Gathered at the Table (A Sermon on I Corinthians 11:17-31

A sermon given at Colonial Church on January 17, 2021. You can listen to the sermon below or you can watch the Alternative or Traditional service on YouTube. You can also watch the Kids’ Sermon HERE.

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What? Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you.

For, I received from the Lord what I also handed to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill and some had died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.            

– 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 (NRSV)

Will you pray with me? God, as this gathered community, we come to your table to remember and to be transformed. So by your spirit, meet us in this gathered space and in this gathered medium that we might be your church. Be with us now and open us to you, oh God. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

The first play that I was able to attend when I was a kid was at the children’s theater. It was a play based on a book that some of you may know, called The Little Match Girl. It’s the story of an impoverished girl who sells matches. One night she happens upon one of those brilliantly beautiful homes that has the candles flickering in the window. When I saw that play, and when I read that story, I imagined myself as that little girl looking in the window in the homes where I imagined the happy families lived, the places where at Christmas the candle lights flickers. Which is why, of course, now in my house as an adult, we have those candles, no matter what Andy Garbers thinks about them. 

But I imagine myself there. I so longed to have that kind of a family where everyone would gather at the table and come together at the holidays, where it didn’t matter because you knew each other’s stuff and each other’s stories. You would laugh, and you would tell stories, and you would eat food. And grandma and grandpa and any friend and anyone was always welcome. Now, of course, as an adult, I also realize that most of our tables are a little more complicated. And yet, part of both the beauty and then also the pain of the table is that the table itself is supposed to be that place, that place where, like as I said to the children’s sermon, you get to pull up a chair and you know it’s yours, and you know you belong, that this is your family, these are your people.

That’s why as Congregationalists one of the central gathering places we come to, well for a lot of other reasons of which I will talk more about in a minute, we come to this table. This very table in this space is a place of remembrance, both of the work of God and what God has done through Christ on our behalf in providing and laying out a table for us. But it’s also remembrance that when we come to this space we come as a people who gather. You’ll notice even the arrangement of furniture here, right? There’s two chairs, one for each place, and there’s two benches. But right now there’s an open side. Why? Because it’s for all of us to gather around this table as one body and one community gathered in the spirit, gathered at the table.

Part of the pain of our lives even now is when the church isn’t that space. Because that’s what it means to gather at the table, whether it is the table of our families, the table of our churches, it’s the place where we gather to eat and be nourished in every single way. And then that everyone else may gather as well to have food for their bodies and souls, to gather at the table. Now, food and the gathering at the table around bread and wine has long been something inside of the tradition of our faith, going way back to the Book of Exodus. In Exodus 12:1-28, we encounter the people of Israel at a particular moment in their lives where they are still enslaved in Egypt. They’ve called out to God. God has risen up a leader, not unlike Martin Luther King Jr., who’s come to help the people get over that mountain to the promised land.

But at this very moment, they don’t yet know the sweetness of that land flowing with milk and honey. They only know 400 years of slavery. God raises up Moses. Moses comes alongside with Aaron and then Miriam and goes to the Pharaoh and says, “Let my people go.” Which, of course, the Pharaoh is like, “Sure, see you later.” It doesn’t exactly go like that, it’s a little bit harder. At this very moment what happens is that the people are instructed that they are to take a lamb that is sacrificed and paint over their doorposts with the blood of that lamb, indeed the Passover, that their young sons will be able to continue to live and that they will indeed be moved to freedom. But they’re also instructed at this moment that they are to prepare unleavened bread and that this unleavened bread is the piece of the table that they get to take with them even though they will now be sojourning for 40 years in the desert. They’re not going to have tables that looked familiar, and they’re going to long for them. They’re going to want to be back at the table. They’re going to want to be off of Zoom and gathered around tables in their homes, right? Right.

But at that moment, those kind of tables aren’t going to be possible. And so God, who is indeed their bread of life, is the one who says, “I will not only spare you from death. I will not only pass over you and bring you into freedom, I will also be the bread of life that nourishes and sustains your beings and your souls, that you might get over that mountain top to the land of promise. And in that land, lest you forget,” as we are reminded in Leviticus 23 amongst other passages, “you are then to begin each year in the remembrance that I, the Lord your God am Yahweh, the one who has rescued you from slavery, brought you into the promised land, and you will gather at the table. And you will remember that it is I, God, who have brought you home.”

This is a table where there is enough for all of us. There is life, and there is remembrance that the fundamental, sustaining element of all of life and food and everything we drink is Yahweh; it’s God. And so, each year up until today, Jewish people celebrate this feast, this festival known as Passover. It is this very thing then that Jesus in Matthew 26: 17-30 then gathers with His disciples to celebrate. They’re Jewish. They’re there to celebrate and to remember the works of Yahweh on their behalf to pass over and to bring them into the land through this festival.

As Jesus gathers with them that night, He takes that same bread and wine that Jewish people throughout history had taken to celebrate and remember, and he says, “A new day has come. This is the new covenant. A covenant, again, of freedom. A covenant, again, of life. A covenant, again, that you can carry with you to nourish and feed your souls no matter how chaotic the world might be. This is the new covenant of my body and my blood. Every time you gather at the table, remember that and remember me.” For it is that remembrance that fundamentally changes the way we live and who we are as a people who gather at tables every day of our lives. And so yes, once a month in this very space, we gather for that body and that blood, that we remember that it is Jesus Christ who nourishes and sustains us and makes the table possible.

But then we also carry with us that body and that blood and that remembrance into every single table, whether it is a virtual table, an outdoor gathering with masks on, or one with our beloved pods that we get to enjoy right now. We carry that body and blood and that remembrance to the table. And the table of Jesus Christ then becomes the table of our breakfasts, our lunches, and our dinners, where we pause and remember, remember first that it is Yahweh, the one who has spared us and brings us to freedom. It is Yahweh who is the bread of life that we carry with us. We pull up a chair, and we sink in and settle ourselves, and we tell the stories, one to another, stories about our days, stories about our hopes, our dreams, our pain. In this remembrance, God is present with us.

But sometimes we also forget. Our lives get busy and hurried. We make frozen pizza one too many times in a week. Guilty. We forget that we ourselves are welcome at the table. We don’t bring our full selves. We try to sit in chairs that were never meant for us. Sometimes we just really want to overturn the table because we don’t want to sit with one another anymore. And yet God’s spirit shows up and continues to invite and remind and challenge us, as is happening here in 1 Corinthians 11, to remember what the table is for. For here in the early church, the people had indeed likewise forgotten. And though they didn’t have frozen pizza, they lived in a world that not unlike ours was also divided, divided by social class and hierarchies, divided by identities, divided in all the ways humans have always figured out how to divide ourselves one from another.

They brought that same knowing, that same way of remembering to the table. Where here as they gathered it seems that what would happen at that time in the Greco-Roman world is you would have the host of the gathering and then their friends, those of the most class affiliated with them, they would be seated right one with another. The best wine would go to them, the best food. But at that same table, there were others who were hungry. In this early church, they had forgotten that Yahweh had called them not to remember the ways of old or the ways of their world, but the ways Yahweh. The ways of God in Jesus Christ as we gather at that table in the new covenant is supposed to be a place where there is nourishment equally for all of our beings and our souls. Here, Paul is calling and crying to the church at Corinth to remember, to remember who they are called to be, to remember the God who has saved them.

He challenges them, and he invites them. This, indeed, this passage from 1 Corinthians 11 is the same passage that every Sunday when I am doing communion I google again to remember because I’m terrible at numbers, and I can never remember it’s in chapter 11. It’s that same passage that we don’t often start with the beginning of it, right? We don’t often begin by saying, “Now, these instructions I have to… There’s some divisions… ” We don’t start there. We start a little bit later with the words of Jesus in that remembrance. But today, as we talk about being a congregational community and gathering at the table, I wanted us to start in verse 17, to remember that even us today, like them, we sometimes forget. We forget what the table invites to each and every single one of us and that it is a place where no one is to go hungry, no one is to just get drunk on wine while others do not have enough. But it is a place where we as members of this body, as ones who have the blood of Christ that has saved and flourishes and flows through and in us, we gather at this table. We gather, and we are tutored and discipled into a new family and a new way of being.

But this table isn’t just for Sundays. This is the table of our lives. Friends, we are a part of a family of God. At this table, there is a chair for each of us. And there is a chair for everyone. We are called and invited to walk into the light of the candles of the spirit which illuminates all of the stuff of our lives. We are called then to share that and to love and to grieve and to pray and to hope and to remember this Jesus. Sometimes coming to the table can be scary and hard. Sometimes we don’t want to gather with one another. And yet Jesus, who sits at the head of the table, calls lovingly to each of us. “Remember, I have a seat for you. There is no one excluded, no one uninvited. There is a place for you here.”

Shirley Chisholm was the first woman and African American to run for president in the United States. One of her frequently quoted statements that she said was, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” But here’s the thing, as the church, our table isn’t just a place where people have to bring their folding chairs. Our table is the place where we have chairs ready, where we say, “No, here, let me make a place at the table for you, for you are welcome here just as I am and I have been.” It’s a table of grace. It’s a table of life. This is why as we will sing in a few minutes the song Amazing Grace. It’s a grace that brings us all to the table, that brings us home again, even if we have been far off and forlorn.

One of the things I love about this hymn is not only how most all of us know it. When you sing it, do you feel it in your bones? Because I do. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found. I was blind but now I see.” These words were penned by John Newton. John Newton had been a slave trader. And John Newton had an encounter with God, and it opened up his eyes, so much so that by 1788 he wrote a pamphlet Thoughts on the Slave Trade that became important for William Wilberforce in the abolitionist movement and in England and throughout the world.

This is the encounter that we have at the table. It’s a place where we are welcomed home even when we forgot. Even when we forget one another, we are invited through partaking of the body of Christ to live as that body, and to be a people then who extend this table one to another and to this whole world. Right now, in our time, the table is a hard place. Not only because it’s not something we get to do very much with one another, but because right now, it’s also hard to gather at the table with those where we’re not seeing one another and the violence we feel in our hearts against one another. It is my prayer that we as the church would be a people who interrupt the narrative like Paul was doing here with the church in Corinth and say, “Stop it. This is not what the table is for. The table of God is the table for everyone. Remember Christ, remember what he gave us, and live that remembrance.”That is the table. That is the table where thereby we, the people who know ourselves at home, around that beautifully gathered table throw open the doors and look outside to the little match girl. And we say to her, “Come on in. Welcome home, beloved. There is a seat at this table for you. And yes, I see your grime. I know you feel unworthy. But I’ve got scars too.” And there together at this table, our wounds and our scars are held by the God of all love in Christ. And once again, the blood spares us and brings us to freedom. And once again, the bread, it nourishes our souls and it sustains us so that we can get over that mountain to that glorious promised land. May we gather at the table, and may we be a people of remembrance of this table of Christ, the body of Christ broken for you, the blood of Christ shed for you. Live now in remembrance of him. Amen.

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