There’s a Wideness in God’s Table – Luke 9:12-17, Matthew 9:11, Acts 11:3, Psalm 23

The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand: you can picture the five loaves and two fishes, lifted in Jesus’ hands, broken into thousands of pieces. Like the Psalmist says, “You prepare a table for me”. A table overflowing, from meagre beginnings. Five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand people!

But today I want to turn our attention away from the five loaves and two fishes and think for a while of the other miracle. It’s the same story, but a different focus. There were five thousand people. Jesus said, make them sit in groups of 50 each. Then Jesus fed them.

These people ate together. That might not seem like a very big miracle to you, but I assure you, in that time and that place, that was a miracle.

There was an ancient near eastern proverb which went, “See me eat, know who I am.” Who you ate with told a lot about your social status. If you invited rich people to your table, and they came and ate with you, that ment you were an equal with those people. You would never eat with people who were beneath you socially.

From other stories of Jesus, we can guess that undoubtedly there were a wide variety of people there on the hillside that day. There were the everyday people; the farmers, the labourers. There were the poor people, the beggars. And then the disabled people, the people with diseases, looking for healing. And there were probably a few rich people, who heard about Jesus and wanted to know more. There were tax collectors like Matthew or Zacchaeus, pariahs and outcasts from Israel,  and there were probably some  religious leaders like the Pharisees hovering at the edge, as in so many stories, watching Jesus carefully.

So there was this motley crew of people there on the hillside, all listening. Jesus tells them to sit down in groups of fifty. Now sitting down with each other, well that was OK, because even in the marketplace, people were thrown together. But then Jesus had the disciples hand out bread and fish, and it became apparent that the reason they were sitting in groups of 50 was because they were expected to eat together.

Now Jesus didn’t say, “I want to have all the Pharisees gather in this corner, and all the tax collectors and Gentiles over here in that corner of the hill, and the really poor people sitting here, and the really rich people sitting there.” No, it was random, “Just sit down in groups of 50.”

For any person in the Ancient Near East, the idea of different classes eating together would have been unthinkable. It just wasn’t done, it hadn’t been done, it shouldn’t be done, they were sure of it! “See me eat, know who I am!” They wouldn’t want to risk their reputation eating with people beneath them. But there was more to it. These were Jewish people. Moses had handed them a set of laws. These laws differentiated between a state of purity or cleanness and a state of uncleanness. Uncleanness was contagious. Touching a person from outside the Jewish faith, a Gentile, meant that you would be unclean. Touching things that a Gentile had touched also made you unclean. You would never eat food that a Gentile had touched. The same goes for anyone who was sick, you avoided them and anything they touched. Pharisees were particularly rigid about purity laws; they wouldn’t eat with just anybody, because you had to be confident that all the people around you followed the purity laws so that you wouldn’t be contaminated.

One of the biggest criticisms the Pharisees had of Jesus was that he ate with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:11). He allowed himself to become unclean by touching them, by eating the food they served. In Acts 11, when Peter returns to Jerusalem after having baptized Cornelius, the Gentile, the people he returns to are up in arms. Are they upset that the good news has been preached to foreigners? Is that what they ask? “Why did you preach to the Gentiles?” No, that’s not what they ask! Are they worried that foreigners have been baptized? Is that what they ask: “Why did you baptize the foreigners?” No, that’s not what they ask. The question they ask is, “Why did you eat with the Gentiles?” This seems to us to be the smallest of points, but to them it was the biggest. “You let yourself become unclean, you associated with unclean people.”

Imagine certain people going back to their homes after the feeding of the 5,000. Their family and friends have questions. We think they would ask, “How did Jesus multiply the bread and fish? How were so many fed?” But that might not be the question they were asking. Maybe the question they were asking was, “Did you eat with unclean people?” Matthew was one of the servers. “Did you accept food at the hands of a tax collector?” Jesus prepared a table for them. Jesus was in charge of the guest list. And they ate together.

Jesus is still preparing the table, Jesus is still in charge of the guest list, setting us down in groups of 50 and 100 and 200. The Lord’s Table is bigger than our imagination, than our ideas of who is clean and unclean, who is touchable and who is untouchable. Jesus invites everyone to come to the table and eat the bread of life.

I want to tell you a story about this. It happened in the first church I served in, which was an inner city church that was part of a community centre called the “Welcome Inn”. I want to tell you a story about a man named Artie. He was one of the first people I met when I went to that church. He was a small man with a big personality. He was very friendly and outgoing, always a smile on his face, always very friendly. Quite early on I found out that our birthdays were only a few days apart, we were the very same age, so that gave us a special bond.

Artie had some physical challenges. He was what you might call a bent-over man, hunched over. He had to lean back to look you in the eye, because his head was bent down. He also was what is referred to as “developmentally delayed”. He had a man’s body, but his mind in some ways stayed like a child. Artie lived with his dad, a few blocks away from the church.

He was a gift to the community of Welcome Inn–he had been attending ever since he was a little boy. He was always there at Welcome Inn, always very helpful. He hung around the church a lot, visiting with anyone who came there. He loved to do crafts and artwork and give them to people.

I had been working as a minister at Welcome Inn for three months when the community centre got a call from a man in the neighbourhood, from a friend of Artie’s, his neighbour. He said that he had found Artie sexually abusing his ten year old son, and that he had just called the police. My reaction when I heard this was, “Oh no, oh no, oh no!”

Oh no for the boy who had been abused. Oh no for Artie. Oh no for our church. What did this mean for the boy? What did this mean for Artie? What did this mean for our church?

Our first concern was with the boy, and we offered what help we could. But the family of the boy was not part of our church and didn’t want to be. They were, even in their anger, still concerned for Artie, and all they wanted from us was to support Artie and his dad. They assured us they were getting the help they needed.

Our attention turned to Artie. Artie was denying that anything had happened between him and the neighbour boy. The police called and wanted Artie to come in. I accompanied Artie and his dad to the police station, and I heard the charges read to Artie. The police used words and terms that I knew Artie could not understand. He was arrested and put in jail that very night. Artie had never spent a night away from home in his whole entire life. The fact that he was developmentally delayed made no difference in how he was treated.

He was in jail for a number of days before his bail hearing. During that time the staff at  Welcome Inn talked about what to do. The director decided to personally post bail for Artie. Artie was charged with sexual abuse of a child, and we worried for his safety in the prison system. In some ways Artie was a like a child himself, very vulnerable. A lawyer told us that his trial was likely at least six months away: we did not think he would survive six months in jail. And we felt for his dad who was frantic with worry.

After bail was posted, we went to fetch Artie out of jail—I’ll never forget the sight of Artie coming out of jail in his orange jumpsuit, he was so relieved to be out of jail he came and gave us all a big hug. And I did not want him to hug me

I felt pity for him, but I was hugely angry at him and revolted by his actions. I had a son the same age as the boy that was abused; how could I welcome Artie? Artie was a person who had grown up as a member of the Welcome Inn family, he had always been welcome at the Welcome Inn table. Was he still part of our community? But was this the Artie that we all knew and loved? Something seemed to have changed in all our perceptions of Artie, we were looking at him in a different way.

That Sunday, I announced in church that Artie had been charged with sexually assaulting a child in our community, he was out on bail, and that he needed help abiding by the conditions of his release, which were that he was not allowed to be alone with children. I also said that we would have a church meeting that week to talk about Artie’s presence in our community.

It was the best attended membership meeting that Welcome Inn had ever had! With the help of an outside mediator, people started sharing their reactions. It was a grueling meeting as people voiced their outrage and anger and fear. People with children were deeply shaken, they were worried about the freedom their kids had had in the community, and the access Artie might have had to them. Adults who were themselves survivors of child sexual abuse shared with tears their own experiences. It took two more meetings to talk this all through, meetings that got to the heart of what being a church was about.

During those weeks, a number of people came to me as the pastor, saying that they had found a scripture that revealed how we should act towards Artie. One person shared the verse from Matthew 18, about how if anyone hurts one of these little ones, they should have a millstone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea. “Artie doesn’t belong in church,” they told me, “he belongs in hell.”

Another person came and talked about John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Another person came in convicted with the verse:  “If your hand sins, cut it off and throw it away.” Matthew 5 Yet another person: “You should forgive seventy times seven.” Matthew 18

Our community was very divided about what to do. Some people said, “He can come here when he says he is sorry and understands what he did.” Our outside mediator was helpful in explaining the journey of people who sexually abuse children. Most people who abuse children initially deny and rationalize what they have done. It takes a lot of counseling for them to learn some empathy—most people who abuse children will take months of counselling before they can confess. And with Artie’s mental disabilities, would he ever get there? People said, “But safety of children has to be our number one priority: we can’t have him here.”

Some people were worried that our church would be tainted by association. This was a  public case; people would know we had Artie in our church: “Who will want to come here if Artie is here?” people asked. Some of us didn’t want to have Arthur at our table, we were worried about guilt by association. It was like the old saying, “See me eat, know who I am.”

Other people talked about “What happens if we say to Artie, ‘You can’t come here.’ By doing that we are taking away every social support he’s ever known in his life. Who else will pick up the pieces of his life and befriend him? No one! He will be totally isolated. Is that going to keep him from re-offending? It might protect our children in church, but is that protecting the children in our community?”

The discussion went round and round. Part of the decision for the community came when a survivor of abuse who had shared her painful story stood up and said, “It hurts me to even look at him, but seeing him, and thinking about what he did reminds me to look in my own heart. I know that I’m a sinner, and God didn’t give up on me. That’s why I’m in this church.” It was a moment of grace.

As a community, through much pain and soul-searching, we decided that Artie could continue to be a part of our church, with restrictions on his movements, and careful monitoring. We wanted to try and love him into repentance. We would include him at the Lord’s Table. Not everyone agreed, it wasn’t consensus, a couple of people stopped coming to church. Our church had to struggle then to figure out, how do you be welcoming to people who don’t want to be welcoming? How do you include people who don’t want to be inclusive?

Including Artie at the church table was very painful. Even after we made this decision some people wouldn’t talk to him, they turned the other way and wouldn’t make eye contact. He was very hurt by this, and he didn’t respond graciously. You see he really thought that people would believe him when he said he didn’t do it. He didn’t have the mental capacity to really understand how deeply hurt we all were by his actions.

As his pastor, I tried to talk to Artie a couple of times about what happened. He couldn’t even lie consistently about it and when I pointed out the inconsistencies he would just close his eyes (which is what he did when he didn’t want to listen anymore, he would pretend to be asleep).

Five of us from church went with Artie to the preliminary hearing. The boy he had abused was put on the stand and questioned by the lawyer for two hours. The boy and the lawyer were on the right hand side of the courtroom with his parents and we were sitting with Artie and his lawyer and his dad on the left hand side of the courtroom.  It was a closed courtroom, there was no one else there. I can honestly say that was one of the hardest days of my ministry. We were sitting there with the man who did these things. I remember praying, “God, I do not want to be here, God I do not want to be on this side of the room.” My body was present in the room, but my heart was not welcoming to Artie, I did not have compassion for him in my heart.

It was hard work to welcome Artie in our hearts and in our church. Going to court with him was hard, but there were many other practical details too: making sure he always was accompanied, making sure he was accountable at all times.

It made worship difficult. It was, especially at the beginning, excruciating to take communion together, and some people couldn’t. There was an air of suspicion, uneasiness and fear in our community that had not been there before. It wasn’t all negative. Some good things came of this. We wrote a safe place policy for our church, which was a good thing. We started a support group for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, with the help of our local sexual assault centre.

But it was hard. It was not comfortable. Jesus said, sit down in groups of fifty. Our church was a bit bigger than that, probably seventy people. And Artie was a part of our group.

Artie never admitted guilt to me, but he did to his lawyer. I had taken an eighteen month term at this church, I was an interim pastor. Two weeks before I finished my term at Welcome Inn he pled guilty in court and received a suspended sentence, with continuing restrictions on his access to children.

Two weeks after I left Welcome Inn Artie died of a heart attack. The funeral was held at the Welcome Inn church, people shared about Artie and his life, the little man with a big personality, who had spent so many years in the congregation. At the funeral one of my friends stood up and said, “Many of you know this last year has been a very difficult year for Artie. We were his church, and yet he didn’t always feel welcomed here. But we tried to make a home for him. We didn’t do that perfectly, but Artie always knew we were trying.”

I think of the process we went through as we tried to welcome Artie. Welcoming was so grueling and so difficult and so filled with conflict. And in the mess of it all we saw our own prejudices, our own feelings of superiority. The way we label someone “not good enough”. The way we look at some sins as beyond the pale, and some sins (our sins) as not that bad.

The way we feel we have earned our place at the Lord’s Table by being good. The way even after much prayer, when  we reached the place of welcome in our own hearts towards Artie, we found ourselves looking down on the people who were fearful and could not be welcoming. I think of how this conflict and this turmoil so often brought us to our knees saying, “Lord, have mercy on us, for we are sinners too. Help us, because we cannot do this alone.”

Maybe some of you heard President Obama this week, as he gave a eulogy for the pastor shot in Charleston. President Obama said, “God has visited grace upon us.” I believe that, that’s the essence of how grace comes to us. We experienced that grace as a gift in our imperfect community at Welcome Inn. God took our five loaves and two fishes, and it was in our brokenness that there was enough grace for everyone at the table. Grace was visited upon us.

What about us here at Lendrum? God asks us to sit down in groups of 50 or 100 or 150. Who does God invite to eat at our table? It’s great when church is a place where we feel at home with our friends. When we are comfortable with absolutely everyone in our community. But I think scripture teaches us that the community Jesus invites us to is a community that we will not always feel comfortable in. There are social classes and economic classes; we like to stratify along those lines. But Jesus invites all kinds of people to the table. Not everyone will talk like me or think like me. We will need to eat communion with people who we are unsure about; we might think they are sinners, that they don’t deserve to be here with us. If we are honest, we might think that associating with them will contaminate us, might contaminate our categories of what is wrong and right, what is done and what is not done. After this sermon we are going to sing the hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy.” There’s a verse that speaks to me,

But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

There’s a wideness in the table of Jesus Christ, that can overcome our laws about purity and cleanness. A wideness that is all about love and inclusion, about extending a welcome to people who once were excluded. It has happened before, it can happen again, that our categories have to change. “See us eat, know who we are.” By looking at our table fellowship, they will know what it means to be a Christian. They will know we are Christians by our love, the love of Jesus that grounds us. It doesn’t mean we are a perfect community, it doesn’t mean we agree about everything, But, praise God, we are a community that is trying. In that spirit, let us prepare our hearts for communion.

A sermon preached at
Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church
Edmonton, Alberta
by Carol Penner
June 28, 2015

About Carol Penner

I am a Mennonite pastor currently teaching theology at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. I’ve served congregations in Ontario and most recently, Alberta.

I love to write and to lead worship! If you are finding my writing helpful, I would love to hear from you! Feel free to use or adapt the material here, it is all written by me. If printing material, please credit “Copyright Carol Penner www.leadinginworship.com” (and say whether you modified it). If publishing, please contact me for permission. Contact me at carol@leadinginworship.com

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