A Place at the Table
Invitations! How does it feel to be invited to something?
Sometimes, we are full of joy—perhaps as we are invited to celebrate a special birthday or a wedding with people we have known and loved. Perhaps it is dinner with good friends.
Sometimes, I get an invitation that makes me sigh. I don’t know about you all, but Danny and I have been offered occasionally what appears to be a great vacation for little to no money. However, the price we pay is to have a “One Hour” meeting to hear about the property and to be offered an investment opportunity.” After doing a few of those, we made a vow that we would not do one of those ever again. I would rather pay for a vacation. Now we get free dinner invitations to learn about our retirement. We haven’t accepted any of those, either. I did have a lady in a former church who went to every one of those she could find. She said, “I get a great meal, and once they find out I have nothing to invest, they leave me alone.” Perhaps you, too, have been the recipient of a unique invitation.
Conversely, sometimes we learn of things where we aren’t invited. Have you ever felt unwanted or not welcomed? When I was a child, we went to a wonderful church where I had great opportunities to grow and learn. My only negative was that I did not go to school with any of the other kids in my church so I was not “best friends” with anyone in my church. Also, I was not on the church softball team because I couldn’t hit or throw a ball to save my life. Sometimes they would have birthday parties or sleep overs, and I would hear them talking and laughing about them at church, but seldom was I invited to them because I didn’t run in their circles on a daily basis. Don’t get me wrong. People were genuinely kind. I just internalized a feeling of not being completely included. As an adult who raised children, I understand you cannot invite everyone you know to your house, although at times, I think my boys tried, especially at dinner time.
When Danny and I moved to Anderson, SC, in 1992, we visited a church. We were new in town, and he had a new job. I had left a ministry position at a church where I loved and I was loved. We were lonely and looking for that place at the table. We attended the church that first Sunday and the only person who spoke to us that day was the person who handed us a bulletin, and that warranted only a “Good morning.” I went home and cried. Because it was the most moderate church in the community, we went back again and then again. Once we put a gift in the offering plate, we were added to the mailing list. We started attending Sunday School, and gradually we began to feel more welcome, but honestly, we had to do all the work. Two years later, I started working at that church and did so for 17 years. One of my major goals was to change the climate for newcomers because of the negative experiences we had. We had struggled to find a place at the table, and I didn’t want that to happen for others. I hope if any of you at Providence have those feelings, you will voice them to me.
In our text today, Jesus gives instructions to his host, who is a prominent Pharisee, according to Luke. This text comes in the middle of a gospel story from Luke that takes place on the Sabbath. The first verse of the chapter tells us “they (some of the Pharisees) were watching him closely.” At this point in Jesus’ ministry, people were drawn to Jesus. He taught with authority, and he healed people no one else could, and some he even healed on the Sabbath! Most importantly, he was inclusive: he reached out to religious and community leaders and also to the common folk and especially to those in the margins of life. All were invited into community and into a more vibrant experience of the love of God. He ate with Pharisees but also sinners and tax collectors. He touched lepers. He talked to Samaritans. His traveling band included fishermen, commoners, and even women. The religious leaders were threatened by Jesus’ all-inclusive message that tore down the power structures of his day (Some things don’t change). They needed to figure out what to do about Jesus. He was undermining their positions of power and their roles as the keepers and controllers of religious order.
Jesus’ words, then, about whom to invite to the table, were quite a challenge to his host and guests. I dare say the people Jesus said to invite were not present at all that day at the Pharisee’s home. So how do we take seriously and practically Jesus’ instruction to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to the banquet table? It is a challenge for the mission of what it means to be the church and a follower of God. We are a part of a fellowship of believers that I want to share about with you today that is intentionally trying to follow Jesus’ instructions.
I don’t know how much you know about the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, with whom we are affiliated at Providence. It was founded in the 1990s as a network of churches who were committed to work together in doing missions without the power structure and required dogmatic adherence to conservative supposedly theological beliefs that the Southern Baptist Convention had started requiring. Let me give a disclaimer now: Is CBF perfect? No. But it strives to operate with integrity and grace among those with whom we minister.
A major theme in its mission work is “presence matters.” Our field personnel strive to live among the people, not ruling over them, but working alongside them to build community, bear witness to Christ, address poverty and migration issues, and transform lives and communities with an eye for advocacy and justice, and work with respect for and with the Global Church—in other words, play well with others.
I am going to share with you a few stories of our CBF Field personnel, and I hope you are blessed by their faithful response to God’s call. I also hope we are challenged to think more of how we are also called to invite others into God’s deep and abiding love in our community.
Rick and Ellen Burnette serve in and around Immokalee, Florida, very near Fort Myers. They have created a 501-C3 called Cultivate Abundance. Their work addresses urgent, vital needs in the lives of farmworkers, often referred to as migrants, who provide so much of our day-to-day sustenance, but who struggle to provide that same vital need for themselves. These workers grow and harvest most of the tomatoes we receive in our grocery stores. Did you know, however, that they are only paid $50 a day if they harvest 1 ton of tomatoes per worker?
These workers feed us, but they can barely feed their own families. Rick has established a community garden where migrant workers can grow food of their own. He has cultivated plants that are from their native lands so they can grow familiar comfort foods, as well. Volunteers who are unable to work the fields tend the garden and operate a food bank. They work with local churches to address poverty and food insecurity. Rick and Ellen are advocates for these workers as they seek to earn a living wage, navigate health care, and provide education for their children.
Rick also is a coordinator for Disaster Response for CBF, and his work just took a major turn with Hurricane Ian. The large community garden was destroyed, along with much of the housing of the people he works with. The crops they tend and harvest to earn their living are also now flattened, so he and Ellen have both a disaster and new opportunities on their hands. I thank God these people have an advocate. We pray that Rick and Ellen will have strength and courage for these difficult days.
Scarlette Jasper is a licensed social worker who operates in a group of counties in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee that have been identified as communities of persistent poverty. She ministers to those in her community who have mental health issues, families with food insecurity, those who are homeless and seeking affordable housing, and those seeking employment. A major ministry center is called White Flag Ministries. As the pastor of a church in Corbin, Ky says, “When people come to us, we help them survive the night, but Scarlette gets them to a life that is worth living.”
Scarlette has her own obstacles. Her husband passed away several years ago and she provides care for a daughter with disabilities. However, that doesn’t stop her. It only makes her work more authentic as she helps people transform their lives. Many people who have been beneficiaries of Scarlette’s ministry also now volunteer to help others. She is indeed developing beloved community.
Brooke and Mike have a long-term presence in Southeast Asia. We don’t reveal their last name or the country they serve in order to protect their work. Brooke works with women and children primarily in the churches and in their home. She has been instrumental in helping them learn skills, such as weaving, to develop their own cottage industries to help with financial stability. Mike teaches at a University and is seen as a respected contributor to the well-being of their community. They serve in an area that has very little electricity outside the city.
Mike has introduced technology that allows individuals and churches to have clean water and solar-powered lighting. Their presence in their community is expanding the table with actual light and with the light of Christ.
Alicia and Jeffrey Lee serve in Macedonia and work with refugees. Jeff trains people in agricultural work, and Alicia is a counselor. They have developed a great reputation in their community, to the extent that the local school system reached out to Alicia to help them because they were having kids voice that they felt unsafe at school. She has developed a program with the teachers and administrators to give kids a way to express their issues and get help without judgment. This work has proven particularly helpful for kids who are struggling with their sexual orientation. She is even helping kids come out to their parents in a culture where that is very difficult. Their long-term presence in that community has helped them be instruments of transformation. They are offering invitations to the table for the marginalized and helping the community embrace them.
These are only a few examples of work being done on our behalf and with our support. I want you to know that 100% of the Offering for Global Missions goes to keep these folks and over 50 others on the mission/ministry field. These folks have learned to hear the groanings of their communities and are doing amazing work at addressing the needs they encounter.
So now, let’s bring it back home to Providence and our community.
Jesus says to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. In our cultural setting, sometimes those attributes are literal and sometimes they are figurative. On a literal level, people with physical disabilities cannot access a bathroom on either level in this building. They can in the upstairs of the Providence House, but it is not always open or conveniently accessible. Older buildings like ours were not designed with accessibility in mind. I am not trying to beat up our church, but I am saying we need to be aware of potential obstacles to the table. We may can address them in this building, or we may not be able to. Is our building helping us provide places at the table or is it not? That is something to reflect on and pray about in the days ahead.
Do people in Hendersonville even know we are here, or are they blind to the mission and ministry of this congregation? One of the things I love about this congregation is the voiced openness to all people. I think it is a genuine attitude that grows from our understanding of the Gospel. However, there are some other churches in the community that are critical of our openness and are just as happy that people do not know we are here to shake up the status quo, particularly on the Baptist landscape.
How do we get the invitation to the table out there for people who are lonely, disenchanted with religion, and are in need of a fresh encounter with the extravagant love of God? How do we open blind eyes to the unconditional grace of God? How can we think creatively about tearing down barriers? How do we even get people to notice us when we are tucked away in an old, pretty neighborhood with signs that say No Outlet? We have a message of hope, peace, love and joy that people need to hear. Beyond our church walls, how do we advocate for systemic changes that allow all the rights and privileges that we each have to become the rights and privileges of all in our community? How do we hear the groanings in our community? How do we open blind eyes to the need for affordable housing? For health care? For mental health concerns?
I know I am asking a lot of questions that I do not have answers to. Fred Craddock, in his commentary on our scripture passage today says we need to take note of the “radicality” of this text, saying that care of the poor and disabled is not an option for the church or synagogue, but is a constitutional part of the DNA for followers of God. As I have shared, we have CBF field personnel that are trying, in communities across the globe, to do just that. We can and should support them financially as partners in this work. But if that is all we do, then we are just passing the buck literally.
We are called to do kingdom work in our community. It is a part of our DNA. We provide a place at the table on Sunday afternoons for people who are homeless or food insecure, but how can we open the table wider where folks can feel welcome beyond 4:00 on Sundays? How do we balance that calling with respect for our neighborhood residents and zoning laws? How do we address needs that go way beyond our expertise?
Our Worship Meal is one piece, but for the most part it is primarily charity that is not necessarily bringing transformation and deeper relationships. Feeding people is a good thing, and transformation cannot be forced on anyone. However, those who have become a part of our community of faith, who have found a place at the table, have been invested in beyond a weekly meal. One member has shared with me how the ministry of this church and the investment of people in him saved his life. He continues to struggle, but he knows he is welcome and loved here.
So how can we do kingdom work?
The temptation at Providence is to see ourselves as small, old and tired. We have to adopt a different identity of being imaginative, wise and aware. Just as this church was founded by the imagination of the Holy Spirit, we have to constantly reclaim that imaginative power and pay attention to where God is at work. We may not have the numbers and the physical stamina to start lots of new ministries to address every need, but we have the wisdom to listen to the needs, openness and grace to accept people where they are, and a wisdom and awareness to connect with other partners who are doing pieces of the work. We can play well with others.
God has not called us to save the world. That is God’s job. We are called to set the table with lots of room and find ways to offer genuine invitations. The vision of the table is God’s, not our own. We may have to adjust, be imaginative, and tear down our own barriers and preconceived notions we may not even see yet as we give ourselves over to the creative power of the Spirit. In God’s kingdom, for everyone born, there’s a place at the table. May God delight as we are co-creators of justice and joy.