When I was a child, I always knew when company was coming for dinner. It wasn’t because I had to clean my room, or because I saw my dad in the kitchen, fussing over an elaborate meal – though those were usually additional signs. No, I knew company was coming when my mom would put the leaf in the dining room table to make it bigger. I knew company was coming when she would pull out a tablecloth, the fancy china, and the silver. She’d do this for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. She’d do this when friends from church were coming over. She’d do this when my grandmother would come over, even when she was coming over every Thursday night to babysit us while my parents had church choir rehearsal. For any guest, my mother would make the table bigger and set it with the finest things.
So I have a question for us this morning. How big is our table?
In our gospel reading today, there are 5000 men, plus women and children, who have been standing around listening to Jesus all afternoon. It is dinnertime, and the crowds are starting to get hungry. The disciples notice this and pull Jesus aside.
“Jesus, these people are hungry. There are so many of them, and we really think that they should eat…”
“What’s that? We should give them food? But how? I mean…there’s a village and we could go get bread for them, but that’s a lot of money. And we don’t really have enough money to just buy everyone food. Isn’t there another way?...”
“What? How much food do we have? Well…let’s see…I have a loaf of bread, and so does Andrew…and Matthew has a couple loaves, oh, and John has one. Oh! And James has a couple fish. Anybody else? No? Ok. Well, Jesus. Here it is: five loaves of bread, two fish. We’d gladly give it to the crowd, but it’s not nearly enough! Shouldn’t we hold onto it and make sure that we eat? I mean, Jesus, you’ve been preaching all afternoon, you need to eat! Are you sure we shouldn’t just let everyone go and then we’ll meet back in the morning?”
But Jesus doesn’t give in to the disciples. Jesus takes their meager resources and then raises the offering heavenward, seeking God’s blessing on the food, those serving it, and those who are about to eat it. And with God’s help, this small offering becomes a great feast, distributed to the hungry crowds by the very disciples who offered up their food in the first place.
Again, I ask: How big is our table? Do we try to keep our table small and manageable, inviting only as many people as we have resources to take care of? Or do we trust our resources to God, opening our table up to as many as have need? Do we try to keep our table refined, inviting only those who know the etiquette? Or do we make space in the grass for anyone who might be seeking a crumb of bread?
The church of the Holy Apostles [in New York City] is a landmark [building], with a high arched ceiling and gorgeous stained-glass windows. Over the years the Episcopal congregation dwindled in size as the neighborhood changed until the 200 members could no longer afford to pay the bills to keep it going. A new rector suggested that “if Holy Apostles is going out of business, it might as well do some good before it does.”How big is our table?
So in 1982 the church launched a free-lunch program. Thirty-five people showed up. The program grew and attracted more people and outside support. In a few years the congregation was serving 900 lunches daily and bursting the seams of its mission house.
In 1990, during roof repairs to a main sanctuary, a fire broke out that caused major damage. During insurance-covered restoration and renovation, and while the pews were out, members came up with an idea: Why not leave the pews out and use the worship space, which was empty and unused Monday through Friday, for the lunch program?
Now the church is serving 1200 meals a day. Volunteers do most of the work. They take the tables down on Friday afternoon and set up folding chairs for the weekend. The budget is now $2.7 million, which comes from businesses, foundations, the city – and the 200 members, who, instead of closing down a church, are part of a vital and compelling community of faith.
The program rules are simple: no proselytizing and no one turned away. If anyone wants more food, that person can go outside, stand in line, get another ticket and eat again. [Asked about the religious motivation behind the program,] Elizabeth Maxwell of the Holy Apostles staff…said: “Well, we do this because Jesus said to feed the hungry. There’s no more to it than that. Jesus told us to take care of the poor and hungry and those in prison….In all the intricacies of scriptural interpretation, that message – feed the hungry – could not be more clear. Those of us at Holy Apostles feel we have a Sunday-Monday connection. The bread and the wine of the Eucharist we share on Sunday becomes the food we share with our neighbors during the week.”
Maybe the world would find churches more interesting and compelling if they showed something of the love of Jesus in their lives and practices. Maybe there is no more important and life-giving strategy for every church than finding something Christlike to do (The Christian Century, July 29, 2008).
When Christ met with his disciples at his last Passover meal before his arrest, he met with those who would be faithful to him and with those who would deny and betray him. And the 13 people in that room shared a meal that was to stretch far beyond themselves, far beyond that room, far beyond that time and place. “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”
The Jesus who blessed the bread and fishes and fed thousands of people is the same Jesus who offered this last supper, and is the same Jesus who was himself blessed and broken on the cross for the sake of us all. When we eat and drink at this table, we remember Christ breaking bread with ordinary crowds and Christ breaking bread with sinners and traitors. God doesn’t skimp on us – God sent his only son to die that we might have life, and have life abundantly! And we know that if we give ourselves and all we have up to God, God will bless our offerings and use us to feed a hungry world. And more than just feeding it, God will use us to transform the world!
Earlier this month, I spent a week at St. Olaf College, attending a conference on worship, theology, and the arts. The theme for the week was “Fling Wide the Gates,” and pastors, church musicians, and lay people gathered together to learn about how we, the church, can fling wide our gates and connect what we do in worship with what we do in the world. I spent my last afternoon at the conference in workshops led by Marty Haugen, church and liturgical composer. He’s the man behind the “Now the Feast” liturgy that we here at Trinity have used and loved. He told us a story:
A few years back, Marty had composed an evening communion liturgy for a campus ministry in Texas, and he had gone to visit them. He recalled how he walked into an assembly of about thirty or forty people. At the offering, when they brought up the bread and wine for communion, they brought up 12 HUGE loaves of bread. He was confused by this – 12 huge loaves of bread for only 40 people? What a waste! And they communed, and the service finished, and of the 12 loaves, they brought eleven and a half of them back to the sacristy.
Marty was decided to go to the sacristy to see what on earth they were thinking, baking so much bread for so few people. Here’s what they told him: we used a small portion of this bread for our communion tonight, and all of those students know that they are expected to come here tomorrow when they have a break between classes, make a sandwich, grab an apple, and go off-campus in the surrounding blocks to find someone on the street who needs something to eat. But they aren’t supposed to just give them the lunch, they are supposed to sit down and eat with them, talk to them, hear their story.
These students flung wide the gates and let their table extend in a very real way into the world. They came together around Christ’s body and, in a very tangible way, offered bread for the world.
And so I ask again: How big is our table? How wide are we willing to fling the gates? Isaiah says “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Is our table big enough for everyone? Big enough for those who have been at Trinity their whole lives AND for those who are not yet part of our assembly? Big enough for married couples and single moms and teenagers and great-grandparents? Big enough for children and families? Big enough for those who dress up in their Sunday best and also for those who wear jeans to church? Big enough for big contributers and small ones? Big enough for organ-lovers and jazz-lovers and everyone in-between? Big enough for the people we disagree with and those who share our opinions? Big enough for the world outside, full of people whose colors, backgrounds, economic situations, traditions, families, sexual orientations, languages, needs, or expectations might be different than ours?
God’s grace is not finite and it is offered to all. Our God is a God of abundance, and he calls us to share that abundance with the whole world – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sharing our food, donating our money, giving our volunteer time, being careful stewards of our earth, telling our faith stories, inviting others into God’s presence in worship – these are just a few ways we can share God’s abundance.
Today, we’re using bread at communion. And we made sure to bake plenty of it – more than we need! I think that sometimes, we need a visual reminder of just how abundantly and extravagantly God loves us and cares for us. There’s something about seeing our communion table filled with bread that reminds us of this abundance. But more than that, when communion is finished, we will be putting the extra bread at each of the doorways to the sanctuary.
On your way out, I invite you to take a piece of bread with you. Eat it on your way out or take it home to eat with lunch, as a way to remember that what we do at the table doesn’t stay at the table, as a way to remember that God’s grace reaches beyond our worship into our daily lives. Or if you feel called, I invite you to take a piece of bread and give it to someone who needs it. Maybe it’s a friend or family member who wasn’t here this morning who needs to hear the good news of God’s abundance. Maybe it’s a woman on the street who probably hasn’t eaten anything today, or a man who slept on the street last night, or a child who could use an extra mouthful of food.
But whatever you do with the bread, I urge you to take some on the way out. Christ’s body is not limited to our sanctuary and our hour of worship. The table doesn’t reach only as far as our church doorways. Christ’s table stretched far and wide, and so also should ours. Claimed by Christ, we are called to bring Christ to the world, both by offering ourselves to the world and inviting the world into God’s work.
If you were to stop by my parents’ house these days, you’d find that the china has made it into the regular rotation of dishes, and you’d find that my parents love to cook, so there’s always plenty of food. And you'd find that the leaf has found a permanent place in the dining room table. These days, the table is always ready for guests. May our table be the same way.