Building Community (1): With a Bigger Table

[special_heading title=”Building Community (1): With a Bigger Table” subtitle=”by Louise Westfall” separator=”yes”]What is missing at Central as we continue in this pandemic season?

Central leaders recently responded to that question and though several things were identified, the one most often mentioned was “the people.”  We miss you!  After eighteen months of online worship, zoom meetings, social distancing, virtual fellowship times, we need to recover a sense of belonging and help to re-connect us to the Central community and mission. That resonated with my own spirit and longing to be together, so much so that I’m preaching on it for the next few weeks. How to build or re-build community. No longer do I think it’s a matter of returning to pre-pandemic patterns and practices, but instead –if you’ll forgive the political slogan—how we might build back better. How we may grow stronger as God’s beloved community, reaching out with good news in this strange, fragmented, and uncertain time.

The Lord’s Supper, shared with Christians the world over, feels like an obvious place to start. It’s also called “communion,” referring to its power to bring us closer to God and one another. The “joyful feast of the people of God.”  A sacrament of small things–a bite of bread, a sip of cup–signifying a huge, life-altering thing:   the love of God extravagantly demonstrated in the life, death and rising of Jesus, and poured out upon all people.

But trust us humans to ruin simple truth by laying down rules and regulations governing and organizing it. There’s probably no other Christian ritual about which there is more controversy. Who is welcome? Members only?  What do you have to do in order to come to this Table?  What words do you have to say, what doctrine do you have to believe? And who feels excluded or “not good enough” to sit at this Table and eat this meal?

The morning text reminds us that we are not the first (and won’t be the last) to slice and dice the good news in ways that cut some people out. Cut them up a little too, truth be told. It’s the testimony the apostle Peter gives to headquarters after a startling encounter with a heathen; that is, an unbaptized, uncircumcised Gentile whose religious pedigree was “mutt.” It’s helpful to remember that Christianity started out as a sect of Judaism, and followers of Jesus were expected to adopt the rituals and practices of their founder’s religion. As the disciples took the message out into the world (as Jesus had commanded them), the boundaries and borders and restrictions got way more squishy. A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, in the eleventh chapter, verses one through 18. Listen for God’s Word on how to build a bigger table. [Acts 11:1-18]

Can I have a resounding “Amen?!”   It’s because of these incidents so long ago that you and I have a place at the Table at all. Without them, the Jesus Movement would have remained a subset of Judaism. But because Peter and that early church discerned the hand of God reaching out beyond their religious orthodoxy, the door was thrown open to those who had been left out. Yea!  And because we are the ones who got to come through this open door, we remember this as a story of triumph. Once we were excluded, but now we are welcomed.

Hold on to those glorious feelings for a moment while we fast forward ahead. Now we’re the ones in control; we get to govern who comes to the Table and how. And I wonder if this shift results in a little different attitude toward extending the Table. Peter was initially criticized by the church by communing with outsiders; enjoying Table fellowship with those considered “impure” or at best, people who didn’t understand the message of Jesus. Couldn’t this mean watering down the essentials, diluting faith by making it even easier to choose?  Over the years, the Church has done its share of building walls to keep the line between insider and outsider utterly clear. Things like having to go to confession before receiving Communion; having to be a member of the church—and the right church; being baptized. Certainly people who were from other faith traditions were excluded. So were children and young people until they “understood” the sacrament. For more than fifteen hundred years, women were banned from serving at the Table; more recently people who identify LGBTQ could receive but never officiate.[callout_box title=”We are human beings created in the image of God and in some ways spend our lives trying to recover the Divine in our very essence that has been ignored or drowned out by voices of culture, caste, and media.” subtitle=””]Friends, the walls we erect to keep others away have hindered God’s work in the world. Keeping the Table small and cozy for the chosen ones has sucked the life-giving power from this sacrament. It certainly has obscured the One who is the actual host at this meal: Jesus, whose sacrificial love is symbolized in broken bread and poured out cup…and offered to all. That is our message and guiding light. Building a bigger table is part of our sacred mission.

…but what does that mean for us, for Central, today? We have broken down some traditional barriers so that others are explicitly invited. Our invitation doesn’t limit the welcome to believers or members or even those who understand what is going on here. But I am haunted by those who criticize church by insisting that no one’s hungry for the food we’re offering. They say we’re inviting folks to a meal when they’ve already eaten at the gym, the coffee shop, the neighborhood block party. During the pandemic we know that being unable to gather for worship in person–and feeling burned out on zoom and remote technology—have created a kind of “remove” from the priority of worship. Some have discovered other ways to spend a Sunday morning, in activities that refresh and involve quality time with loved ones. More than one of you has said that self-serve “communion” is a little absurd (and I get that).

But here’s the thing, friends. We are human beings created in the image of God and in some ways spend our lives trying to recover the Divine in our very essence that has been ignored or drowned out by voices of culture, caste, and media. Even when we can’t express it with words, we are searching for love, for transcendent purpose, for companions to share these brief moments on earth. We want our children to find meaning and experience support of a community beyond the family, even the tightly-knit one. We are hungry for spirit, the Love that anchors our lives securely, amid of sea of chaos and destructive forces. The God who made us made us for relationship:  giving and receiving, sharing abundance, experiencing grace and forgiveness and gratitude, being blessed and being a blessing. It is a lie to say that we come into this life and leave it alone, for we are part of the great community of God’s people who bear and carry us throughout our days and at the last commend us to our Creator, Savior, and Friend. No, we are not alone. We are never alone.

Maybe we’ve forgotten that during this extraordinarily difficult time. Or maybe the demands of the pandemic world have reduced our expectations for what God is doing even now.

Our spiritual forebears marveled at the surprising generosity of God who removed the distinction between “us” and “them” and extended the Table of blessing beyond their imagining. Even to the Gentiles. . !   Even to the weary. Even to the drained and burned out. Even to the discouraged and depressed. Even to the cynical. Even to the busy and time-crunched. Even to those whose hunger has been sated (temporarily) by the spiritual equivalent of Twinkies.

Even to you and me God has given the gifts that lead to life. Essential food. Beloved community. Unending presence. Gifts worth sharing at an ever-bigger Table.

Thanks be to God.