I remember when I first came to this parish as a candidate to be your rector back in 2001. The search committee took me on a tour of the plant and the city; and, of course, they showed me the church.
And one of the stories they told me the story about how in the 1990’s, the parish went through a process of looking at the worship space led by my predecessor, Canon Cliff Carr. The entire interior was being re-painted and the chancel—the space between the rood screen and the altar rail—was being redone.
Out went the old fixed choir stalls, some of which were re-purposed for other uses, like the shelves and the doors in the back, or else simply relocated. I marveled at the beauty of the work and thought to myself "If this parish calls me, it will be wonderful! And I will never have to do a major renovation or building project!" (Well... it is wonderful!)
But the thing that those folks—some of you!—were the most proud of was that free-standing altar over there. And it is lovely! Hand carved and beautifully made, after twenty year or so, it is hard to imagine this space without it.
[It was made by Don Lockard's studio, Eisenhardt Mills in Forks Township, and by Nick Strange presently of The Century Guild, of Graham, North Carolina, in the late 1990's. Strange's other ecclestiastical works include, among other things, the cabinetry for the new organ at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, New York City. The cross and the fruit carved on the front were painted and colored by our own Doodie Guenthner, who died last week, and during her life with us also did several other works in our parish such as our Stations of the Cross.]
But I remember another response. Once, we hosted a regional gathering of clergy and the bishop celebrated, and the comment I received the most was: “it’s awfully small.”
It’s true. Go and look at the altar in the chapel, which is much bigger.
I’m used to it, so I don’t give it a second thought. I have learned how to position the book-stand, and the offering plates, even the cereal boxes, so that there is still plenty of room to bless and consecrate the bread and wine of communion, for you all all to see what we’re up to.
And besides, the craftsman who built this altar knew what he was about. Visually the piece fits our space perfectly, it doesn’t get lost behind the rood screen, in fact fits perfectly within that frame, and the high altar and reredos are the perfect backdrop. We can walk around it even when the chancel is full. It works.
But it is small.
Or is it?
In the Gospel this morning, Jesus is at table eating with his friends—and his enemies—and his frenemies. He did that a lot, actually. Much of what we know of Jesus’ teaching comes from his table talk. Luke says in this snippet that while Jesus was eating the Pharisees were watching him closely. They wanted to see what he was up to.
Jesus had this habit, you see, of doing something unexpected while eating with his companions, peers, and challengers. Like when a woman bursts into the room weeping, and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. Or when someone cuts a hole through the roof to lower a sick person down on a pallet to be healed. Or how at the last supper Jesus washed his own disciples feet and declared that the bread they ate was his body and the wine they drank was his blood. Eating with Jesus can be full of surprises!
So Jesus is doing what Jesus does… teaching while they are all gathered around, reclining (as they did then), passing around the food, and conversing. A lot of Jesus’ teaching happened like this: questions and answers, give and take over a meal. And this time, he is talking over dinner about dinner etiquette. How everyday ethics turns on things like hospitality. How it is that how we treat each other at table is pretty good indicator of how we treat each other in life.
Jesus noticed that he was the guest of honor, even as they watched him like a hawk. He also noticed how the guests chose the places of honor and every one else sat in the cheap seats. The people who sat at the place of honor got the best food and the best service and everyone listened to their conversation, their witty banter, and their jokes; they laughed when they laughed and sneered at what they sneered at. But Jesus said that the ones looking from the outside in, were the honored ones. That the servants who brought the food were the most honored of all. That the humble ones will be the most exalted. He tells his followers not to invite the big-wigs and the powerful, because they can return the favor. Instead, Jesus said, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And because they cannot the favor there is blessing in the invitation.
Jesus is challenging all of our typical understanding of invitation, hospitality, fellowship, and community. His call changes our understanding of our service and outreach to the poor. He also challenges us to see the gap between those we believe are ok to go to church with and those Jesus is inviting into the community. And Jesus reminds us that when we invite someone to come to the table with us we are in fact welcoming them as full members of the family of Abraham.
Are we really willing to give someone else our place at the table? Can we hear Jesus say: “Behold, here is Sam or Frieda or whomever. Are you willing to meet them as they are and where they are? Are you ready to give her or him your place at the table?”
Until we, the people of God; until we, the baptized members of Christ’s church can answer Jesus’ challenge honestly, and then do the opposite of what society or upbringing typically expects we will always be limited in our mission, in our outreach and service, in our evangelism. Our discernment of God’s imagination, and our ability to see the reign of God is directly connected to our ability to see the face of God in the people God brings to us everyday!
Every week a kind of miracle happens, we gather around that seemingly small altar and share in Christ’s body and blood. And we discover that feast is open to all, and that the banquet table is huge, humongous, and endless! All of God’s people gather around God’s table in every time, every place, in every kind of community. The table is as big as Christ’s hospitality, and our welcome is to be as expansive as God’s heart.