“Setting the Table”
31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'
(Matthew 25:31-40, NSRV)
This Thanksgiving we were a small group. Lively, no doubt; but small in number. With six adults, four kids/teenagers and the notorious “kids table”, or in our case coffee table, I was in hostess heaven. Without a logistical struggle, I fit all six adults comfortably around our usual, every day dinner table. This year my children didn’t spend their early Thanksgiving hours complaining about hauling in the freezing metal tables from the garage. We didn’t have to transport twenty fold up chairs to and from church in our minivan. We simply set the table and enjoyed good food and even better company for endless hours. And it was one of the best Burgess Thanksgivings to date!
There are times though when the guest list keeps growing. “Of course we have room for one more! The more the merrier!” And we expand our tables and our living rooms so that many may gather and be a part of the feast. John Pavlovitz, New York born, Italian Catholic, turned Protestant megachurch pastor and now author and blogger has a great deal to say about widening tables and making room for all. After leaving the pastorate for more than 19 years, Pavlovitz began a blog entitled “Stuff that Needs to be Said”. His first blog entry attracted the attention of more than 5 million readers and was picked up overnight by news media outlets and began an honest conversation among clergy and lay people alike. His blog became a springboard for his first book entitled, “A Bigger Table, Building Messy, Authentic and Hopeful Spiritual Community.”
In his book Pavlovitz recalls growing up in a large Italian family in upstate New York. He recalls special holidays and occasions when his entire family would gather in his home. He recalls helping his father bring from the garage the large, heavy wooden table extender for the family dining room. He recalls the elaborate measures his mother and father would endure as to make sure that everyone felt welcomed and wanted around the table. He remembers the care and commitment involved in the setting of the table – preparation for the food and company that would be shared in that space.
Pavlovitz beautifully translates this illustration within the confines of what it means to be the Church in today’s context. He writes, “I can see the boundless compassion of the open table and endeavor to re-create that on whatever spot I stand at any given moment and with the people in my midst. Jesus feeds people. That’s what he does. And as striking as what he does is, equally revelatory is what he doesn’t do here. There’s no altar call, no spiritual gifts assessment, no membership class, no moral screening, no litmus test to verify everyone’s theology and to identify those worthy enough to earn a seat at the table. Their hunger and Jesus’ love for them alone, nothing else, make them worthy…”
In our scripture lesson this morning, Jesus calls us to expand our table with radical hospitality. “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it unto me.’”
We hear this familiar text and we conjure up in our minds who the “least of these” might be in our context – in our community. Perhaps the “least of these” is all of us gathered in this space today. Many of us entered timidly through these doors hungering for purpose and meaning. We all crave to be filled – we all desire a life that is full and rich. So we who hunger, we are the least of these. Many of us have come to this place, our lives parched from hate, bigotry and ignorance. We come to this place in search of a faith that will flow from love’s source. So we who thirst are the least of these. Some of us come to this place, never having been truly known for who we are. We identify more as stranger to most than friend. We come looking to be known for all that we are as created in the very image of God. So those of us who have lived life as an outsider, we are the least of these. Some of us have experienced cruelty from others based on things we simply cannot change. We have lived life feeling exposed and unprotected. We come to this place in search of an assuring embrace that we are enough. That we belong. For those of us who have felt painfully vulnerable for the majority of our lives, we too are the least of these. Many of us exist in our own self-imposed prisons of self-doubt, unworthiness and fear. We come to this place in search of spiritual freedom – to be held in the palm of God’s hand and to in turn hold others to the light.
Church family, we have all been the least of these at some point in our earthy journey. So now we prepare to come to God’s table by retrieving the extender. We continue to welcome the least of these as we set additional places and tend to hospitality with grand detail and care. And by doing so, others have pulled up a seat to the feast. Just last week, during our Thanksgiving Service, we welcomed new members into our faith family. The heartfelt responses from our new members give testament to the important, on-going work of setting our table for all. One new member writes, “I have been searching for a church home for many, many years. It is the first time at a church that I have not felt pressured for money or judged. Everyone has been very kind, welcoming and most importantly, genuine. I love the openness to all.”
Another member writes, “This church is very accepting and welcoming. We felt like we could become a part of this church family. We chose Congregational because we feel included and welcome – not merely because of a marketing campaign or some hollow statements, but because of the church’s mission and the day to day actions of its leadership. As my husband and I raise our daughters, we want them to learn about God and to be surrounded by people who believe in equality, diversity and inclusion.”
One member writes, “I feel [this church] creates a very open, loving atmosphere without judgement. As a visitor, I felt at home. I never felt comfortable or fully accepted in churches that I have attended in my life. I have always walked with God, occasionally stumbling, but always with God. However, the churches I searched out left me feeling excluded, unloved and at times questioning my relationship with God. Could God really love me? Until I walked into this church. I instantly felt accepted. I instantly felt God’s love – in the music, in the message – in the people. For the first time in my life, I would very much like to belong to a church – this church.”
One member writes, “We were in search of a church for our granddaughter that would be open and affirming. After exploring your website, we came across a touching and inspirational sermon by Jimmy entitled “Gay or Straight, All are Welcome.” We knew from our very first visit that this church was for us. You had us at hello.”
As a church family, we seek to widen the table, to make space available for all. We seek each week, to challenge each other to find places in our world in need of mending. But in order to have an honest conversation about welcoming the least of these, we must too address the honest fears that exist in our world and in our hearts.
Paul Wadell, professor of religious studies at St. Norbert College identifies the vulnerable spaces in which we live today. He writes, “In a world of terrorism and war, school shootings, road rage, and pervasive anger and discontent, it is no wonder that concern for safety and security frequently triumphs over hospitality to the stranger. It is no wonder that we are encouraged to build walls around our homes, borders around our country, and even around our hearts. But is that the kind of community the Church should be? …Fear constricts our world. Fear teaches us to pull back, to become wary and disengaged. And fear, fueled by anxiety, teaches us to attend to our own needs before ever considering the needs of others. In a culture of fear, the open hand of hospitality easily becomes the clenched fist of hostility….Fear counsels that we cannot afford to think of our neighbors without first having secured all the wealth and possessions needed for ourselves. The constant refrain of a culture of fear is that we cannot risk openness, we cannot risk vulnerability, and we cannot risk generosity and sharing because the resources of the world are scarce and each person must look out for his or her self.” The primary aim of the Christian life is not to feel safe but to be faithful…Hospitality is the vocation of every Christian because it is through hospitality that we offer the most compelling witness of who God is, who we are called to be, and what the world through God’s grace can become.
Friends, let us continue to be table setters for the least of these. Those of us who now sit at the feast, may we in turn gather in those who are hurting like we once were. Let us love not only with our words but with our actions and with our lives. May we continue to haul in the table extender and set the table with care and intentionality. God’s table is for all. When we each bring our lives, our unique stories and our experiences with the Holy, only then do we see God fully revealed.
As we set the table, may we do so echoing the words of the following Franciscan Blessing one to another, “May God bless [us] with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that [we] may live deep within [our] heart. May God bless [us] with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that [we] may work for justice, freedom and peace. May God bless [us] with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that [we] may reach out [our] hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. May God bless [us] with enough foolishness to believe that [we] can make a difference in this world, so that [we] can do what others claim cannot be done.” 
Set the table church family. At God’s table there’s always more than enough. AMEN.
God of Love,
Whose signature we see, if we dare to look, in the creation of the universe, help us this hour to look and to listen for Your handwriting and Your voice in this place, among these people.
Breathe life into our singing, our praying, our speaking, our listening, that all these activities might become more than they are.
We pray for the condition of our world this morning. We pray that where there is violence, we would find a peaceful solution. We pray that where there is hunger and thirst, we would find resources to quench and to satisfy. We pray for those separated by loved ones today. Comfort them that they might sense the kind of peace that only you can give.
We pray for our church family.
We seek to be faithful as we live out our lives. Draw us closer to you. In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.
~ posted on My Redeemer Lives website.http://www.myredeemerlives. com/prayers.html
 Pavlovitz, John; A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, Hopeful, Spiritual Communities; 2017
 Matthew 25: 31 -40
 Wadell, Paul, J., Professor of Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. www.textweek.com.
 Franciscan Blessing from the 20th Century)