Here’s the sermon I preached today. Naturally, it doesn’t ever preach quite like it’s written, but it’s worth posting to share with distant friends. Not really edited for universality, either — there are some references to “this space” and so forth that are unique to the sanctuary in which it was preached. But the message should be apparent regardless of context.
Sermon Text — “Setting the Table” — Preached at Glencoe Union Church, 6-24-2012
We ate dinner many different ways when I was growing up. In the earliest days I can remember, my dad would pick me up from kindergarten at First Baptist Greenville, and would drive me back home. Usually we stopped by the grocery store, and picked up whatever it was we needed for the day. We ran errands together, too; Dad would often roll down the windows and let the air blow through our hair, and between recycling drop-offs and trips to the bank and the post office and the hardware store and everywhere else, he would lead me in a little sing-song ditty he had made up to keep me amused during these errands. I’m a little embarrassed to share, but as they said in preaching, tell it like it is. So here it is. Y’all ready?
I don’t care, I like my hair to be MESSY MESSY MESSY MESSY MESSY! ‘Cause I don’t go to school…to-day! So my hair can feel COOL, hoo-ray!
And then we would get home, and it was time to set the table. Mom worked during the day, all day, so Dad would begin preparing dinner. I would have a few minutes to rest or watch TV or play, but before long I’d be called in to get the knives and the forks, get the placemats, and set out the drinks. It was also my job to get the drink orders – Dad usually wanted water in a big tall Texas Tech University cup, and I had learned that Mom usually wanted a Diet Coke when she walked through the door. Though their preferences rarely changed, it was still my responsibility to get the drink orders, just in case someone had changed their mind.
That’s more or less how it went, though it certainly changed from time to time. Mom had Thursdays off, and sometimes she would help set the table. When my little brother came along and got a little older, we would split table-setting duties. We usually split them badly, accusing each other of not putting out an equal number of spoons or fighting over which set of placemats and napkins were most appropriate. But in time we learned to work better together.
More, of course, went into setting the table than just setting the literal place settings. We also had to wash our hands and faces. And the context of dinner mattered too; if we had guests coming over, we would turn on the porch light, or open the front door, clean the living room, declutter the tables near the door, and generally make the place presentable. And even if we were going out to a restaurant for a special occasion or on a day when Dad just didn’t have time to get to the grocery store, we had to “set the table” in other ways, by getting presentable, by getting rid of the dirt and grime of the day, by getting dressed in something a bit nicer than the usual t-shirts and jeans. It’s a pattern that changed and shifted often while I grew up from toddler to child to adolescent to teenager, varying based on extracurricular activities and my parent’s schedules and our disposable income. But it was still a pattern. Setting the table was something we did, sometimes better, sometimes worse, but it was something we did together.
It was something we did because we wanted each other to feel comfortable. It was something we did because we wanted to carve out a space in the day that wasn’t rushed; a space when we could sit and the utensils would be there, and we wouldn’t need to run back to the kitchen three times for napkins or things we forgot. It was something we did when guests came because we wanted them, for a moment, to feel that our home was their home, that they were welcome, that they were loved. As a child, I thought setting the table was a chore. As an adult, I learned that setting the table was a sacrament. It was a way we made grace visible to one another.
The gospel passage Rebecca read for you today is about setting the table: specifically, it’s about setting the table BADLY. It’s not one that is often read aloud in churches. When opening to First Corinthians in a worship service, our instincts are to go to the passages in the chapter immediately following, about the Body of Christ being made up of many people with different gifts. A preacher can work with that, he or she can talk about how people have different talents that can come together for the good of everyone. Or we want to talk about chapter 13, when Paul extols love. Love is patient, love is kind, love never ends, yadda yadda, it’s all good, smile and let’s go home. It’s a good passage, we can all feel good while it’s read, and exhort each other to love, maybe we can sing together The Gift of Love.
I don’t mean to make fun of these operations. Both are good passages. Indeed, I count among my many blessings that I have been able to read Paul’s ode to love not once, but twice in this same sanctuary. It is Paul’s answer to the persistent problems of human community. It is Paul’s answer to the question of how to live together. For Paul, Love is the answer that allows the Body of Christ, with all its gifts, to function.
But in order to provide the answer, Paul must first outline the problem. And the problem is that the Corinthian church was not setting the table properly. The problem was that they were eating the Lord’s Supper together in a way that didn’t make the table welcoming for everyone there. Friends in Christ, I am asking you today not to rush too quickly to the answer. Instead, I am asking you to sit for a moment with the problem. If we are to live into the answer that Paul provides, it might help to consider what it is, exactly, we are trying to get away from.
(read scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34)
Scholars still struggle with what exactly the scope of the disagreement was in the Corinthian Church. This is not the only passage in 1 Corinthians in which Paul talks about disagreements and dissension in the church at Corinth, and they seemed to have disagreed on everything. From what to wear in church to how to speak in church, the Corinthians were divided against themselves in many different ways.
But in this passage, scholarly opinion seems to have come to some fairly firm conclusions. Early Christians met in homes, usually the homes of its wealthiest patrons, and from this scholars have been able to examine archaeological evidence. A typical house church would be divided into several rooms, with space for storage and socializing, but also with a private dining room adjacent to a large courtyard.
Given the leisure time available to the upper class, the wealthier members of the church would gather earlier. They didn’t have to work all day, they weren’t needed in the fields or the pastures or at construction sites. And so they started the meal of the church earlier. A long time ago the Lord’s Supper wasn’t just a ritual feast, but it was a real feast. In addition to the ritual elements, there was a spread probably much like our coffee hour, but larger.
By the time the poorer members of the Christian church arrived, most of the meal would be gone. The wealthier members would have eaten their fill, and even drunk most of the good wine. In addition, they would have filled up the private dining room, leaving the lower class folks outside to go hungry, except for the few bits of the ritual food still remaining. And they would have had to worship somewhere else, separate from the rest of the community.
In all of the text of 1 Corinthians, in all of the problems and divisions of the church, it is only this problem which prompts Paul to use the Greek word Krima. It is translated here as condemnation, and it means damnation, judgment. It is a harsh word. And Paul reserves, in a long, long list of the divisions in the church, he saves this one for last. He brings it up last, before he finally begins giving answers. Friends, from this, I am guessing that Paul thought setting the table mattered too. Paul thought that the way we prepare our space for one another matters.
What Paul asks the church to do instead is to discern the body when it eats the Lord’s Supper. He asks that we examine who is our neighbor, and what are their needs? In the Corinthian community, there were workers and wealthy, poor and powerful, laborers and luxuriants, and the lower class were being consistently ignored by the upper class. When they had meals together, they weren’t noticing each other, they weren’t taking care of each other. They were worshiping without substance; they were praising God, but not holding their fellow human beings close as the nearest image of God they had available.
Issues of rich and poor are not gone today, but when I think about this passage, and the problem Paul poses for Christian community, I think about Felipe. I met Felipe at a meeting for UChicago’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community. We struck up a conversation. He was a graduate student in Spanish Literature at the University of Chicago, in his first year, and had come to the meeting to make friends and get to know people. He thought it was interesting that I was in the Divinity School, and that I preached from time to time. He had a lot of questions about faith, and religion, and a story of a church that had not taken kindly to him when he had come out.
When I told Felipe where I lived in Hyde Park, I referenced it by way of a nearby church. Upon hearing the name of the denomination, he raised his eyebrow and said, “Sounds like a cult!” I laughed a bit, and we talked some more, and I tried to show him a Christianity that was different. But what bothered me about the encounter is this: the church we were talking about considers itself welcoming and affirming of LGBT people. It has gay members. It hangs a rainbow flag in its building. I have heard sermons preached there that were honestly and forthrightly welcoming.
And yet every week, it shares the Lord’s Supper. And every week, Felipe walks past as a member of the Body of Christ, a member who was once turned out and rejected, and Felipe does not know that there is a table set inside for him. He walks by hungry, while those inside are feasting on the word of God and the memory of the risen Christ. He goes by, forgotten.
And this happens not because the church hasn’t welcomed him. The church has, in fact, made steps to be a welcoming church. It happens because we in the Christian Church universal, from Hyde Park to Haiti, from Guatemala to Glencoe, are not setting the table. We aren’t turning on the porch light and calling our neighbors to join us. We aren’t throwing the doors open. We aren’t discerning the body, and all the members and people in this world who need support.
Friends, I do not want you to hear my words today as condemnation. I came into this pulpit today thankful for each one of you, and I leave this pulpit just as thankful. But I truly believe that we are not doing enough to set the table for our brothers and sisters, whether they be poor, whether they are gay or lesbian, whether they are people of color or people in need. I have my own solutions, and my own opinions. I have my own set of answers to these questions. I could share them at length with you, and am always willing to do so. But today I wanted to pose the question, and let it sit with you. Your answers are your own.
But as you formulate your responses in the days and weeks and months and years to come, consider this. My story of setting the table as a child matters, and you all know what it is like to set a table. You consider who is coming; you consider who to invite. You consider how to dress and how to act hospitably. You consider opening the door and turning on a light. You ask others to help. You raise your children to take over the responsibility when they are ready. You strive to make your home – and God’s home, here in God’s house – their home, their place, their space. For a while, this may seem like a chore – just like my childish self thought setting the table really was. But in time, and by the grace of God, we will discover sacrament in it. We will make the grace of God manifest in our lives. Thanks be, thanks be, thanks be.