Friday, August 8, 2014

A Place At the Table

I was given 365 seconds to share an epistle to the 21st century church at the Lion & Lamb Festival, a gathering on hope, peace, and justice in Ft. Wayne this weekend. Here are my thoughts based on Philippians 1

To the churches of Indiana: Grace and peace from God our creator and the Lord Jesus Christ.  I give thanks to God for your faithfulness to the Gospel. I’m deeply passionate about ensuring a place at the table for everyone, and I celebrate the ways you’re making room. Thank you for visiting my friend Marie while she was in prison for 20 years and helping her make a smooth transition upon her release. Thank you for taking in the Buhendewa family after their frightening escape from the Congo and empowering all six children to succeed. Thank you for finding a buddy for Thomas so he could experience Sunday School with all the other children. Thank you for showing up en masse this year at the state house to push for the right of all people to marry whom they love. Thank you for doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. 

Yet living our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ requires us to look around the table again to notice who’s missing, who hasn’t been invited, or who’s been rejected. Kevin Light and Frances Rogers tell a story about Stephen, who loves going to the Sanctuary every week. Stephen can’t always connect with conversations or laugh at jokes. He’s sometimes difficult to be around. But at the Sanctuary, the people love Stephen for who he is. He’s accepted without question. They laugh with him (not at him) and include him in their stories. They enjoy his presence. They offer him good food. They make him feel welcome, despite his awkwardness and brokenness. On Saturday nights, all of these wonderful things happen when Stephen goes to the Sanctuary, the bar down the street. When Stephen goes to the church on Sunday morning, it’s a totally different story (Right of Admission Reserved)

I wonder, Hoosier Church, how we stand firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the Gospel to reach the Stephens all around us. To create space for Stephen, we must let go of the table manners we’ve been taught. A recent Barna study found 51% of American Christians have actions and attitudes that align more with the Pharisees than Jesus. Only 14% of us are Christ-like in our attitudes and actions. The rest of us remain in between. To reach Stephen, we have to shed our Pharisaical rules and expectations. We can no longer base admission to the table on whether you use the right fork or talk with your mouth full or put your elbows on top. As he dined with tax collectors and “sinners,” as he healed the sick and touched the untouchable, Jesus turned our table manners upside down. There is room at the table for everyone

To connect with Stephen, we have to welcome him authentically to the table. There’s a reason Stephen is more comfortable at the bar down the street. It’s a place where everybody knows his name and embraces him as he is. They aren’t trying to drum up a program to attract him or make a small group just for him. They invite and include him in daily life. Broadway United Methodist in Indianapolis has many beautiful slogans. One of them is, “Nothing about me without me.” In other words, don’t build a community garden in my neighborhood unless I’m tilling the soil right alongside you. Don’t create an after-school program for young people unless they’re involved in the leadership. No more top-down charitable efforts. We’re striving side-by-side with one mind for the faith of the Gospel, as Philippians reminds us. 

Finally, if we’re seeking a place for Stephen, we have to move the location of the table. For too long, our tables have been anchored like immobile altars to our sanctuary floors waiting for people to walk in our doors. Yet the Gospel stories reveal repeatedly how Jesus engages in a movable feast. He meets people where they are -- from the poorest leper to the richest Zacchaeus -- and they are transformed by his itinerant encounters. He doesn’t ask for their health insurance cards or green cards. He doesn’t test if they’re infected with HIV or Ebola. He doesn’t verify their criminal records or sexual history. He reaches out. He touches. He heals. He provides. He loves people unconditionally right where they are. Once we’ve identified the absent people, let go of our rules, and built relationships, we have to move the table to new places. I hope we’re setting up tables in prisons and domestic violence shelters, in rehab programs and gyms, in local schools and bars down the street, in hospitals and border towns -- everywhere and anywhere we can make space to encounter Christ in others. 

At the end of the day, our table talk and walk will only matter to the degree our lives are grounded in the meal that shapes us. Wherever we are right now on the journey, may we stop long enough to recall the grace and sacrifice Jesus offered to include everyone of us at that same table. A crusty piece of bread and a sip of the fruit of the vine that welcome us into the reign of God. A movable feast that beckons us to create space at that same table. A word of hope that feeds us: Do this is remembrance of meMay it be so in our lives.

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