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How Wide is Your Table?

Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church
Eugene, Oregon
October 1, 2000

Luke 14:22-30

This is Worldwide Communion Sunday, in which Christians, at least symbolically, are united around the world, around this table, the Lord's Table.  It is for us a sacred table.  Or at least as close as anything can be sacred in the Disciples' church, this table is it.  Sometimes I get the impression that kitchens are more sacred in our theology than anything in the sanctuary.  At any rate, the Lord's Table is for us, the closest thing that we have to a holy shrine.  If you stop to think about, however, it really is no different than any dining table in any home across this country or around the world, because that is what Jesus used, a simple table where they gathered for a meal.  Hence our dining tables, at where I suspect most of us will be gathered this afternoon or this evening, are every bit or at least can be every bit as sacred as is this table.

The Bryant dining table from which I took so much nourishment in my younger years is very much or will be some day a family heirloom, though by no means an antique.  My parents purchased it when I was in fifth grade when our family moved to Albany.  Dad had just finished seminary in Iowa.  We didn't bring much in the way of furniture with us.  We didn't really have much of anything.  I still remember to this day the big yard sale before we moved when everything that wouldn't fit into the little U-haul trailer for the move was sold.  When you have five kids and one car to move half way across the country, you don't have a whole lot of room for much of anything besides the bare essentials.  Rumor has it that my parents even tried to lose one of us along the way.  Fortunately, they realized it was a little quieter than normal in the back seat before they had gone too many miles and returned to claim their abandoned child, otherwise I'd probably still be working on some farm in Nebraska.

Somehow we all made it to Albany where we rented a home for the first year on Third Street.  One of the very first purchases we made for our new home was the dining table.  Clarence Veal, a delightful little man and elder in the Albany church, was a furniture maker and provided us with a beautiful maple table with 8 matching chairs that I know my parents, fresh out of seminary with five kids to feed, could not afford.  But Clarence made it possible.  Now this table is no ordinary table.  To this day I have never seen one quite like it.  Clarence took one look at our family with all five kids I know and said, this family is going to need a table that will grow with them.  It has not just one or two or three or even four extra leaves.  It has five leaves and when you add them all, well, we have lived in houses where we would have to put one end in the hallway or the next room it was so long.  Of course for most meals we only need a couple of leaves, even with all seven of us present.  But for those special occasions, holidays or other events when the relatives and friends would join us, we would expand the table so all could sit around it.  Now when we gather as a family, with all the spouses and grandkids, we need every leaf and then some.

Today my memories of that table are filled with warmth and joy and yes, a touch of sadness.  In many ways we grew up around that table, gathering every evening for family dinner, holding hands for the blessing.  Telling stories of what happened at school that day or at work.  Holding family councils.  I remember one occasion particularly difficult when we met as a family around the table to discuss the sale of our home on Nebragal Loop in Albany because we lived so far out of town--three miles-- and gas was $.27/gallon and we couldn't afford it anymore!  So we decided to sell the house and move into town, which lasted about a year before we sold that house and moved back to the country, about ten miles out.  All the important family gatherings took place around that table.  The birthdays we celebrated.  Mom bringing in the freshly baked birthday cake with all the candles that would light up the dining room and glisten the formica top of the maple table.  The guests who joined us for Sunday dinners.  Missionaries from around the world, exchange students from Corvallis that Mom would invite to join us for Thanksgiving or Christmas because they had no where else to go.  The games we played round the table.  Take out the leaves and scrunch it together and it is just right for pinochle and other card games.  Those were such happy, wondrous times around the maple table.  Miraculous, too.  I remember ten years ago when my daughter sat at that time for her first time, and took her very first bite of solid food.  If you can call whirled bananas solid food.  So many wonderful events.  That table has been in 10 different houses.  Indeed, our family moved so often I had to call home to find out where they were.  One time I came home from a state youth event and there was a note on the door.  It said, Dear Dan, we've moved.  Love, your parents.  No kidding!  Wherever we lived, it didn't matter what the house was like or where it was, because I knew if that table was there, that is where home was.  That table has been very important to the Bryant clan for over 35 years now, the center piece of our family.

Luke understands the importance of tables.  Forty times tables are mentioned in the gospels and half of those are in the gospel of Luke.  He uses tables twice as often as John and four times as often as Matthew or Mark.  Some of the most powerful things that Jesus says or does are there at the table.  And the worst indictment that his enemies can bring up against him, is that he welcomes sinners and eats with them.  You see the table is a very sacred place and Jesus, in the mind of some, has defiled it.  Jesus is at dinner with religious leaders and I suspect it was a very nice dinner when they brought out all the fine china and the good crystal, a very elaborate meals designed to impress the distinguished guest, the reported miracle-worker from Nazareth.  The host goes to great lengths to make it a very proper meal.  What happens?  A woman off the street, you know, one of those kind.  We all know what they do but we don't talk about it openly.  This woman comes in, uninvited, to this fine dinner party and washes Jesus' feet with her tear and dries them with her hair there, at that sacred table.  The host is livid.  He is angry.  How dare she defile my table with her presence.  Jesus responds with tender, loving compassion and forgives her sins.

At another table, a Pharisee has invited Jesus over for dinner, put on another nice meal, and it is there, at that table, that Jesus chooses to give his sharpest indictment against the religious leadership.  Woe to you religious leaders for your hypocrisy.  In chapter 14 Jesus gives us a few table manners.  When you are invited to a feast don't take your place at the head table, go to the foot so that you won't be humiliated if you are in the wrong spot.  He gives us advise on developing the invitation list for our dinner parties.  Don't invite those people who can repay you, those people you are trying to impress, getting on their good side.  Invite the people who can't repay you, the people no one else will invite.  Only in so doing will you be truly blessed, says Jesus.

Someone says to him, 'Happy are those who sit at the table of the Lord in the Kingdom of God.'  Jesus responds with the story of the Great Banquet, where the invitations are sent out and the people say, 'Oh, I am too busy, I can't come.'  The master of the house sends out his servant, and says, 'Tell people to come in for my table must be filled.'  And so we learn that in God's realm there are not reserved tables.  Jesus says, indeed, there is no discrimination at God's table.  People from all corners of the earth, are welcome and will be treated and served equally.  Then in contrast to these tables in the realm of God is the table at which Lazarus is forced to beg for crumbs from the rich man.  Remember, that rich man is condemned for his treatment of Lazarus.  Hence we know that wherever people are forced to subsist off the crumbs from someone else's table, there sits a condemned person.

Then in the last chapter of the Luke, the wonderful story of the two on the road to Emmaus.  When they are perplexed and trying to understand what all the recent events mean, the crucifixion, the reports of Jesus' resurrection, and then a stranger comes to them, interprets the Bible to them, opens their eyes.  But it is not until they invite him and they sit down for dinner and he breaks the bread, blesses it, and then their eyes are opened and they recognize the risen Christ, at the table.

Finally in this passage this morning, we have three tables.  Did you catch them all?  There is first of all the familiar Passover meal, the commemoration of when the Hebrews were liberated under Moses from slavery in Egypt, an event celebrated for 3000 years around the table of Jewish homes.  According to that tradition, the youngest child present always ask at the meal, 'Why is this night different from all the rest?'  The elder of the house tells the story of how God liberated them from their bondage.  We can rest assured that on that night when Jesus gather with his disciples that the youngest present asked that question and Jesus told the story.  But Jesus departs from the Haggadah, the prescribed liturgy, and adds a new element.  When he talks about God's liberation, he takes that bread, gives it to them and says, 'This is my body, this is how God is working to liberate you.'  So Christians throughout the ages have gathered around the table and told the stories of Jesus.  This table has become for us a meal symbolizing our liberation and our redemption.

But Luke's story differs a little from Matthew and Mark at this point.  In the other gospels Judas is revealed as the betrayer before the meal and presumably leaves at that point so we just have the meal with the faithful.  But not so in Luke.  Did you notice that it is not until afterwards that Jesus says, 'But see, the one who betrays me is with me and his hand is on the table.'  Judas, the betrayer, is right there, all along, celebrating with the other disciples that original Lord's supper.  When you are making up your invitation list for your dinner, do you invite someone who has betrayed you, someone who has stabbed you in the back, someone who has sold you out?  Jesus did.  Not only that, but he takes the bread, and he gives it to Judas, and he says, 'This is my body, broken for you, Judas, for you.'  Some of the most powerful things that Jesus ever did are done at the table.

Luke also differs from the other gospels in that he adds two more stories at this point.  The argument of the disciples, who is the greatest, occurs here at this point.  Jesus says, according only to Luke's version, 'For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?  Is it not the one at the table, the guest, the host?'  Who pays attention to the servants?  We may applaud for them when the meal is all done or leave them a nice tip, but that's about it.  Jesus says, 'I am among you as one who serves.'

Then comes the time when the meal is all over, to pass out the awards.  Did you know that this was an awards ceremony?  There is an award for the disciple who is the most improved, the one who has memorized the most scripture... So my version may be a little different from yours.  In both of our versions, Jesus says, 'You are those who have stood by me for my trials.'  See, Jesus is about to pass out the award for loyalty.  The ones who have stayed with him through thick and thin are finally going to get their due.  What is the reward that Jesus has to offer, the highest award for loyalty?  'So that you may eat and drink at my table in the Kingdom of God.'  There is no higher award than this.

Do you suppose that Luke just kind of threw these stories together, without much thought to it?  Had a couple of table stories left over, had to put them in some where.  Is it a coincidence that Luke has so many tables in his gospel?  Or might there be a connection to all of these table stories?  Perhaps Luke is trying to tell us something about the character of the Lord's table.  For instance, that it is at the Lord's table that we are called to serve as well as to be served.  At the Lord's Table we are called to reconcile ourselves with our enemies and to be forgiven of our sins.  At the Lord's Table we are called to sit with sinners and outcasts and foreigners and the poor.  At the Lord's Table is one of the few places we can demonstrate the oneness of the body of Christ and the unity of humanity.  At the Lord's table, when these things happen, we know that Christ is in our midst.

Fred Craddock, popular Disciples' preacher and scholar, tells the story of his experience studying in Tuebingen, German, in 1969.  At the time he did not know a lot of German so when he would take the train to another part of the country, he would always try to sit some place where there were lots of other people so the conversation would never depend on him.  Trains, in Europe, you understand have these little cubicles where you sit facing one another, rather than staring at the back of someone's head, you are sitting knee to knee with four or five others, much more conducive for conversation.  So Fred would always sit in a compartment where there were several others and he could just smile and say 'Ja' or 'Nein' and impress people with this linguistic ability so that no one would catch own that he wasn't one of them.

One particular day he was head back to Tuebingen and the train was full.  He got to the very end of the train, only one compartment left, and wouldn't you know it, it had just one person, an older woman.  Fred entered in, said ' Guten Tag.'  She smiled and nodded.  Fred sat down, thought for several miles, formulated a good sentence in his mind, made sure it was conjugated properly, all in the right order and said, 'Sehr schoen Heute, nicht wahr?'  'Nice day, isn't it?'  She nodded and smiled.  Fred thought to himself, I know more German than this lady.  Fred was feeling brave now so he added, 'I'm headed for Tuebingen, and you?'  She replied, simply, 'Rohstock'.  Fred thought, 'Rohstock, Rohstock? That's on the other side of the wall, that's in East Germany, Communist Germany!'  He bluntly asked, 'Are you from Communist Germany?'  She answered, 'East Germany.'  Fred had never met someone from East Germany before.  He didn't know why, but for some reason he dared to ask, 'Are you a communist?'  'No,' she said, 'I'm a Christian.'  Fred sighed, somewhat relieved I supposed, and said, 'So am I, from America.'  'Yes,' she said, 'I can tell.'

So they began to tell stories of what it was like to live as a Christian in a communist country and what it was like to live as a Christian in a capitalist country.  They shared stories of their families and got out pictures of their children and grandchildren.  She was on her way home from Switzerland, had been celebrating Christmas with grandchildren there and was bring back present for grandchildren in Rohstock.  One of the gifts was a music box that played Silent Night.  She wound it up and as they moved through that dark German night they sang together that favorite carol of both countries.  It was a wonderful fellowship, the two of them.

Fred was beginning to get a little hungry.  He had picked up a sandwich from a vending machine in the train station.  He decided it would not be polite to eat in front of her so he figured he would just break it in half and share it with his new friend.  But German bread is not like American bread, not made by Wonder.  And this particular bread had obviously spent some time in the vending machine.  First he tried to tear in it half, then he tried breaking it, then he tried hitting it on his knee.  Finally he got it into two pieces.  By that time he realized that she had taken out an orange, carefully peeled it and divided it in neatly in half.  She offered to him half an orange and he to her half a sandwich.  They came to Stuttgart where they were to change trains, one for Tuebingen, one for Rohstock.  So they said their goodbyes.  Fred said, 'God be with you'.  She answered, 'and with you.'

Fred says every since then, whenever he goes to a church, he always checks their menu, to see what they serve.  He says that he has discovered that where they serve half a sandwich and half an orange, it is a Christian church where the spirit of Christ is alive.  But where they serve whole sandwiches and whole oranges, each to their own, that's another story.

When I heard Fred tell this story years ago down in Claremont, he told us that he got to thinking about the lady in Rohstock and started wondering, how far is it from here to Rohstock?  So he got a map and measured precisely how far it was, measured it out in inches and converted it to kilometers.  He asked us, 'Do you know how far it is from here, from this place to Rohstock, where that Christian sister lives.  I know, I measured it.  It is precisely the width of that table.'

You see, if I read Luke right, that table is just as wide as the world. 


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