Table Grace

By April 15, 2018Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Table Grace”

Dr. Diana Butler Bass

April 15, 2018

 

1 John 3:1-7

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

 

Luke 24:35-48

Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

 

Good morning. It’s good to be here this morning, and you are truly looking like the ‘frozen chosen.’ When I was standing out there, someone said to me, “Oh my gosh, there aren’t so many people here today, usually the church would be almost twice as full.” And that that brought to mind something that happened to me many years ago. This would have been in 1986, and oddly enough it was on Thanksgiving Day. I was married then to someone I’m not married to now, I’m on my second marriage, which has lasted a very long time. But I was with my first husband, and he was a fellow who was from the ‘reformed’ side of Christianity, and I was an Episcopalian. We’d only been married for about eighteen months, and it was Thanksgiving morning. It was his tradition, in his religious family, to go to church on Thanksgiving. And I knew that the Episcopal church that we were attending was having a small Thanksgiving service on this particular day. And so we had decided to go together, in this blending of our two traditions.

Well we got up that morning, and it was awful weather. It was a Thanksgiving in Massachusetts, where it had snowed and it was sort of sleet and ice rain, it was just terrible. And there was six inches of stuff on the road. He was the kind of guy who would go to church no matter what, and so we got in our car and drove several miles to get to our Episcopal church. And when we got there, it was just the two of us, one other couple, a priest, and the organist. And I actually will never forget that service, because outside the winds were howling. Here we are in New England, and we’re celebrating Thanksgiving, and the winds are howling and it’s this horrible weather, and six people made up this tiny pilgrim band of gratitude on that Thanksgiving day. There weren’t hardly any people there, but it was a church service that has remained in my mind every year since on Thanksgiving.

And so it’s funny to be here standing here with you around Easter, this is Easter season, the third Sunday of Easter. We’re part way through the great fifty days of Easter. To have outside be full of ice and icky slush and unexpected weather and wind, and to be talking about gratitude. Thinking about thanks. It almost forms two really odd bookends of Thanksgiving in my own experience, and that’s what I want to talk about today. The unfolding of Easter and thanksgiving. And what a shame it is that we think of Thanksgiving as a day in church, as a day with our families only once a year, and that we haven’t really mined the spiritual depths and power of the idea of Easter as our season of thanks.

When you write a book about gratitude, I can confess now from person experience, that people will ask you the same set of questions over and over again. And that is, everybody seems to want to know these days what I do in order to practice thanks in my own life. I’ve been asked this now by reporters—Christian ones and secular ones—by people at events, by my neighbors. Everyone seems to know what to do when it comes to thanksgiving. Well I’ve done many things over the years to learn and strengthen gratitude as a practice in my own life. But today I want to share with you what is probably the most sustained practice that I have embarked upon over many, many years. It’s something that I do not do by myself, it’s something that I do with my family. And that is a very simple thing. So simple that you might not necessarily think of it as a practice of thanksgiving, but that is saying grace over meals.

Now I come from a family, my Methodist family when I was growing up did not do this. When we said family prayers together they tended to be evening prayers. My mother would come and sit by our bedsides at night and we would say some prayer together. Of thanks for the day, and then for safekeeping during the night, to pray away the fears of the darkness. But my husband’s family—this husband, Richard, the one who I’ve been married to for almost twenty-two years—he actually did. Maybe it’s something about husbands that have to remind me about thanksgiving, but Richard’s family always did say prayers over their mealtimes, and it was the simple prayer, one that I’m sure many of you say: “Lord, make us thankful for these and our many other blessings, in Christ’s name, amen.”

So when Richard and I got married, this was his tradition. And we started saying grace together, not at bedtime, but at meal time. Thus our house was framed in this simple practice of thanksgiving. Our daughter was born nine months and one week after we were married, and she is now twenty—a second-year student at UVA. I can remember when we would sit and she would be in her baby chair right there at the table, and even as a tiny little thing, she would stop and be quiet when we’d say grace together. Today, she still feels like saying grace at meals is incredibly natural. When she comes home from college, if we ever forget to say grace, she reminds us. When we sit down at the dinner table she says “What are we going to pray about tonight?” It’s become part of who we are to sit together at a table and say ‘thank you.’

We’re not alone in this practice. A recent survey found that fifty percent of Americans still say grace at meals at least a few times a week. And this fifty percent is not politically determined—Republicans and Democrats both say grace at meals—nor is it nor is it particular to any particular religious tradition. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, even a high percentage of people who understand themselves to be Atheists, Agnostics, or spiritual but not religious, say some sort of grace, a blessing, at a table before a meal. What a simple thing, and what a beautiful thing. It is also a profound thing, a deeply biblical thing, and an ancient practice, one that comes to many people who would be in this room through both Judaism, and later Christianity.

Christians, of course, inherited this amazing ancient practice from the Jews. For thousands and thousands of years, the table has been considered the most sacred place in Jewish life. It is the place of gathering, of feasting, or receiving God’s blessings of enacting the Sabbath. There has always been in Jewish families a blessing to open the meal, one that emphasized God as the creator, the Lord, and the ruler of all. That blessing, these words, translated from Hebrew, is so old that we do not even know when they began:

“Blessed are you, O our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. Blessed are you, O our God, ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.”

 

Our Jewish friends didn’t think it was enough just to bless the meal at the beginning. They drew from a verse in Deuteronomy that taught the most important blessing was actually after the meal. So they began with a simple blessing, “Blessed are you, Lord our God—” notice it’s not a blessing of the food, it’s blessing to God. Then after the meal, they say a more extensive blessing—they actually have entire liturgies, I’ll just read you the short version of that blessing—but again, incredibly ancient words.

“Sovereign God of the universe, we praise you; your goodness sustains the world, you are the God of grace, love, and compassion; the source of bread for all who live, for your love is everlasting. In your great goodness, we never lack for food. You provide food enough for all. We praise you, O God, source of food for all who live.”

 

And thus, the Jewish table, blessed at the beginning of the meal and praised at the end of the meal, acknowledging two things: God is creator, and the abundance that God has given to the whole of the world. That prayer is amazing. “Your great goodness is such that we will never lack for food. You provide food enough for all.” The Jewish table reminds us that we are the recipient of gifts, and that those gifts are the primary, most basic, fundamental nature of the universe. Those gifts will never stop coming at us, God is an ever-creative presence with us, who feeds and feeds and feeds and feeds and feeds again.

We live in a gifted world, and we are surrounded by abundance. That is a great thing to remember for thanksgiving. And it is also, I think, key to understanding what Easter is all about. For here, in these great fifty days, on every Sunday following the Sunday of the resurrection, the church recounts the early testimony of Jesus post-resurrection, appearance to his friends and followers. Now depending upon how we go back and look at scripture, how we count those appearances, there are some ten or fifteen stories that we are told in scripture about Jesus showing up after the resurrection. And if you’ve never noticed—actually, you might be a lot brighter than me, because if you’ve noticed, I had never noticed this before—almost all of those appearances share one detail in common: Jesus shows up at tables.

Like today, in the gospel of Luke there’s a food story about these friends of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, they have lunch with Jesus, and it’s only once that Jesus is breaking bread with them do they recognize Jesus and that Jesus disappears; they are so overcome by this amazing thing that has happened to them, they run back to the rest of Jesus’ friends and they say “Oh my gosh, we knew Jesus and the breaking of bread, he was really there,” and they’re telling this story about having lunch with Jesus, and Jesus shows up again. And in the story where Jesus shows up, Jesus is hungry. So we have a food story of a very hungry Jesus who asked for something to eat. And you know that Jesus is not just standing at the kitchen and they open the refrigerator. They must have been gathered around a table, and Jesus shows up and says “feed me.” It’s an amazing story. They know who Jesus is, they don’t have to wait for the fish to be eaten. Instead, Jesus simply eats food with them.

And then there’s the story of the upper room, last week, a story that takes place in the same room where the last supper had taken place, and there’s a story about a breakfast on a beach that will be coming towards us in just a couple weeks. Whatever else the resurrection is about, it is clearly about Jesus coming to dinner. Jesus sitting at a table with his friends. Jesus eating with other people. Jesus cooking dinner with other people. Indeed, near the end of his time with his friends here on earth, Jesus commissions his friends to feed people. “Feed my sheep,” he says. We take that as not literal, but I have to ask myself why. Jesus seems absolutely obsessed with food in the Easter season. As a matter of fact it’s a little like The Jesus Show on the Food Network. Now these people, these good Jews who want to do all this eating together, there is something else that’s not told to us because it would have been assumed by everyone who heard these stories and who read these texts, is that every one of these table encounters would have started with those prayers that I just read to you, with a table grace. And every one of those encounters would have ended with that prayer of abundance.

So every time Jesus sits down with his friends in these post-resurrection stories, in the same way that they did when Jesus was alive, was their teacher walking around with them, sharing the good news of God; a God who has created this beautiful world for us to inhabit with joy and compassion and love and justice. This same God who had provided great abundance for the people of Israel, that was the God that they prayed to when Jesus was alive; that is the God they prayed to when Jesus is alive again, after the resurrection. These are prayers that honor creation. These are prayers which recognize a life of abundance.

In Easter, we celebrate victory over the cross and the grave, a victory that we talk about all the time, it’s about life and not death. And the oddest thing about that victory, perhaps, is not that we will have full life in the age that is to come, but the victory, this victorious life takes us right back to the Thursday night before the cross. Jesus’ victory takes us to the table. Sometimes in our Easter celebration we still think a lot about the cross. We think about how Jesus died there for our sins, but I want you to consider something very odd for just a moment with me: when Jesus himself returns and hangs out with his own friends, the people he wants to feed his sheep, he does not go back to Calvary. He never once goes back to the hill where the torture, where the execution happened. He never once goes and stands in that desolate place and points to a cross and says “Hey, look there, that’s the point.” He doesn’t do that.

Instead, what Jesus does is he shows up in the last place, the upper room, where he and his friends had dinner together. This makes me think that the real point of this story for our lives, the continuing Easter joy, is about feasting. It is about the centrality of Maundy Thursday; the supper the Jesus had with his friends, and those table graces of creation and abundance. In a very real way, the last supper that they had on that Maundy Thursday would be the last supper of a world of injustice and oppression. The last supper where Caesar was going to be the lord and savior of the universe. The last supper where violence would seem to have the last word. And it becomes something we rarely talk about, but I think that this is really what the theological point is. That last supper is also the first feast. It is the first feast of life in the age to come. It is the first feast of full joy. It is the first feast of understanding and living the deepest kind of gratitude for participating in a gifted world; in recognizing, receiving, and embracing he abundance of God.

The last supper is the first feast. And that’s why Jesus keep showing up over and over and over again at tables during the fifty days of Easter. He never once points back to the instrument of death, but in that fifty days, between the resurrection and the time we see him no long here on this earth, he constantly points to bread and wine. Over and over and over again, and not bread and wine as a metaphor. Jesus is not eating a metaphor when he asks for food. He’s having a party with his friends. Easter life is that table. It is a life of table grace where our lives are set with the gifts of God, for the people of God, and then when we get up from that table, we say “Lord, thank you. Thank you that we live in a world of abundance.” It is about gratitude.

Easter is our Thanksgiving. It is a radical grace. It reminds us daily that scarcity and oppression and violence and death are not the last word. Instead, the last word is “dinner.” In a wonderful, short piece, published by some theologians from Baylor University, they say this:

“The power of Christ’s resurrection is realized most not in our building of monuments or institutions, but in the breaking of bread. The quotidian collecting of those whom we love around a table that nourishes all. And praying that God would give us new eyes to see those who belong alongside of us.”

 

Wouldn’t it be amazing if instead of celebrating Thanksgiving only once a year in November, we took these fifty days and made them a season of table grace? Made them an entire fifty days of gratitude? A Lutheran theologian by the name of David Loss who teaches at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, he actually did this one year. For fifty days of the Easter season he thanked someone he knew, someone who had blessed him. And he said it changed his entire perspective of what the resurrection as about. Easter. Easter is our season of gratitude.

I leave you with that memory of a Thanksgiving and an unexpected snow, and standing with you here with an Easter of unexpected snow. And in my own life, those two things now overlap, and enfold one another.

My friend, Jan Richardson, she’s a Methodist, she’s a lay person. She’s a poet and she’s a painter. And she has written a table blessing which is used frequently in churches for communion Sundays. But I’ve come to think of this table blessing as more than just a blessing for communion. It is instead a blessing of Easter; a blessing for the resurrection life; a blessing for this season. She writes: “And the table will be wide, and the welcome will be wide, and the arms will open wide to gather us in.” I love that line. I wasn’t going to do this, but think about that for a moment. “The arms will open wide to gather us in.” Perhaps during Easter the cross turns into a table.

“And our hearts will open wide to receive

and we will come as those who trust that there is enough

and we will come unhindered and free,

and our aching will be met with bread

and our sorrow will be met with wine

and we will open our hands to the feast without shame

and we will turn toward each other without fear

and we will give up our appetite for despair and hopelessness

and we will taste and know delight

and we will become the bread for a hungering world

and we will become drink for those who thirst

and the blessed will become the blessing

and everywhere will be the feast.”

 

Jesus says “Go forth and proclaim the good news.” Everywhere will be the feast. That is the good news of Easter, and not only is it the good news; not only is it even better than good; but it is great news. And I hope that you feel and understand the deepest sort of gratitude that grows out of that, and that we can all sing grateful from the recesses of our beings to the ends of the earth. Amen.