By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation
I recently heard the writer Kristen Schell speak at a conference. She may not be on your radar, but I’m pretty sure if you heard her speak you would want to be her friend.
She wrote a book titled The Turquoise Table and she has sparked a quiet movement. She may also likely be the topic of many a homeowner association meeting. You see the book is based on Schell’s experiences after she placed a large picnic table painted a bright shade of turquoise in her front yard in Austin, TX. She did it because she was pretty sure it was what God wanted her to do. She had been rumbling with how to serve God. But she was stuck. She was a stay at home mom. She felt a call to mission, but that did not seem a possibility for her with a large family rooted in Austin. And then she had a picnic table delivered to her house for a backyard barbeque and she knew what she was supposed to do.
After the barbeque, she painted it a lovely shade of turquoise and put it smack in her front yard. One morning she took her cup of coffee and her laptop out there and started working. Pretty soon what she had hoped would happen did. She started to meet her neighbors. At first it was a casual hello as someone walked by with the dog. But in time her turquoise table became a meeting point for people in the neighborhood. People started connecting. They sat down together, really got to know each other. Everyone was welcome. Real connections were formed.
Now there are turquoise tables all over the 50 states. Our own Brantley Holmes has one right in her front yard too, although hers is not painted. Seems that being together at a table is a good place to start. Schell speaks about the transformative power being at table together has had for her and many others who have followed her lead.
Being human comes with lots of needs. Thankfully many of us here are affluent enough to have the majority those needs met without much ado – food, shelter, clothing, even medical care and education. But connecting with others, knowing that we belong. Believing that we matter to someone else. That cannot be bought. Schell has started a small, grass roots, front yard movement that at its core declares that all of us belong at the table.
In today’s Gospel we Jesus speaks to us about tables. He is in a little bit of a contrarian mood. He’s not playing around. He’s not making nice. Just before the story we heard today Jesus has healed people on the sabbath. This was considered an absolute sin in his times. No work was to be done on the sabbath. It was the Lord’s day. And in our humanness, somehow that got translated into not even being able to heal others, help others on that day. Jesus tells everyone that their ideas of timing and etiquette and decorum and hosting are just plain stupid in the Kingdom of God.
Don’t claim a spot of honor at the table Jesus tells us. He couches it by reminding us we risk embarrassment if we were asked to give a more important person a spot at the table. But, I get the sense that this is Jesus continuing on in his contrarian demeanor. He has a point to make. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those are humble themselves will be exalted. It is as if Jesus is taking us by the shoulders and saying, “Know your place. You know your place with me. Quit trying to crowd someone else out. There’s enough room for everyone.”
There is no need to claim a spot of honor at God’s table. Jesus has claimed a spot for us all. There’s a place for you and me. There’s a place for our neighbors. There’s a place for all of us, every single one of us.
He goes on rattling the original hearers of the story, and us too. Jesus says that our guest lists for our parties are for the birds. We invite people to show off and to gain favor. Not acceptable he says. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. All these people were folks that in Jesus’ day were considered unclean or somehow unworthy of blessing. Somehow out of favor with God. And we can go ahead and add to that list the folks we are called to pay attention to in the letter to the Hebrews today – those in prison and those who are tortured.
It sounds ridiculous in a way to our ears right? How many among us believes that God has forgotten the poor, those whose bodies betray them, or those in prison or being tortured. Jesus declares God’s favor on all those who for whatever reason seemed to be denied a seat at the table. We’ve heard this countless times before.
But for me at least, this concept is not exactly grafted into my heart as the collect says. It is not muscle memory for me always.
The other day I turned away from someone for whom Jesus has claimed a seat at the table. I did it in the comfort of my own living room. The home where I live with running water and food in the pantry and air conditioning and a comfy sectional with an antique Persian rug underneath my feet.
On the tv screen appeared the image of a little girl and she was wailing. She was wailing because when she got home from school that day her mother and father had been taken into custody for violating immigration laws. My first reaction was to gasp. Tears filled my eyes and I covered my mouth. Maybe you think I’m dramatic. And in truth I can be. But I am a mother. And that was a baby girl. And she was in pain. But, what I did next shames me. I turned it off. I looked away. I turned my back. I am not speaking about the politics of this. I am talking about who Jesus was asking me to be when I saw this, when I saw that little girl.
I know that God expects something different from me. I just did not know what to do.
The collect reads in part…
Lord of all power and might… Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; bring forth in us the fruit of good works.
I once watched a woman grafting a tree. It involves cutting a piece of two plants and fitting them together to make them grow together. Both of the trees have to be broken and exposed.
God made my heart not to shrink but to be cut open and to graft upon it every single one of us who is called to sit at the table, including that little girl. To see in everyone whom He has made that same desire to be known and loved and to belong. He made my heart to be grafted to that little girl’s.
I do not know how to solve the problems of the world. My voice will not change that little girl’s pain. Or make countries in Central America more stable so that people do not have to leave and take risks that few of us here could imagine. But my heart can be broken open and changed. I can graft God’s love into my heart that wants to turn away. And that is a place to begin.
God has given us hearts for just this purpose. He has established our belovedness. He has rooted it in Jesus. The table has been set. And no matter what we as humans in our fear and fretting do when we seek to make seating charts, put down place cards, set places of honor and cross people off the guest list; God is having none of it.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Do not forget to set a big table, a crowded table, like the one set for us. And maybe just maybe the fruit of good works that God can bring forth in us is that we can graft some of his infinite love into our hearts, let it grow and we just might learn to be a little like the angels too.