In the book we are reading together for Lent, “A Bigger Table,” author John Pavlovitz talks about how he lost himself as a pastor while working for a church because he found he had to tell certain lies in order to protect himself and his job. One would think that lying should go against the grain for a pastor. And it did also for the woman he also tells about, Sandra, whose rural church community became uncomfortable with the way she was wrestling with Scripture passages from the pulpit. She was given the choice to quit being so honest, or to be fired. “I’d rather be an honest ex-minister than an employed liar,” she said. And she was relieved of her position by the church elders.
While this story may ring too true for us pastors, maybe you have similar stories. Maybe you had to lie, or at least keep silent, at work in order to keep your job. Maybe you have shared your deepest truths with a friend or at supper club or even in Sunday School class, only to find yourself being ignored as a result. Maybe you witnessed someone else sharing deep secrets or raw emotions, saw how poorly they were treated, and determined it was better to keep your “dirty laundry” (as some might call it) to yourself. If these things are happening even in the church community, perhaps we have failed to be the people and the church Jesus Christ would envision us to be. For surely God wants us to be authentic. But society is not always ready for authentic.
In our story in Mark, the most authentic character (other than Jesus, of course) was the unnamed woman who brought in a valuable alabaster jar of ointment and massaged Jesus’ head. She did not ask for anything from Jesus. He asked nothing of her. She came out of love to give him a gift. As we can see from the Exodus passage, anointing with oil can be a very sacred act. We Presbyterians occasionally anoint with oil for healing services. And the woman who anointed Jesus unknowingly gifted him as he headed toward the cross by anointing him for his impending death. That was not her intent, but Jesus saw it that way. Observers saw it as wasteful. Jesus saw it as faithful. All of this happened in the most unlikely of places, in the home of a leper. Lepers were outcasts in ancient society. They had to live away from family and friends in order not to give this dreaded disease to others. So for Jesus to enter the house of a leper, or even a former leper would make him unclean in the eyes of the synagogue. Yet this did not stop Jesus. There he was, at table with an outcast, and anointed by an unnamed woman.
There are many table stories in the gospels. The table is an important place for family and community. In an article in “The Atlantic” in November 2015, Louise O. Fierco said:
“The table is a place of memory where we become aware of who we are and with whom we are. The table is the place where the family gathers, the symbol of solidarity, or indeed the backdrop to family rows and family tragedies…”eating around a table means both eating and talking, if only to say a few words of praise for what is presented to us…Food is drama, the table the stage, and the cook is the tamer and the hero.” Almost everyone responds, the article says, to “Dinner’s ready” with at least some sense of joy.
That is the secular view of how being together at the table is important. The biblical view makes it even more important. In the gospels, Jesus sat at table with a Pharisee, a much-hated tax collector, with Lazarus at Mary and Martha’s house. Most important of all, he sat at table with his closest friends and his students, the disciples, and gave them himself in the breaking of the bread the sharing of the cup.
No one could be more authentic than Jesus, son of God, son of man. Authentic, to me, means that one is free to be one’s true self. An authentic person seems very comfortable in their own skin, comfortable with decisions and beliefs. Some authentic people may be very caustic and hard to be around. But the dimension that the Scriptures add to being authentic is the dynamic of love. When our authenticity is grounded in the love of God, we will be loving towards others. The woman with the jar of oil gave her all to Jesus out of authentic love. Jesus gave himself for us out of authentic and holy love.
Jesus at this table, authentic, loving, instructing us how to live and love, gives us what we need to know about being Christians in the world. When Mel Williams spoke with us a week or so ago, he said that many folks are now reluctant to say they are Christian, because the term has become associated with people who are judgmental and exclusive and harsh. Jesus, in the passage we read last Sunday, overturned tables in the temple that were being used in the wrong way and for the wrong purposes. Believe it or not, the church does not always do the right thing. The church is not perfect, even though many seem to regard it that way.
Pavlovitz says in his book:
“Today the Church in America is…in danger of becoming undistinguishable from the surrounding culture, and as a result it is also in danger of becoming extinct. It has morphed into the very bloated, opulent, materialistic culture that Jesus calls us to live counter to. It has lost the beautiful oddness that made it so alluring to begin with, and as a result church leaders spend so much time trying to figure out how to package and market Christianity to make it appealing.” “The term Christian is so loaded with baggage and collateral damage that we’re straining to distance ourselves from it for fear of losing our audience with people. There is very little about organized religion that really resembles Jesus right now… (Pavlovitz, p. 136)
Pavlovitz’s words seem somewhat harsh as well. But perhaps he is being authentically honest in ways we need to hear. He is also builds us up, saying that we don’t have to reinvent Christianity entirely to make it right because we have the basics of it right in the Bible. We just need to return to kinder ways, and he thinks the way to do that is by coming together at the table.
So we will come together today at the communion table, reminded that Jesus initiated this ritual for us in his final hours because of God’s great love for us. And we will come together after the 11:00 service for lunch around tables, with the chance to look a little deeper at this wonderfully challenging book. Maybe the conversations, and the habit of gathering around the table for food and for good, honest, caring conversation, can carry out to our homes and schools and families and friends, maybe even to our workplaces. To quote Pavlovitz one more time, at church and around the table, he says:
“People should be able to ask anything and to say everything too, to be the most naked, real, vulnerable version of themselves and to know that they are safe as they do. This is a place the table needs to expand.” (Pavlovitz, p. 80)
Jesus went into the house of a social and religious outcast, a leper, and sat at table. A woman came in and anointed him with expensive oil. It was a loving act, a gift, really, simple and soothing and kind. But, as there always seem to be, there were people there who criticized what they saw, who put down the woman for her kind act. Yet Jesus saw deeper. Jesus saw into the woman’s heart and knew this was a loving act. He also knew where he was heading, for in the chapters after the one we read today, the religious leaders and Judas plotted to kill Jesus, Jesus sat down at table with his disciples, and he prayed in the garden where he is arrested. Jesus was so authentic that the authorities of his time could not abide him. They feared the community that would rise up around him because it would be out of their harsh control.
Being authentic may not always be the easiest thing to be, but it is the most real way to live. Everyone longs, somewhere inside themselves, to be authentic, to be able to share who they really are and to not be judged for it, but to be accepted and loved just as they truly are. That should be what the church shows, what we nurture in ourselves and in everyone. God’s love extends to everyone, absolutely everyone one. No one is excluded from God’s bigger table. If we want the world to be a better place, that’s the way we need to live, as people of God’s way, as followers of Jesus. And it all starts at this holy table. Amen.