World Communion 2020

“The Welcome Table,” Susan Ryder


Luke 14:16-22 – Jesus Seminar Translation
“Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the disabled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.’

Words from the back of our bulletin each Sunday: The sharing of bread and cup is central to our Community’s worship. It began in the ministry of Jesus, who, in a society marked by rigid social separations invited all sorts of people to be reconciled to God and to each other around the supper table. We, who are many and diverse, also become one Community as we share one loaf. In the tradition of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we celebrate Christ’s open table every Sunday. We invite all who wish to do so to participate in this symbolic meal with us.

I grew up in a Presbyterian congregation that only allowed adults and confirmed young people to take one of the small, delicious cubes of bread, which tasted a lot like shortbread, and the shot glass of grape juice on communion Sundays. I remember trying to hold back tears more than once when I was not allowed to partake, and feeling proud and a bit smug when I finally was allowed to do so after my confirmation. I would eye the plate as it came down the row so I could take the largest cube of bread (did I mention it was delicious?); followed by the tray where I would try to find the tiny glass cup most filled with juice.

The first congregation I served in Iowa had a more relaxed approach to who could receive the elements, which we shared monthly. At a meeting with parents early in my ministry there, one of them asked when it would be appropriate to allow their child to participate in the sacrament. My colleague told them the Session had determined it was up to the parents to decide the right time. This parent was frustrated because some parents were letting their young kids take communion, but their family was not not because they felt their children should understand the sacrament before they partook, and it was causing some frustration in their home. The parent asked me, the new pastor, what I thought. I replied that before I was allowed to take communion as a child, I hated going to church on communion Sundays and would cry when the plate passed me by. I felt left out of something special – and didn’t think the point of communion was to make anyone feel left out, whether they understood it or not. Much to my surprise, they liked my answer. Even as a new pastor who had not yet been exposed to the Jesus Seminar – my own memories of feeling left out as a child shaped my understanding of Jesus’ message about inclusion over exclusion.

When we came to New Covenant Community 23, we knew that as a union congregation connected to three denominations – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) – in the tradition of the Disciples we would share the bread and cup every Sunday. But it would not be typical communion practiced in most Christian churches. Here we do not experience the sacrament as a means or symbol of our salvation through the broken body and shed blood of an innocent savior. Rather we experience communion as a means of extending hospitality across social and cultural divisions. It is the celebration and continuation of Jesus’ ministry and his vision of an inclusive family in the household of God. And of course, children of any age are always welcome to share the bread and cup – in fact one of my early memories are of of founding member Laura Pedrick telling us that her young daughters called NCC the “bread church.” No wonder when we arrived, we felt as if we had found our spiritual home. More recently, watching Akierra and AJ serve communion was a highlight of our Sunday mornings – and something I miss now that we are not together in person for worship.

Over the years as we’ve studied materials on the historical Jesus with you, we have been drawn to Jesus’ compassion, spiritual depth, his insight and commitment to issues of social justice and interpersonal relationships, and his courage to confront the power systems which oppressed and exploited the “least of these.”  In his ministry, Jesus saw past the labels with which the authorities categorized people for the sake the status quo, and what’s more, he cleverly undermined them by breaking the rules, in particular by eating with “the wrong sort of people.” To get an idea of what a powerful and provocative thing it was for Jesus to eat with tax collectors and sinners, or women, or the physically challenged, or the ritually unclean, recall the hatred and violence that took place when African American citizens in the south protested segregation by sitting at “white’s only” lunch counters. Imagine Jesus as a white lunch waitress in a 1960’s southern café who invited her black friends to sit next to white patrons and served them while making small talk as if nothing unusual at all were taking place. It’s no coincidence that the KKK was just as provoked as the authorities in Jesus’ time, nor that both found a strategically placed cross to be an appropriate a response.

The word for the social rules about who eats with who, and when and where and how, is “commensality” – which itself is a neutral concept. Many dining tables have particular commensal rules, such as state dinners, high school cafeterias, soup kitchens, and your own kitchen table. One of the special aspects about Jesus’ ministry is that he systematically challenged the injustices of his society by practicing open commensality. All were welcome at all tables when Jesus was present, which powerfully exemplified that even the lowest members of society were fully loved and included in the kingdom of God. And that is what the sacrament represents for us each week – it’s not a symbol of atonement after the violent sacrifice of an innocent man for the sake of all of our sins. It is a symbol of table blessings offered and available to everyone.

In the story of the banquet, Jesus epitomized this at a Sabbath meal with the most pious people of his day, the Pharisees. To understand the parable it its context, banquets during Jesus’ time were given by rich folks for other rich folks to attend. Jesus and his “ilk” were not part of the banquet scene. Additionally, banquets during Jesus’ time were not spontaneous events – invitations were issued well in advance.  After the formal invitations were accepted, servants would escort the guests to the banquet once everything was ready, where they would find a true feast, with more food than anyone could possibly eat. One of the primary functions was to bring honor to the host, to show off, so when a rich man put on a banquet, he pulled out all the stops – which ultimately brought him great honor and respect. If his honor was to be maintained, the guests needed to show up so that they could be properly impressed, and then return the invitation the next time they threw a party.

But something went wrong. All the guests who had originally said they could attend begged off for a variety of reasons – all seemingly legitimate excuses but too coincidental, which meant the host was being snubbed, and this banquet was going to create great shame for him. The guests at the dinner party Jesus was attending would have been shocked by this kind of offense to the host because it was just not done, and they would have been eager to hear how such an affront would be dealt with. At which point Jesus took the opportunity to flip the story upside down, telling his dining companions that the man commanded his servants to go into the streets and invite anyone and everyone they could find to attend. The servants did as they were told, twice, and returned with guests from all ranks, classes, and genders, an act that would have broken all sorts of social norms and been incredibly offensive to those sitting at the table with Jesus that evening.

New Testament scholar and Jesus Seminar fellow John Dominic Crossan explains that this story is crucial to understanding the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry. In his words, “If one actually brought in anyone off the street, one could, in such a situation, have classes, sexes, and ranks all mixed up together,” – which would have been scandalous. Says Crossan, “Anyone could be reclining at table next to anyone else, female next to male, free next to slave, socially high next to socially low, ritually pure next to ritually impure.” And that simply was NOT done, because divisions between people and classes were clearly marked and observed in first century Palestine, and any crossing of these carefully constructed boundaries was unheard of – yet that is exactly what this banquet turned into as these “chance invitees become privileged guests,” to quote Robert Funk, and “dinner for a handful is transformed into a banquet for dozens.” Walls were broken down, barriers crossed, and all were welcome to share in the feast.

As we observe World Communion Sunday this year during a pandemic, I have never been so hungry to experience the open table in the ordinary act of sharing a meal. Whether it’s around the communion table on a Sunday morning at 210 West Mulberry Street, or dinner with friends – it’s something we’ve been deprived of for the last several months, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. The fall and winter holidays will not be the same this year – and part of our disappointment and even heartbreak is that meals shared with loved ones around a table are so often a sacred experience. In these days, when those sorts of gatherings are not physically possible, may we find new ways to make the table wide, and wider, and wider still.