This all started with the Presbyterians.
Think of the 1930s – economic turmoil, wars and rumors of wars. In the midst of that context, Hugh Thomas Kerr – a Presbyterian pastor urged his fellow Mainliners to join brothers and sisters around the world at table of Christ – the table of grace – as a gesture of solidarity. It was and remains a day where we – in our words, our worship, our meal – celebrate the unity out of diversity wrought by the Spirit in Christ.
Jesus shared this meal first with his friends – his disciples – and he instructed them to do the same – “Do this in remembrance of me.” “This” refers, of course, to the meal we share – the bread and the cup – but also to his entire life of ministry. Jesus calls us to his entire life of teaching, healing and welcoming all – and we do this especially at our table. Jesus’ welcome was a radical, scandalous welcome. We are called, too, to open wide our table, open wide our welcome to convey God’s grace, love and forgiveness for all – all corners of humanity in every corner of the world.
Which brings me to Sara Miles – if you’ve paid much attention, you’ve heard me mention her several times before. But here goes again: one Sunday she was walking home, up the hills of San Francisco, after hitting the weekend market, and something compelled her enter the doors of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. She wasn’t seeking religion, she wasn’t aware that she was seeking God or Jesus, and yet, she found herself in the sanctuary, struck by the fragrance of incense and beauty of the iconography. When it came time in the service for the celebration of the Eucharist, she hesitatingly cupped her hands and received the bread that was offered her. Likewise, she received the sip of bittersweet communion wine (this is the Episcopal church we’re talking about!). Everything changed for her in a few chews, sips and swallows. She writes, “Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and world I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food — indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.” (xiii)
She goes on to write beautifully and simply about Jesus’ call on our lives to feed one another, and to be fed, both with him and through him. We are fed in both literal meals and through the food of God’s mysterious grace.
What she felt called to do – almost without thinking – what she knew to the core of her being she was supposed to do was to feed people. Not feed them spiritual platitudes, or bible stories, or even a warm handshake. Or at least – not to feed them these things only.
She heard in Jesus’ words, in the mission of the church, a distinct call to feed people – real food to real people with real hunger.
So she started a food pantry – a food pantry that literally takes over the altar space of St. Gregory’s sanctuary.
It is a place where over 1,000 families receive food – fresh food, and leftover bread from some of San Francisco’s famed sourdough bakeries – literal tons of food move in and out of the sanctuary.
I have had the opportunity to visit and volunteer at the pantry on more than one occasion. And the experiences there have challenged my idea about God’s family. Not everyone who receives food is kind. Not even every volunteer fits my idea of hospitality – colored, of course, by my genteel Southern grandmothers. Not everyone fits the mold of sweet and compassionate volunteer. But people get fed.
There is room enough for all.
Sara’s story also changed my idea about communion. I grew up taking for granted that communion was for those who had passed through a specific rite – for those who somehow understood more than other people. Reading her book opened up a new appreciation of the mystery – after all, for those who venture to name communion a sacrament, we are essentially naming it a mystery – how is it we encounter the risen Christ in a simple meal. How is it that ordinary bread – and an ordinary cup of juice – can become for us more than literal food? Who are we to put limits or boundaries on the ways that God can reach human hearts, minds and spirits through the sharing of a meal.
There is room enough for all.
Indeed, as we spoke together at the beginning of the service – the table will be wide. And may our welcome, too be wide.