Words and a Wisdom

It's about this time of the year when I start reaching deeply into the kitchen cabinets--not the ones that get opened everyday for our daily dishes, silverware, or spices. These are the ones that go deeply enough to take me from the mundane of "the everyday" to the treasures of "once a year." I'm gathering the dishes and linens for the family feast, starting to polish the silver, gather the china and iron the linens for the Thanksgiving banquet.

As I pull out the forgotten items that only make a showing once or twice a year, I'm connected again to the stories of these treasures from the experiences of table setting from the past.

I remember how my grandmother taught me on which side the silverware goes and how china gets properly laid out. I recount the gifts given at special times that now rest on my family table. I'm thinking about how getting a table ready can even be a sacred heart-setting, preparing our lives for the Christ to enter and be our welcomed guest.

In Lee Daniels' The Butler, a film released in August about a White House butler who served eight American presidents over three decades, there is a very different table-setting scene. The scene juxtaposes two different tables being set in the 1960's. The first is a dignified state dinner at the White House with African-American butlers serving the white DC elite and world leaders. The other table, a soda fountain counter like those all around the nation, where black college students endure the horror of being spit upon, bullied, physical abuse and unimaginable taunting.

There's a compelling connection between these two tables--one of privilege and one of pain. There's a convicting cry that emanates from both spaces of presumptuous civility and civil rights. At both tables, there's a need for Christ to enter and be a welcomed guest.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus is in Jerusalem in the looming days before his crucifixion. The Palm Sunday parade has already happened, and already the shouts of Hosanna have curdled to questions and threats and challenges to his authority. The banquet table has yet to be set for the Passover feast. It is clear in the temple that Jesus is not a welcomed guest.

After calling attention to another unlikely guest of the temple, a poor widow who gives all she has out of her poverty, Jesus starts to speak about the end of the age and the challenges to faithfulness and discipleship.

Now I have to admit, I always struggle with these words, and the other eschatological, end-times images of the Gospels. And yet, Jesus' words today sound as though he has been reading the same newspapers and hearing the same news that we are these days:  civil wars, nation rising against nation, kingdoms against kingdoms, famines and plagues as a result of the earth's changes, power and poverty, privilege and pain, even persecution for the faith.

But then a curious thing happens. Rather than Jesus telling us to dwell on these realities or to cower in fear and run from these realities, and certainly as he dismisses our attempts at predicting these realities, he assures his listeners and disciples this way, "For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls" (Luke 21:15-19).

It's like he's assuring us and strengthening us by saying, "I've set my table right in the midst of all of this. It's in these places of fear and loss and confusion and pain that I set my table and am a guest among you."

In power and poverty and privilege and in pain, even as we endure persecution and the pain and complexity of our modern world, these are the places where Jesus sets his table, where he grants us the words and wisdom of a Kingdom vision, that welcomes our neighbors and even our enemies--where Jesus comes to be our welcomed guest.

I could never really imagine the confusion of those days of Jesus in Jerusalem, on his way to the cross nor the thickness of the images of the eschaton that he's teaching, until I found myself at a table that turned my world upside down. It was a family table in a large visitation room in a medium security prison, where I was visiting a family member who had been incarcerated.

One Saturday a month, the families of inmates were allowed to bring a fast-food prepared meal to share with their loved ones. After an extensive check-in procedure, a search of the commercially prepared food we brought, a frisk of the inmates, families of all sizes, shapes and color gathered around those same oblong tables as the ones we sit around for church potluck dinners in our fellowship hall.

As we opened our Subway sandwiches, I couldn't help but notice the abundance of fast foods being opened, somehow connected to every family's story of ethnicity, culture, and geography. I saw some families pray before they ate, others stoically looking past one another in shame, some families were connecting like a rich and boisterous family reunion, and others spending more time crying with their hands held than picking up sandwiches to eat.

Families don't find themselves at these tables without knowing the pain that Jesus was revealing in Luke's gospel. They don't set a table in a medium security prison without the famine of love, the plague of disobedience, the sting of betrayal and storms that rage inside and out.

And yet, as I observed the broken body of Christ shared at each of those oblong tables, I remembered that Jesus has set his table here as well. He promises the words and wisdom he has given us of a day of healing and restoration that rises us out of all brokenness and pain we can ever imagine.

May he indeed be our welcomed guest. Amen.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, it's at the table,

Where life happens,

Where hurt happens,

Where hope happens,

Where memory happens,

Where receiving and giving happens.

Where the Body of Christ is fed and sent out.

May you be our welcomed guest around all our tables. Amen.