Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Setting the Table

"No Windows, No Walls"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House" 

Yesterday’s TV news featured a story about one of the many local churches who provide a big Thanksgiving” feast for poor and homeless people in the region. The report yesterday featured some rather typical pictures of parishioners who had prepared the feast smiling benignly as they  heaped up piles of turkey and mashed potatoes onto the plates of the poor and needy people standing in lines waiting to be fed. 

The event was, of course commendable; however one particular interview with one of the people serving the meal didn’t exactly “sit well” with me.  Looking at her fellow church-members who were doling out the food, she said, “Now that we are finished here it’s time for all of us to go back home and set our own Thanksgiving tables.”

It struck me that this one little phrase was probably quite iconic of the way those who are in the “mainstream” of life often think about those who are on the fringes. Occasionally it’s good and even commendable for those who are “satisfied” in life to care for the needs of the “less fortunate;”  but when that’s finished, it’s time to go back home and set the separate table where the better food is served and the poor, the needy and people who are different need not apply.

At this Thanksgiving time of year Jesus is often quoted as admonishing his disciples to care for those who are the “least” among us in this world. But interestingly enough, if you pay closer attention to what Jesus actually teaches,  he goes well beyond telling his disciples that they should give some resources and spend some time caring for those who are “less fortunate.”

Jesus actually taught that there are no different others -  no one is more valuable or more worthy than anyone else. He taught that there is one human family and that every single person in the family has a place of equal dignity set for them at the table of life.  

In fact, in the gospels over and over again we see Jesus showing us a “picture” of the “table of life.” He regularly dines with esteemed politicians who sit alongside social outcasts and he often shares a meal with temple priests who sit beside notorious sinners – all of them always sitting at the same table at which no places of honor are set for those who are more respectable than others. When Jesus dines everybody is served the very best food and no one gets anything better than anybody else.

I have always been very fond of a beautiful passage in the Hebrew Scriptures that describes the way “God” intended the world to be:

The poor are lifted up from the dust and
the needy from the garbage dump.
They sit in places of honor among kings and princes

This passage makes me think of something the great Sufi poet, Rumi, once wrote:

They say there is a window from one heart to another
but how can there be a window where no walls remain.

Thanksgiving time in America is often viewed as a season to crack open the windows of our lives to others who are on the outside. At this time of year many communities hold religious services at which people from different faith traditions sit together on a dais for an hour and share some common prayers. At this Thanksgiving time religious and other community organizations open their doors to serve a Thanksgiving meal to the poor and needy – lots of windows get opened up.

But what if we really saw this world as “God” intended it to be - no different others, no foreigners, no one in the mainstream with others at the fringes, each of us belonging to one another as we sit together at the “table of life?” If that were the case we wouldn’t need any special holidays to crack open the windows because there would be no walls .

There has been so much recent hateful and divisive rhetoric about who should be allowed into this country and how we can build walls to keep others out. Thanksgiving is a time to set a table where everyone has a place at the feast.

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