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A Place for Everyone at the Table

I recently attended a mass at my daughter’s all-girls Catholic school, a send-off for the junior class retreat. While the music and the message made me—a non-Catholic—feel welcome, there were two points where I felt distinctly excluded. One was the moment when communion was served (or not served) based on one’s denominational affiliation. Not on whether one was a follower of Jesus who wanted to connect with him via communion, mind you, but on whether one was a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The other was an interjection of political views on that day which just happened to be the 42nd anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion.

In both instances, the idea of there being one right way was communicated loud and clear, leaving those who didn’t qualify—or didn’t agree—out of the circle that is formed among us when we seek God in a communal setting. It became an exclusive experience rather than an inclusive one.

Why An Open Table Matters

At the church my family attends, we have an open communion table. That means that every single time communion is served, one of those serving it reminds us that this is not a table reserved for members of our congregation. Nor is it limited to those who belong to the same denomination. It is the Lord’s table, and all are welcome. This matters because communion is symbolic of Jesus’ unconditional love for us. If it is not offered freely, we are misrepresenting Jesus in the most egregious way.

As luck would have it—by which I mean as God perfectly planned it—the Sunday following my experience of being denied communion at mass, our pastor, John Stephens, devoted his sermon to this topic, noting that perhaps, the single most asked question he receives from parishioners is, “Why can’t I take communion at other churches?” His explanation echoed my thoughts and provided valuable historical perspective on how we came to have an open table.

Without giving you a compete history lesson, I’ll just say that John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, was a bit of a non-conformist within the Church of England. His renegade ways lead him to mines, factories and other unsavory locales where he preached to those who were dirty, down-trodden and, often, completely uninterested in learning the ways of the church. Many of them were, however, interested in Jesus’ revolutionary love that Wesley spoke of so freely.

So they followed the Pied Piper-esque Wesley—singing and dancing—into the stoic Church of England and up to the communion table. I imagine the bishop and others in charge of maintaining the integrity of the diocese were none too thrilled with the rag tag procession. Perhaps that was the beginning of the end for Wesley and the Church of England.

But as Christians, we’re called to follow Jesus—not the Pope, nor the bishop, nor the leaders within any religious institution who have established themselves as gatekeepers or rule makers. Jesus, in fact, was often criticized by the churched for his flagrant disregard for religion’s rules. For favoring love over law. We are called to be the body of Christ, even as we take in his body and blood in the sacrament of communion. And, if Jesus invited everyone to his table, how can we do any less in his name?

The Danger of Pulpit Politics

When the priest opened that morning’s mass with a lamentation of the fact that Republican leaders had—just hours ago—folded to pressure and pulled a bill that would have altered the scope of Roe v. Wade to exclude any abortion after 20 weeks, I was immediately taken out of a heart space and into a head place. Regardless of my views on the matter, we were now talking politics. And then we were praying for the errant ways of those whose actions or inactions upheld the decision that continued to provide access to abortions. Church and state were being mixed and mingled in ways that made me want to raise my hand and object.

No doubt, my daughter sitting next to me was glad I didn’t. Probably there would be little more mortifying to a teenager than your irreverent mother calling out a priest in front of all your friends. With that in mind, I also resisted the urge to subvert the one-sided politicism by answering the call for prayer requests with the suggestion that we pray for the women (and girls—some younger than those sitting in that chapel) making tough decisions about children conceived via rape and molestation.

There is a reason that the overwhelmingly Christian founders of our country were adamant about the separation of church and state. They had seen the results of the merging of the two in the Church of England from which many of them had just fled. If we believe Galatians 3:28’s assertion that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” then surely we must also recognize that political polarities have no place in a spiritual context. Indeed, there is neither Democrat or Republican because we are all one in Christ!

Both the closed communion table and the inclusion of politics within a worship setting move us from loving one another to judging one another. When we do this—especially in a sacred space—we have created a barrier that keeps us from fully experiencing God’s unconditional love that Jesus came to demonstrate, as well as an environment that keeps us from transmitting it to others.

Faith is an act of trusting without certainty. And it is in that hint of doubt where humility creeps in. Where we acknowledge that God’s wisdom is deeper than any one religion’s interpretation of it. That God may be just as pleased with another’s beliefs or politics as with our own. Where we are closest to God when we invite others to the table and make them feel welcome.

 

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