Friday, November 6, 2020

A Bigger Table - Sermon for Week ending November 7, 2020


Our first reading is from The Bigger Table, by John Pavlovitz, about the difficult but necessary work of letting go of false beliefs we learned from our childhood religion. 

Biblical deconstruction begins with an uneasy feeling, a nagging question, or a single verse. And once it begins, it’s terrifying, which is why so many Christians are content never looking at the bible too closely or challenging a theological precept too forcefully, not because we don’t feel such things are needed, but because we are afraid of the path they might lead us down. It’s just easier to take a pastor’s word for it and act as though we are fine with that, operating on a sort of existential autopilot that stays safely in the superficial. Finding deeper promptings, even though they might lead us to a truer truth, becomes something we resist with everything we have because we realize just how much work we might have to do, how much dead weight we might have to discard. Most of us default to the position of enjoying the spiritual journey of least resistance.


This week, I’m talking about some of the ideas in this book, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, authentic, and hopeful spiritual community, by Pastor John Pavlovitz. I know some of you read his daily blog.  I have used it for readings. Like many of us, Pavlovitz grew up in a conservative religion, Catholicism, where he says, “God was always hovering overhead, like a stern parent,” making sure he followed the rules and kept away from those who were not as favored by God as he was. The first part of the book is about his journey from there to Progressive Christianity, where he finally realized that much of what he had been taught just wasn’t true. He was helped by moving away from his sheltered life and people who looked and thought like he did to Philadelphia, where he lived alongside people he had once kept at a safe distance, and learned from them that no one is more or less deserving of God’s love. He says, “I had a front row seat to life beyond the edges of the small table of my youth and childhood religion.

That change of environment gave me new eyes to view the world through, and I was seeing like never before.” Once his eyes were opened, he had to leave behind a lot of what he had believed. And that led him to what all of us who have taken that journey have had to do, deconstruct those beliefs and the Bible, which, as we heard in the reading, is never an easy task, but a necessary one if our actual experience no longer matches what we were taught. It’s the only way to live authentically. But many pastors choose not to. They continue to preach what they no longer believe because it is what is expected of them; it is safer. As the title of chapter 5 of this book says, The truth shall get you fired. There aren’t a lot of places like New Vision, where we encourage questioning and acknowledge that our beliefs have changed. It is getting God out of the box that our former religion put God in that frees us to turn our hearts toward people we had been taught have less value than us, and instead embrace all of humanity, to permanently  expand our table to include all God’s people. The table metaphor that Pavlovitz uses, comes, of course, from Jesus’ table ministry, where he used the act of sharing a meal to let people know that they were seen and heard and known and respected, which is what our gospel lesson reflects. Jesus was almost always eating and drinking with someone; the more diverse his table mates, the better. And each time, everyone left with their dignity and worth intact, from the woman with the oil to the tax collector to a Pharisee host.

In the parable Jesus tells, he warns against self-serving hospitality, inviting only those who could return the favor. Instead, he says, extend the invitation to those who can’t.  Give without thought of receiving anything in return. And don’t just look for a few token marginalized or lower caste persons to share your table with. Make sure everyone who is hungry gets enough to eat. That is Jesus’ vision of what the world could be: creating shalom, “giving everyone the same access to wholeness, sustenance, justice, and joy, especially those whose value has been discarded by society.” Jesus was more than anything, relational. He loved being with people.

He gave them unconditional love and radical welcome, a safe space to break bread and share their stories, and experience healing. At that is what we do at New Vision. I saw on my Facebook memories this week that Thursday was my 4th anniversary of becoming a member of the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ.  And I thought about the first time that Cathy and I walked through the door of New Vision. The radical welcome and unconditional love you all gave us, how you opened your arms and your church and said, “Come on in. Our table is big!” And you have been doing it ever since, to everyone. While so many churches do everything they can to remain insular, because the club they presently have is predictable and safe, you do the opposite. I was watching Brenda reading the parable so beautifully, and I thought, those words are exactly what she does with the homeless ministry that we support.

She gives until everyone has enough. Then she gives them extra in case they meet someone along their way. That is who we are. In these difficult times, when we can’t physically be together and hug one another and enjoy our amazing table fellowship, may we remember who we are together, and  continue to find ways to let all of God’s people know that they are worthy and loved.


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