Come to the Table (Worship Design Studio)
“The Table of Grace” wk3 Sept. 24, 2023
O God, as we gather today and listen to your word, may we know your presence in the very depths of our souls. Nourish us with your sacred story ‘til we claim it as our own. Open our hearts and minds to hear your message to us today. Amen.
We are continuing in our worship series from the WDS – called Come to the Table and this week we are looking at the table of grace. At the table of grace, there is always more than enough to go around. Everybody makes mistakes, and we have all needed forgiveness at some point and gentle guidance to adjust and make amends. Grace doesn’t keep track of how many times we’ve messed up, and it doesn’t hinge on the condition that next time, we’ll do better. Grace exists outside of time and says we are enough, right now and always, no matter what.
God’s table is one of plenty! God decides how much to give and gives more than we can ever imagine; more grace than we expect. God even gives more than we would give ourselves. In the face of such abundance, we are called to be generous as God is generous. Indeed, at God’s pot-luck of grace, even the last in line have more than enough to eat! Hear now this scripture from the first chapter of the Letter to the Philippians that was written by the apostle Paul while he was in prison, followed by a remembrance of what Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew.
Philippians 1:21-30 (Message Bible)
Through your faithful prayers and the generous response of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, everything he wants to do in and through me will be done. I can hardly wait to continue on my course. I don’t expect to be embarrassed in the least.
On the contrary, everything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die. They didn’t shut me up; they gave me a platform! Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his prize. Life versus even more life! I can’t lose.
As long as I’m alive in this body, there is good work for me to do. If I had to choose right now, I hardly know which I’d choose. Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful. Some days I can think of nothing better.
But most days, because of what you are going through, I am sure that it’s better for me to stick it out here. So I plan to be around awhile, companion to you as your growth and joy in this life of trusting God continues. You can start looking forward to a great reunion when I come visit you again. We’ll be praising Christ, enjoying each other.
Meanwhile, live in such a way that you are a credit to the Message of Christ. Let nothing in your conduct hang on whether I come or not. Your conduct must be the same whether I show up to see things for myself or hear of it from a distance. Stand united, singular in vision, contending for people’s trust in the Message, the good news, not flinching or dodging in the slightest before the opposition.
Your courage and unity will show them what they’re up against: defeat for them, victory for you — and both because of God. There’s far more to this life than trusting in Christ. There’s also suffering for him. And the suffering is as much a gift as the trusting. You’re involved in the same kind of struggle you saw me go through, on which you are now getting an updated report in this letter.
Do you remember the story that Jesus told to his disciples about the vineyard workers?
Matthew 20:1-16 (Message Bible)
“God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day and went to work.”
“Later, about nine o’clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went. He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o’clock, and again at five o’clock.”
“When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, ‘Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.’ Those hired at five o’clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, ‘These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who [worked] all day under a scorching sun.’”
“He replied to the one speaking for the rest, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give
to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’ Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.’”
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul expresses his joy for a community — it is obvious that he loves them. This is a community Paul gladly suffers and struggles for. Remarkably, Paul writes one of his most joyous letters while imprisoned for his faith.
Paul’s story is a helpful example of how grace works, and I think his joy in the midst of imprisonment demonstrates how aware he is of the grace he has been offered. Because before Paul was Paul, he was Saul — a persecutor of Christians, a witness to the lynching of the martyr Stephen, and a danger to the Christian community.
When we think about just how broadly we can manage to miss the mark, harm one another, and defy the call(s) God has placed on our lives, we have to admit that only a gratuitous, abundant, copious amount of grace will do to meet us where we need it in order to restore our relationship with God and one another.
Communion is a “means of grace.” This is a belief shared ecumenically across many Christian denominations and it is a theological claim that what we are doing at the table of Holy Communion is receiving, in a unique way, an experience of God’s grace.
In Communion, the feast we share is an agent of transformation for us on our journey toward wholeness and salvation. “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here and on these gifts of bread and wine.”
Transformation happens at the table, a transformation of the simple elements of bread and wine into something miraculously and uniquely the presence of Jesus (or completely the body and blood of Christ, depending on how Catholic you are!). But did you notice the first transformation mentioned is also a transformation for those who are gathered in the prayer of thanksgiving when we gather to receive (“Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here…”)?
This grace that is poured out upon us is a means by which we are continually transformed. The parable in Matthew of the generous vineyard owner is a story that reveals that how long you have been a Christian, how much you have done as a Christian, how “good” you are at Christianity… doesn’t really matter. What matters is our openness to receive more grace than we can perceive or imagine. Remember that Jesus gave grace to Judas and included him to sit and share a meal at his table, even though he would betray Jesus that night.
Listen to this story… (from the book “No Wonder they Call Him Savior” by Max Lucado)
Longing to leave her poor Brazilian neighborhood, Christina wanted to see the world. Discontentedwith a home having only a pallet on the floor, a washbasin, and a wood-burning stove, she dreamed of a better life in the city. One morning she slipped away, breaking her mother’s heart. Knowing what life on the streets would be like for her young, attractive daughter, Maria hurriedly packed to go find her.
On her way to the bus stop she entered a drugstore to get one last thing. Pictures. She sat in the photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all she could on pictures of herself. With her purse full of small black-and-white photos, she boarded the next bus to Rio de Janeiro. Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up. When pride meets hunger, a human will do things that were before unthinkable. Knowing this, Maria began her search. Bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place with the reputation for street walkers or prostitutes. She went to them all. And at each place she left her picture–taped on a bathroom mirror, tacked to a hotel bulletin board, fastened to a corner phone booth. And on the back of each photo,she wrote a note.
It wasn’t too long before both the money and the pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The weary mother wept as the bus began its long journey back to her small village.
It was a few weeks later that young Christina descended the hotel stairs. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. Her dream had become a nightmare. A thousand times over she had longed to trade these countless beds for her secure pallet. Yet the little village was, in too many ways, too far away.
As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back was this compelling invitation. “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.” She did.
God gives us that kind of grace. No matter what you’ve done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter – God extends his grace and calls us home.
Whether you have lived as a Christian from the cradle or found your faith in your sixties, you can be transformed and seek new life at the table. Whether you are hired in the morning or an hour before closing time, grace means you receive the wages you need to survive until the next day.
Join with me in this responsive reading –
Pastor: We often invoke the idea of “grace” when we say a blessing over our meals.
People: We know that grace is an essential need for our survival.
Pastor: We “say grace,” but do we always share grace with others?
People: We need reminders that we are all human.
Pastor: We thank God for another opportunity to make room at the table for others.
People: We give thanks for such a large table!
There is no point in the life we have lived where we do not have access to transformation. God’s grace is a gift without condition, it does not require any amount of merit or association. It comes from a place of generosity so vast, it is incomprehensible. It is extended at all times, even and especially in the midst of suffering. What incredibly Good News this is, indeed as we are all welcome to the table of Grace.
Let us pray…
O forgiving God of Grace,
Thank you for giving us grace when we fail you. You show us your grace all throughout each day ofour lives. We stumble and fall, you are there to pick us up. You show us how we are to extend grace to others by your examples of grace you extend to us. May we always be aware and willing to show grace when those around us need it most. And may we receive your grace with open hearts when we need it most. We pray this in Your name. Amen.
Grace is a great equalizer — none of us are above receiving it or exempt from needing to give it.
Perhaps the hardest grace of all is the grace we must have for ourselves. May the blessings of grace you find here, go with you, and move through you to others wherever you go this week. Amen.