Marks of the True ChristianRomans 12:9-17 (NRSVUE)
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal; be ardent in spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; pursue hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
As we begin our new series titled “Come to the Table,” I think we need to start by thinking about what a table actually is. Webster’s dictionary says that a table is “a piece of furniture consisting of a smooth, flat, slab, fixed on legs.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And yet, over the next few weeks, we are going to reflect on how different those “pieces of furniture consisting of a smooth flat slab fixed on legs” can be, especially depending on how we use them and what we use them for. Over and over again in scripture, Jesus used tables not only to feed people but also to challenge them to acts of hospitality, sharing love and grace with both neighbor and stranger, which simply and humbly reflected God’s way.
As many of you know, my dad was a woodworker, and he built tables of all kinds. My mom’s house and my house are filled with all kinds of tables and other furniture that he built. And because he built them with his own hands, to my family and me, when we look at them, we see them as far more than a simple flat slab with fixed legs; we see a piece of my dad in each of them.
Well, today, as we begin our “Come to the Table” series, we will be focusing on the Communion Table, which Jesus taught his disciples about at the Last Supper during Passover just before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus’ lesson at the last supper was clear: the table, just like the love of God, is free and open to ALL. Saints and sinners, neighbors and strangers, those who love you and those who persecute and betray you. (Remember, Jesus knew that one first-hand!) The table is open to those who are joyful and those who weep, those with whom you see eye to eye and those with whom you can’t no matter how hard you try, those who think they understand what the table is about and those who have no concept of what it stands for, those who believe in transubstantiation (meaning that the bread and cup actually become the body and blood of Christ) and those who simply use the bread and cup to remember the story. Because this table is not about us, my friends. Remember in our song this morning? “This is God’s Table; it’s not yours or mine.” So it’s not about our beliefs, our past experiences, all that we think we know, or even the story that we have told ourselves is true.
Sure, we gather here to remember a story that has been told for generations, but that is only a piece of it. We also gather here to be part of the mystery, to experience a sacrament, something that we can’t fully explain, and to be fed in mind, body, and spirit, not by a tiny piece of bread and a little cup of juice, but by the love of God which transcends anything and everything else that we can ever imagine!
Folks, I’m sure that many of you have heard the saying, “You can’t see the forest among the trees,” right? Well, what that means is that sometimes we need to step back and look at the big picture. But unfortunately, that is something we often forget. Instead, we start to nitpick, and we find issues with the low-hanging branches, broken pieces of bark, or moss that grows on the north side of some of the tree trunks. And when we focus on and worry about those tiny details, we lose sight of the beauty and majesty of the forest all around us!
I have had many conversations with fellow clergy over the last two-and-a-half years as we have all struggled during the pandemic to find the best way to continue to serve communion. And to be honest, we have worried so much about how to serve, how to keep germs at bay, and even what to serve, to include everyone, that in many ways, we have lost the focus of what the table means and why we gather here.
The truth is, the table that Jesus set for us, the table that is supposed to be a place of unconditional and extravagant love and grace for all, has become the field of battle and the subject of all kinds of arguments and disagreements not only over the last two-and-a-half years but over the last two-thousand-plus years.
It’s disagreements over the communion table and the details of what it truly means, how to serve it, and who is welcome that have split denominations and Christian faiths to pieces.
And just so you all know, as your Pastor, I am not a saint, and therefore I am not exempt from those arguments, fights, judgments, and broken relationships either. On a personal note, it was because of the communion table that I, in my young twenties, stepped aside from being in a friend’s wedding because of the church’s policies and procedures. In seminary, I got into a heated argument that still causes issues between another pastor and me today about a paper they wrote and presented about barring children from the table. I’ve assisted in officiating weddings and then been told that I needed to step down and sit in the pews as elements were consecrated and communion was served because I was not worthy at the table. And I was even called by a school principal once because my daughter was serving communion at the school snack table. But, all that being said, it was also the communion table–actually, this very same communion table here in Oldtown as a teenager–that called me into the ministry. So, when we say that the Communion table is a place of mystery and power, I agree wholeheartedly!
Folks, in today’s reading, Paul reminds us and invites us to do as Jesus did. “To not be overcome with evil, but to overcome evil with good.” Over the years, though I am still quite passionate about what we experience at the communion table, I have learned to temper my emotions and the way that I react to others. Instead of getting angry when I am turned away or told that I am unworthy to receive communion at another church, I now take time during that very communion service to pray for all followers of Jesus and leaders of all churches. I ask God to forgive me for judging others and to open the hearts of my colleagues and sister churches so that we might all learn to live in harmony with one another.
Folks, as human beings, we like things that are easy and comfortable. We like rituals and traditions that stay the same, and we like to experience things our way. But sometimes, in order to take a closer look and to get a new understanding, we need to look through a different lens and experience in a little different way.
Today during communion, rather than using the same communion service that we have used for several years, we are going to go back and hear the words from our denomination’s Book of Worship. I’m sure these words will feel like home to some of you and brand-new to others. But no matter what the words say or how they feel, I would urge you to open your hearts and, with no expectation, come to the table and experience whatever it is that you find there.
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen.