God has blessed me far beyond my own deserving when it comes to the support I’ve had in ministry. Every pastor-to-be leaves seminary with lots of knowledge and some skills, but no pastor has a clue what they are doing right away. That was certainly the case for me. I started my life as a pastor working with the Rev. Bob Brearley, whom I believe was a fourth-generation Presbyterian pastor. Bob knew Presbyterian ministry inside and out. He took my raw skills and helped shape me into the pastor I am today.
Bob was very southern, so it took my Yankee-ness quite awhile to get used to the way of life in Georgia and to understand how to communicate well. Pastors are out of the office frequently, so we often were not in the same place at the same time. In order to touch base, we’d schedule walking nine holes of golf two or three times a month. I can vividly remember standing on the fifth green of Sea Palms’ west course with Bob. He turned to me and said, “Troy, I was wondering if you might could take on this event.”
We Yankees don’t use that kind of language. I heard “might could,” and in my mind it meant I had an option, so I said, “Sure, Bob, I’ll think about it.”
After the round of golf, I told Jess about this interaction, and she looked me dead in the eye and said, “Troy, Bob was telling you to do something. He wasn’t asking you to consider it.” It took me awhile to figure out that the over-politeness didn’t mean I had a choice!
I learned many great ministry things from Bob. One of those is that food is a vital part of ministry. That church ate together all the time. They had a fall and spring series of Wednesday suppers. They had a Thanksgiving Day breakfast. They had a stewardship brunch. They youth always ate together on Sunday evenings. I led a Monday Bible study that centered on lunch. If you want to do ministry, you must have food.
This church doesn’t eat together quite as extravagantly as my first church did, but food is very much a part of our ministry. We have fresh baked cookies every Sunday. We have picnics several times a year. We had a pancake supper to start Lent and a brunch on Palm Sunday. We’ll eat together again to celebrate the end of generosity season. Many of our weekday studies have food at them. Some of our committee moderators even show up with treats. If you want to do ministry, you must have food.
In our gospel lesson, we meet Matthew. He was a tax collector. As such, he would have had a tax booth set up on the outskirts of Capernaum along the road to collect taxes for the empire. No one liked tax collectors because they collected taxes and then often took a cut over and above those taxes for themselves. They got rich off of being in partnership with the empire. Observant Jews had another reason to dislike tax collectors: because the tax collector handled the currency with pagan inscriptions and iconography. That currency had the image of Caesar on it, making the claim that Caesar was Lord, an abomination from the Jewish perspective. This is why tax collectors get lumped in with sinners in Matthew’s text. To the Pharisees, these folks are non-observant; they are not honoring God with their lives and are dishonoring God’s people through their cooperation with Rome. It’s classic us vs. them, red vs. blue. On the one side, we have observant religious folks and on the other side, we have everyone else, who for their own reasons aren’t interested in being like the observant religious folks.
Into that world walks Jesus. He sees Matthew in his booth and says, “Follow me.” Clearly Matthew must be intrigued by this offer because he gets up and follows him. But he doesn’t take Jesus to the synagogue. He takes him home and throws a dinner party, filling his house with tax collectors and other non-observant Jews. It’s an unexpected scene, so much so that the Pharisees catch wind of it and show up uninvited. Jesus has a growing reputation as a religious teacher, but he’s doing things that undercut the social and religious expectations of the community.
You see, who you’re wiling to have at your table says a lot about you. The table can divide people. It can also make them feel welcome.
I came across this story from a minister in Seattle this past week. “For 27 years, I served at an organization in Seattle that worked with homeless and runaway adolescents. The work was made up of meeting kids on the street and then, through relationships, inviting them to receive services that could help them exit the streets. A drop-in center included a clothing room, Ping-Pong and pool tables, showers, and laundry — all important emergency services. And a nightly dinner provided a key opportunity to build trusting friendships with kids skeptical of service providers.
“One evening I noticed a young man sitting alone at a table in the drop-in center. I went over and began a conversation with him. He told me his parents were first-generation Americans from Ethiopia and that they didn’t understand him anymore. He quickly grew silent, feeling he had shared too much, too soon. Trying to reengage, I turned the conversation to food and asked him if there was a good Ethiopian restaurant in Seattle.
“He told me of a little place near where I live. When I assured him I would try it, he cautioned me: ‘It’s very traditional; we all eat from the same bowl.’ I said I was familiar with the custom, but he shook his head as if to say that I really didn’t understand what I was saying yes to. He held out his hands, dirty from the streets, and asked, ‘Would you share a bowl with these hands?’ Suddenly, this story from Matthew rushed to the front of my mind. This was Jesus in the house of Matthew.”
Would you share a bowl with these hands? What an honest question! But, would you? Who do you welcome into your life that we would not expect? I mean past the normal family obligations, past the friends you meet in similar social circles. To whom is your table open? The call to discipleship influences everything, including whom you choose to invite to your table — and by table I don’t mean only the place you eat! I mean your whole life. Is your life only for the safe, the expected, the comfortable?
Is this church only for the safe, the expected, the comfortable?
I love that so much of our ministry centers on food and sharing a table together, so this is a good time to take a look at ourselves, both individually and as a whole church. An easy place to start is coffee hour, or as our kids now call it, “cookie hour.” When you go to coffee hour, who is it you look to welcome into your life for even those moments? Is it only your family? Only the people you know well? Is it only people who look like you or who share a hobby with you? Or — do you scan the room and think, someone else in this room could use a new friend? Do you see a visitor and make sure they feel welcomed to the coffee hour party? Do you introduce yourself to someone you’ve seen for years but you never knew their name? (This is a great reason to wear your name tags, friends!)
Is your table actually open? I sure hope it is. That’s what Jesus models for us in calling Matthew and all those other unexpected folks to the abundant life of discipleship. The Pharisees look at the scene and ask Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus overhears them and replies, “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (He’s quoting Hosea 6:6.) “For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
There’s been a lot in the news nationally and locally about how open our tables are to others who are not like us. Politicians and media have twisted complicated issues like immigration into sound bytes and more of the us vs. them mentality. Locally it’s been more about the Pride Festival put on by our neighbors across the street. You all know that I am not an extreme person, and I don’t even like spouting off my opinions about this or that. But this text and so much of Scripture have Jesus showing up among people that others have said are “out of bounds.” It’s not a hard stretch of imagination to see Jesus showing up at the border, to be anywhere God’s beloved children have been cast out, looked down upon, or labeled “other.” That shouldn’t be controversial. That’s what Jesus does when he calls Matthew to follow in this story bearing Matthew’s name.
Who we invite to our table matters. The table can be used to divide, and the table can be used to make people feel welcome. Jesus sure seems to be happy to welcome any who would come. Are we modeling Jesus’ love in that same way in this church and in our homes?