A sermon for the Garden Church
San Pedro, CA
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Listen to the Audio of this week’s sermon “All the People, All the Tables”
Scriptures: Jeremiah 2:4-13 and Luke 14:1, 7-14
I just got back from a wonderful road trip vacation to the Northwest, with my love. We drove up through California, spending a few days wondering at the redwoods and walking the rocky beaches before heading north to visit much of my family in Oregon and Washington, and then heading back south to see friends and chosen family in San Francisco. As we stayed in many different people’s homes and visited with loved ones, we found ourselves most often, around a dinner table—be it the picnic table by the pond on the property I grew up on, or the little table tucked in my grandmother’s kitchen. Around these tables, we heard stories, got caught up on each other’s lives, made small talk, and inevitably, someone would ask about you all, the Garden Church, and how it’s going.
And we found ourselves talking about this table. And that table. And how all different kinds of people keep coming around them and sharing and eating together. Yes, we’d share about how much produce we’re growing and the great discussions over theological Thursdays, and the cute Little Sprouts, and then we’d more often than not come back to stories about the table. Recounting how people who are living in the parks and people who work for multi-million dollar corporations come around this table together and find connection and friendship together.
I told them about how one of my favorite parts of communion is when we take it around this circle and then out, into the garden, to the person hanging by the front gate who thinks they’re “too smelly” to get any closer, to the parents chasing after their toddlers, and to the toddlers, to the teenager lurking in the shade. I told them about a few weeks ago when Jarret had brought his friend for the first time and when I leaned over to serve him communion, Jarret whispered, “his name is Joel” ensuring that I could serve him communion with his name. I told them about how some weeks I am sure there’s not going to be enough food, and then you all start walking through the gates and someone brings an unexpected dish and another something else… And how just about every week I stand back at some point during dinner and look at you all eating and talking and am just down-right amazed at how beautiful it all is. To have all kinds of people—eating together.
You’ll notice that I preach on this whole eating together—and Jesus eating together with people—thing a lot. You might ask, “Rev. Anna, don’t you have any other topics you could talk about?” But seriously, it keeps coming up in the gospel reading, because Jesus eats with people. A lot. And usually it’s with unexpected people and in unexpected places, and it does things that turn the social order upside-down. And this week’s gospel is no exception. Jesus is having dinner with some Pharisees (religious people who distinguished themselves by strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity), and when Jesus noticed that some of them sat at the head of the table, vying for the best spots, he told this parable:
14:8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host;
14:12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.
14:13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
14:14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite those people that you know will invite you back, but instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Invite the people around your tables that you would least expect, the ones who might not have dinner otherwise, the ones who you don’t know, the ones who don’t usually get invited over for dinner.
Every week, we celebrate one of Jesus’ meals, a meal that has become known as “the last supper.” It’s the meal that the sacrament of Holy Communion arose from—when we come around the table and remember what Jesus left us to remember him, and his love—bread and cup, broken, and blessed, and passed and eaten together.
And that meal, I believe, was no expectation to Jesus’ turning things upside-down by eating with all different kinds of people.
Yet, at times that meal has become emblazoned into our collective imagination, into artwork and legends, as a pretty contained picture, such as the Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, with twelve well-behaved disciples, neatly gathered around a table, having a proper meal.
But stories like today’s gospel should tip us off to this not being Jesus’ way, and that even this meal that has become reenacted in such specific ways, likely was much more alive and messy and overflowing with all the wrong people than our ritualized tellings include. Likely it was much more like this feast that Jesus describes in this parable, a table filled with all the unlikely people—the ill and the lame and the disenfranchised and those who wouldn’t have been invited to the table and the ones who couldn’t spend Passover with their own families and the ones who didn’t have families to spend it with.
At one point, I took this question, “Who was at the table at the Last Supper?” to an in-depth reading of the gospel of Mark, wanting and wondering, because the traditional answer of the twelve male disciples just wasn’t sitting well with me. In part, my curiosity is with history and scripture, what happened, what stories were told, who told them, what has been suppressed, what has been remembered, but the question of “Who was at the Last Supper?” held more.
Because it’s quickly followed by the question that haunts me, troubles me, follows me around like a seven-year-old pulling on my sleeve and that is the question: “Who is around our table?”
Throughout Christian history, the sacrament of Communion, Eucharist, Holy Supper has been practiced. The blessing, breaking, and eating (or sometimes just viewing) the bread. The blessing and pouring, passing and drinking of the cup. This meal that Christ infused with incarnational memory—“Do this in remembrance of me.”
This is the meal that can be one of gathering together, breaking through our barriers, be they of class or race, denomination or creed.
And this is the meal that has precipitated barricades around the table, barring people from the table based on their profession of faith, denomination, moral standing, difference, sexual orientation, race, class or opinion. It has been used both to include and to exclude.
My own journey—as I am drawn to explore deeply this theology of the table—has led me not only to wanting all to be welcome at the table, but a theology of the table that names hierarchy and patriarchy, division and exclusion, and consciously breaks those patterns with the simple, yet revolutionary sharing of this sacrament. A theology of the table as a place of community, reconciliation, coming together, breaking down barriers and living and loving together as human family. And so, I took these questions—Who is around our table? And Who was at the Last Supper?—to the gospel of Mark and I found…the simple answer is, “the disciples.” Now I don’t know about you, but the first thing I picture is those twelve men gathered around this table, the twelve disciples, the disciples.
It wasn’t until I read the gospel of Mark. Cover to cover, and then I went through it again looking at every instance where “the disciples” are mentioned. And all of a sudden I’m quite sure, according to this author at least, that da Vinci did not get the proper guest list before he started mixing his paints.
In the Gospel according to Mark I counted the word “disciples” 53 times. As I meditated on these 53 mentions of “the disciples” there were a few themes that showed up. The first thing I noticed is that 20 of these mentions had something to do with eating. First who they ate with (Jesus, disciples, tax collectors and sinners), the breaking of eating laws (grain on the Sabbath, unwashed hands), and then we’ve got two miraculous feeding stories, we’ve got the disciples “forgetting the bread” when they’re out on the boat and then this story that we now know as “the last supper.”
Now with the exception of forgetting the bread (save one loaf) on the boat and the grain fields, and our text today, all of the other instances took place with three key players: 1. Jesus. 2. “The disciples.” 3. Crowds of people.
This leads me to my next noticing. Jesus certainly had a select following—people who traveled with him regularly. And then there were the crowds in each town. “The disciples” are a community. A group of people traveling with and learning from Jesus—followers of Christ. Distinct from “the crowd” certainly, but not as selective as only “the twelve” if my reading holds true.
The disciples, as I read through these passages, seem to clearly refer to a group of people, followers of Jesus.
It’s hard to know, because we weren’t there. But I can imagine from all I know of Christ’s counter-cultural, gender-breaking, gentile loving, tax-collector befriending ways. From where it says that just verses before this meal, he received an anointing by a woman at Bethany who poured out all that she had to perform the ritual act of prophetically claiming him as Christ, “the anointed one” calling him out as the priest and king with this abundant gift. This Christ, this Christ that seemed boarder-line obsessed with inclusion, breaking down barriers that held people apart, and abolishing anything that judged people on creed or skin, gender or class, this Christ is the one who called his disciples around the table. The disciples of Jesus.
And so the painting that I used to know has faded. It was useful in its acceptable and predicable way, but it has faded. And on the canvas there are new strokes appearing. Much more messy and crowded, confusing and boisterous. The room is overflowing as the women and men, young and old, able bodies and slow, creaking ones, those who lived lives of luxury before they took their sandals to the dusty streets to follow this Christ alongside those who are glad when bread is multiplied, as hunger had been their way of life.
This Last Supper, this gathering around the table, it seems it may have been a more eclectic crew than we like to think. It may have rocked the foundations of culture and tradition, before the bread was broken or the wine was passed.
And it keeps rocking the foundations today.
As I sat around my friends Sara and Martha’s table on Monday evening, with another beautifully eclectic crew that gathers at their home for dinner on Monday evenings, I was asked again about our table here. And as I described it, it sounded again something a little like this Last Supper. All different kinds of people, from all different backgrounds. We don’t agree on everything or think the same way. We may not hang out together outside of church, or live in the same neighborhoods. But we keep being drawn together around this table. And around that table. And looking in each other’s eyes, and feeding and being fed.
We keep showing up to a place where we can gather together in our brokenness, in our vulnerability, in our humanity, and with the hope of encountering the sacred. Around a table that is not a place of questioning our worth, qualifications, or cultural shibboleths. The table is a place where disciples, followers of Christ, lovers of God’s way—all of us hungry to share together in this sacred meal—are drawn around the table in our wholeness and brokenness, putting down grudges and judgments, labels and divides. We come together around the table to take the bread, bless it, break it, and share it—the Bread of Life given for us. And to take the cup, bless it, pass it and drink it, the Cup of Salvation shed for all. Around this table, God’s table, where all can feed and be fed.