As you might imagine, the keepers of the law—the Pharisees—weren’t pleased. After all, enforcing religious laws was their job. Enforcing the rules gave them power.
Jesus’ point is not that religious rules aren’t important. Rather he seeks to remind us that written laws aren’t the end of spiritual living….they merely are a means to seeking a spiritual life. “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath,” Jesus said. The guidelines are there to help us experience true Sabbath, not to make sure we toe the religious line.
In Sunday School, we shared stories of hospitality. As we heard, hospitality is a key practice in many cultures. The roots of hospitality extend back to the times when, without the kindness of strangers, travelers literally could die. Hospitality saved people’s lives. In our own culture, when we hear the word “hospitality” we often think of a hotel, or maybe Biltmore. It’s become more a service to be provided than a means of saving lives.
As people of Christian faith, I wonder what might be gained from reclaiming the notion of hospitality as a means of saving lives? Let’s check back in August and see where we are.
In the meantime, we’re going to explore the most tangible welcoming practice in our community of faith–table hospitality.
Our deacons do a lot each month to prepare the table…in fact, I don’t even know all they do. Somehow, bread, juice, wine, and gluten-free wafers magically appear. If all I can manage on a given Sunday is to invite you to “come and get your stuff”…It’s probably best I’m not involved in these other preparations, right? That’d be more than I could handle.
And yet…the preparation itself is an act of worship, it’s an act we often miss…until today. As the deacons prepare our table today, I’ll read from our book for the summer, Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love. Chapter 5: “Preparing a Table.” Let our worship begin.
We all have memories of tables prepared for us and those we have readied for others. Some of the memories are from childhood. Others are memories of good friends, of falling in love, or of deeply connecting with another human being. Meals are powerful symbols in our memory. But someone has to make a meal happen.
Setting a table and making ready for a meal involves preliminary consideration for others. To do it right you have to think through your guest’s preferences and history; you need to know of allergies or chronic illnesses. If you invite more than one guest, you must consider which of them would enjoy sitting together and how they might relate. Preparing for another pulls us out of ourselves—that is one of the good gifts of hospitality.
The image of preparing a table is a good overall image for hospitality. In genuine hospitality we work to make our entire existence a welcoming table, a place prepared for others to be at ease, to receive from us comfort and strength. Hospitality teaches me to work at becoming someone who is easy to be with, as either guest or host.
Hospitality becomes a way of life as we become more open. It will not happen unless you intend it to happen. When we speak of ‘preparing a table,’ we refer to the intention and the work of making space for another human being.
Preparing a table has sacramental meaning. Every meal, like every encounter with a human being, has the potential to reveal God. The table represents the unknown yearning of every human heart for communion with the ‘something more.’
Food is basic to human existence, but it is more than it seems to be; it represents the More, capital M. In the Christian tradition, bread and wine are sacramental. In every family meal, every dinner between friends, a sacramental mystery is present. There is magic in these connections that does something to us way down deep. The lesson is that we must take seriously our receiving of others. Whether we are cooking a meal, mowing the grass, scouring the sinks, or painting a wall, we are preparing for the Sacred to come to us.
The monastery feeds dozens of teenagers almost every weekend during the school year. Brother Antony is the one who sets the tables. Besides being a monk, Antony is an artist. If you watch him setting tables in the retreat house you will probably guess he is an artist, even if you have never seen his studio. He prepares the tables for the teens with a sense of reverence that is obvious and humbling. He is setting places for pizza and soda, but he does so with the same care he uses when he prepares the table for Eucharist.
Antony understands that in preparing a table, he is not just setting a place to eat. He is making room for one of God’s children. He is creating a space for a human being, and human beings are sacred. This means you do it right, you pay attention, you get out of yourself and whatever else might be occupying your mind.
Many young adults who go to the monastery will remember their weekend for all their life. Many of them return to the monks to baptize their children and solemnize their marriages. They visit for Easter and Christmas. They show up when the bottom has fallen out of their lives. Somehow, a whole lot of them understand that the monks care about them. Father Dan says it’s because the monks take care in the little things…. Like Brother Antony setting the table as if he were creating a work of art. (109-112)
The table set for the teens is one example of hospitality. But we set other kinds of tables every day. We all eat and drink with others. When we ask someone to our table, as those teens are invited to the monks’ table, we include them, we make them part of ‘us.’ (114)
In Latin, the word companion literally means to ‘break bread’ together. No wonder the Eucharist has such power. It taps into our earliest experiences of food, experiences we associate with warmth and touching. Food is powerful. It says, ‘You belong here.’ It comforts. (115) Preparing a place says ‘welcome’ and ‘you are accepted and honored.’ Few can resist such a welcome.
Preparing for others is holy work; welcoming others connects us with the divine in powerful ways. As we prepare for others, though, a surprising thing happens. As we do the work of preparation, we find that we also are being prepared by the divine presence. The work of preparation opens us up. We begin consciously to turn our will toward receiving others.
Set an extra place at your table tonight and receive God who comes among us. Light a candle and take a deep breath and receive the presence of the One who is always with you. Remember this: There is a place prepared for you. It is a place where you can rest. It is a place where you are renewed and changed.
The work you do that prepares a home or a building or a yard to welcome others is very important work. It is holy work. But it is not the most important work of preparation. The most important work is preparing yourself to receive others. Only you know what you need to do to make that happen. Is there someone to forgive? Is there someone to release? Is there a fear to abandon? Is there an attitude to adjust?
We all have weapons to lie down and battles to call off before we can open up our hearts. It is a stance of surrender that we are talking about. Ultimately, hospitality is not about the table you set, or the driveway you plow. Hospitality is about preparing the holiest of holies. It is about the heart you make ready. Yours. (126-128)
Here’s the thing about hospitality—it’s often difficult to find the place where receiving hospitality ends and extending it begins. As we prepare, we are prepared. If we haven’t been welcomed, it’s difficult to welcome others.
When we read this book several years ago at my last church, one of the people who read it said, “This is too hard.” The part of hospitality that’s hardest, I think, is this radical openness to others. Being open to others makes us vulnerable. In order to be truly open to each other, we have to give up a little of our power. That congregant was right—it’s hard. It’s very hard.
But if we can do it…if we can open ourselves to each other, if we can prepare ourselves with intention to receive each other, if we welcome each other to the table, chances are good that we’ll discover in our welcoming of each other, that God has shown up and welcomes us too.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.