All God’s Children Gotta Place at the Table
Some traditions, as they celebrate the Lord’s Supper, follow the invitation to the Lord’s Table with a section of liturgy referred to as “Fencing the Table.” Its purpose is to “clarify whom the meal is for.” Sometimes the words are announced. Sometimes they’re printed in the bulletin. “The Lord has prepared his table for ‘true believers.’ If you are sorry for your sins…you are invited to come.” “The Lord has prepared his table for all who love him and trust in him alone.” “Professing members in good standing of a church in which Jesus Christ is professed as Lord and Savior are ‘warmly’ welcomed to join with us…” “We welcome all baptized Christians who are members of congregations that proclaim the gospel…” “If you are not able to receive communion,, please use this time to meditate on one of the following prayers…”
I thought of all the different ways those statements are open to interpretation. I also thought of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s assertion that she doesn’t focus on belief, but on belonging. Those statements that “fence” the table are all about what one “believes” – even the ones that speak of membership. Belief becomes the means by which the church, in so many ways, throughout the years, even the centuries, has focused on setting the fences so that we can know who it is who belongs, who deserves to be welcomed to the table with us.
Have you had the experience of being fenced out? Sometimes the fencing is explicit. One of my early church memories is of sitting with my visiting grandmother during a communion service. When the bread was passed down our pew, I reached out to take a piece. And she slapped my hand! Not hard, but a slap, a “You’re not welcome” slap. I wasn’t “old enough” to be invited to the table. I hadn’t joined the church. I hadn’t made a public profession of my faith. I didn’t, to use terminology I’ve heard many express through the years, yet understand what communion meant.
“People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them…Jesus [said], ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.’” It’s nice to see the paintings that portray this wonderful encounter. But, what did Jesus mean? I studied the book of Mark in college. The professor for the course declared, “He didn’t really mean children. He was speaking of the lowliest in society. Not children.” That interpretation has hovered in my mind through the years. I finally realized that his interpretation reflected the bias that he had. Children couldn’t really be welcomed, because they didn’t understand what that meant. I’ve never found anyone else who shared his perspective. Jesus welcomed children who couldn’t understand who he was! He didn’t demand knowledge. He welcomed, and he set that as the example we are to follow.
It has always struck me as odd that communion, this sacred rite which has its roots in that last meal that Jesus shared with disciples who would actively and passively betray him and abandon him, would give rise to traditions that are meant to exclude. If the Biblical witness is accurate, Jesus shared that last meal with those who didn’t, couldn’t and wouldn’t believe. If we use belief as the standard by which we include or exclude, they deserved to be excluded!
Today is World Communion Sunday. The designation is one that is shared by several denominations. I read an objection to the entire concept. “Why would we recognize the world on only one Sunday?” was the question. It’s a good question, a good challenge to the notion that we need a particular Sunday to call our attention to the world. The world should be present with us each time we gather. Of course, we might then ask, “Why celebrate Easter? After all, each Sunday is to be a reminder of the resurrection – a mini-Easter!” But, we know that Easter Day invites particular attention to the story of the resurrection. So, World Communion invites us to reflect on what it means to be part of the Body of Christ that is so much more than what we can envision as we gather together in our church buildings or other settings and share this meal.
Sometimes our fences are invisible to us because they come from traditions handed down through the generations. These traditions are so engrained that we begin to think they are of God.
A member of one of my congregations was diagnosed as gluten intolerant. Even a little piece of bread was a problem. So, I began researching recipes for communion bread that weren’t wheat based. I came across interesting stories. One family told of their daughter’s gluten intolerance. When it was time for her to have her First Communion, they provided a wafer that she would be able to eat. Later, the church declared her First Communion invalid. I read, further, that Roman Catholics who were gluten intolerant could not be priests – because Communion Bread can only be wheat based.
Yes, the Bible speaks of wheat. But was it the wheat that mattered? Or was it the fact that the bread Jesus shared was the indigenous food – the everyday staff of life?
Olivia Juarez and Sara Larson Wiegner, in Mexico wrote, “Some indigenous churches have begun to use elements more traditional to their culture such as tortillas for the bread and atole or pozol (a corn drink) or coffee for the wine. In the Nahuatl culture it is important to look each other in the eyes when sharing the elements because they reflect one’s inner song. With one’s eyes you can give a flower or a thorn. This act then demonstrates a person’s sincerity in confession both of sins as well as faith.” (They suggest reading John 6 and substituting tortilla for bread. “It is my Father who gives you the true tortilla from heaven. For the tortilla of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
Indonesian Christians wrote: Lime juice and cassava—these ingredients from our lives and lands are Eucharist. In them we can give thanks to God for God’s gift – that is the breaking down of all social, economic, and political barriers.
Tahiti: coconut, marked with a cross and kicked, rolled, and finally hacked in a service that concluded with the Lord’s Supper – the meat and water of the coconut used as “bread and wine.” “O Lord, our palm trees can no longer hide us from the world. Strengthen our hearts that we may look with confidence to the future.”
God Is Rice: Rice is the symbol of our life. We eat rice daily. There are different kinds of rice but we are one as the rice-eating community. Rice is the symbol of celebration. We express our joy of harvest with it. There are many sufferings in Asia, but we anticipate the time of cosmic celebration. (Massao and Fumiko Takenaka, Japan)
These emerging practices connected with the Lord’s Supper challenge the ways we have let our traditions and assumptions divide us from one another – and divide people from their own heritage and culture.
One of my favorite Robert Frost poems is titled “Mending Wall.” Frost declares,
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
Frost’s poem speaks of the neighbor’s perception that “good fences make good neighbors”. So, he muses further:
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down."
This Sunday reminds us that there are walls, there are fences that divide. Some of them are a necessary part of what it means to live in a world that is broken. That doesn’t mean that they are God’s ultimate intent. “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.”
Who fences God’s table? Is it our responsibility? Or do we come, truly and only, as guests of the One who welcomed, welcomes all?