Taking Your Seat at the Table
Updated: Oct 10, 2019
"Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'" - Luke 15.1-2, NIV
"What did we do before cell phones?" Have you ever asked yourself that question? As the members of my congregation like to remind me, I'm still pretty young; 31 to be exact, but even I can remember a day before cell phones.
I can recall (early 1990's?) my uncle having a mobile phone in his car when I was just a kid. It came in a black bag and plugged into the cigarette lighter plug. I remember my family getting our first cell phone in 1999 or 2000. In junior high (1999-2002) I used to play that game where the worm eats the small dots and grows longer. In high school (2002-2006) my father gave me a flip phone, because half of the time my parents didn't know where I was or what I was doing. I didn't even learn to text until my freshman year of college when my girlfriend (now wife!) taught me how on my Motorola RAZR.
Currently, I've had an iPhone for what now seems like forever. It's become such a big part of my life that it's seriously hard for me to remember what we did before cell phones.
I thought about it for a long time the other day and without pulling a muscle I remembered. Surprisingly, we weren't bored out of our skulls. We didn't sulk on the couch sighing listlessly as the day went by. What did we do? Simply put, we talked.
My family and friends loved to sit around the table and we talked with one another.
It made me realize just how special the table is, however I can't quite put my finger on why. Maybe it's the design. The table is designed for people to, first of all, sit. The table invites an individual to dwell, to pause, to let your feet rest and take a load off. When we sit at the table we are stopping everything else in our lives to participate in whatever it has to offer.
But the table doesn't come with just one chair, it comes with multiple chairs. In fact, the bigger the table, the more chairs it comes with! The table doesn't invite the lonely individual, but many lonely individuals. When we sit at the table we are collectively stopping everything else in our lives to be with one another.
And what occurs at the table? Before cell phones, it was more than just bowed heads praying to the lighted screen altar in awkward silence. It's almost becoming hard to describe to younger generations, but many wonderful things happened at the table. Food was passed. Drinks were poured. Stories were told. Conspiracies were hatched. Laughter echoed. Tears were shed. A meaningful glance was caught by another eager eye. And, if you were lucky, a foot was rubbed by another foot!
At the table the event of community happens.
It's the reason Bruce always wanted a round table for our staff lunches. It became an inside joke for the staff at The Woodlands First Baptist Church. Bruce, our pastor, always wanted to sit around a table to eat. The poor host at every restaurant typically got the same earful, "Do you have a big, round table we could sit at? We want to be able to see each other. No, we don't want those small tables in a row. We can't see each other. Do you have a big, round (now gesturing with his arms) table? No, we don't want the long row!"
Stifling my laughter, I always assumed it was just one of Bruce's quirks. But it was only after I left that I realized what he was attempting to create. He wanted a place where we could all be equals, even if for 30 minutes. He wanted a place where we could share ideas freely, without ridicule or hierarchical hoops through which to jump. He wanted a place where we could feel united as a family. He wanted to create the perfect setting for the event of community to happen.
Maybe it's what Jesus was also trying to do with all those sinners and tax collectors.
But all the Pharisees could do was mutter. Another way to say it was "grumble." They were too good for Jesus' radical manner of coming down to mix it up with people like Joe the plumber or Carol the prostitute.
However, it was more than just first century Jewish snobbery. What Jesus was doing was downright dangerous. Every Jewish person knew what happened the last time Israel mingled with outsiders and sinners - punishment and exile. "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion (Psalm 137:1)."
The whole reason the Pharisees, or any religious sect at that time, even existed was to steer the people to the right side of the road again. But here's the funny thing about steering, sometimes when you're trying to get back on the road, you can over correct. I had my first wreck in 6th grade because I over corrected. I flipped my dad's truck into our neighbor's pasture! Those first century Jewish leaders had done the same thing. They had so over corrected that they flipped the truck. Those who needed guidance and love were trapped underneath, now only treated with contempt and suspicion.
And along comes Jesus, diving right into their contaminating fellowship. Cannon-balling is more like it! And the Pharisees and the teachers of the law couldn't understand it, not even in the slightest. So they grumbled. But that grumbling soon turns to sedition. How else could it have ended, but with a cross?
But instead of grumbling, what if they had taken a different approach? What if they had taken a seat at the table with Jesus and all those sinners?
What if we did too?
I have to think that things would have been a little different. Maybe not for Jesus. His mission was always going to end the way it did. But different for those Pharisees and grumblers. I have to believe that something would have changed in their lives.
I also have to believe that things could also change in our lives if we would take our seat at the table with others so unlike ourselves. In fact, things might actually start to change and get better around here if we did.
The day after the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas I posted on my Facebook page, "I would ask all Christians to take James’ advice on taming the tongue when discussion comes up about gun control. Children are dead. Let the love and compassion of Christ guide your rhetoric."
It happens after every school shooting. Someone, typically someone on the "left" side of things, says, "Perhaps we need more gun control!" To which someone else, typically someone else on the "right" side of things, responds, "NO! Guns aren't the issue! Guns don't kill people. People kill people! Other cliches!"
And there's the problem, right there. A refusal to even sit down at the table.
And so it happens, again and again and again. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, "That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is (Ecc. 3:15, NRSV)." Because no one even wants to take their seat. No one even wants to entertain the notion. Every time we refuse the invitation the wedge is driven in further and further.
It's why mission scholars are recognizing and writing about the importance of unity in the church. Mission cannot happen where there is division. We want change, we want to help, no one wants children to be shot and killed. But we are so divided that we won't even come together to talk about it. What I mean by talk is open and civil conversation, not arguing in the Facebook comments, which does very little to help anyone. It's worse than just mean-spirited comments though. The refusal to sit at the table has terrible ramifications. It means that nothing happens, nothing changes.
But what could happen if you were to sit down at the table with all those sinners and tax collectors?
Or take the issue on the U.S. and Mexico border. Even the suggestion that we shouldn't be separating children from their parents was taken by some of my friends on the "right" side of things to be an attack on the POTUS. My stance on the issue, which was to me more of a justice issue than a political one, was met with some fierce hostility. Why? Because it seemed to be an opinion shared by people more on the "left" side of things. Another invitation to sit down at the table denied.
But what could happen if you were to sit down at the table with all those sinners and tax collectors?
Several possibilities come to mind. One thing is that change might actually occur. Perhaps not big, global, "change the world" change. But you might change. You might find yourself becoming a better version of you, a more tenderhearted you, a more compassionate you, a more empathetic you, a more responsive to the Holy Spirit's voice you.
You may not change the world, but you could change your world.
One of the principles of Bowen Family Systems Theory is that the system you are a part of (church, immediate family, extended family, work, civil clubs, governments, towns, cities, schools, universities, nations, etc.) is the way it is, because of you. You cannot sit back from your church/family/nation/etc. and say, "They're all crazy! This place is going to hell in a hand basket, because they are making poor decisions!"
Nope. Sorry. You can't say that. You play a part in the system. Your voice or your silence contributes. The system is the way it is, because of you.
Another principle of B.F.S.T. (and this is based on the previous principle) is that the best way to affect change in the system is to focus on your own self and the way you contribute.
Ultimately, it means self-change. And when you change yourself, guess what happens? Others are forced to adapt to you. All of the sudden, everyone else in the system has to do something a little different, because you are different. Everyone is forced to change, at least in how they interact with you. And things in the system may start to evolve, the ball is pushed a litter further down the field, because you decided to change.
I'm sure you have heard the old adage. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We don't believe that intellectually. When said out loud it's obviously ridiculous. However, it's evidenced in our actions that some of us really do believe that. Some of us really do believe it by the things we do or don't do. So do something different. Change it up. Change yourself up. Sit at a table that you never even considered sitting at.
It's not a guarantee. It's not a promise. It's only a possibility. It's a hope. You may not change the world by taking your seat at the table, but you may find yourself starting to change. And if you start to change, well, who knows who that might affect.
But here's what will certainly happen if you sit at the table. You will find yourself beginning to look a little bit more and a little bit more like Jesus Christ himself. Why? Because when you sit at the table, you're not just sitting with a bunch of sinners and tax collectors.
You're sitting with Jesus too.