Setting the Table
Hebrews 12:1; 2 Corinthians 9:6-8
Epworth United Methodist Church
November 6, 2016
When I was growing up we lived near the home of my grandparents for only a few years. The table set by my grandmother Loessberg for Thanksgiving or Christmas was a great delight and a marvelous wonder. First, the delight: Dessert, lots of dessert, was set on the table right next to the vegetables and main courses, instead of being hidden away as usual so the children (and the adults who never grew up) wouldn’t be tempted. And, the wonder: There were mysterious offerings never found on our table at home. One was a dish that looked like dark green cabbages magically shrunk to the size of ping pong balls. Any guesses? Brussel sprouts. The other was a plate of unidentified deep brown spheres dusted with powdered sugar. I asked what they were. Can you guess? Rum balls. I ate one and my under-the-legal-age self felt like I had sampled contraband.
There was no mystery about one thing: the joy preparing and setting the table for us gave my grandparents. Their love decorated that magnificent spread. Who has set the table for you? Who has made a place for you out of love? My grandmother also worked to project a place for me in the world, well into the future. She dreamed dreams for me before I learned to dream for myself. When I painted a picture she was sure I would be an artist. When I wrote a poem she said, “You could be a poet!” Her dreams for me taught me that I had a place in the world and gifts to offer. Who reminded you that you have something special to offer the world?
My grandmother is one of my saints. Who are your saints? On this All Saints Sunday we remember those who went before us, those who inspire us, those who helped make a place for us in the world. We have saints that we have known personally, people who have planted seeds of hope and vision in us. We also have public saints who have had a great impact on our world and also inspired us personally. Maybe your list includes people like Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Susan B. Anthony, St. Paul, Frederick Douglas, John Wesley, Sarah Winnemucca, Harvey Milk, Theodore Roosevelt, or Maya Angelou. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on, people who worked to make room for us at the table.
Who are your personal and public saints? Who has set the table for you? There is a place card in your bulletin. If you didn’t get one the ushers can give one to you during communion. I invite you to write on the card the names of the people you are remembering today – your saints. After the sermon write the names of the people who set a place for you, made room at the table for you. Who planted the seeds of dreams in you? Then, when you come up to receive communion place the card on the table as an act of thanksgiving for them. I was telling Judy Cayot about this and she said, “I can’t fit all the people I’m remembering on that small card!” So, Judy, I got you a special version (handing her a 11” X 8.5” huge place card). It’s true. We can’t possibly fit the names of all of the people who set a place at the table for us on one small card. We don’t even know the names of the countless people who not only made a place for us at the table, but who designed the table, and built the room.
We love seeing our Epworth children every Sunday. Who will set the table for them? Who will help nourish the spirit of those who are discouraged? Who will plant the seeds in those who are just learning to dream? It’s our turn to set the table, to make a place for others. It’s time for you and me to step into our sainthood. Yes, I said that and yes, it makes me feel uncomfortable too. It’s daunting to think of ourselves as saints. Maybe like Max Beerbohm’s character, the scoundrel Lord George in the short story The Happy Hypocrite we wish we could look more saintly in order to be more lovable. Lord George has a mask of a saint crafted, so he can wear it to win the affection of Jenny whom he loves. It works and they are married. After they are married he resolves to change his ways. He returns the money he has amassed by cheating others and starts to live a simpler life. Soon, La Gambogi his past girlfriend comes to expose his true face, ripping off his mask in front of his beloved Jenny. They discover that his face has conformed to the contours of the saint.
Like George, we come to resemble the values we admire. We don’t have to do anything to be lovable. We were created lovable. When we learn to live out of that love more and more, we find ourselves and our place and are moved to set a place for others. We often struggle with the concept of perfection. The author and contemplative Kathleen Norris calls perfectionism one of the scariest words she knows. “One dare not let the mask slip, even in one's home.” But she underscores that the word we have translated as “perfect” in the New Testament is not scary or impossible. It comes from “a Latin word meaning complete…full-grown.” A better translation today would be “mature.” “To 'be perfect,' in the sense that Jesus means it, is to make room for growth…” so that we are able to lose the self-consciousness of adolescence and give of ourselves to others.[i]
You have a place at the table set by the kindness, courage and encouragement of others. You have been nourished and have grown into the person you are today through the love served at that table. Paul tells the Corinthians, “God can bless you with everything you need, and you will always have more than enough to do all kinds of good things for others.” How can you set a place for someone who has not been invited to the table? How can you offer yourself, your unique course of kindness and courage, advocacy and invitation to nourish their spirit?
Those who came before us at Epworth set a lot of tables. They dreamed of us and dreamed for us when this church was founded. They literally planted seeds for us when this building was built.
When we look at the state of the fellowship hall today it’s easy to see that it is now our turn. Our gifts to our capital campaign, A Community Building – New Spaces for New Graces, is a powerful way to offer ourselves and set the table for others. The improvements to our building will create a beautiful table setting that we will all enjoy. It’s a setting that will reflect the vibrant ministries, the passion for justice, the commitment to unconditional inclusion of Epworth’s expansive table. Imagine the delight and wonder of young and old as they discover their place at the table! Imagine our joy at seeing what we made possible! My grandparents, your ancestors, and Epworth’s founders will be proud. We are surround by an amazing cloud of witnesses. Let’s go set some tables! It will be – perfect! Amen.
[i] Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith