FILLING THE TABLE
The Rev. Dr. Russell Rowland
October 15, 2017
DELIVERING A SPEECH AT A BANQUET,
Billy Graham included several jokes he planned to tell
At church services and revivals the following day.
Wanting to use the jokes again, he asked reporters
To omit them from their coverage of the banquet.
ONE YOUNG REPORTER
Ended his newspaper account with the following:
“Dr. Graham told a number of jokes that cannot be published.”
LIKEWISE, MATTHEW THE GOSPEL WRITER
Reports a parable told by Jesus, decades earlier.
Matthew presents it to his own readership,
Living the gospel in difficult circumstances,
At a time when the Good News was still revolutionary,
And very much what Paul Tillich called “ultimate concern.”
Included a disintegrating relationship
Between Jews who had accepted Jesus as Messiah,
And Jews who had not.
(We need to remember that what we now call “Christianity”
Was at first entirely an outgrowth of Judaism.)
MATTHEW’S VIOLENT TAKE ON THE PARABLE
Shows how seriously his faith-community
Took their own decision for Christ,
And how strained their relations were
With fellow Jews who declined to join them--
A hostility that solidified into enduring anti-Semitism.
But what does such a parable say to us?
I GET A SENSE OF URGENCY
That the heavenly banquet table must be filled--
That a full house is indeed a matter of ultimate concern:
To God, to Jesus, to Matthew, to Matthew’s church,
And ultimately to us: the church in this place and time.
IF ALL A “FULL TABLE” MEANT
Was lots of new members for the local church,
So that the work gets done and the bills get paid,
We would give Jesus and Matthew a standing ovation .
But they may have in mind a more radical inclusiveness.
GOD’S TABLE, AFTER ALL,
Is not just the local church, not just all local churches--
It is the entire world God has created and redeemed in Christ.
God’s kingdom is a large table to fill.
It is a table where all God’s children have enough to eat,
Where abundance is not for an entitled few,
And where God, not us, chooses who to invite.
I’M REMINDED OF A GOOD SCOLDING
The Apostle Paul gave the Christians in Corinth,
Over their attitude toward the Lord’s Supper:
Wealthy members who didn’t need to work
Arrived first, and ate and drank everything in sight.
Impoverished workers came when the workday ended,
And found nothing left.
“DO YOU DESPISE THE CHURCH OF GOD,
And humiliate those who have nothing?
What shall I say to you?
Shall I commend you in this? No I will not.”
THAT WAS LONG AGO, AND FAR AWAY--
But the bit about humiliating those who have nothing
I’ve seen the bumper sticker that reads, “Work harder:
Millions on Welfare are depending on you.”
A bumper sticker faults the poor for being poor,
While the parable makes room for them at the table.
MEANWHILE, IN MADBURY, NEW HAMPSHIRE,
The Maranatha United Church of Christ gathers to worship.
The congregation includes Indonesian Christians
Who came here to escape violence in their own country.
Many applied for asylum, but never received it--
And in August were told they must return to Indonesia,
Where they will face continued religious persecution.
AMERICAN CHRISTIANS NEED TO DECIDE
Whether the gospel calls us to witness and work
To be a nation that remains a haven to those who most need one;
To know what God’s desire that the table be filled
Means for our Indonesian Christian brothers and sisters,
And for us.
IN OTHER NEWS, WE BUILT THIS ACCESS RAMP
To make it easier for people of limited mobility
To have the same place at God’s table
That we who walk with a spring in our step take for granted.
We could stop there—but there is more still to do,
Even in this room, to make sure God’s table is accessible to all.
ALSO, YOU MAY HAVE HEARD
That one summer I got an email from two UCC clergy colleagues
Who were vacationing in the Lakes Region ,
Were interested in attending our church on Sunday,
And were asking whether they would be welcome here.
They asked, because they were a same-gender couple.
THIS OPENED MY EYES
To the reality that God’s table cannot be filled
Just by unlocking the door .
There are Christian brothers and sisters of ours--
And colleagues of mine, apparently--
Who can’t feel sure they are welcome,
Even in a church of their own denomination,
Unless they ask ahead.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THAT PICTURE?
What experiences of pain and rejection,
Of hostile glances and whispers behind hands,
Lie behind the question: Are we welcome here?
And how are we called to make our welcome loud and clear?
FINALLY, THINK OF THE PAIN AND SUFFERING
In our town, state, and nation, caused by the opioid crisis.
One of New Hampshire’s early carfentanil deaths was here in town.
The next family affected may be one of ours.
WE HAVE CHURCH MEMBERS
Joining in the regional conversation about the crisis.
We have a program planned for you, next Sunday.
We are learning more about resources and partnerships.
AND, OF COURSE, WE ALSO HAVE A PARABLE
About a heavenly table that God intends to fill!
God’s guest list is by no means limited
To those who have clean records, and their lives in order.
GOD’S PEOPLE MIGHT ASK THEMSELVES:
What preconceptions and prejudices do we have,
About those who struggle with the disease of dependency,
And those who love them because they are family?
How do our preconceptions limit their access to God’s table?
SO! IT’S A PARABLE, IS IT NOT,
That confronts us about unconditional welcome:
Great in theory, challenging in practice.
But inclusiveness is the middle name of God’s kingdom,
And that, brothers and sisters, is what we signed on for!
PERHAPS GOD’S KINGDOM
Is like that little poem of Edwin Markham’s:
“He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in !”
WHAT DOES THAT CIRCLE LOOK LIKE--
In the United States of America,
In New Hampshire,
At First Congregational UCC of Meredith,
And in the kingdom of God?