A sermon preached by the Rector Rev Chris Williams on 22 July 2018 in a series on the book ‘A Bigger Table’ by John Pavlovitz
Readings: Exodus 3:15; 4:10-13, Rom 12: 13-20, Mark 14:3-9
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head…
Two weeks ago I introduced you to the idea of a bigger table. It’s not a new concept to us, but it is the title of a book by John Pavlovitz which has challenged me recently. The table represents the coming together of people in fellowship and is a universal image that applies to the whole of humanity – but particularly to the church of Jesus Christ.
In his book, Pavlovitz talks about his four core values: radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity and agenda-free community. Last time we looked at radical hospitality -where we considered that, in order to reflect the practises of Jesus, we must be hospitable: our tables, literally and metaphorically, should be open not just to those we like but even our enemies and those with whom we struggle.
So what about Total Authenticity?
I have held for many years that the church should be the place where we are able to be most authentically ourselves. I grew up in a church where you would dress-up to go to church. The line was, that we needed our Sunday best to visit God – which is wrong on so many levels! Anyway, this was always a cause of great stress as my mum and dad tried to ensure that me and by younger brother and sister were well-presented and in church on time. No one was ever late in those days! What it meant in practice was that, after the shoe polish had gotten on to my trousers and we had finally managed to wipe it off and after my dad had finally managed to start the car (Do you remember those days?) and my mum and dad had shouted at us and each other, we all arrived at church and acted as if we were the model family.
Is that authentic? And if not, does it matter?
That was in the 60s and 70s. Times have changed. Today people are, I think, better able to express their feelings and thoughts but I am aware that there are still colossal constraints built into society that stop us being authentically who we are and expressing our true selves. I think for many people – particularly the young, social media is forcing people to present a false image of themselves in order to be accepted and valued.
I do find it ironic that we try and present our best selves to people in the hope that they might accept us better, but my experience is that we connect far easier at the level of our vulnerabilities and failures than our strengths and successes. I think honesty also creates space for God, because we are more likely to acknowledge our need of him.
So how authentic do you think you are right now? How honest are you able to be with those sitting around you at this moment? What do you hide? And, more importantly, why? Maybe you feel that if people really knew you they might judge you. If they knew what you really felt, what you really did, what you really think, they would treat you differently. And so, to varying degrees, we put on masks – hiding the real us from those we call brothers and sisters. I suggest every time we are not ourselves, we are shrinking the table. Because the table is about fellowship and true fellowship demands a certain level of honesty and vulnerability – perhaps even total authenticity? Yes, it’s dangerous. If you open up to someone it is possible that they may march right across your vulnerability with hobnail boots which may cause us to close up even tighter. I suspect many of us keep our true selves hidden because of such experiences.
Some church traditions are better at this than others. Again, I grew up in a church with plenty of rules and a carefully-crafted façade of religiosity – which applied to what films you watched, what music you listened to, your language, who you mixed with, how you dressed and, by far the most important: what you believed or, more specifically – what you said you believed. To the point that even to ask certain questions was to risk the charge of ‘backslider’ (and it didn’t get much worse than that!): the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, homosexual relationships, male leadership, sex before marriage – all major issues that were tied down and non-negotiable. Nowadays I am extremely suspicious when a subject is not able to be discussed because, in my experience, whether we like it or not, people are asking questions and challenging the old securities and certainties that have served many generations but don’t seem to satisfy any more and the only way to get to truth is to be truthful: about your thoughts and feelings.
Although the church is supposed to be a ‘come as you are’ community, it soon becomes clear that we can’t always come as we are. I actually think St Mary’s is a more welcome and hospitable place than many churches I’ve experienced – partly because of the breadth of theology and churchmanship in our congregation means our table is necessarily bigger than some simply because we’ve had to learn to live together alongside those who may think very differently to us – but we should always be seeking to make the table bigger.
Let’s look at our gospel passage for a minute: It begins: While Jesus was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume. Every time I have preached on this dramatic story, I have moved quickly to the actions of the woman and overlooked one very important point at the beginning: Jesus is a houseguest of, and sharing a table with, a leper: one of the most ostracised, most reviled, least respected members of the community. In a time when lepers were required to announce themselves in the street as ‘unclean’ to avoid rubbing up against and contaminating the pure, morally superior folks, Jesus, by eating at table with him, was pronouncing him worthy of fellowship – and, surely, in this way, declaring us all worthy. The Messiah and a leper at a table together is a challenge that cannot be overstated.
Being made to feel like a leper may be the experience of many people in our world and even in our churches. Sadly, some churches, in a misguided attempt to keep themselves pure and uncontaminated, have become experts in creating lepers of others. I often wonder what they make of this Jesus who walked towards, not away from those deemed unclean. If this church community has ever made you feel anything less than fully human and fully loved, I apologise. We are learning, we are changing, we are, I hope, becoming more Christ-like.
But I guess many of us feel, or have felt, like lepers at some time in our lives. Times when you have been pushed to the periphery because of some portion of your truth, or rejected because of your social situation, or part of your story that makes you an outsider, or because of what you have said or done which makes you feel unworthy or unclean in the sight of others. Conversely, you may be aware that you have, in small ways or large, treated others as lepers: considered them unworthy to sit and eat with you.
Both sides of this equation are equally damaging. For those who feel unclean Jesus’ gathering at Simon’s table can become a healing moment for us in our mess and our isolation. And for those of us who withhold our welcome because of personal bigotry, Jesus’ gathering at Simon’s table can become a challenge that leads to change (and, of course, we are all capable of being on both sides of this equation – sometimes even at the same time!).
If we are following Jesus, we will want to speak like him, act like him…but none of us are there yet – all of us, without exception are ‘less-than perfect’ – so why can’t we acknowledge that reality and be authentic? Imagine a community where we could ask anything and say everything. Where no question is off the table and no conclusion was a deal-breaker.
Imagine how liberating it must have been for Simon to have Jesus share a table with him. This outcast whose very presence caused people to back away from him, is now affirmed and validated by this special rabbi. This is the freedom our spiritual communities should be marked by. This is the affirmation we should be giving people.
Pavlovitz says: “people should be able to ask anything and to say everything too, to be the most naked, real, vulnerable version of themselves and to know that they are safe as they do. This is the place the table needs to expand to”.
None of this is to say that the honest, open, real us is necessarily where we must stay. If we are sinful – screwing things up for ourselves and for others – then we should change our ways. If we are broken and damaged we will want healing and wholeness.
Think of a map. If you want to get anywhere you need to know where you are. As Christians, we want to be like Jesus. We’ve already acknowledged that none of us are there yet. But the overwhelming fact remains that wherever you are – you are welcomed at Jesus’ table with no conditions.
How much truth about themselves would someone have to share before they crossed a line and you could no longer sit at the table with them? I wonder if TOTAL authenticity means that we are prepared to stay seated – metaphorically speaking – regardless?
But can there really be any other way? Pavlovitz says: ‘The church is capable of being a beautiful community of restoration where people are invited to bring the full-weight of their inconsistency, hypocrisy and doubt and to be lovingly received as they are. It can and should be a place of loving renovation and healing and growth.’
The wonderful truth is that a God worthy of worship is completely able to handle such naked honesty. What can you express that he is not already completely aware of? And this is important: it can be an enormous relief when we are granted the revelation that that we can be ourselves with God. I mean REALLY ourselves. To tell God – ideally out loud – how you feel, what you think – knowing the only response you’re going to get is unconditional love. When I’m praying on my own in the morning it’s often the first thing I do: I sort of dump all the stuff I’m carrying, I acknowledge everything. He’s not shocked – he knew already – in fact the whole exercise is for me, not him – because as I open up (we might call it confession?), I relax as I recognise I am not loved any less and allow myself to be held in God’s love – often in silence.
I wonder how many of us are simply yearning ‘in here’ (the heart), to be truly ourselves – knowing we are accepted and valued and loved regardless.
Now, in closing, a couple of health warnings. I know this is dangerous. Such honesty can leave us vulnerable and it is possible that others may exploit or manipulate that vulnerability. It might not be wise to shout out in this service, for example, all you have done and all you feel. We need to be with those we trust and with whom we feel safe. However, I suggest all of us can learn to be a bit more honest with each other and learn to take off some of the masks we carry that stop us really sharing our lives with each other; that hinder God-given, transformative fellowship. Also, the Bible says speak the truth… in love. Bernie and I enjoy the series ‘Suits’. There was an episode when Lewis asks Harvey ‘when you see me, what three things do you see?’ his answer was ‘Teeth, nose, teeth!’ Honesty is important but let’s make sure it’s not at the expense of damaging others.
What we can all do, is agree to become better at enlarging our tables so that we don’t just welcome the façade that people present to us – but also the reality under the surface as they open up. To continue to accept and welcome regardless of what is revealed. And not just in the church community, but wherever we live our lives Monday to Saturday.
Pavlovitz shares in his book how, in his community they have created Life Story groups where people gather over a few weeks and each week one person shares whatever part of their story they choose to present, and the rest of the group simply listens. The goal is to create space where everyone can be the most real version of themselves and still know they have a seat at the table. When you know your truest truth is welcomed. The only person you need to be is the one you are at any given moment: flawed, failing, fearful and loved by God and by those with whom you gather.
Let me finish with a quote from the book:
“Community, spiritual or otherwise, is only redemptive to the degree that we are fully seen and known, when we no longer feel burdened to pretend, when guilt or shame or fear are no longer a threat, when we can bring our truest selves without redaction, then we are really free. This is the table that Jesus invites us to. This is the table his example demands we set for the world. We, the filthy lepers, all get to dine with the Messiah.”