For years Samantha and I pastored in Long Beach, California. We lived on a narrow little street lined with little beach bungalows from the early 1900’s. The neighborhood was technically part of the city’s historical society. It was an idyllic little neighborhood with the friendliest neighbors. I’m not sure what made our neighbors so neighborly and kind—it might have been the sunshine, beach, and salt air; it could have also been that we all lived so close to each other.
Some of our closest neighbor friends were Joan and Susan (their names have been changed). We had spent a significant amount of time getting to know them and enjoyed their company. They were engaged and planning their wedding. I’ll never forget the day when Joan invited Samantha and I to their wedding reception. The actual wedding was just their closest family and friends but the reception was going to be a large open house at their house. I was doing yard work in our front yard and Joan was also doing yard work, preparing her yard for the wedding reception. She walked over to me and struck up a conversation. I could tell she had something on her mind that she wanted to talk to me about. With a palpable sense of hesitation, she invited Samantha and I to her and Susan’s wedding reception.
Joan knew I was a pastor in an evangelical church and was uncertain what I thought about her and Susan’s relationship. Did I approve? Although we had spent a lot of time getting to know each other, this was never a topic we discussed. I felt heartbroken that my job title created this level of uncertainty within her.
I told Joan that we were thrilled to receive their invitation and I shared that we would be honored to share when them in their special day. With a sense of relief, she gave me a hug and told me how happy she was that we were coming.
We celebrated with them about a month later. Their wedding reception was a beautiful evening to celebrate with two people we loved and cared for. They had a friend grilling different meats on the barbeque in their front yard and put tables everywhere they would fit on their tiny beach lot. We laughed and heard stories about Joan and Susan as the sun set on the warm Southern California evening. At the end of the evening Samantha and I crossed our narrow little lane to our house. As we laid in bed we reflected on how much fun we had and how happy we were for them.
In the middle of the night I woke after having one of the most realistic dreams I have ever had. This is very uncommon for me; I rarely even feel like I dream and I certainly never wake up from a dream and vividly remember it. In my dream, I was at Joan and Susan’s wedding reception, standing in line to get a piece of meat from the barbeque. As I was waiting, a massive plate started descending from the sky and slowly lowered until it was hovering over the middle of the road. The plate was filled with all kinds of different meats. As I looked at all the different types and cuts of meat, I heard a voice fill the air and say, “take and eat.” Immediately, I woke up and knew the scriptural reference my dream evoked.
The Gospel writer Luke shares a story in his book about the Acts of the Apostles in Acts chapter 10 about the apostle Peter staying at Cornelius’ house. The story goes like this:
The next day, as they [Peter and company] were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
As a good Jewish man, Peter was committed to eating kosher. He did not want to break the laws of God while staying at Cornelius’ home. The law was not only the traditions Peter grew up with; these laws helped to craft and form his identity. It was in this place of going to visit with Cornelius, a well-regarded Gentile, that God completely upended Peter’s understanding of right and wrong and those who were understood as “in” and those were “out.”
God invited Peter to a barbeque and he didn’t even know it. Peter thought it was his job to set the table and invite Cornelius into his story. To Peter’s great surprise, the table had already been set and he simply needed to learn to dine with those who were once regarded as outsiders.
As Peter went to meet with Cornelius, Luke accounts of how their meeting went. He records,
When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.” And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered. And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.
Peter understood that to God, all people had infinite value. It was not Peter’s job to assign value to a person based on their background or choices. God was inviting Peter into the larger story of love and redemption.
I knew that in my dream God was inviting me into a larger conversation about Joan and Susan. God was inviting me to see them as having infinite value; I was being asked to honor their lives beyond any kind of label. I was invited to engage all people as humans—those who have been formed from the dirt of the earth with the breath of the divine infusing every corner of their being. God’s table is big and expansive. My job is not to say who could and/or should be invited; my job is to enjoy and love all those who have been invited. Unfortunately, much of the church has gotten stuck in the place of policing the table.
In her book Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith author Barbara Brown Taylor says,
I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.
The longer I journey through this life of faith I am increasingly interested in engaging what God is doing in my own time and place and less interested in trying to defend drying ink marks on a page. Faith is relational; faith is trust. Unfortunately, in recent years many have experienced people of faith defending and arguing doctrine and policing who someone can love. Part of the reason this kind of faith is this so upsetting to a growing contingency of Christians is because it is way to small of a conversation.
The table is the place where faith is refined; it is the place where we move from dried ink marks on a page to real flesh and blood. At the table we are able to look into the eyes of the other and see humans—full of joy and sorrow. It is the place where we mutually lay down our arms and acknowledge the sacrifice of food before us—sustaining our very lives.
I’m grateful that Joan and Susan took the risk of extending an invitation to their wedding reception.
I’m grateful that God took the risk of inviting me to His table.
I’m grateful that the invitation is extended to all people, regardless of sex, race, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status.
And I’m grateful for the sweetest words of this invitation, “Come to the table.”