Who sits at your table? It doesn’t take long in reading the Gospels to come across a passage like this:
15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:15-17)
There are many other instances one could point to of Jesus eating with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, crippled, or blind. Yet for some reason, this seldom pushes us to consider our own practices of table fellowship. If we saw a pastor or fellow church member near the liquor store, walking out of a drug dealer’s house, or eating lunch together with someone who reminded us of a stripper, chances are we might find ourselves sounding like the Pharisees of old, angry that the good names of our churches were being dragged through the dirt. Have you ever thought about how you practice table fellowship? What are these unwritten codes of conduct as lived out in our families, our churches? Are we leading others to have a defensive or inclusive view of table fellowship? What are the experiences in which other people shared a table with me that are especially meaningful?
Scott Mcknight once said “Tables build societies.” When I think about tables as a point of common ground, I often can’t help but think of Jesus’ vision for a table where sinners, a tax collector who had betrayed his country, and prostitutes sat alongside Jesus’ own disciples and shared a table together. Now I have experienced this kind of “come as you are” fellowship at AA meetings, but at church our conceptions and expectations demonstrate at times our own kind of “purity code” which can push us more in the direction of perception management than inclusivity and hospitality.
I think it is no accident that Jesus’ disciples gathered regularly and ate together. Table fellowship is a powerful thing. Often the work of God happens just as much around a table as it does sitting at a pew or in some kind of altar call instance. Any time people in the church gather around a table, whether that is to eat, fellowship, or even play cheesy board games, connections are made. Relationships are deepened. We would do well to make this our regular habit within the church, yet Jesus’ table was open to the newcomer, the outsider. As well as we would do to gather around tables with people we are already in relationship with—people we like, are comfortable with, and already know like us–following in Jesus’ footsteps requires us to be a guest at the table of outsiders, even the tables of sinners. But this is such a hard teaching. It is awkward and uncomfortable to get away from our tables of familiarity and to just receive the hospitality of another, or even to make room at our own tables for strangers rather than only those who are the closest to us.
One of my experiences of table fellowship that was most meaningful was at Lakewood rehab, back in Havilland KS. The facility was kind of a medium-functionality group living home for people with mental health issues like dementia, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Every other month or so a dance would be scheduled during the time that the Bible study met. It was disruptive as many people from the meeting would not miss the dance for the world. The next time it happened, I sat around to watch. I sat there, as nervous as a kid at a six grade dance. The difference was that unlike a sixth grade dance, the girls were more aggressive. Now I want to tell you there was nothing about dancing during rec time at a mental institution that was romantic, by any means. It was more like a square dance or folk dance in the eyes of most involved.
Now dancing was simply not a part of my life since I got into recovery. There was a day once when I thought of myself as a good dancer—long before my recovery—when alcohol or some other chemical allowed me freedom from my inhibitions. Now, stone cold sober, dancing was the most intimidating proposition in the world. Even as I looked out on the dance floor and saw even people with the most awkward movements grinning and having a good time, my fear seemed to get the best of me. Unfortunately, a couple women from the Bible study would not let me sit there in my fear. I felt eyes lock on me, and a few of them almost formed a line in front of me as I tried not to look up. One asked me to dance—it was clear there was only one right answer— a red haired lady named Teresa twice my age who suffered from schizophrenia and limped with both legs when she walked. On the dance floor though, she moved as I had never seen before. As we danced, the fear and awkwardness melted away… sort of. It was like being invited to participate in the Special Olympics of dancing, I knew if I can’t get over my self-consciousness here in a mental institution, there would never again be a more forgiving environment, perhaps anywhere in the world. It made me think, if Jesus was going to dance anywhere, He would be dancing right here. These are the people he would want to dance with, not those talented people on Dancing with the Stars.
This table fellowship was extended to me beyond the physical table long removed to make room for the dance floor. This community was without a doubt a safe place to work on my fears, and share life in a marginalized little corner of the world that Jesus had not forgotten. Many of my peers thought I was so selfless in volunteering and pouring my life out in sharing Jesus with this community. Looking back, I owe them the debt of gratitude. I benefited the most from our relationship. They taught me how to be more Christ-like. They taught me how to preach and teach effectively to where they were at, by letting me fully into their lives. While I had no small amount of academic honors at my graduation, the honors I had as their pastor mean so much more to me. Those paper awards I have stuffed in a box somewhere are absolutely meaningless to me, what I miss the most is sharing Jesus in that place every Wednesday and Friday.
Jesus never told sinners sin was not sin, yet He ate with them and accepted them at His fellowship table. He did not expect people to pretend to be something they were not, nor did He expect them to have all the answers before He invited them into relationship with Himself. Yet this is exactly what we often do to others. I think offering this grace to others is as awkward as learning to dance again. We can’t have it all figured out before we begin, we just have to start somewhere, and figure out how the dance works together in relationship. We cannot—like shy 8th graders—just wait around for people to ask us to dance while avoiding eye contact and secretly hoping they won’t. So often people are burned by churches that expect others to change first before they can fit in. Instead of putting the burden of change on others, we are called to change our priorities to that of seeking out the sinner, not merely circling our wagons of self-righteousness so we can huddle together in the middle.
What would it mean for our church body, and how would we live differently as a church community, if we really desired outsiders to have fellowship with us? What if we really saw them as children of God for whom Jesus died and for whom Jesus would have unquestionably shared a table with? Learning to dance again at Lakewood made me think not about how an outcast would benefit from a friendship with me, but about how I would benefit from a friendship with them. How someone new might help our church body to see Jesus in a new way, and how we might grow spiritually if we could rise to the opportunity to show him/her a seat at our table.
So I want to ask you to day, who are the regulars at your table? Can you expand your inner circle for one more? At Thanksgiving I have often seen the little kids table. It is something like a practice table for the kids, so they can learn how to fellowship at the big table with the adults. Like the children at the little table, we are looking forward to table fellowship at the great wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev 19). At this table will be all manner of sinners, all manner of different kinds of people. The practice should start now. I dare you to invite someone new into your circle, to give out one of the seats at your table. I double dog dare you to do as Jesus did, go join another circle (perhaps with some sinners, IRS agents, or people rough around the edges) and experience their table fellowship, laying aside what others might think to accept their hospitality. It is good practice for that coming time of dining with Jesus, the one who invites us to His table as we are but dismisses us from it a bit more like He is.