Souring the Table
“We served him at the table
with wine, unleavened bread.
‘The one who will betray me
now eats with me,’ he said.
His friends would not believe him,
but one by one that night,
as soldiers came to take him,
they scurried out of sight.”
– We Sang our Glad Hosannas – The Faith We Sing #2111
When we sang this hymn at my church on Palm Sunday, I was struck by the implied question of this stanza. How could the same people who were invited into the intimacy, the hospitality, and the radical love of the Table turn their backs on Christ so quickly? How is that we can feast with one another, tell everyone that there is room for all, and then turn our faces from another’s pain while the hint of wine still lingers on our lips?
The Table is a taste of life in God but we can sour it so quickly. The place that invites us to sit down with Christ, to see one another as Christ sees each of us, and to share in the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation is a radical destination, but we are so good at taming it.
The Table is enticing for those of us who want to use it to make ourselves feel better about our place in the brokenness of the world. How alluring it can be for us to break bread with those that are different than us and claim we believe in one another’s inherent value only to leave that claim behind with the leftovers.
It’s wonderful to enjoy the beauty of diverse ethnicities, abilities, gender expressions, or socio economic statuses joined at the Table. It feels good to enjoy a meal where all are invited. All receive bread. All get to drink of the cup. How healing to sit where everyone is equal at the Table – there are none who are in power and none who are vulnerable. This experience is radical at its best, but self-indulgent at its worst.
We often talk about the Table as the place we return to after conflict to remind ourselves what it looks like when we are united in this sacred meal despite the ways we have wronged one another. What a good and powerful truth but it is only half of the story. Holy Week reminds us that the Table is not only the end-place where we find healing and unity. The Table must also be where we start. It is there that we learn how to treat one another and how to see everyone as Christ sees us. Without the Table to teach us how to commune, we don’t even know what betrayal looks like. But once we have tasted the Kindom of heaven, we can no longer settle for the hierarchies, injustices, and domination we experience in the world. The Table reminds us of the radical truth that says we are all equally valued. When we do not carry that truth into the world and work to make it a political, religious, and economic reality, we become dangerously close to simplifying the meal to a momentary alleviation of guilt.
When I come to sit at the Table and feast with people of color despite the histories of conflict caused by racial discrimination, if I do not search my own heart and life for the ways I have betrayed them since our last time at the Table, am I participating in a sacred communion or just enjoying a momentary alleviation of my privilege? If I leave that Table and do nothing to turn our time together into a lived reality in the world and in my own heart, have I truly communed with them or have I only selfishly indulged in a vision of equality that remains all too distant?
When we break bread with the hungry but do not advocate for a world where all have access to food; when we share a cup with those who are differently abled but do nothing to make our community more accessible; when we feast with those we have wronged but do nothing to change our behavior, we miss half the point of communion.
The Table must be both our starting place and the place we return to. We must move from the Table each day, carrying the Kindom we found in communion with Christ and one another into every realm of our lives. And when we find ourselves hungry again for justice, thirsty again for forgiveness, starved again for reconciliation we return to the Table to be fed – to be rejuvenated in our love for God, self, and one another – so that we can try once again to follow Christ without betrayal.
This Holy Week may we feast. May we be transformed. May we not forget those we sit beside at the Table.
Mary Ann Barclay (pictured above in the middle with Rev. John Stanger and her wife MLP Board Member Annanda Barclay) is a recent graduate of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She has a passion for working in the intersections of church and society. Her love for religious approaches to questions of ethics, particularly in the realms of race, gender, and sexuality, led her to internships at WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual) in Silver Spring, MD and Texas Freedom Network in Austin, TX. She has also worked for the Wesley Foundation and as a hospital chaplain. She currently serves as Youth Director and Justice Associate at University UMC in Austin and is pursuing ordination as a Deacon in The UMC. In her free time, she blogs for Reconciling Ministries Network. Follow Mary Ann on twitter: @ladygadfly.