Have you ever experienced really, really, really amazing hospitality? The kind of hospitality where you knowdeep in your soul, that you are welcome? The kind of hospitality where you don’t have to worry about a thing. The kind of hospitality where you know that the person who is hosting you, cares about who you are, and is glad that you are there? Have you ever experienced this?
I have. It’s happened at family gatherings. It’s happened at get-togethers with friends. I have a good friend named Scott who lives in California with his spouse, Melissa. Scott and Melissa excel at hospitality. Every time I visit them, I feel so cared for, so welcome, and we have so much laughter and fun together, that I leave their home thinking to myself. “Man…how can I be more like them?”
I recently read a story by Shauna Niequist about a woman named Sarah. One day, Sara decided to try something new. She decided that she needed more friends. She longed for more relationships with people she could care about, and who would care about her. So, Sarah decided to set a specific goal. Over the course of 2012, she would gather 500 people at her home, one meal at a time. Sarah asked her dad to build a table in her backyard. He built a gorgeous outdoor cedar dining table with benches that seated 22 people, and in the trees high above the table they hung chandeliers made from twisted branches. It was all very lovely. And then she went to work.
Sarah hosted lunches and dinners and neighborhood concerts. She invited friends and neighbors and strangers to share meals around her table. She marked every holiday with an invitation that said “the more, the merrier.” And then on Thanksgiving Day, 2012, the 500th guest sat at her table. Sarah had reached her goal more than a month early.
When 2012 began, Sarah knew the names of only two of her neighbors. By the end of that year, she knew over 50. She threw 27 dinner parties, averaging 19 guests per party. Her parties were attended by eighth-graders and executives; friends and grandparents; priests, pilots, and Pilates instructors.
And at the conclusion of every party, Sarah asked her guests to sign their names on the table in permanent marker. Sarah says that at the end of that year, she looked at all the names on that table and realized that those names told a story; the story of a community that was formed through simple meals, new friendships, and good hospitality.
And Sarah talked about how these gatherings created a beautiful community spirit; one person holding someone else’s newborn, so that Mom could eat for a minute, someone else jumping up to refill glasses, a first-time guest volunteering to load the dishwasher. Everyone pitched in, and some of the sweetest memories were made just bumping into each other in the kitchen, washing dishes together and talking and laughing, long after dinner was over.”
Here’s what I know: good hospitality builds good community. Let me say that again, good hospitality builds good community. When someone feels welcomed…really welcomed, they want to belong. They want to be a part of whatever is going on, whether it’s a dinner…or a group of parents on the sidelines at their kids sports game, or here at a church. Good hospitality builds good community. And good community is a sign of care for one another. Good community is a sign of love of neighbor (even when the neighbor is a stranger).
It all sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?
It should. Community…hospitality…welcome…even meals together…these are themes that we hear over and over and over again throughout the scriptures. Time and time again, God provides for God’s people. Our God is a God of welcome, Our God is a God of abundance, and Our God is a God of generosity.
Think back to the Old Testament story of the Exodus. God had Moses confront the pharaoh demanding that the Jewish people be set free from slavery. It took ten different plagues to finally persuade the Pharaoh to see the error of his ways and to release the Israelites. But as the Israelites journeyed across the desert, they began to run short of food. They became anxious. Their food shortage became so extreme that they were seriously thinking about bailing out of their journey to freedom and returning to slavery back in Egypt. But just when their situation was getting desperate, God provided. God gave what they called “manna from heaven” to nourish the people. Manna. Bread. God gave them bread. God saved them!
This story, the story of the Exodus and the Israelite’s long journey to freedom is the most important story in the Jewish faith. In the same way that the Easter story is to us.
So when Jesus says to the people around him in our Gospel reading today that “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” he would immediately have had everyone’s attention. Jesus is making a bold, audacious claim. He is saying “Remember how God saved our ancestors with manna from heaven? Well today, I am the manna from heaven that will save you. I am the bread of life.” And those who heard Jesus, they had to gasp in wonder.
Over and over, Jesus makes this claim: “I am the bread of life.” This is a theme that is repeated throughout John’s Gospel. In fact, for the next couple of weeks, our Gospel readings from John, chapter 6 deal with the “Bread of life.”
And as a side note, any time in the scriptures, you have major themes like this repeated several times, it’s a pretty good clue that something important is happening. That there is something to pay attention to in the text.
When we drill down into the scripture a bit, we realize that Jesus is making two distinct claims in our reading. First, he is claiming his identity. I am the bread of life. I am. Not “I was,” not “I will be,” no, he said “I am.” Present tense. I am the bread of life. Not coincidentally, he used the same words that God used when Moses asked God before the Exodus who God was. God simply said “I am.”
The second claim that Jesus is making is that his being the bread of life means something…something important. Jesus is claiming that when we receive the bread of life…him…we are receiving the gift of eternal life.
Eternal life! Jesus is very clear: In verses 47-50 he says: “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “And I am the gift of eternal life.”
It’s important to notice that Jesus places no conditions on this gift.
- It is not only for the pharisees or the other religious leaders.
- It is not exclusively for the Jewish people.
- It is not only for those from a certain nation or ethnic group.
- It is not set aside for those who are without sin.
- It is not for those who act, or believe, or who vote in a certain way.
Jesus is the bread of life…without limits. Without limits.
Jesus is planting his flag and saying that he is the bread of life, and the bread of life is for all, and the bread of life is a feast…a meal that will never, ever, ever run out.
Jesus is telling those who hear him that “I see you. I know you. And I welcome you, unconditionally.” Jesus is giving the gift of hospitality: a community to join and a seat at his table.
Whenever we, the people of God, gather, whether it’s here in our Sanctuary/Fellowship Hall, or in a Bible study, or at youth group, or in Trinity Kids, or at a committee meeting or a meal, it is like Jesus is gathering us at his table to have our hearts and our spirits fed.
Sometimes it is literal, when we receive the bread and wine of the Holy sacrament of communion. And sometimes we are fed simply by being together in community. Remember, Jesus promised that “wherever just 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, I show up!”
But wherever we gather, however we gather and whenever we gather, we remember that Jesus is the host, the bread of life, and that it is Jesus who gathers us.
At this table God welcomes all God’s children. There is nothing you can do to earn it. There is nothing you can or need to provide. You can be friend or stranger and God welcomes you to this feast of abundant love and forgiveness.
And the church…this church…it is God’s table, God’s community. And when you receive God’s word of welcome, and a place at the table, here physically at Trinity, or online, or in whatever congregation you’re at, you belong and are accepted, as you are.
You will find friends here, even if you are an outcast in the rest of the world, even if you are alone in every other part of your life, here you are not alone. Here you are not an outcast. Here your sins are forgiven. Here you have new life. Jesus opens his arms in welcome. This is what it means to be church…a community of faith. Through Jesus’ love, together, we are Christ’s table.
And when you come to Christ’s table…when you participate in Christ’s community, know that in permanent marker, Jesus has already written your name on the table, and you have a place. Being here is a sign of God’s love, a God who will take care of you, who shows up in your lives each day and says, “I am the bread of life, and I love you!”
Thanks be to God!
One thought on “A Place at the Table”
I remember reading Sarah’s story a few years ago. I remember thinking that, that was church, that’s what I would love to do. I also so enjoy gathering people around a table for a meal. I don’t have a table for 22. My dining table seats 12. But I do have a yard big enough to seat 22 at one table. Thank you for reminding me of this lovely story.