|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe, D.Min.
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
September 30, 2018
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 21
Tables Not Walls
- Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29
- Psalm 19:7-14
- James 5:13-20
- Luke 12:13-22, 32-34 (special Gospel reading)
Most of the important things we do in our lives happen around the table. It’s where families gather to eat, share stories, and build relationships. It’s where tears are shed, laughter shared, lessons taught, plans made, dreams cast. Yes, the table is the heart of our home.
The table is certainly the heart of our home here at Transfiguration. Around the sacred table of the altar we gather together to eat, remember sacred stories, and build relationships. As we kneel side by side and elbow to elbow around this table, God feeds us, heals us, and strengthens us to follow the way of his Son.
Transfiguration is beautiful and unique because of the room we make at our table for everyone. It is down deep in our DNA to welcome all people, to offer a place at the table to those who may have struggled to find such welcome in other parts of their lives, including in other churches. For several decades, the inclusive and compassionate spirit of this church has helped our table become long and wide and open. It is one of the things I love most about this church, and it is one of the greatest gifts we have to offer our community.
But the truth is that our table needs to be even longer. There continue to be so many people in our area who are desperately hungry for what we have to offer. There are people who are yearning to feel true inclusion and embrace, who don’t yet know that God really is all about love, who haven’t yet experienced an ancient faith practiced in a modern world. Which is why this year our stewardship theme is “Building a longer table.” We are asking everyone at Transfiguration to commit to helping us build a longer table to welcome and serve more people.
Now, as clever an idea as I think this is – and those who’ve been around Transfiguration for a few years know how much I enjoy a clever stewardship theme – the truth is that it’s not terribly original. Because the truth is that God has been trying to get us to make the table longer for a long, long time. Just look at today’s story from Numbers.
The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for what already seems like forever – though, as it turns out, they’re only getting started – and they do what people often do when they feel trapped or hopeless…they fantasize about how great things “used to be” back in the “good old days,” even if those so-called good old days were, in reality, more like the bad old days. Even Moses joins in the whining, only he takes his complaints directly to God. “Why are you doing this to me, God? Why are you making me carry the load for all these miserable people? Why me?!”
If you’ve read much of the Bible, you know that God is not typically persuaded by these sorts of ungrateful pity-parties. And yet, in this moment, God does something surprising and important, something worth noticing today, thousands of years later. Instead of rebuking Moses and the people, God tells Moses to build a longer table – a longer table of leaders, so he can share the burden of responsibility. God says, “You know what, you’re right, Moses, it is a lot to handle, and the answer is to stop thinking you can do it alone, and invite 70 others to help you.”
And then God ups the ante even further by anointing two more men who weren’t expected or known, reminding us that God doesn’t wait around for us to figure things out. And God does all this because the point of the miraculous deliverance out of Egypt wasn’t just to protect and guide one, select people; it was the way God was going to advance the movement of blessing the whole world. God wanted to build a longer table of people in relationship with him, and that required Moses to follow suit.
God’s mission of building a longer table reached its climax with the life and ministry of Jesus. Just consider how much time Jesus spent inviting and welcoming people to the table with him who no one else thought deserved to be there. He went to Samaria and Caesarea Philippi and Tyre and Sidon. He touched lepers and spoke to scandalized women and healed the families of the Roman military. Heck, at the Last Supper, he knew Judas was about to betray him and yet he still saved him a place at the table. Yes, our Lord was all about building a longer table, making sure that more and more people knew they were welcome there with him.
But Jesus also knows something about us, something important: he knows that if we don’t use our creative energy to build longer tables, we will use it to build something else instead – namely, higher fences and taller walls. Because Jesus knew that there is a force that competes with God’s desire to extend the reach of the table, and that force urges us to defend what we have, to protect it, and to keep it for ourselves. It’s a force that whispers at us all the time,
“There’s not enough to go around…
you deserve it more than they do…
you earned it, but they didn’t…
enjoy it while you can.”
So one day Jesus told a parable…a parable about a man who experienced the harvest of a lifetime, one so big he couldn’t possibly store it all in his barns. And at that moment, that insidious voice started to whisper at him:
“Of course your barns aren’t big enough…you need bigger ones!
Of course you deserve all this success…you earned it!
Of course God wants you to keep it for yourself,
so you can be rich and live happily ever after.”
But the voice is lying, Jesus says, and we are fools if we choose to listen to it. God doesn’t want bigger barns, any more than God wants bigger fences or taller walls. What God wants is what God has always wanted: a longer table, a table at which more and more and more people can gather and feast and experience God’s holy plenty.
What has become clear to me in recent weeks and months, is that it’s not enough that our table is open and inclusive. It’s not enough that our table welcomes anyone who figures out we exist and happens to walk through our doors.
Because God is asking us to offer more than passive disapproval of a world that is obsessed with tearing down old barns and building bigger ones, rather than figuring out how to share the abundance.
And God is asking us to offer more than quiet opposition to a world that would much sooner build walls to keep poor people out than figure out how to feed and clothe them, or better yet, to figure out why they’re poor to begin with.
God is asking more of us than just disagreeing with those who are building bigger barns and taller walls. God is asking us to build a longer table…
- a table for people who may be walking away from God or the Church or hope of any kind so that they may know that there is a community who believes as much as ever in the transforming power of love.
- A table where we actively use our voices to speak, and our arms to serve, and our lives to love.
- Now, more than ever, God needs the witness of our table
We can’t just sit back here, hunkered down and hoping that this endlessly horrific news cycle will eventually blow over
- that a society actively forsaking truth-telling will come to its senses.
- that our nation will eventually get over its fearful rejection of refugees and migrants
- that one day we’ll actually listen to women when they tell us about their abuse
No, we can’t just sit around and wait.
Because God is calling us to expand and strengthen our witness, to love more, to serve more, to give more. God is calling us to build a longer table, and our ability to answer that call depends on everyone who calls this church home.
Please give prayerful thought to your pledge for 2019. If you’ve never pledged before, I hope you will choose to this year, because we need you. If you are already giving, I hope you’ll consider how you can stretch further, so that we can add another seat at our banquet. We have so much to offer this area, so much to do for God.
My friends, help us build a longer table next year.