Together at the Table

A Sermon for September 1, 2013, Hebrews 13:1-2, 7-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1,7-14

This past Wednesday, August 28, marked the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The event—one of the largest political rallies for human rights in our nation’s history—was a defining moment in the civil rights movement for African-Americans in the U.S. as it challenged rampant economic and political repression.

Organized by civil rights, labor and religious groups, the March on Washington paved the way for the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It was during the March on Washington that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a 34-year-old African-American preacher and civil rights activist from Atlanta, stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered what is probably the greatest speech of the 20th century—I Have A Dream.

The March attracted 200-300,000 participants who united in one voice for racial harmony and justice during a deeply violent, ugly and divisive time.

Spokespeople for the National Council of Churches and the Council of Churches of Greater Washington called for all-out participation from member churches (Mainline Protestants, Orthodox, African-American, Evangelical, Quakers, Mennonites). Some of the churches helped by doing the simplest act—making and serving food.

Congregations like Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Sharp Street Memorial Church in Baltimore provided a hot breakfast with eggs, bacon, muffins and coffee to caravans of buses passing through the city to the March. The Church of the Epiphany in Washington provided coffee to marchers on the day of the event and the Knights of Columbus put up $25,000 to feed and shelter marchers.

Food service crew workers. Credit: National Archives
Food service crew workers. Credit: National Archives

And church and organization leaders in New York City recruited more than 300 volunteers to come to Riverside Church in Harlem at 3 am to make 80,000 box lunches—a cheese sandwich, mustard, marble cake and an apple—that could be purchased by marchers for 50 cents. [1]

Working in shifts until 4 in the afternoon, the assembly line crew paused once for a few words from Dr. Robert Spike, director of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches[2]:

As an act of love, we now dedicate these lunches for the nourishment of thousands who will be coming long distances, at great sacrifice to say with their bodies and souls that we shall overcome.

Food was a symbolic and sacred part of the African-American civil rights movement…

Meals provided during rallies or handed out after a worship service or placed on the dinner table during a meeting in someone’s home gave sustenance to many weary souls who spent all of their days and nights fighting for equality.

Meals denied to people of color because they were unable to earn a fair wage and were banned from sitting at tables and counters in restaurants stirred up the cause against segregation and racism.

Peaceful sit-ins of the 1960s like the one in Greensboro, NC where four African-American male students sat at a lunch counter reserved for whites made the nation aware that more room should be made at the table for others.

And it was in black-owned restaurants in black-neighborhoods where civil rights leaders like King, former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and John Lewis, the U.S. Congressman from Georgia, would strategize over heaping plates of fried chicken, catfish, fried green tomatoes, collards and mac n’ cheese. “Some of the decisions that affected the direction of the country were made in that restaurant,” Lewis recalled to The New York Times in 1997.[3]

Gathering at the table with family, friends and even strangers can be life changing.

Many of you know this to be true from the meals you have provided through the fellowship and mission ministry of the church. The relationships you’ve formed through the stories you’ve told or listened to while breaking bread with others—whether at a luncheon in Fellowship after worship or while serving dinner to the homeless or when receiving a tortilla from a poor Honduran woman—have nurtured your faith and your relationship with God.

At the table, we realize that we are connected in our humanity to the person who sits on the other side of our plate. We recognize the presence of the Divine in those whom we share a meal. We see the beloved creation that God has made through the life-sustaining act of eating and drinking.

At the table we, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “let mutual love continue…show hospitality to strangers” and entertain “angels without knowing it.”

That’s why table fellowship is such an integral part of Jesus’ ministry to proclaim God’s love and justice for all people. Jesus uses the context of a meal to expose the unjust and unloving systems of the world that seek to oppress and dehumanize the strangers, the others.

Jesus, as the Gospel of Luke tells us, eats with sinners and tax collectors,[4] a sinful woman in the home of a Pharisee,[5] a crowd of 5,000 hungry people,[6] two sisters,[7] and disciples with dirty hands.[8]

During Jesus’ time, it was shameful to eat with those who lived on the margins of society. In those days, an invitation to banquet was more than an offer to eat. To get invited meant you had social and economic cred. You were cool. You were special. You had wealth, affluence, power and modern equivalent of 5,000 friends on Facebook and 43 million followers on Twitter. The host of a banquet only invited friends, family and rich neighbors who had been deemed to be honorable. And thus, the host’ status increased immensely for inviting the cool kids over to his house.

The poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, of course, were never invited because they were not considered to be cool or special.

But Jesus challenges this system by suggesting that a person truly receives honor when they express humility by associating with the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. In other words, Jesus says those who spend time eating with the poor and the broken are cool and special. Not the ones who ignore those in need and put their status and riches above all else.

In his 2006 book Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne says that Jesus is essentially telling us how to throw a party…the right way:

A few years ago, I caught a glimpse of the kind of party Jesus wants us to throw…Philadelphia had begun to pass anti-homeless legislation, making it illegal to sleep in the parks, illegal to ask for money, illegal to lie down on the sidewalks…One of the city’s boldest moves was passing an ordinance that banned all food from Love Park, a place where homeless folks hung out. And they began fining those of us who continued to share food. …We started wondering what in the world it meant to love our neighbors as ourselves when they were being jailed for sleeping and eating…So we threw a party in Love Park. About a hundred of us gathered in Love Park with homeless friends. We worshipped, sang and prayed. Then we served communion, which was illegal. But with clergy and city officials there supporting us, and with police and the media surrounding us, we celebrated communion. Most of the police sat back and watched, not daring to arrest anyone, especially during communion. Then we continued the “breaking of the bread” by bringing in pizzas. It was a love feast and then we slept overnight in the park with our homeless friends. We did that week after week, with the police watching over us and the media standing by.

Eventually Shane and his friends were arrested for breaking the ordinance but a judge dismissed the charges, declaring the law unconstitutional.

But just last year, six years after the party in Love Park, the city of Philadelphia again passed an anti-feeding ordinance. Shane and other activists challenged it by hosting public picnics. They also brought a Catholic theologian to court to argue that feeding the poor is a sacrament. As Shane explained to a New York state newspaper[9]:

 We believe that we are feeding Jesus, and it is a violation of religious freedom to say, ‘You cannot do one of the most fundamental acts of human compassion, to feed someone who’s hungry,’

In one instance, their lawyer said, “We are not willing to come before God, and when God says, ‘Did you feed me?’ we’re not going to say, ‘Sorry, our mayor wouldn’t let us.’ ”

The no-feeding ordinance has since been declared a violation of religious freedom by a federal judge.

And yet people continue to fight unjust ordinances imposed by cities seeking to get rid of the homeless.

A similar challenge of anti-feeding laws occurred just last Sunday in Raleigh when police threatened volunteers from Love Wins Ministries—who have been passing out meals to the homeless in the city’s downtown park for the last six years—with arrest. [10]

A few days later, city leaders agreed to make an exception to the1998 law that prohibits the distribution of food without a permit by allowing chartable groups to feed the homeless in the park. City leaders have also pledged to work toward a long-term solution to addressing hunger and poverty issues in the city.

At the table, we can give honor to the downtrodden by scraping away rotten laws and serving heaps of love instead.

When you give a banquet,” Jesus says. “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.

That divine wisdom not only applies to how we treat the poor and broken, but how we act toward anyone who is different than us, especially those who are ostracized for their uniqueness.

The system of honoring the “cool” and “special” people occurs in a lot of places—schools, social media sites, workplaces, civic clubs, entertainment venues and even in churches.

Consider the school setting for a moment and ask yourself what might happen if you took a cue from Jesus’ instruction on how to throw a party and applied it to daily life?

What would it be like to invite the quiet, loner kid to sit with your group in the lunchroom?

What would it be like to reach out to someone who is completely different than you in every way?

What would it be like to ask a kid who wears hand-me down clothes to come to a birthday party where most of your friends wear designer T-shirts and jeans?

What would it be like to tweet something kind about another student who rarely gets noticed?

What would it be like to speak out against hunger, poverty, violence, abuse, prejudice and hatred?

What would it be like if you honored and served the people who are trampled and cast to the side?[11]

Martin Luther King was answering that question—What would it be like?—when he delivered that historic speech half a century ago.

What would it be like?

 I HAVE A DREAM… of what it would be like

"The Table of Brotherhood" by James E. Ransome for "I Have A Dream" (Illustrated Edition) by Martin Luther King Jr., 1997
“The Table of Brotherhood” by James E. Ransome for “I Have A Dream” (Illustrated Edition) by Martin Luther King Jr., 1997

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood….I have a dream today.

Like King and many Christians who walk in his footsteps, we too have a dream of how things can and will be. We have a vision of a time in which all people regardless of sex, race, creed, religion, economic status and sexual orientation can come together at the table in mutual love.

That vision is what Jesus referred to as the kingdom of God.

“People will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God,” Jesus reminds us in another passage from Luke’s gospel.

From different backgrounds, cultures, economic circumstances and life experiences, we come together at table—this communion table where all are honored and served.

We come in our humanness—with all of our joys and pains—to be connected to one another and God together at this communion table.

We come in our humility to share the bread and the cup—sacred reminders that Jesus is with us and that Jesus unites us in a community of love that is

forever laboring

forever sharing

forever dreaming,

and forever honoring.

And at every table we join together after this one,

we do so knowing that God is always present among us—

inspiring us to create something new and

beckoning us to forever make room for one more.

Amen.


[1] http://www.foodasalens.com/2013/08/churches-and-1963-march-on-washington.html. The Food As Lens blog is also referenced in the NPR article, footnote no. 3.

[4] Luke 5:29-39, 15:1-2, 19:1-10

[5] Luke 7:36-50

[6] Luke 9:12-17

[7] Luke 10:38-40

[8] Luke 11:37-42

[11] Inspired/adapted from the Working Preacher blog post “The Kingdom of God…at School.” August 26, 2013, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2719

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s