The Table Prepared for You
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
May 3, 2020
1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
What’s the finest meal you’ve ever had? Can you remember one in particular? I have to confess I have had many fine meals, and it would be hard to name one as the best. Some of them have been prime steaks or seafood perfectly cooked. I can still remember a particular Cuban sandwich I had in Key West that ranks as one of the most memorable things I have tasted, even though it was not in a fancy restaurant, nor is a sandwich what usually comes to mind as the finest meal one might have enjoyed. Still, it was one of the most memorable.
I have been thinking about the line in the Psalm, “Thou prepares a table before me.” This morning I would like to explore some of the ways that small line has sparked my imagination. I am surprised how it has spoken to me so powerfully. It has invited me to consider connections that I have never thought about, to ponder questions I have never asked. Of course, every time I read a familiar Scripture, one that I have read hundreds of times before, can still jump out at me and invite new understandings. That is always at least in part a result of what theologians call “context.” Context in this case means, “what’s happening now.”
COVID-19 is what’s happening now. It’s a reality that has overpowered almost every other reality. It is pervasive. It permeates every question, every answer, every day, every hour, every decision, and probably because of that we may want nothing more than to escape thinking about it. But faith is never an escape. Faith, if it is worth anything, is what we use to shape our lives, our days, our decisions, our thinking, our – everything.
The reality is there are at least two levels of faith. There is the faith we practice without thinking. It is the way we act, react and process the world without a second thought. I was born a male, white, last of four children, to a relatively poor family. I grew up in the south. These are just some of the things that shape my faith – because they shape my thinking, my attitudes. These are first level faith facts.
What I have found so fascinating about faith is that at its second level it is always challenging me to check my attitudes, my actions, and my priorities to see if the way I live is consistent with the faith I profess. That is the second level of faith. I find I am often out of sync with what I say I believe, what I claim is my faith. My faith is in a God who does not hold to human prejudices, but I prejudge people all the time based on my own set of biases. I say I have faith in a God of love but I often think and act in ways that aren’t really loving. I profess to have faith in a God who will transform the world, but I often struggle with despair that this transformation seems so … far away in both time and in fulfillment.
So that’s my confession for today, and I now ask absolution from God, forgiveness, but more I ask for stronger faith, for more powerful understandings of God so that I can change. As I prepare each week to preach, I start with Scriptures. As you have heard me say, I use what is called “the lectionary” as a starting point. It is the series of Scriptures that list at least four readings: one from the Hebrew Scriptures, a Psalm, a Gospel reading from the Christian Scriptures and one from the Epistles or the Book of Acts. Many of these lately have had some connection with Holy Communion. Last week of course we talked about the passage in Luke we call “the Road to Emmaus,” when the Risen Christ is revealed to two disciples “in the breaking of the bread.” It is obviously intended to be a teaching moment for the church around what we call the Sacrament of Holy Communion when we repeat those words – that Christ took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and passed it to the disciples and said, “take, eat, this is my body broken for you.”
I have been thinking even more about the theology of Holy Communion than ever. The Scriptures have been lifting up symbols of the Sacrament almost every Sunday. For those of us who don’t celebrate the Sacrament every day or even every week, its meaning may seem fairly simple and straightforward. But I am finding that more and more the symbolism of the elements of bread, cup, table, of breaking, pouring out, and more have been inviting me to reflect on meanings and metaphors for our COVID 19 quarantine time. This morning I want to invite you to consider with me, “the table prepared for you.”
How amazing is it to think that God has prepared a table for you and for me, and in fact for all of humanity? That question alone brings up many thoughts! Normally it would be a servant who would prepare a table for the master of the house. Yet, here the writer tells us God spreads a table for us. And if it is God who prepares the table would we not expect it to be the finest, the best, a feast that would satisfy a queen or a king, let alone commoners like us? And think about those first disciples – fishermen, beggars, political revolutionaries, tax collectors who collaborated with the hated Romans. Imagine them hearing that YAHWEH, the Almighty, the King of the Universe had come to them and prepared a table for them.
Now then kick in the rest of the phrase: “in the presence of my enemies.” Wow! What do you think of that? Well, of course as good Christians we automatically think, “I don’t have any enemies, I love everyone, just like Christ commanded.” Right? Right! Wrong. How often do we find ourselves “hating” others who are different from us? Oh, we don’t hate them in person or actively hate them – like by taking a gun to kill them, do we? But I read about our anger and hatred: “Those Mexicans and Guatemalans are just criminals and drug dealers storming across our borders!” I feel the anger -“Those stupid socialists!” “Those terrible capitalists!” Maybe you are better than that. Maybe you are above such thoughts. Maybe you truly don’t have any “enemies” who are other people.
What about the things that cause us to fear? What about the internal enemies? Illness, the infirmities of age, worries problems our children or grandchildren face that they cannot seem to handle can all cause us to struggle with fear. Is it possible these are the enemies that are present when the Lord prepares a table for us? Like Jesus said to Mary when she was fussing around in the kitchen while her sister Martha sat at Jesus’ feet and just listened, it feels like the writer is telling us that God, the Creator of the Ends of the Universe, cares enough to prepare a table before us – as if to say, , “sit, eat, rest. I have this fabulous matzah ball soup, or chicken noodle, and some good biscuits. Sit, eat, and let go of those fears, that anger, those hatreds.” I think that meal will be more of a blessing than the best Cuban sandwich ever, the tastiest lobster or filet mignon, the most delightful chocolate silk pie ever.
I think when we have rested and eaten and reflect on the one who provides all that we have and all that we are, we can let go of the enemies that prevent us from being thankful, from feeling gratitude – a gratitude great enough to feel and show grace to others, even the “enemies” that we fear and hate and wrestle with. When we stop to nourish the spirit of grace within us then we can be free from all those old enemies. Because the enemy within keeps us from seeing the person out there as just another person like us, with fears and hopes and hurts - not an enemy at all, but a brother or a sister who needs us. At the Creator’s table we never eat alone. We always have a table full of kinfolk, wanting to share with us, and waiting for us to share with them.
The table that YAHWEH prepares is the one that our Lord sat at with his disciples and took bread and blessed and broke it and passed it to them to eat reminding them that it was his body that was broken for them. It is a reminder that in all our brokenness our Lord is with us. He is one with us. His oneness is what heals us in our brokenness in to little pieces. His brokenness is what makes us one in our brokenness. These things are the symbols of hope that live in the face of all our fears and pain and the threat of hopelessness.
Ultimately, hopelessness in small or in big ways is the biggest enemy of all. In a time when all our fears are magnified by all the stresses of a time so abnormal, hope is the greatest friend, the truest strength, the most powerful vaccine, antidote, and healing prescription. The world always stands on the brink of deciding if tomorrow will be more blessing than curse, more hope than hopelessness, more healing than killing. But in a time of world-wide pandemic, whether one believes such a thing is or not, the greatest pandemic is hopelessness. What will the future hold? And what we believe about that will determine how we respond to this time.
I have been reading Rev. Cameron Trimble’s devotional thoughts [ cameron@ convergenceus.org, 4/ 30/2020 ], lately and she shares two things that I want to place on your table beside what God has prepared for us all. One is a commentary on what, from the study of past pandemics, has resulted in a better world versus a more destructive response. It is simple – it is the ability to have a sense of empathy and compassion for others. She writes:
The key to cultural transformation was a community’s ability to hold together with deep empathy and compassion for one another. Those communities who fractured in conflict experienced long-term devastation.
And to that she added a quote from Barbara Kingsolver, who “once said in her book Animal Dreams, “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”
As we gather “virtually” at this table that was prepared by the Almighty, where the bread will be broken – as we are all broken, and as Christ our Lord and Savior was and is broken – may we live inside a hope that we will all pass a bowlful of compassion and a platter laden with empathy for one another. I pray that God will cover your table with a cloth of hope – hope not just for yourself, but for the stranger, the person you don’t know that you are tempted to hate, to fear, and to consider your enemy, but who is really your sister or brother. And may God grant us a cup full of hope filled with empathy and compassion… a cup that runneth over, and a reminder that we all do dwell in the house of the Lord, now and forever. AMEN.