Fourth Sunday of Easter
Rev. Ryan Slifka
A few months ago, I headed up to Port Hardy on the north of the Island. It was my first visit, and it was for a Presbytery meeting. Which is like a meeting for all the United Churches on Vancouver Island, Port Hardy down to Chemainus. Beautiful drive, beautiful place.
This meeting took place in St. Columba’s joint Anglican-United Church. In many ways it was like every other meeting. A lot of talking, sitting. A little business. Like every meeting—until dinner came.
This time was different because Alastair, the minister of St. Columbas, decided to expand the guest list. In addition to the 40 or so mostly white, mostly senior citizen church people, St. Columba opened its doors and set its tables for members of the local First Nations. Now, several of their folks had spoken at our meeting earlier that day, leaders of their respective communities--hereditary chiefs, the local Pentecostal pastor, and so on. So it made sense that they were there. But when they came, they brought a whole bunch of other people in tow. Wives. Husbands. Brothers, sisters. Sons, daughters. Grand parents bouncing baby grand children on their laps. A few street people also found their way in in to the mix, too. And pretty soon, that tiny church basement was full. Packed. Not a spare chair to go around.
Clearly, no one told these people that the usual polite number to RSVP with is “plus one.”
Now, if you asked any of us church folks who were there, we would probably tell you it was a marvelous experience. For a church that talks so much about reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous people, sitting down at a table of fellowship, sharing a meal together. It was perfect. Exactly what we should be doing.
But personally, I felt kind of tense. And I got the sense from looking around that others felt tense, too. These folks had different manners. Different levels of education. Some folks seemed really polished, shirts ironed with slacks. Well spoken. But others--dirty sweatshirts, old truckers hats. English as a second language, through a row of missing teeth. One dude even had a full face tattoo.
I felt tense. And I mean, I’m sure there was some sub-conscious racism lurking deep within me. I’m sure that was part of it. But I see myself as a liberal, open-minded guy. I firmly believe that in Christ there is no east or west, that racism is a wicked perversion of the Christian gospel, and support the church, and society’s efforts to repair the relationship between First Nations and descendants of settlers. I didn’t feel nervous during the morning presentation. In fact, I felt inspired. So my dinner-time discomfort didn’t make much sense. Shouldn’t have made a difference.
But there was a difference. And the difference was a piece of furniture. The difference was a table. A shared table. Because it’s easy to interact with someone you don’t know, who’s so drastically different than from a distance. But when you snuggle in elbow to elbow, fork and knife in hand, things get awkward. It means you’ve gotta talk. Which, can be hell if you’re an introvert to begin with. You’ve gotta interact, even if you don’t know the rules. You’re left wide open. And there’s no getting away until everyone’s done dessert.
It can be scary. It takes you right out of your comfort zone. And that’s why I think why this meal felt so tense. Why I felt so tense.
Sharing a table with strangers can be painful. It can be awkward. It can be painfully awkward. But, according to this morning’s scripture passage, this kind of table tension is good. In fact, it can be revelatory. In fact, God can use this kind of tension to transform us.
Like our past few weeks, this passage takes place following Easter. Following the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s let-down time. Jesus has just been executed. All their dreams for a better world, God’s world of justice and righteousness flowing down like a mighty stream have instead evaporated in the air. And so a couple of Jesus’ disciples are skipping town. Heading away from Jerusalem, on the road to a village called Emmaus. Their leader is dead. The movement is dead. Their dreams are dead, too.
But while on their way out of town, this mysterious figure joins them on the road. You can probably guess who it is. This guy asks them why they’re so glum. They tell him--like he must be hiding under a rock if he hasn’t heard what happened. The stranger rebukes them, and teaches them all about Jesus from the Bible. About how the Messiah had to suffer and die. It’s all part of the plan.
And then they come to the place where they planned to stay. This guy makes like he’s moving along. But they invite this stranger in to stay with them. They feed him a meal. Since he’s the guest, they give him the honor of saying grace. And, it says, he takes the bread... he blesses it... he breaks it... and he gives it to them.
Suddenly, it says, “their eyes are opened... and they recognized him...” Jesus, of course. And as soon as they recognize him, he’s gone. Vanished.
The risen Jesus walked up beside them. He chatted with them, engaged them in conversation. He gave them a Bible study. Taught them all about himself in the scriptures. He did all of these things, and they still didn’t recognize him. Their eyes were closed to him.
It wasn’t until they invited this stranger in. Saddled up with him at table, and ate with him. That’s when they saw him. That’s when they knew they were in the presence of the risen Lord. He took bread, broke it, blessed it, gave it to them. And their eyes were opened.
And it’s at that moment something clicks, everything falls in to place. Their lives to a 180. They head back towards Jerusalem. And they tell everybody the good news. This revelation sets their lives off in a whole new direction.
It’s not an accident. In Luke’s gospel, the table is where God’s kingdom is made manifest. When Jesus himself sits down with the sick, the disabled, the poor, the outcast. Tax collectors and sinners. Male, female, Jews, gentiles, slaves and free. Humanity, fractured by divisions of language, culture, race, gender, national citizenship. Rich, poor. Liberals and conservatives. This table is where heaven breaks through. The future of the world, where everything is set right, creation is healed, and all things are made new is always imaged as a table. The Messianic banquet, is where all the people of the world put aside their warring, and come together in peace. Their divisions healed. That’s what the disciples see when they entertain this stranger. Jesus is revealed to them because Jesus brings all people together at the tense table. To share in a common life.
In fact, it’s also an image of the church. It’s why we have this table so prominent every Sunday. It’s why we come to the table for Holy Communion to break bread every month. Because the church is supposed to be a microcosm, a foretaste, a sneak peak, of the heavenly banquet here on earth. Where people who would normally be strangers come together around a common table presided over by the Risen Christ. Where our antagonisms come to end. Where races, classes, genders, national identities, and political convictions melt away by the fire of divine love. Where our divisions cease. Human life as it’s intended to be by God. We’re meant to gather at this table, and see it extend to every other table in our world. From the dining room table, to the soup kitchen. To the tables of public and international policy. The table is where Christ brings us together, opens our eyes, and ushers in his new creation.
And so now, I’ve come to realize the same about that meal in Port Hardy. Our eyes were being opened. Right there. Right in that old church basement. With its peeling paint and its half-century old table cloths. We were catching a glimpse of God’s kingdom, Christ in our midst. Boundaries broken down between human beings. Strangers. Indigenous, and settler. Rich and poor. The sick and the well. People who are completely different from one another. People who are normally segregated from one another, interacting very rarely or only occasionally. In the tension, in the discomfort of that moment, God was showing us something deep, something profound.
Our table became a leaf in the heavenly banquet table. Where Christ was making himself present to us. God was using the tension of the table to bring together people who wouldn’t normally be together, people who are normally separated, more often than not segregated. And you can’t make diamonds without pressure. And Christ was using that tension to open our eyes, shape our hearts, and bring us together in peace.
It’s the tense table where it all began. And where it begins again and again. Where Christ makes himself present to us, makes us in to new people, and brings us together in peace.
And if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.
So, brothers and sisters. If you want to be stretched. If you want to grow as a person, or become a better human being. If you want to seek God, deepen your relationship with the divine, or live your life in alignment to Christ teachings. If you wanna be woke. Start at the tense table. Start with the stranger.
Could be personal. Someone you’ve just met. Someone new to the Valley who you invite over to your place. To make them feel welcome. Could be somebody on the street. Somebody who you pass by a lot who asks for cash. Somebody who you offer to take for coffee instead. And get to know them.
Could be personal. But it could be right here and right now. At the table of the Lord. Somebody who’s new, or someone you’ve never spoken to before. Someone who’s completely different than you, who you’d never sit or eat with in any other place. Sit with them after church, bring them to coffee. Or even better--take them out to lunch.
Because the vulnerability of the table, with the stranger, that’s where Christ shows himself to us. And will change us.
It’s a hard place to be. But God uses that table tension to work on us. That’s where our eyes are opened. That’s where our hearts are pushed in the right direction. It’s a place where Christ begins his work on us. And turns our lives and our worlds around around.
So start at the table. Start at the table, taste, and you’ll see--that the Lord is good.