2001 Covenant Conference
Closing Worship, November 3, 2001
Add Another Leaf to the Table
I John 4:7-21 ; Luke 5:29-32
Barbara A. Anderson
Co-Pastor, Pasadena Presbyterian Church
My mother always said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day: you can’t learn well on an empty stomach. She is still right about that. But in a different sense, I believe that in the home where I was reared, dinner was the most important meal of the day. Everyone was expected to be there, and in those days, our part of the culture cooperated with that expectation.
There were usually six people around our dinner table when I was growing up: my mother sat at one end, my dad at the other. On each side of the table were two children. We didn’t have a dining room, so the table at which we ate all our meals–even the fancy ones–was on one side of the kitchen. The best seats were on the far side, along the wall. If you sat there you wouldn’t be asked to get the butter dish or whatever else had been forgotten when the table was set.
As I look back upon those years, I realized there were three basic rituals:
-One of them would pray, often saying, “Heavenly Father, bless this food to our bodies and us to thy service.” Brief words, simple words, faithful words.
-Each person was asked to tell something about our day and everyone was expected to listen with both interest and respect.
-There was always dessert.
When others joined us, the prayer got a little longer, there was more conversation, and always more dessert. Something else happened at those times as well. When my grandmother joined us for each week for Sunday dinner, we pulled the table apart, dropped in another leaf, and pushed it back together. The same table, more room.
Sometimes an aunt or uncle or friends would join us for dinner. On those occasions we added a second leaf. Same table. More room. It always seemed a special, festive, celebrative time whenever we added another leaf to the table and made room for more people to join us.
When it was our family’s turn to host the clan for Thanksgiving dinner, there were too many to fit around the table, even with all the leaves in it. So my father would set up the ping-pong table in the family room. We covered it with bed sheets, put a centerpiece in the middle, and turned the family room into a dining room. Everyone gathered around the same, enormous table.
There was the uncle who was an engineer with NASA and the uncle who worked in a hospital kitchen. An aunt taught elementary school and another was a successful realtor. Another aunt and uncle owned a dry cleaners and two others were officers in the Salvation Army. My father was an electrical engineer and my mother a homemaker. As the 11 cousins grew up, we added boyfriends and girlfriends, and eventually husbands and wives, then another generation, too. In the hospitality of my parents’ home, there was always–at every meal–room at the table for another hungry soul. In the words of the wedding liturgy, my parents “made a home where no one was a stranger.”
All these years later, as I consider the people who gathered around that table, I notice the diversity in just one extended family and circle of friends nourished at one table through the years. Some had doctorates and others never went to college. Some had grey hair and others sat on telephone books. Some were teetotalers, others wine connoisseurs, and another had returned from the depths of an alcoholic hell. One was a born entrepreneur who made his first million before he was thirty, another was a single mother on welfare. Someone got messed up with drugs and dropped out of society, one struggled with mental illness and others with the aftermath of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Some weathered incredible trauma in their life, others seemed coated with Teflon. A lesbian cousin and her longtime partner passed the Thanksgiving turkey to a family member who is certain that homosexuality is a sin.
I suppose my parents could have told any of those people they were not welcome at our table. It was their table, and it was their right. But they never did. The successful corporate attorneys and the nurse,
the unemployed stable hand and the fancy suit,
the never-married mother of one and the dean of engineering,
the unrepentant liberals and even the die-hard Republicans,
the lesbian couple and the fundamentalist Christians,
the grandparents and the little children with their feet swinging below the chair
all bowed our heads and gave thanks to God for the gifts we had been given,
for the blessings of another year and the blessings of one another.
There was room at the table for all of us.
This table is a symbol of our oneness in Christ in the midst of our family diversity in the Presbyterian Church (USA): our different economic conditions, theologies, life backgrounds, cultures and sexual orientations. There are different gifts, we proclaim–different colors, different languages, different ways of knowing Christ–but the same Spirit who gives them. To each one are given gifts for the common good.
How easy it can be to keep this table to ourselves, to think we have the right to say who will be included, to forget that we are each of us equal children of God, invited by the very same Lord to sit side-by-side at the very same table. But the thread that has drawn us together this weekend from all over the country is the belief that God calls the church to add another leaf to this table so that even more of God’s people can both partake and openly serve at the Lord’s Table.
The Gospel story tells of Jesus’ calling Levi, a tax collector, to follow him. Levi is so moved that he invites Jesus and his disciples to a spontaneous feast in Jesus’ honor at Levi’s home. Luke says the Pharisees are horrified that Jesus would eat with folk whom society considers impure, sinners, and traitors to their kind. No one who knows anything about God should be at table with such folk. As a Near Eastern proverb says, “I saw them eating and I knew who they were.”
Yet Jesus turns everything around. He accepts Levi’s hospitality, and in so doing, the feast becomes no longer Levi’s table, but God’s. Jesus becomes the host and our rules are left at the door. By eating with Levi, Jesus takes the Pharisee’s table away from them and gives it to those who know they are sinners. Then Jesus adds another leaf and another to the table so there is room for all of us.
I imagine Jesus’ heart burning with both rage and grief as he responds to the Pharisees at the door: anger at their self righteousness and the pain it causes, anger at their exclusion of God’s children, at the wasting of their lives and resources that could have been set free for good; for both the lives of the Pharisees and the excluded ones are limited in their ability to do good under such circumstances. And I imagine Jesus burns with grief, for he knows that people who exclude others from their circle of compassion, and rigidly hold to rules, do so out of a deep fear that they themselves might not ultimately be found worthy of God’s love. What deep and tragic pain that is. How much must Jesus long for even one Pharisee to set aside that legalistic lifesaver and join him at the table. “Add another leaf,” he would say, “there’s plenty of room for another sinner.” Great would be the rejoicing in heaven when that sinner was found!
We have gathered here, because adding another leaf to the table is not without anguish. Expanding the table to include more people is a wonderful, warm, hospitable image. But pause for a moment and think of what many of us will do in a few weeks to expand our tables for Thanksgiving. At our home, our elder son, Chris, will stand at one end of the table, and our younger son, Ken at the other. Then each will pull hard on his end, until a gap opens in the middle, the new leaf can be dropped in and the table pushed back together again. The longer it has been since the table was pulled apart, the more effort it takes.
That, my friends, is what I believe God is now doing in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Prior generations have pulled on the Lord’s table to add another leaf. Now, in the providence of God, it is our turn to pull so that God can add another leaf and make room for the children the church has excluded. As our brothers and sisters on the other side hold so desperately to their end of the table, trying at times, it seems, to pull it away from the rest of us and claim it as their own, they are a part of the providence of God, just not, I believe, in the way they imagine. God needs their pulling and our pulling to crack open the middle of this great church so God can add another leaf to the table and more of God’s children can join in the feast together.
But if we think that the pulling is the hardest part, I believe we are wrong. At least for myself, the hardest part is holding onto the difficult truth that those with whom I disagree, and whose tactics I abhor are invited to the very same table–for it is the Lord’s table, and they are God’s hungry children too.
As we struggle to add a leaf to this table, and work as hard as we can for votes in our Presbyterian system, remember the truth of a Jewish midrash I encountered in a Passover Seder some years ago. According to the midrash, when the Hebrew slaves had escaped from Egypt and their pursuers were drowned in the Red Sea, the angels in heaven began to dance and sing. Then God said to them, “We are all happy that my people are free. But how dare you celebrate the death of the Egyptians?! They are my children, too.”
We are God’s children, and so, too, are the people fighting desperately against the liberation and inclusion of God’s people. As faithful Christians we are called to cherish those who help us pull the table to make room for the extra leaf. We are called to pass the turkey and mashed potatoes, the bread and the cup to one another around God’s table. For this is not our table, it is the Lord’s table. There is room for us all.
Today we proclaim and celebrate the diversity of God’s creation. Today we recommit ourselves to working with all our might, with God and one another, to pull on the table and open up space in the middle into which God can drop another leaf. Today we remember that we are called to add another leaf to the table, not only so that everyone may be nourished together, but so that all who come to the table may exercise the full range of gifts God has given them as leaders and servants of the whole household of God.
We expand this table because God first expanded it to make room for us. “We love because God first loved us.” In a time of great conflict and schism in the early church, the author I John writes, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from Jesus is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
At this table, lawyers, nurses and unemployed,
single folk and traditional families, college professors and students,
die-hard liberals and unrepentant conservatives,
gays and straight folk,
grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles
and little children with feet swinging below the pew–
we all bow our heads, join hands with Christians around the world and across this church–even those pulling on the other end–and we give thanks to God for the gifts we have been given.
We are all sheep of our Savior’s fold, lambs of our Savior’s flock, sinners of our Savior’s own redeeming (Book of Common Worship, Committal of the Dead) . Open the closet and pull out another leaf for the table. There is room for all — every hungry soul — at the feast God has prepared.
© Copyright 2001 by Barbara A. Anderson. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution.