On the welcome table: A Thanksgiving Reflection

Belfast, N. Ireland

(Save for occasional tweaks, this reflections remains as I originally wrote it for Thanksgiving 2010. I thought I would recycle it here. I send a special shout out to Lee C. Camp and the Tokens Show for inspiring this reflection after their November 2010 production “The Welcome Table” at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN. Hear the podcast here.)

For some, tolerance is a noble endeavor. Many speak of the need to tolerate other religions, other viewpoints, other orientations, other cultures, or maybe even simply other denominations. But for others, and hopefully for Christians (as that is my faith background), tolerance does not go far enough. Tolerance merely allows the other to speak without actually taking the time to listen and understand. Tolerance says the other can stay but just so long as we don’t have to genuinely engage one another. Tolerance, itself, is not a Christian discipline. Christianity teaches hospitality.

Hospitality takes tolerance to the next level. It is inviting, welcoming, and gracious. Hospitality encourages the other to speak, and then listens, and engages the other in their story. Tolerance says, ‘You may stay, but on your side of town.’ Hospitality, though, is an open door. It means inviting the nationalist or unionist enemy, the poor immigrant, the wanderer, the stranger, the friend to come inside and be at home. Hospitality invites everyone to the welcome table, to break bread and fellowship.

Since the creation of the Church, eating together has been a central component of Christian practice. The book of Acts tell us that the disciples met in each other’s houses for the ‘breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously’ (2:42). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is constantly seen participating in meals, eating with those mainstream society claimed should not be welcome at the table: tax collectors, debtors, prostitutes. In short, the ‘other.’

Many of the parables Jesus told describing God’s kingdom centered around the image of a feast table where the poor and outcast are ushered in off the street to share in the King’s celebration meal. The Gospels record Jesus performing two miracles pertaining to food: the feeding of the 4,000 and the feeding of the 5,000. For some scholars, particularly referring to the Gospel of Mark, the miraculous nature (or at least emphasis) of these stories is not the multiplication of the food, but rather the fact that there was enough for everyone. This is God’s kingdom. All of people’s basic needs are met. No one has more than they need, and no one has less. Everyone has enough. The meal was a microcosm of this now-and-not-yet-fully reality, but the disciples translated this ethic into all areas of their lives, sharing all they had so that all were provided for. As practitioner and theologian Ched Myers has said, the disciples, in keeping with the example set by Jesus, created an economy of enough within a cosmology of grace.

At the welcome table, everyone is disarmed, and society’s classes are destroyed. As ethicist and theologian John Howard Yoder notes, equality is present at the table as the meal provides the space for the ‘condemnation of economic segregation.’ (It seems I did not have this cited in the original reflection, but I am pretty sure this is from Body Politics). At the table, host and guest are made one as everyone eats together. Power structures do not exist at the welcome table, only relationship and fellowship. The powerful are dethroned, and the poor are exalted – all by the sharing of a meal.

The night before Jesus was killed by the powers of his day, he broke bread with those closest to him, those with whom he had shared his life of ministry – essentially, his community. The welcome table is the lifeblood of community. We come together with those with whom we live and work so that we might encourage and strengthen one another in our vocations. The meal provides the opportunity for everyone to break from life’s hectic routines (except for maybe the cooks!) and be reminded of the presence of God and the vitality of community.

During the holiday seasons, the meal is often the central point of the seasons’ events. For many families, the meal is a chance to regroup and reconnect after a long day, or perhaps after many months, as is often the case for extended families. The meal is a place to be renewed and rejuvenated, and perhaps even to reconcile offenses. In my family, the table has always provided the occasion for laughter, tears, and meaningful conversations. Some of the most important lessons and conversations of my life have occurred around the meal table. Table fellowship has continued to be the essence of our family.

Hospitality and the welcome table are central components of many, many cultures. Within Islam, for example, one of the many names for God is hospitality. In Palestine, many families, especially the poorer ones, share a meal sitting in a circle, whether at the table or on the floor, and everyone eats from a single dish laid at the center of the circle. This beautiful practice illuminates equality. No one sits above or below anyone else, and no one has a greater access to more food. Everyone is the same. If inequality exists at all, then it is in favor of the guest, who is honored and cherished.

Jesus describes and incarnates God’s kingdom as such an event. All are provided for, all are welcome, and no leaves wanting. There is enough for everyone. During this Thanksgiving season, regardless of the origins or developments of this holiday, this kingdom can be celebrated. As we gather as family and friends, we both rejoice in the hospitality and fellowship that we experience but also are mindful of those who are alone. As Dickens so profoundly notes in A Christmas Carol, this season of the year is one where ‘want is keenly felt and abundance rejoices.’ May we always and in all ways extend the welcome table to those who so intensely feel this want and are left in the cold of despair and involuntary solitude. And may we also celebrate this economy of enough, dwelling in the shelter of each other and fellowshipping in the breaking of bread, as we both literally and paradigmatically participate in God’s beloved community.

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