Open Table

Luke 14:1, 7-14

One of my all-time favorite films is called “Places in the Heart.”

It’s a wonderful film. Set in Texas during the 1930s, it’s a film about survival in the face of very difficult circumstances. Sally Field plays a poor widow with small children. You see, her husband, the local sheriff, was accidently shot and killed by a young black man, who, in 1930’s Texas didn’t get a trial but instead was immediately beaten to death and his body drug back to his mother’s home behind a truck. Violence compounded by more violence.

But this young widow found herself in a tough situation. She was forced to take in boarders to make ends meet in addition to working the family farm. Her two borders included a blind man, played by John Malkovich, and an African American man, played by Danny Glover. Glover was also her farm manager and because that was considered above the place of a black man, he faced overt racism, threats upon his life, and he even got a visit from the KKK.

But despite all the hardships, “Places in the Heart” is finally a story of triumph in the face of overwhelming odds, hard work, and the power of friendship and faith. And in the end, Sally’s character was able to keep her family together and keep her farm going. Sally Field certainly deserved the Oscar she won for her role in this film.

But, “Places in the Heart” is also one of the most theological Hollywood films ever made. I say this because it has the most amazing final scene. It’s set in church during communion, and as the tray is being passed from person to person, the camera pans across the congregation. And there, all around Sally Field’s character, are all the people who had been important in her life; both living and dead. We see the communion passed from field, to Glover, to Malkovich, to a couple of other characters, and then we see the tray passed to the deceased sheriff, and we see him smile at the young man who accidently took his life, and we see this white man serve this young black man communion. It’s a portrait of the heavenly banquet, the communion of saints, if ever there was one.

Now, I thought about this final communion scene when I read today’s gospel narrative from Luke. It’s a passage in which Jesus is describing God’s heavenly banquet, one which will include everyone, not just the wealthy and friends and relatives; not just the “good church going folks”; but also, the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Those on the margins, those who have made mistakes, those who have struggled to be good and who have imperfectly attempted to love God by loving their neighbor; you know, people like you and me. And isn’t that good news! We’re all finally invited to the feast! Can I get an Amen!

Well, this story is typical of Luke’s Gospel. Luke often pictures Jesus eating and drinking with common folk like tax collectors, sinners, or those who are on the outside-looking-in. And this theme of food and drink, hospitality, is a thread that runs throughout this gospel. But the most important thing about Jesus’ hospitality, his feasting if you will, is that his table was always open to everyone; rich and poor, men and women, all ages, races, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations.[i] Everyone is welcome at God’s table.

This is the principle reason we practice “open communion.” In a little while, when we celebrate the sacrament together, I will invite everyone to the table. “In the United Church of Christ and in this congregation,” I always say, “all are welcome to partake of this sacred meal, no exceptions.” And that means just what is says. Everyone, women and men, those with the enthusiasm of youth and those with the wisdom of years; no matter what your religious or spiritual background; no matter where you are on your faith journey, you’re welcome at Gods’ table. Period.

But how open is our table, really? What barriers, what stumbling blocks do we place in the doorway of our church, perhaps without even knowing it? Who do we leave on the outside-looking-in?

Author and pastor Tony Campolo tells a story of an experience at dinner in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, some years ago. He was checking on the mission programs that his organization was carrying out Haiti. And at the end of a long day, Tony was just plain “peopled out.” So, it was with great relief that he sat down to eat a nice dinner at a French restaurant in the heart of Port-au-Prince. He was seated next to the window so he could enjoy watching the activity on the street outside.

The waiter brought a delicious looking meal and set it in front of him. Tony picked up his knife and fork and was about to dive in when he happened to look to his right. and there, with their noses pressed flat against the window, staring at his food, were four children from the streets. The waiter, seeing his discomfort, quickly moved in and pulled down the window shade, shutting out the disturbing sight of the hungry children. The waiter then said to Tony, “Don’t let them bother you. Enjoy your meal.” [ii]

My friends, please don’t misunderstand me here. We’ve done an excellent job of becoming an inclusive and welcoming church, in being a congregation that easily laughs and shares sorrows; in becoming a group of faithful people play and prays together. We’re above average in the category of accepting change and we are a community of faith who really, really like each other …most of the time anyway. And, we’re really taking hold of, and running with, the United Church of Christ vision of a creating a “just world for all.”

But, that being said and celebrated, what more can we do? Who, or what groups of people do we still “draw the shades” on? I don’t know. I’m going to let each of you answer that question for yourselves because perhaps the answer is a very individual one. Perhaps some of us harbor anger, or resentment, or unforgiveness toward another person? Perhaps we still have some deep-seated, pre-post-modern racism or sexism or homophobia lurking below the surface? Perhaps it’s something else all-together?

But whatever the case may be, the first step to lifting the shade is to recognize the person or group of people with whom we are struggling. To recognize them as the imperfect, beautiful, wounded, beloved child of God they are; and then to realize that they’re exactly like us; that we too are imperfect, beautiful, wounded, beloved children of God. And it’s in the recognition, this recognition of our “same-ness”, that we can begin change our hearts and minds. It’s when we begin to look through the stereotypes, when we begin to disregard the Tweets and the hate-filled rhetoric and the constant name-calling and begin to see people as, well, people; it’s then, my friends that we can truly open our hearts and our minds and our doors to everyone …everyone …no exceptions.

One final thought this morning. “True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person. Henri Nouwen has described it as receiving the stranger on his own terms and asserts that it can be offered only by those who ‘have found the center of their lives in their own hearts.'”[iii] Hospitality “can be offered only by those who ‘have found the center of their lives in their own hearts.’”

My friends, as we come to the table today, and as we leave refreshed by God’s love, may we each seek to live heart-centered lives. May we be introspective and inquisitive and innovative when it comes to creating a space that’s not only inviting to everyone, but a sanctuary that is both safe and sacred. And finally, as we begin to open the shades and let the light of our loving God shine in, may each of us find the peace and the faith and the wholeness and the grace that awaits us when everyone, everyone, has a seat at the banquet table; when everyone has a place to call home.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen and the people of God said, Amen!

———————————————-

[i] Eric Shafer How Open Is Our Table? (www.Day1.org) 2010

[ii] Tony Campolo, Stories that Feed your Soul. (California: Regal Press, 2010) pgs. 104-106

[iii] Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. (found at www.ucc.org/samuel) 2019

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