August 2, 2020
If you’re inclined to read through the letters attributed to the apostle Paul, you’ll notice he didn’t have a grand plan for social justice. Paul wasn’t particularly interested in reforming Roman laws, institutions, or culture with respect to slave-holding or gender roles, or religious practices. What Paul wanted to do was create gatherings of people who related to one another as if they were in the very presence of God – which is how Paul believed them to be when they gathered in Christ’s name. The cross of Christ, Paul believed, sets aside traditional social distinctions – in Christ, Jews and Greeks are no longer set in opposition to one another. The enslaved and freed hold the same social standing. Women and men play equal roles. The cross makes possible a reordered life -- a new life together in community – all are on an equal footing before God – all are welcome at the table.
Today’s focus hymn, “For Everyone Born a Place at the Table,” will shape the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving for our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Its author, Shirley Erena Murray, who died on January 25 of this year, was a fourth generation New Zealander educated in French and the Classics. Her church involvement was as a layperson. Born into a Methodist family, she became Presbyterian through her marriage to a minister and focused on the ecumenical community in her on-going religious journey. Her hymns are included in more than 100 collections and have been translated into several different languages.
In her hymns, Shirley Erena Murray addresses human rights, women’s concerns, justice, peace, the integrity of creation, and the unity of the church. All of these come together in our hymn for today, “For Everyone Born a Place at the Table.” The text is a subtle reminder of Jesus’ vision for equality and justice for the whole world. In this hymn, the table is not just the dining table, or the boardroom table; it’s a metaphor for the realm of God. The table is a world where everyone has a place because God became human in Jesus Christ.
Notice, in today’s hymn, who Is welcome at the table: women and men, young and old, just and unjust, even abuser and abused, language Murray draws from the Lord’s prayer – “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It is God’s will – and Jesus’ vision -- that everyone – everyone – has a place at the table, that everyone – everyone – is welcome.
If we’re honest, and thoughtful, and reflective … we’ll admit we live in a world where not everyone is welcome – either at the communion table or at the table of society’s common life. Some Christian denominations permit only church members to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. Some Christian denominations still do not welcome the gifts of women in leadership. Many, many Christian churches continue to deny leadership to gifted members of the LGBTQ community. The Presbyterian Church in this country was 200 years old before it elected its first woman Moderator. It took us 44 more years to elect our first Black Stated Clerk. In the 244 years of this country’s history, we have elected only one Person of Color to our nation’s highest office. And we have yet to elect a woman to either of our country’s highest offices. Not everyone is yet welcome.
Our challenge – as children of God … as those clothed in Christ … is to open the table … to extend welcome … to create justice and joy, compassion and peace. We begin by looking around – as my friend Bill says – by noticing what we’re noticing. Who’s at the table with us? And who is missing? Do we all look alike? Do we all think alike? To be a community of equality and justice, of compassion and peace, who else needs to be at the table? And how do we make absolutely sure the invitation is authentic and the welcome is genuine?
My dear friend, Peggy McDonald, lost her brief battle with cervical cancer in August, 2017. She was the embodiment of today’s hymn. Nurtured as a child by a fireball of a mom who never backed away from the hard stuff … guided as a young adult by the outspoken Presbyterian campus ministry at the University of Illinois … steeped in the urban outreach of Westminster Presbyterian Church here in Indianapolis … Peggy was a constant voice for equality and justice. If someone was missing, she named it. If something was racist and or prejudiced, she called it out. If the table needed to expand, she added the leaves and pulled up the chairs. At the celebration of her life, we sang with gusto “For Everyone Born a Place at the Table,” the very first hymn that came to mind when her daughter Elizabeth and her husband, Mark, wondered what we should sing to celebrate Peggy’s ministry. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Peggy and give thanks for her strong voice of welcome and inclusion.
For everyone born, a place at the table. Today we gather at Christ’s table. And this is my prayer – that our voices will be as strong and convicted as my friend Peggy’s as we raise them in welcome – to all who yearn to come to a table where no one – absolutely no one – is ever turned away.
Poet Michael Rosen says it this way … in The Greatest Table
The greatest table isn’t set inside a single home –
oh no, it spans the continents,
and no one eats alone.
The table in your dining room,
a picnic bench, a tray,
a party tent, your beach blanket,
a small sidewalk café,
a banquet hall, breakfast in bed,
a lunch box, take-out sack,
the circle at a campfire roast,
or any teatime snack –
each one is just another leaf
in one uncommon table,
where all the guests have cooked or baked
or brought what they are able,
where all of us can help ourselves,
and all of us are fed,
and no one has been turned away
with just a crust of bread.
The greatest table, like a tree,
is growing leaf by leaf,
and widening its canopy
to welcome more beneath.
Its tablecloth is flowering and covers all our knees;
its branches bend with every food
from pineapples to peas.
Who hasn’t eaten?
Join us here, pull up another chair.
We’ll all scoot over, make more room;
there’s always some to spare.
Baskets mound with crusty breads,
there’s soup in simmering pots.
and bushels brim year-round with fruit –
now pears, now apricots.
And always in the company
there’s someone we can toast:
An elder, infant, long-lost friend,
an honored guest, the host.
The table talk is musical,
with every language shared:
in every face the thankfulness
is more than any prayer.
The next time you sit down to eat,
the greatest table’s set,
connecting you with each of us
who hasn’t eaten yet.
So if you’re hungry, join us here,
pull up another chair.
We’ll all scoot over, make more room;
there’s always some to spare.
For everyone born … a place at the Table. May it be so! Amen.
* Commentary on Galatians 3: 23-29 by Jane Lancaster Patterson – www.workingpreacher.org
* Discipleship Ministries, the United Methodist Church – History of Hymns: “A Place at the Table.” Commentary by C. Michael Hawn and Jay A. Henderson
* The Greatest Table: A Banquet to Fight Against Hunger. Collaboration compiled by Michael J. Rosen. 1994: Harcourt Brace Publishers.