The Welcome Table
Synopsis: During our national controversy over immigration, our sisters and brothers can stretch our hearts and imaginations to the plight of refugees and what it means to welcome immigrants. Likewise, the Gospel story of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth is a powerful lesson on how we can react violently against those who are guilty of nothing more than speaking the truth in love. When we fail to provide welcome at the table, God’s Spirit chooses to work elsewhere.
Mennonite World Conference encourages Anabaptist congregations around the world to celebrate World Fellowship Sunday once a year. It stretches our hearts and imaginations. The worship resources for today were created by our sisters and brothers from Latin America and they chose the theme of migration and welcoming immigrants among us.
It’s so fitting during our national debate about immigration and the controversy about building a border wall along our southern border with Mexico which led to a partial government shutdown that affected lots of people here in our community. We’ve heard this debated ad finem in our national media and I don’t want to get into that in my sermon.
What we have not heard is the voices of the migrants fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries. Among the worship resources on the Mennonite World Conference website is this “Prayer of a Migrant,” signed Jorge Reyes, and posted on the “spiritual corner” of a bulletin board at Casa Tochan, a migrant shelter in Mexico City. It gives us a window into the tragic situation, the hopes and fears, and the faith of one migrant.
Here I am on the path heading north. I bring with me everything and nothing.
I have my roots, which have already been taken out of the land you lent to me. I leave my homeland, my friends, my family. I leave my people and my culture. I don’t have much left: I only bring my backpack, but I carry it full of faith, of dreams, of hope. I also bring a heart full of sadness.
One day I wish to return, back to my loved ones. I don’t know if I will arrive to the land of my dreams. Lord, I only ask that you do not leave me alone on this path heading north. I believe that at least you understand me. You were also a migrant and had a family from which you were exiled. Lord, I ask for all the migrants like myself that we will never lose the faith and the hope of arriving to the promised land.
We also know very little about the lives of our sisters and brothers in Latin American. What do they think about the situation and how are they responding to the needs of people in their communities? We’re not going to hear about this on the evening news or read about it on the news feed on our cellphones. Those sources are preoccupied by the latest outrageous and polemical tweets by publicity seeking politicians.
The humanitarian crisis and political standoff in Venezuela has recently been getting lots of coverage in the news. But we know nothing about the lives of ordinary, local church people in Venezuela or their efforts to respond to the crisis. Again, the worship resources on the Mennonite World Conference website give us a glimpse of a Mennonite Church in Isla Margarita, Venezuela distributing corn pancakes to people in an improvised housing settlement.
I wish we knew more but perhaps these photos and briefs words are enough to stretch our hearts and imaginations. As I was putting together the worship resources for today, I was drawn to the American spiritual You’ve got a place at the welcome table. It’s a folk song that accumulated different verses through the years. Most versions begin with the verse, “I’m gonna sit at the welcome table.”
During the Civil Rights era people added other verses such as “I’m gonna sit at the Woolworth counter, I’m gonna sit at the Woolworth counter one of these days.” Yet another is “I’m gonna become a registered voter, I’m gonna become a registered voter one of these days.” I like the way the verses are put together in the version we sang. It begins with, “You’ve got a place at the welcome table.” As a church we want to say that loud and clear, “You’ve got a place at the welcome table.” Next, “We’re goin’ to feast on milk and honey,” then, “We’ll give thanks at the welcome table,” and finally, “We’ll come home to the welcome table, some of these days.”
This concern for outsiders goes way back in our spiritual heritage. In the book of Leviticus, God tells the Hebrew people that they must treat the immigrant as a native. Don’t slander or cheat immigrants. Love them as you would love yourself because your ancestors were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. To make it personal, our ancestors were once desperate immigrants here in America.
The reception Jesus received in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth can be instructive. The synagogue wasn’t only a place of worship. It was also a community center, a school, and a place for administering justice. Jesus was among people he knew; he regularly participated in their worship services. Such services were rather informal, consisting primarily of prayers, reading a portion of scripture and making comments on it, and collecting money for the poor. Any adult could read the Scripture and make comments. We should try that sometime.
On this Sabbath Jesus read a familiar scripture passage from Isaiah. Listen to the translation in the Common English Bible, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Understood literally, it means that the Messiah is God’s servant who will bring to fruition the longings and hopes of the poor, the oppressed, and the imprisoned. He will usher in an amnesty, liberation, and economic restoration associated with the year of Jubilee. New Testament scholar Fred Craddock says that Luke’s Gospel frames this event at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry to announce who Jesus is, what his ministry will be, what his followers will be and do, and what the response will be to both Jesus and his followers.
It begins so well. All are amazed at his gracious words but some express doubts, “Isn’t this a hometown boy, the child of no important family? It’s Mary and Joseph’s kid?” Notice how Jesus begins, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” It isn’t about inner peace or self-fulfillment. It isn’t about going to heaven when we die. God’s reign is arriving right here, right now!
Then it gets contentious. The controversy was over who gets to sit at the welcome table. Jesus has taken God’s favor to others, even to the mostly Gentile town of Capernaum, but not here in his own hometown. He defends his ministry by citing two Old Testament stories. Prophet Elijah helped a poor widow in Sidon even though there were many poor widows in Israel. And prophet Elisha healed the leprosy of the Syrian Naaman even though there were many lepers in Israel. It’s hard to hear such things. Fred Craddock comments:
Anger and violence are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth of their own tradition which they have long defended and embraced. Learning what we already know is often painfully difficult. All of us know what it is be at war with ourselves, sometimes making casualties of those who are guilty of nothing but speaking the truth in love.
Let’s apply this to ourselves as we prepare to celebrate communion this morning. Why are Mennonite churches not known for spreading a welcoming table to people who are different from us? Several years ago, in a meeting about affordable housing, Glen Denlinger and I introduced ourselves to the Fairfax City manager, and he asked us if Mennonite were open to people outside our group. That hurt!
When David Tassell and I recently attended the School for Leadership Training at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, the theme was about Jesus and his disciples in a boat on the Sea of Galilee when a storm came up and waves threatened to swamp the boat. The present storm we talked about was both the political climate in our county that divides our churches and the controversy over welcoming sexual minorites to the table. Could it be that God’s Spirit finds it easier to work elsewhere?
Finally, what does it mean to say, “You’ve got a place at the welcome table” to Central Americans applying for asylum at our southern border? I’m not an expert on this but it seems to me that focusing primarily on a wall and border security is just wrong-headed. When we listen to the prayer of the migrant Jorge Reyes, his most heartfelt desire is for peace and prosperity in his native land. How could we shape our national policies to help meet that desire?
And what about our church? How do we spread a welcoming table to migrants? How is God’s Spirit prompting us? I’m not sure. Last summer, when we coordinated with Daniels Run Elementary School to distribute fresh produce in our church parking lot, many who came were poor Hispanic families. One mother was even wearing an ICE detention bracelet on her ankle. I hadn’t thought about it like this at the time, but we were providing was a welcoming table.
 Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 61.
 Ibid., 63.