Open TablePosted: August 28, 2016
SLIDE 3: INVITE EVERYONE TO DINNER & TO CHURCH
John Dominic Crossan states that the two undeniable marks of the ministry of Jesus were free healing and open commensality, everyone invited to eat at the table. In First Century Israel eating was highly segregated by social standing, income, and religious observance — rich people didn’t eat with poor people, Jews didn’t eat with gentiles, good people wouldn’t eat with tax collectors or other public sinners, and people who rigidly followed the dietary and religious cleanliness laws, would not eat with those who did not. And I don’t know that this should surprise us. We live in a world of gated communities, and eating accommodations that use the prices on the menu to segregate people socio-economically — there is a big difference between Commerce Kitchen, Cotton Row, and Waffle House. Jesus in this passage is suggesting we need to extend ourselves beyond our small social circles by inviting everyone to dinner and to church. Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the still most segregated hour of the week.
SLIDE 4: YOUR CHURCH IS JUST SO WHITE
Trying to expand a congregation’s outreach, however, can be difficult. I remember the story of my good friend Tom Drewer, a ministerial colleague in Illinois, who when the neighborhood surrounding his church in North St. Louis began to change racially, he worked with his Church Council to try to reach out to the African Americans moving into the neighborhood. They started a pre-school and day care that was well utilized by African American families who were moving in. Tom went out of his way to invite families from the day care to attend worship. One family who visited church twice Tom went to visit in their home. They had a delightful conversation and Tom got around to asking the couple if they had any questions about the church. At that point the husband laughed and then he said, “Pastor Drewer we like your church just fine. And we are so grateful for the day care center you are providing, and you have gone out of your way to try to make us feel welcome in the church. But Pastor Drewer, your church is just so white!”
SLIDE 5: WHEN ALL OF GOD’S CHILDREN CAN WORSHIP TOGETHER
He wasn’t criticizing Tom’s church, and I don’t think it was a racist statement. We just need to recognize as we try to reach across racial lines that there are some real differences in style in worship, music and culture. The number of congregations who have been able to bridge the racial divide and become inter-racial is only about 5% of congregations in America. We can work toward a day when all of God’s children will worship together, and we can also appreciate the challenges that accompany our efforts to become racially diverse.
In the state of Alabama presently we have sixteen UCC churches. About eight of which are predominantly African American, six are predominantly white and two could be described as inter-racial — although one of those was an LGBT congregation before becoming United Church of Christ. We will continue to open our doors and welcome everyone to our open table.
SLIDE 6: WELCOMING THE LGBT COMMUNITY
Now United Church has become more diverse as we have welcomed the LGBT community. As I watch so many other churches struggling with the acceptance of Gays and Lesbians I am happy and relieved that we have become Open and Affirming, and a truly welcoming congregation. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that all of the United Churches of Christ in Minneapolis are Open and Affirming and we even saw a Methodist church prominently displaying two rainbow flags, although the Methodist in North Alabama are still a little disappointing.
SLIDE 7: SOCIO-ECONOMIC DIVERSITY
Another area in which United Church has successfully become more diverse is socio-economically. When I came to UCH we were almost universally an upper middle class congregation of engineers, scientists and other professionals. Today we have what I see as a healthy mix of professionals, business people, working people, some unemployed and poor people. When I came we saw all of our mission as being directed to poor people outside of our church. Today some of our mission is with people struggling economically inside of our congregation. And often people who are struggling financially bring with them a whole host of problems and issues requiring patience and love. Of course as many of us grow older and become physically more needy, we have important opportunities for ministry within our congregation that require a lot of patience and love.
SLIDE 8: SUPPORT FOR MENTAL HEALTH
As a congregation we are also welcoming of people with mental health issues. Our support for NAMI has been an important factor in letting people in our community know of our interest in and acceptance of mental illness. We are living in a time, when there is a desperate need for advocacy for funding for public mental health. Every time I turn around in Alabama I see another mental health facility closing. And with the open availability of weapons in Alabama to almost anyone who wants to buy them, this is potentially a deadly combination. There is evidence that many of the shootings that have plagued us in this year around the country have involved untreated mental health conditions. An important part of our following the way of Jesus, here at United Church is welcoming people to the Sharing Table regardless of the mental health challenges they bring with them.
SLIDE 9: INTENTIONALLY EXPANDING SOCIAL CIRCLES
As Jesus noted in our scripture, sometimes we have to be intentional about expanding our social circles. “The next time you put on a dinner,” he said, “don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be — and experience — a blessing.” I would point to the Tri-faith Initiative in Omaha, where Countryside United Church of Christ has joined with Temple Israel and the American Muslim Institute have intentionally joined together to build worship and fellowship facilities on the same site. They are radically expanding their social circles to become interfaith fellowship.
SLIDE 10: DINNERS FOR EIGHT
Gina Eckenrode has made a proposal to the Diaconate that may help us enlarge our circles of caring at United Church. She is calling the plan “Dinners for Eight.” Eight people, singles, couples, other multiples adding up to eight people would commit to having dinner or some other social occasion together four times during the year. The purpose is to get to know one another better, to expand our fellowship circles within the congregation, and create new connections for integrating new people into the life of the church. The plan is simple but in a congregation, where the majority of our members may be introverts, we may experience some challenges in trying to implement the plan.
SLIDE 11: GIVE IT A TRY
So allow me to encourage everyone to at least “give it a try.” Sitting down together to eat won’t kill any of us and most of us don’t bite anything that isn’t on our fork or our spoon. As we join one another at the Fellowship Table we will become a blessing for one another. And this reminds me of a devotion by Richard Floyd entitled: “Finding the Perfect Church.”
After I retired from active pastoral ministry my wife and I were ecclesiastically homeless for a few years. We went to church, but we couldn’t commit to one. We sometimes felt like Goldilocks at the Bears’ residence. One congregation had good preaching, but not so great music. Another had terrific music, but the sermons were on the light side.
SLIDE 12: UTOPIA — NOT A PLACE This period was an unhappy time in our lives, for we are serious “church nerds” and needed a church home. We knew there was something unfaithful about “church shopping” and being, to use Eugene Peterson’s phrase, “tourists and not pilgrims.” The problem was there was no perfect church. Thomas More coined the word Utopia in 1516 to describe a perfect society on a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean. Utopia in Latin means “not a place.” There has never been and there never will be Utopia. There is no perfect congregation, just the ones we’ve got, full of imperfect people that God loves and calls to be the church. And we knew ourselves well enough to realize that if we ever found the perfect church, as soon as we joined it, it wouldn’t be perfect anymore.
SLIDE 13: BECOMING THE SHARING TABLE OF JESUS So allow me to suggest that we work with Gina to see if we can make this imperfect congregation a little more loving, accepting and inclusive. Remember there is no perfect church, and that’s why all of us difficult as we are, are welcome here. Let us reach out in faith that the love of Christ can transform a motley crew of imperfect people into the Sharing Table of Jesus.