Place at the Table
by The Reverend Noel E. Bordador
not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have
entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:1)
All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 14:11)
In Nomine, etc.
Once a week, my work as a social worker brings me to a church downtown, a church dedicated to the patron saint of social workers, Vincent de Paul. Underneath this beautiful church is a shelter for homeless elderly men and women. Some are homeless because of mental illness, or broken down by years of alcohol and drug addiction; while others became homeless because of a combination of things: poverty that they could not afford the high rent in NYC, finding themselves pushed out by the cut-throat real estate market profiteers in this sometimes inhumane city; and there’s the welfare system that has been gutted over the last two decades, thanks to welfare reform and “compassionate conservatism” which is anything but compassionate. So much for the American dream for these shelter residents. Often, I stop by the church above the shelter; and there, I never cease to wonder that heaven and hell are simply so close to one another in that place. My prayers are not often comfortable. Often, I struggle how a good God could allow this to happen to our vulnerable elderly. Other times, when problems seems endless, or when I’m feeling burnt out and I could care less anymore, I selfishly pray that God will show me a way out of this work altogether and lead me to a more a high-paying job where I don’t have to care so much. But the answer seems to come back in the words painted above the altar, above the Table of the Lord’s Supper: “Evangelizare pauperibus misit me,” “He sent me to proclaim the good news to the poor and bind the broken hearted,” the very words Jesus quoted from the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) when he began his ministry. Through these words, God scolds me as if saying, “You and the world you may not care about my people, but I care about them; and since you bound yourself to me in service, go to them and say to them that there is a God who cares. Go, and share table fellowship, and break the bread of hope with them.”
The Gospel reading for today Luke 14:1-14 opens with a scene in which this troublemaker named Jesus receives an invitation for table fellowship from a powerful religious leader. Yet, the host and the influential guests are highly suspicious of Jesus, because Jesus is never a gracious guest at parties. Many times, he ends up offending his host. And in today’s Gospel story, Jesus acts no different. First, he criticizes the guests who compete against one another for the best seat in the house- for honor, and status, which means power. Jesus challenges each one of them to seek the lowest place at the table. Then, he criticizes his host for inviting only the wealthy and the influential because he knew he could expect from his guests some sort of compensation- perhaps money, fame- again, power. Jesus also turns on his host for ignoring the poor and the powerless because they had none of the things. No money, no power, you’re a nobody. Jesus issues a bold challenge to his host to show equal hospitality to and concern for the poor and excluded. He advocates an open table fellowship policy. Many times from this pulpit, I have repeatedly claimed that Jesus’ open table policy is a criticism against the discriminatory practices of his society. According to the NT scholar, John Crossan, Jesus knew that the table was a “miniature map of society’s vertical discrimination and lateral separations.” And still is to our day. In our day-to-day life, consciously or unconsciously, we probably more often than not discriminate in our table fellowship. We eat with whom we want to eat with, and we exclude those we dislike or are unlike us. Jesus’ policy of “open commensality”, open table policy, is a symbol of God’s judgment on a society that discriminates; and open commensality is also a symbol of God’s Kingdom where there is no caste system of superiors and inferiors: The exalted ones will be humbled, and the humble will be exalted. Jesus levels people out. The question comes to us: why is the theme of open table fellowship such a prominent, indeed so central a theme in Jesus’ religious and social agenda? I propose to you that the themes of radical compassion, hospitality, equality and humility are at the core of Jesus’ message because for Jesus these things are at the core of the nature of God; and Jesus who came from the bosom of this God speaks the heart and mind of God in this world.
Andrei Rublev, a 14th century Russian monk, made an icon that depicts the Trinity as an open Table fellowship of equals. There is a story in Genesis (18) in which Abraham and Sarah offered hospitality to three visitors who (unbeknownst to them) were heavenly beings. This story is the basis of that beautiful exhortation from the letters to the Hebrews we read earlier: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Later Christian allegory identified these three heavenly beings as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is this Christian allegory that Rublev sought to capture in his icon. If you look closely, all three figures have the same faces, have the same angelic form, all wearing some blue garment, the color of heaven, signifying divinity; this “sameness” represents the equality that exists in the community of God we call the Trinity. The three are one in nature; no superiority or inferiority exists in the heavenly community of God. But, the three are also distinct from one another. So while the Father on the left is represented by a heavenly mansion, symbolizing the exalted life of God in the heavens, the Holy Spirit on the right is represented by a mountain, symbol of revelation. But I want you to look at the central figure of Christ where our attention is drawn. He wears not only the blue color of his divinity, the gold sash of his kingship; he also wears an earthen colored tunic, symbol of earth of which humans are made. He is made of lowly earthen dust, and so Jesus is the very personification of the profound humility of God who, in self-abasement, left his heavenly throne, descended to earth and became dust, became one of us. He is also represented by the life-giving tree of Calvary, and the chalice of his passion, both depicted to be at the very center of the life of God; these are symbols of the humility of God who, according to Paul, took the lowest place among us by becoming our servant slave, lovingly serving us unto death. The exalted God humbled himself for our sake so that we who are mere humble creatures might be exalted to live the life of eternal glory. Jesus on the cross and at this Table here shows us that at the center, at the core, at the heart of the life of the God is this profound humility.
The Trinity is shown in a circular table fellowship with one another. Rublev says that the Christian God is an isolated monarch, but a community made up of equals yet also distinct persons; but the distinctions in that community are not occasions for discrimination. No one is superior or inferior to the other. Look how the three gazes upon one another in a circle of love, the three in one mutual indwelling of respect, delight, and adoration. Each person is not self-absorbed, living in an isolated existence. But each practices hospitality by welcoming one another in a life of an eternal “one-ness” and co-operation. Yet this community is not a closed community. In fact, God’s community is open to the world. If you look at the figure of the table in the icon, there is an open space there, God inviting the world, all of us regardless of who we are in society, regardless of our accomplishments; God invites us even poor sinners, crippled by injustice, blinded by sin, beckoning us to approach and take our place in God’s Table. God is an open invitation to an open Table fellowship. God is Supreme Hospitality.
This is the God whom we worship. This is the God whom Jesus proclaims at his Table. This is the God in whose image we have been created. Image of the divine community, we are called upon to mirror the heavenly fellowship in this world that has become inhospitable by showing a radical openness to everyone who we meet, especially to the poor, the voiceless, the outcast- and by showing humility to all by renouncing all self-seeking, and by showing contempt for worldly wealth, status and position of power that divides us. In so far as we live out these things, not only do we begin to live our heavenly life here on earth, but to the world that is becoming more closed, defensive, suspicious, and fearful we offer a glimpse of a different world through our common life here- which is none other than the living image of the communitarian God in whose likeness we were conceived and wonderfully made. Benedictus sit Deus, +
2009 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a gay Filipino priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
Icon of the Trinity, ca.1410 by Andrei Rublev
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