Thou Preparest A Table

A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson

Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

Saint Paul, MN

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A

May 3, 2020

So, with the realm of music no longer in play for friendly competition between your clergy, having been roundly defeated by our Associate Rector, the Rev’d Craig Lemming, I turn now to territory that our Preacher in Residence, the Rev’d Barbara Mraz should feel most at home in, cinema, and offer you the following clip of Talladega Nights to open this morning’s sermon.

[Video Clip — Talladega Nights]

Leslie Bibb “Supper’s ready! Come on y’all! Been slavin’ over this for hours!”

Ricky Bobby “Dear Lord Baby Jesus. Or, as our brothers to the south call you ‘Hey-Zeuss’. We thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just wanna take time to say ‘thank you’ for my family, for my two beautiful, beautiful, handsome, striking sons, Walker, and Texas Ranger, or TR as we call him.”

Thou preparest a table before me…

Is that the table, the one we just saw, the banquet ideal that shapes our understanding of God’s abundance and blessings?

Is that what it looks like to be #blessed? In our culture today, we tend to think of God’s abundance as somehow connected to material wealth, the number of cars in our driveway, the number of gables on our roof, and the name brands we can afford. We may not pray to sweet baby Jesus, or eat the fast food junk that crowds Ricky Bobby’s table, but we might thank God for a night out to enjoy that popular new restaurant that just opened – you know the one, with the seasonal menu, that buys only local ingredients, the one your rector has been raving about. Perhaps when we pray in thanks we avoid crass things like naming our total income, or specific purchases; we wouldn’t be so gauche, so when we count our blessings, we list off family, job, friends, and simple pleasures like the ability to enjoy ice cream on a hot afternoon. But, if even these are the province of God’s blessings, what does it say about God’s favor upon those with no job, no family, and no ability to afford even life’s “simple pleasures?” Are they #cursed? Is the table God prepares roped off to such as these?

The reality is that we are so indoctrinated in the culture of meritocracy and the economics of achievement, yes, even in the Church, that we cannot speak of blessings without borrowing language and ideas from this world that is all around us. How do we pray the 23rd Psalm in such a culture and economics? Thou preparest a table before me…my cup runneth over… What does it mean to speak of the abundant life, which Jesus names in this morning’s gospel, in the midst of a market economy that operates on inequality, scarcity, and death? 

Lest we think the images of shepherds and sheep that our texts conjure for us speak of a sweeter time, a pastoral life untouched by these market realities, we should look again. The time of Jesus was not much different from our own in many regards, only people were much more explicit in connecting economics and wealth with divine providence. Anthropologists might remind us that the act of animal husbandry emerged in part as a way to supply the work of sacrifice – for many ancient cultures only blood could appease the gods and only blood could earn you divine merit and blessings, both in this life and in the life to come. Even in our own scriptures, we most often hear of lambs in the context of sacrifice, not dinner. So it is that we might read today’s lessons about sheep and shepherds inflected by this reality of a sacrificial system. The good shepherd is one who stands between his flock and a world that demands a sacrifice. The gospel here proclaims abundant life in the midst of an economy of death.

Not much has changed. The demands of a sacrificial system are alive and well. As the Reverend Doctor William Barber II, leader in the renewed Poor People’s Campaign started by Dr. King, and a voice of moral clarity in our time, has noted of late, in the midst of our national conversation about the Pandemic and the tension between keeping things closed to save lives, and opening things up to restart our economy, “People in power are too comfortable with other people’s deaths.”

It should give us considerable pause that while the country reopens and the economy regains lost ground, that those of us with privilege will still be working safely from home as long as is necessary, while the immigrant day laborers continue to tend the food we eat in the fields and the poor continue our deliveries and essential services. Is it any surprise that vulnerable and marginalized populations will bear the brunt of the losses in this pandemic – that the dead and dying are disproportionately from communities of color, the elderly, the sick, and the poor? Are we comfortable with these deaths? Do we still believe in a system of blood sacrifice? And, to speak like this is to be considered by many as naive or unrealistic. Of course some level of death is necessary? Life goes on. Inequality, pain, loss – these are all givens. We are so steeped in the language of scarcity and the realities of our sacrificial system that we cannot imagine an economy and culture of abundant life. 

Thou preparest a table before me…

For those of us in the church, those of us who have been called and gifted with the work of being the hands and feet, the very body of the Resurrected Jesus, abundance is not simply to be imagined but lived. The banquet table that God sets is not merely a figure of speech or a hoped for pie in the sky. The grace that God bestows, the salvation that the Good Shepherd affords us is the opportunity to be absented from the sacrificial system and placed in a community of generosity, a place and a way altogether different from the world’s. Luke describes in the Acts of the Apostles, a vision of this new economy of abundant life.

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

This is the picture we are given, the model upon which we can build something new. Jesus, the Good Shepherd saves us from the thieves and bandits of this world, those who would account our lives worth by how much we can bring them at market, who value us not intrinsically as fellow humans but by how much we can appease the gods of the market. We are saved and added into this community where, by grace, we hold our goods in common, where we buy and sell so that we can distribute the abundance to all who have need. We are saved into a community where the table is prepared, where we break bread and eat with glad and generous hearts. 

Thou preparest a table…

The table of God is a table of abundance. It looks like our front rows on Pack the Pews Sunday, filled to spilling with groceries for the hungry. It looks like Johannah in the park picking up garbage on Earth Day, or Sue dropping off rhubarb plants to my front door. It looks like the thousands of dollars raised for parishioners in need through the Rector’s discretionary fund, or the grocery deliveries made by members of our Circle of Care to members in need — it is the monies raised for food shelves and the thousands of pounds of groceries donated this year. God’s table of abundance looks like the hours spent on the phone by lay leaders and members checking in on one another during this pandemic. It is seen in the hard work of planning for a pandemic ready farmers market and our ministry with Holy Apostles, Fields to Families. We cannot earn the grace of God’s table. But, we can share it. 

We can speak up about inequality. We can name the lie that says before we can pay relief to the average person or provide for the needs of the poor, we must first pay 25% to corporations and the wealthy? We can speak out against a world that prices healthcare out of reach to those most in need and then shames them as having not worked hard enough for it. We can push back against an economy that decries undocumented immigrants while simultaneously declaring them essential. We can open our pocket and our pantries to those in need while also demanding that our leaders dismantle the sacrificial system that created the need for both in the first place. I don’t know who said it first, but the truth remains, that when you have more than you need, don’t build a higher fence, build a longer table.

Thou preparest a table…

An economy of abundance is possible in the midst of a world that demands death. We know this because we have been given the most abundant gift of all, Jesus, in the flesh, in the community of the church, and at the table of God. While we may be absent from the literal table in these days, the presence of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the one who both prepares the table and becomes the bread, is still with us. He fills our cup, and it runs over.

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