Extend the Table
Out of all the Sundays we gather together here in the year, this is almost my favorite. One of my top three. Easter Sunday, of course, and All Saints’ Sunday, just because that has always been a particular favorite of mine. But rounding out the top three is this day—this Sunday of regathering, Homecoming Sunday, this Sunday we all gather back together again after the rest and adventures of the summer and point ourselves toward the year ahead.
There’s also a personal reason, which many of you know. It’s that this particular Sunday, the Sunday after Labor Day, was the very first Sunday Judy and I ever set foot in Saint John’s. Now, that was—well, it was a few years ago. But in a lot of ways, that day was the beginning of our education about what it means to be part of a Christian community.
What I most remember about that day was that there was a luncheon held outside immediately after the service. This sounds more than a little familiar, I suppose, because we just did that again last week. There were folding tables and chairs arranged outside, and a large feast prepared by many hands, and a few kind voices saying to us—it’s so good that you’re here; please, won’t you stay and join us for lunch.”
That basic little story is, at its core, the way this community has expressed the particular gifts we have received from the Holy Spirit for many, many years. It is the skill, the gift, of inviting people to join a gathering. It is the gift of setting before people the unusual idea, the radical idea, that before they even arrived there was a place for them here, and to convey our joy that they have come to take that place.
The readings today are about who gets welcomed to whatever the gathering is. Mark’s gospel gives us what is unambiguously a difficult, even an unflattering, story about Jesus. It’s a story about Jesus on a day that he got up on the petulant side of the bed.
There are yards and yards of books on the shelves of the libraries exploring the reasons behind and the meaning of this dramatic story, this story in which Jesus seems so lacking in compassion toward a woman in need. We are told by the scholars that the author of the Gospel of Mark had a settled certainty that the Jewish people stood first in line to receive the message, and the revelation, of the Messiah, and that the rest of the world’s people rightly had to wait their turn.
That is perhaps an appropriate reminder in this week that will bring to our neighbors in the Jewish community the beginning of the Days of Awe, the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Jesus was a Jewish prophet, after all, sent first to the people of Israel, and filled with urgency about bringing the people of the covenant back into a covenant relationship with God—a covenant of the heart, not of the law.
The people who first gathered around Mark’s gospel were an early church that was just beginning to take shape as a gathering separate from the synagogue. They had tried and failed to make the case within their community that Jesus was the promised Messiah. They could no longer stay within the synagogue and hold to their beliefs; and so they left, and began the building of what became the church we share today.
But they had not all come from Jewish families and traditions. Even in Israel, even in that place that was home to the Jewish people, they were joined by people who were drawn to the message of the Jesus movement who weren’t Jewish by birth or by lineage. They needed to find a way to include these people, people who weren’t like them but felt drawn by the same message, the same hope, the same Lord that they did.
This little story about the ministry and life of Jesus was a perfect microcosm of the challenges they faced in making a life and a community together. And for them, it probably explained something important to them about how they should understand how to build a community out of the people who claimed the hope of the Messiah as their own birthright, and those who were drawn to it simply on the power of the message it offered.
In the first instance, Jesus takes the view that the message he is there to offer is really only for his own people. They are the children in his little proclamation; and he, his message, his teachings, is the children’s food.
But then the justice of what she is asking for overcomes any consideration about one group being more privileged than another. This woman, a person with no claim to be part of the Jewish community, becomes encompassed in the story—and along with her, all the gentile people who had been drawn to message of Jesus just as she had been.
In the case of the Gospel lesson, this has the quality of a metaphor. But in the text we heard from James this morning, that message of correction and counsel to one of the earliest churches, the message is direct, and practical, and not a little bit edgy. Word has gotten around about that church. If you show up well-dressed and looking like you might have quite bit to offer in the annual stewardship campaign, you’re shown to the best seat in the house. When the community shares in the meal, they get the best and biggest portion.
But the folks who don’t look like they have much to offer—who might be net takers rather than net givers—they’re pushed to the edges of the gathering.
James is absolutely clear in his assessment of that community. They may be a great dining club, but they aren’t a Christian church—at least not yet. And he makes it clear to them what standard they will have to meet to claim that they are—welcoming everyone equally, and treating them equally once they are part of the community.
That’s the hallmark of a community that is doing all that it can to be the community of Jesus in the world. It is the sort of community that says to each new person, please come and have a seat. It’s the sort of place that always makes room for you. It’s a place that shows you right to the best seat.
I’ve never been to the Taizé community in France, but from a number of accounts I’ve heard from people who have been I’ve learned something about worship there that I love. Most of the Americans who go there on pilgrimage during the warmer months go to the huge tent set up there for worship, and of course they show up early to get a good seat. They sit in a place that seems to be near the front, and the service begins; and then after the first few readings and songs, the focal point of the worship shifts to another part of the tent, and suddenly their seat in the front is a seat sort of off to the side. And some time later, it becomes a seat in the back.
Something about that is just wonderful to me. It means that everyone is equal, somehow. That is how a Christian community should be—seeing everyone as equal in dignity, equal in possibility, and equal in their responsibility for ministry, in some way, on behalf of all.
And dear friends, that is the kind of place this is, too. We are not perfect, by any means. We don’t do all we might, and there is always more each one of us might do to share the joy of this place a little bit more. I’ve placed in your hands on this first Sunday back after summer a very heavy leaflet, filled with information about things going on here and opportunities of ways to serve and ways to learn; somewhere in there is a new challenge for you to grow in this faith we share.
But this thing we do very well; we are very good at finding a place at our table for every next person who comes here looking for a place to be in community with people. It was the first thing I learned about this place. And it shaped me pretty deeply. We have taken it to heart, I hope, by learning to find a place at our table at home for everyone here.
Jane Shaw, the dean of Stanford’s Memorial Church, has wisely reminded us that in the earliest church when people came to be baptized in the community they were not asked what they believed. They were asked how coming to faith, how the encounter with the ideas and the message of Jesus, had changed their life.
Well, here is how this place has changed my life. It has made me know, in the deepest possible way, what it is like to feel welcome—truly, genuinely welcome—among a community of people. And it has made me want to welcome others in the same way. I hope, I pray, that this community has made, and will make, something like that sort of change in your life. I hope you have found something here that has changed you for good—changed you in a way that you want to share with everyone else.
Welcome back. Welcome back even for the first time. Have a seat. We are so glad to see you. Amen.