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12: The Welcome Table

November 21, 2010

Though tolerance is all the supposed rage these days, I find hospitality to be a superior virtue.  Tolerance does not welcome but only puts up with;  tolerance does not engage, but merely allows the other to speak without necessarily listening.  Tolerance keeps its distance, while hospitality invites, enjoys, welcomes the Other’s presence.

The table is an old and long-honored place of and metaphor for hospitality.  Indeed in that old story of Abraham – that patriarch of Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike – we are taught that we may be “entertaining angels unawares.”  Later in the 8th century BC prophets, the Jewish texts tell of a coming eschatological feast, a magnificent gathering to the table with God, in which the world will be put to rights, things put back in place, and God will destroy, said the prophet:

The shroud that is cast over all peoples,
The sheet that is spread over all nations;
God will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces…

Later still in the Christian tradition, the table becomes a means of grace, a tangible place in which the gifts of God are received and experienced.  When Jesus ate among the people, it was not only the religious but also the outcast—the rich, the poor, the shameful, the prideful—all welcomed, and a new way of life—a sort of radical hospitality—was announced among them.

Of course hospitality does not always take place at a table.  It may simply take the shape of welcoming the stranger or alien with kindness;  allowing the have-nots some elbow room among the haves, at the economic lunch-counters;  or taking the time to speak those words of encouragement which the discouraged may so desperately need to hear:  to tell the downtrodden to hold on;  to share resources of prayer or hope or gentleness;  or to impart a smile while in the midst of our own struggles.

It is Tokens such as these we seek tonight, and we welcome you.