Tables of Grace

(Photo by Beto Galetto on Unsplash)

(Photo by Beto Galetto on Unsplash)

Tables are a big deal in this house. Except for the bathroom, pretty much every room we use is centered around a table or two.

We say on our website that our life together is centered around two tables especially: the communion table and the dinner table.

So it Is appropriate that at the beginning of the year, we should hear from Jesus about what it looks like for the community to gather at the table. And between the lines, nestled between the instructions that when we choose a seat for ourselves, we should give others the better places, and when we host, we should throw open our doors and center those who have the least power and smallest resources, is an question for us: 

What kind of community do we want to build? Who is welcome in our banquet hall? Whose job is it to build it? Who do we expect to shed the blood, sweat, and tears that all houses are built on?

They are especially good questions for Labor Day weekend, when we are invited to consider how ordinary workers have sacrificed so that things like the weekend, the 8 hour work day, workplace safety, and so on can exist. It’s interesting to me that in our church’s calendar, Independence Day is considered a major feast and is supposed to be unskippable, but Labor Day is not on our church calendar at all. It’s not particularly surprising, considering that the people who get to vote for such things are mostly white-collar workers of various stripes, whether clergy or lay, and that was even more true when those feasts were set. It’s no more surprising than the fact that Labor Day is on our national calendar, when Juneteenth, which honors the day that the emancipation order made it to the final communities of slaves and now celebrates Black freedom and achievement as well, is not a national holiday - is not something many of us who are white even knew about until very recently. It’s not surprising - but I do think it’s worth considering, in this conversation about sitting at the table. Which labor do we value, and how? Who belongs at the table?

Tables are centers of power as well as centers of nurture and healing. There’s a reason we talk about noticing who’s “at the table” and who’s not, in our conversations about inclusion. Literally and figuratively, throughout history and still today, those who are considered most important, most central, are offered seats at the main table. Others are told to stand around the edge or to sit somewhere else. Slaves as well as paid servants ate in the kitchen or their cabins or outside, if they ate at all. Children do not sit at the grownup table, but they usually look forward to the day they can. Boardroom tables are limited to those whose jobs pay them enough to wear suits. Even at King Arthur’s round table with no head to it, you still had to be a knight to sit there, and the knights still wanted to sit at his right and left hand. The very presence of the king created a sense of where the head of the table was, in King Arthur’s day, in Jesus’ day, in our day. 

In this house, we proclaim that all are welcome at our table. We celebrate what our parish partners at Holy Communion Episcopal Church say: that this table doesn’t belong to us; it’s not the Episcopal Church’s table; this is God’s table, and at God’s table all are welcome. We have been known to get pretty creative to make sure that there is a literal seat at the dinner table for everyone, even on our busiest Sundays, because we want everyone to know and feel that this table and this community belongs to them. Belongs to you. 

I hope that we are as creative and committed when it comes to who feels that there is room at our tables. I believe that we want to be as welcoming as we say we are. We are a community of people who value compassion, justice, and love inside and outside our walls. I know we mean those things.

And I know, as you know if you’ve been here any time at all really, that we are also a community of broken human people, and sometimes, we get it wrong. I have long admired the habit that Lutheran pastor and speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber had in the congregation she founded, where in their regular times of sharing what drew them to or kept them in that congregation, she says: 

“I am always the last to speak at these events. I tell them that... I, too, love being in a spiritual community where I don’t have to add to or take away from my own story to be accepted. But I have learned something by belonging to two polar-opposite communities - [one which was basically an anarchist co-op she lived in as a young adult, and one that was her traditional and fairly conservative childhood church] - and I wanted them to hear me: This community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss. Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will disappoint you.

So too, I know, if you stay at this table very long, we will disappoint you. It is not our goal to do so, any more than it was the goal of any of the leaders or members of House for All. The goal of their house and ours is to make a space that is safe enough for people to struggle with the hard parts of faith and life, and challenging enough that people will actually engage that struggle. And yet, people disappoint each other anyway. Because it is simply a fact of life with other people. Sometimes, we let each other down - even in those places where we are trying not to. Even in those places where we honestly want to be a community of people who can bring their whole selves and be accepted and loved for who we are.

I will disappoint you, and you will disappoint me, and the community we share together will disappoint us both. Because none of us lives Jesus’ teachings and example perfectly, nor do any of us follow Jesus in a vacuum. Things break. We break things. 

But I hope, and I believe, that we are committed to repairing the damage when we do. And I too believe in the grace that happens in those broken places. The Japanese art of kintsugi, the art whereby broken pieces of pottery are mended with a kind of glue that has gold blended in, has become a favorite metaphor among preachers in the last five years, and maybe you’ve even heard about it from this pulpit before. That’s because it is such a strong visual representation of the power and beauty of the kind of grace that Nadia is inviting people to see. Communities and people and relationships that are never broken never get to see this kind of glory. Communities and people and relationships that break things on purpose just to manipulate God’s grace also never get to see this glory, for that matter. But where disappointment and brokenness come as the natural byproducts of living honestly and deeply with one another despite the fact that we are each deeply imperfect, and when we take a deep breath and decide to hold in there despite everything, then we have a chance to glimpse that kind of repair. The places that have been broken never end up looking quite like they did before, but they are beautiful for it.

This is what is meant by costly grace: grace that only comes on the other side of having tried our best and failed. Grace that comes on the other side of the cross, after the body of Christ has been broken. That’s when resurrection is possible. Or as another Lutheran pastor and speaker, Lenny Duncan, says in his book “Dear Church: A love letter from a black pastor to the whitest denomination in the U.S.”: “Grace is free. But loving the neighbor has a high cost. It may cost our very lives and the church as we know it. We may lose it all. But we are armed with  a fact that changes it all: the world believes Jesus is dead, and we know he isn’t.”

Our table should be a table of grace, just as God’s table is - not of cheap grace that asks nothing of us, but of free yet costly grace, which is more beautiful. A table where we learn by trial and error how to live with the same courage that Jesus lived with. A table where we find Jesus present among us, defying the powers of fear and death, no matter whether that table is out here with honey bread and red wine or inside with garlic bread and red sauce. That’s the table where all are truly welcome. 

That’s the table I pray God will help us set for one another, week by week and day by day, this year. 

Elizabeth Scriven