Just prepare the table. That was the command I received a few years ago. I was organizing a church-wide Thanksgiving dinner, which had always been my favorite celebration together as a church body. Unlike other Thanksgiving meals, this was not a soup kitchen. It was a family meal. Ridiculously smart University of Chicago students would sit next to struggling parents, who would sit next to lonely neighbors, who would sit next to the homeless. But, as we had found out from years past, this would only happen if there was only one table. Because given the opportunity to remain in our comfort, we would choose it every time. And everybody had a group that could comfort them.
But there was a problem with us all sitting together. This little meal had grown from asking someone extra to dinner, to a celebration that would include about 100 people. How in the world could we get everybody together? How was our little congregation going to feed everyone? And how was I, as a brand new mother of now three children, going to offer leadership, support, food, prayers, and emotional healing to that many people?
Prepare the table was the answer.
Not cook. Not clean. Not recruit volunteers.
Just ask the question: how do I prepare the table?
Despite only having one volunteer, three other people to cook side dishes, and no sleep for a month straight, that Thanksgiving went off without a hitch. It was gorgeous. And yes, everybody did sit at the longest banquet table I’ve ever seen. But I think that experience taught me more about communion than any sermon ever had before.
It taught me that in order for it to look like one of God’s meals, everyone had to have a seat at the table. And if it is really going to be beautiful, there had to be bridge builders who could bring two very different conversations together. The beauty of that table was that no one had the same level of education or economic status, but when we bowed our heads in prayer, we all had a deep love for the very same best friend. He was big enough to hold us together and to keep the conversation going. Because of His leadership, everyone was allowed to have a seat. Everyone was allowed to have a voice. And everyone was allowed to serve each other.
It taught me that you need to let people be as open as they know how to be. I couldn’t push anyone to sit next to someone who would make them feel unsafe. But what we could do, and what we did do, was allow people to come as they were. If they were newly divorced, or struggling with in-laws; angry, bitter, drunk, or cold, we let them in and said, if you’re willing, we’d like to eat with you. We listened. If they asked us to, we prayed. But we didn’t think for a second that we could jump into their world and tell them how to fix it. If you don’t think that changes people, you’re crazy. And if you don’t think that Jesus knew it would be a powerful and tangible way to tell people about a different kind of kingdom, then you’ve probably never experienced a meal like this before. You have to let people come into your church where they are — without judgement or a plan for them to improve — and meet at the table to say: I need this nourishment as much as you do.
It taught me that you need to allow people to bring whatever they have to offer, even if it doesn’t seem to fit. Sure, buttered chicken and Indian rice didn’t exactly look right next to green bean casserole or marshmallow topped sweet potatoes. But allowing that seemingly out-of-place dish allowed someone to know that their customs, and background, and story were welcome. (And I dare say the turkey and rice meshed quite well.) Casting the analogy aside though, it might not seem like a charismatic should bring their gifts of tongues as they pray silently after communion in your cessationist church. It might not seem like the very orthodox sign of the cross, or the Nicene creed should be said if you’re in a western modern worship setting. It might not seem like a woman who was raised in a different city can speak the deep truths that a seminarian could. But if you let people share how they connect with God, you just might get a glimpse of Him. And it’s usually pretty stunning.
It taught me that “We expect God to show up every place other than the place he’s promised to be.” -J. Martin 06/06/14 I don’t know why it always surprises me that Jesus is present when we gather people around our table, or when I gather with brothers and sisters around the Lord’s table. But Jesus stresses breaking bread together over and over. Paul even re-emphasizes that we should wait for one another before we eat. The fact is, we need these meals. They offer us something that our souls need. And to neglect them is to have God offering himself to us, and for us to smugly say, “naw. We pass.”
This is what I know for sure. I know that every time I’ve been hurt, broken, stupid, or defiant, the Table is what broke me, reminded me who I was, and restored me. I know that when I couldn’t find words to pray, just saying Amen to a piece of bread held me to both God and the church. And I can’t ignore that it may just have been because this table — this table that had me pull up a seat instead of sending me to the kitchen — this table that said that I could bring whatever I had, even if it was only my breath — this table where God met me and I didn’t expect Him to — this table has over and over allowed God to say “You have dignity. And you have worth. And I love you.” And I think that’s why He has us prepare the table. To tell people: You have dignity. You have worth. And I love you. Peace to you, Pam