This is the second in a short series of blog posts about Decatur Presbyterian’s journey through the book A Bigger Table, by John Pavlovitz. This book is on the reading list for Rev. Dr. Todd Speed’s sabbatical this summer. All are invited to join in reading the book, following along in this blog, and joining in the live conversation Sunday mornings in June.
Whew! If you’re reading the book, I wonder if you have as many underlines and stars and arrows and questions written in the margins as I do? This is good, life-giving, AND challenging stuff. For me, it has resulted in a great deal of self reflection and asking hard questions of myself and the faith community.
This section of the book begins with a chapter entitled, Jesus the Table Setter, and in this chapter, Pavlovitz sets Jesus before us as the master table setter, table expander, and our example in this kind of living and loving. He makes the point that in scripture, the table is a connectional place. It’s a place where stories are shared and connections are made. It’s the place of transformation. He also reminds us that Jesus shared the table with all kinds of people: saints and sinners, religious leaders and social pariahs alike. And each encounter was an opportunity for building relationship and connection and community. Pavlovitz uses the image of a small table with leaves that can be added. When we think there isn’t any room, we can add leaves and pull up some more chairs. Do you think your table is small or large? Does it seem like there isn’t any room? How can you expand the table and make more room?
“No matter how inclusive or open we imagine our hearts to be, Jesus will always cause us to stretch further than we are comfortable with, always seeking greater diversity, more justice, deeper renovation.” (p.60) How does this statement strike you? Do you agree? Does it make you defensive? Is it a challenge?
The next four chapters are about what Pavlovitz calls the “legs” of the table and for him these are nonnegotiable. These legs are: radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity, and agenda-free community.
In discussing radical hospitality, he lifts a story from scripture: Jesus washing the disciples feet. He says that Jesus washing the disciples feet is a living parable for us. It’s a reminder that we are supposed “to be washers of feet, not only for those whom we deem worthy or with whom we have an affinity, but also for those we are offended by, angered by,or disagree with–those we are least inclined to welcome.” (p.67)
He says “The Church begins to expand the table by providing the kind of hospitality that equally embraces everyone, not pulling some close and keeping others at a distance.” (68) I know this is a challenge for every church I’ve ever served or attended. Whether we like to admit it or not we all have preferences about who sits at the table or in the pews with us or even walks through the doors. So, we have to think about who we keep at a distance in our lives and in our churches. Can you think of some?
For total authenticity, Pavlovitz recalls Mark 14:3-9 lifting out verse 3 in particular. And then he says this, “Chances are you’ve known what it’s like to be made the leper in the gathering of God’s people. You’ve been pushed to the periphery because of some portion of your truth. You’ve been penalized for a season of your story. Or perhaps you’ve disconnected from those you deem unclean or unworthy or beyond redemption. Either side of this separation is equally damaging. Jesus’ gathering at Simon’s table becomes healing for us in our personal mess and our isolation as we seek welcome and as we grieve rejection, and equally confounding in our own personal bigotry when we withhold this welcome from someone else. And this is why total authenticity needs to be nonnegotiable as we form or renovate our spiritual communities, because anything less distorts the image of Jesus and is disobedient to his example. There is nothing at all redemptive about a church made up of selectively authentic people, and nothing gained in acceptance build on redaction.” (p. 79)
When have you felt like the leper in a gathering of God’s people? Can you recall what that feels like? When have you disconnected from those you’ve decided are not worthy or beyond redemption? What do these things have to do with total authenticity? How can we create a community that embraces total authenticity? What would that take?
What struck me the most in the chapter on true diversity is that true diversity takes work. It is difficult and worth the work. And true diversity is something we are to strive for in all of our circumstances and circles. It’s not just something for the church but a goal in our daily lives. When we surround ourselves only with people who look like us, talk like us, believe, like us, think like us, or experience the world the same way we do, we are missing out. We are limiting our own vision of who God is and all that God’s creation has to share with us and teach us. “Real diversity often comes disguised as a problem. When disparate groups of people intersect, there is going to be turbulence, and the common danger, especially in faith communities, lies in believing that this turbulence is something unhealthy to be avoided….In reality, this discomfort is the fierce crucible of redemptive spiritual community and what we should be seeking, because it means we are straining to include those still excluded and that we are seeking to make our abstract faith work in a real messy daily existence.” (p. 88)
Do you surround yourself only with people who look like you, think like you, talk like you, and experience the world the same way you do? What might be the value in expanding your horizons? Building relationships outside of the circles in which you already travel?
“And as a person of faith, these distinctions all reveal the unlimited beauty of the One who is the source of each of us, so this rich diversity is the very holy ground where God speaks. Bigotry doesn’t happen when we notice other people’s difference. It happens when we believe or act as if those differences make another less worthy of love or opportunity or compassion or respect. We need to learn to dance together.”(p. 94)
In the chapter on Agenda-Free Community, Pavlovitz challenges us to think about the reasons we want people to be a part of our church, our faith community. Is it for the sake of bumping up our numbers? Our pledging units? Or is it for the sake of Jesus Christ, to share God’s love and to genuinely build relationships with no agenda? He notes that many faith communities intentionally or unintentionally come across as those trying to sell you something and there is something very disingenuous about that. Do we want to build a bigger table for the sake of numbers or for the sake of God’s kingdom or so that others will know they are loved by God? Whether we recognize it or not we almost always have an agenda when it comes to other people. Think about what that might be for you. Think about ways in which you can approach others with no agenda.
The next reading assignment is chapters 11-14. I hope you’ll join me.
Rev. Alex Rodgers