What follows are the scattered thoughts that would’ve coalesced into a sermon for my parish had the fierce grip of winter not prevented me from getting back to Minneapolis, Minnesota from Wilmington, Vermont. It is not a sermon as such, but some thoughts that would’ve eventually become a sermon.
This past week I was reminded about the power and presence of tables. As eight other priest friends and I gathered nightly around a table that was too small for us, but was somehow incredibly accommodating and comfortable, I realized how much I missed tables. I don’t actually own one. I’m not an interior design buff (although I do happen to watch entirely too much HGTV) nor am I a connoisseur of antiques or furniture generally. I am simply drawn to tables because, at least for me, they represent something of a community and connection. Some of my best memories occurred around tables. So did some of my worst.
Several weeks ago, after being invited to be a part of a committee for an upcoming church event for my diocese, I made the decision to step away from the group after a young man described “everyone” in the group as “white, Christian, and badass.” The comment came in the context of an icebreaker activity and was received by the rest of the group with laughter and approval despite the fact that we were all seated around a conference table in an office in the middle of a soon-to-be-gentrifying Black neighborhood. The reason the comment was wrong was two-fold: 1) it completely erased my presence in the room, and 2) it seemed to portray a certain pride inherent to what was thought to be a racially homogeneous group (once again, I was in the freaking room). Yay! We’re church leaders and we’re all white! Whoohoo!
Last month, while attending the Evangelism Matters Conference in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, I listened in shock while the President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, in the middle of telling a story of her childhood encounter with anti-Black racism, used the actual word “nigger” in a sacred space. (I want to pause here and name would should be obvious in 2018: context matters, but there aren’t many, if any, contexts in which any non-Black person should use the word. The real, historical, and ongoing pain of Black people is not a prop in storytelling. Privilege is such that people who possess it and who spend their lives being told they can go anywhere they want have trouble hearing what the rest of us have been told all our lives – that there are indeed places they cannot go). She said this while seated directly front of the altar – the Lord’s Table – of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church next to the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and a black man. In a follow-up conversation with the Rev. Jennings, I recalled to her how that moment showed me that, as much as the Episcopal Church speaks of welcome, the insensitive and cavalier use of such gratuitous language by a white, senior ecclesiastical leader betrays the reality that we have a long way to go before our tables adequately reflect the “welcome table” of Christ. While she apologized for what she referred to as a “lack of awareness,” I told her that I would have to work to rebuild my trust in the Episcopal Church as a space of safety for black people. “Welcome” can’t merely be written and declared, it must be constructed and framed.
This past week, while visiting a local Starbucks Café in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, two black men whose names have not been released, were arrested for “trespassing.” As far as I can tell, the two men entered the Starbucks Café and asked to use the bathroom. They were denied access to the bathroom because they hadn’t purchased anything. The two men then went to the dining room, grabbed a pair of tables, and waited for their friend who hadn’t yet arrived. In the meantime, the police were called because store employees claim the two men who were “trespassing.” The police arrived and eventually the two men were arrested, apparently right as the friend they were waiting on also arrived. He tried to speak up for them, but it was too late. The wheels of racism were already in motion and would not be denied their latest victims. The two men would later be released, but not without subjecting these two completely innocent black men to the public shame and humiliation of being handcuffed and arrested. The message is clear: Blackness can be forcibly removed from any public space at will.
What these three stories have in common is that they are all true, the all involve anti-Black racism, and they all took place in spaces that claim “hospitality” as a core value. What these three stories reveal is that hospitality is very easy to claim, but much harder to live into, particularly when we are talking about human identities and lived experiences, particularly when those human identities and lived experiences have to do with the deep-seated American albatross of race, racism, and anti-Blackness.
I am struck by tables, particularly the one Jesus creates with his disciples after the Resurrection. In Luke’s Gospel, one of the ways that the Risen Christ made himself known to his disciples was by eating with them. Apparently, he too is enamored by tables. Luke 24:13-35 tells the story of Jesus’ appearance to two of his disciple (one named Cleopas) on the Emmaus Road where, after opening the scriptures to them, they were made aware of Jesus’ presence by the way he took the bread, blessed, broke, and shared it. “Were not our hearts burning within us,” they asked, “when he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Apparently, engaging in scripture goes hand-in-hand with being at the table and sharing in a meal. Stories go well with supper.
But the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter is where Jesus appears to the “Eleven” (RIP Judas). The other disciples (not numbered among the “Eleven”) who had encountered Jesus on the Emmaus Road had run back to Jerusalem to inform the “Eleven” of what happened. This causes a stir. Keep in mind that, according the Luke’s Gospel, this is the fourth time that the “Eleven” would’ve heard about Jesus’ resurrection. The first time they were told, the witnesses happened to be women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women) and their stories were dismissed as an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). Peter went to see for himself and found the tomb empty. Surely, he had gone back to tell the others what he had seen.
And yet the telling of tale is not enough. In order to get his disciples to believe, Jesus needed to build a table and share a meal. His question in Luke 24:41 “Have you anything here to eat?” is a deep one. Not only is he proving that he is not a ghost, he is appealing to the collective memory of his disciples. I wonder if Jesus isn’t appealing to a sense of hospitality that characterized his ministry. The community of Luke-Acts would’ve been familiar with the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Luke 9:10-17) as well as stories where Jesus teaches about hospitality (Luke 14:7-14) and then tells a parable about the unimaginable size of God’s table and the amazing scope of God’s welcome (Luke 14:15-24). The disciples in Luke’s Gospel would’ve been well aware of all the times that Jesus ate with the “wrong” people (Luke 5:27-32, Luke 7:36-50, Luke 11:37-52, Luke 41:1-24). Luke-Acts Jesus is “foodie” Jesus (minus the annoying Instagram posts). They would’ve been aware of how for Jesus, eating isn’t simply a function of human need. In as much as food and tables facilitate the creation of human community, eating is necessary to human flourishing. It is a part-and-parcel to the Reign of God. Hospitality is simply inseparable from the Gospel.
When I hear Jesus ask, “Have you anything here to eat?” I hear him asking, “have you made room here for the reality of my resurrection?” Is there room, at this table and in your hearts, for me to be here with you? Are you willing to add another chair to allow me to eat where? And if you say you are willing and able to host me, can you also host my friends: the lonely, the dispossessed, the oppressed, the poor, the sick, the over-policed, the under-invested, the forgotten, the refugee, the widow, the infant, and the immigrant?
When I consider this in the context of my experiences of anti-Black racism or stories I have heard of other people’s experience of anti-Black racism, I ask the question: how have we made space for black people to simply be in our society?
Do our tables exemplify abundance or scarcity? Compassion or fear? Love or hatred? Awareness or ignorance? We speak of hospitality, but have we added the extra leaves to the table and pulled up enough chairs to make that hospitality of lived reality? Have we taught the manners and norms necessary to respect everyone at the table? Have we done the work the invitation requires or did we get so self-satisfied at inviting that we stopped doing the work altogether? What kind of work do we need to do to build the kinds of tables that truly welcome people and sustain communities?
I am enamored with tables, with the communities that gather around them, with the food and stories that are shared on and around them, and with the worlds that they point to. In moments when I encounter tables where I am neither welcomed, included, nor celebrated, when “I’ve got a lot to be mad about” and it all simply feels like “cranes in the sky” and “I don’t wanna feel those metal clouds,” I am happy that there are tables I can go to. I am grateful for too-small tables in the mountains of Vermont, for my grandmother’s table, for tables I have yet to build and food I have yet to serve.
Reflecting on Andrei Rublev’s famous Icon of the Holy Trinity, Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, writes an amazing poem about a table. On it, the fullness of the human experience is offered, including our grief and our pain. But through it, we are invited to imagine a different, more compassionate, more hospitable world.
One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,
slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped,
said, Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.
I said, Here is the blood of all our people,
these are their bruises, blue and purple,
gold, brown, and pale green wash of death.
These (god) are the chromatic pains of flesh,
I said, I trust I shall make you blush,
O I shall stain you with the scars of birth
For ever, I shall root you in the wood,
under the sun shall bake you bread
of beechmast, never let you forth
To the white desert, to the starving sand.
But we shall sit and speak around
one table, share one food, one earth.
If hospitality is a hallmark of the Reign of God, then we fail to live into that reality whenever we make a space unsafe for someone else to be there. And, if that is true, then our lack of awareness, or intentionality, or compassion is a diminishing of our own tables…
…and a refusal to welcome Christ in our midst.
 Lyrics from “Cranes in the Sky” and “Mad” on Solange’s 2016 album A Seat at the Table.