“Thou Preparest a Table”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 20, 2016
University Baptist Church
Many of us, I know, are looking forward to Thanksgiving. The fact that snow has finally arrived makes it seem even more seasonal. Something about the smells in the house, the foods, the pies, the cranberry bread, the turkey or tofurkey. We all have our favorites. Mine are the leftovers.
Thanksgiving’s a time to reconnect with family and friends, to go back home after a semester at school. It’s a time to pause to remember things for which we are grateful, people who are important to us. Even if we do not celebrate the meal with them, we do remember those with whom we celebrated the meal in the past. And it can be melancholy as well as joyful. While we reconnect, we can see how we have grown, what we have learned and experienced since the last meal. This can make for awkward table conversations.
I’ll spend the morning as I always do at Kit Canright’s house. She invites the Sacred Harp community to her home for a pre-thanksgiving singing. We’ll eat bagels and drink tea and sing at the top of our lungs, thankful for this community of choice before going to the celebrations with family or other friends.
We’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving at my brother’s house. It will be a poignant day. My sister-in-law’s father passed away this summer and her mother is now living with them. So this will be the first thanksgiving without Arvid, and the first Thanksgiving with Lois living with them. It will also be the first thanksgiving without my niece who is off at college in Pennsylvania and can’t make it back for the holiday. The cousins have a tradition of playing ukuleles and making up songs and laughing at high volume. I’m sure Emma will make a skype or Facetime appearance.
It’s also the first Thanksgiving since Trish got her Nursing recertification. We rejoice in what that may bring for her: opportunity and anxiety as she re-enters the workforce.
It will be the first Thanksgiving since Kim’s diagnosis of breast cancer. We’ll give thanks for doctors and healthcare professionals and treatments and church community that has surrounded us and helped in her healing. We got news this week that she was laid off from her dream job. She did great work, and continues to do so, but the hospital is downsizing and several people lost their jobs this week. We’ll land on our feet, but it puts a bit of a cloud of uncertainty in our lives, as if there wasn’t enough to go around.
Oh yeah, there was an election, too. Some of your tables might have already chosen sides and this is the first time since the election that you have come together. All of these things will be swimming around our minds and hearts as we sit down at the table.
So, perhaps this is a good time to look at Psalm 23. Psalm 23 is perhaps the most beloved of scripture readings. It is set to music more than anything else with the possible exception of the Angel chorus singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” in the book of Revelation. It is where we turn when we are grieving. When nothing else seems to be making sense. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. The shepherd makes me lie down in green pastures, leads me beside still waters and restores my soul. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the House of God forever. It’s such a loving, comforting psalm. We recite it at funerals when we don’t know where to turn. We need that reminder that the great shepherd will hold us fast.
But then there is the line, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Wouldn’t it have been better to leave that part out? I mean, it was going fine and we were getting all of these warm fuzzies. But a table, in the presence of mine enemies? Some of our family members seem like enemies sometimes. At Thanksgiving tables, some people may be thanking God that crooked Hillary did not get elected and that lyin’ Donald did, others will certainly be mourning. Grace, grace, grace.
I’ve been at too many family meals over the years that have degenerated when we have delved into topics that we are entrenched in. For us it almost always hovers around politics and religion. For one, we are horrified that people we love can have such different beliefs. And we are sad when a meal can’t erase it all. Politics can mar a family. We choose sides and we can’t help but make it personal. Couldn’t we just make our families great again? Of course, that assumes they were great to begin with. Some of us would settle for civil or respectful or honest. Sharing a civil meal could be a good start.
Maybe the great banquet image of Psalm 23 is not one of sharing a meal with your enemies, but sharing a meal in the view of your enemies. It says thou prepares a meal. It doesn’t say we eat together. What if it’s saying that we will feast even when enemies surround us? We will delight in each other.
We will take nourishment. Thou preparest a table for us, even though our enemies surround us. Thou preparest a table before us and we rub it in the faces of our enemies who want us to starve. Our cups runneth over and there’s nothing our enemies can do about it. You anoint our heads with oil, as to prepare for a mighty calling. Our cups run over. Our enemies want us to starve but we will thrive. Joy in the place of judgment will be the great reward.
Now this could be prayed by those on the other side. We eat a sumptuous feast and our enemies can do nothing. Look how much food we have. Our cups runneth over. Our abundance is a sign of God’s blessing.
But the psalm begins, The Lord is my shepherd, “I shall Not want.” Meaning, We shall not envy or covet. We shall not seek for our own gain. We shall not accumulate for ourselves at the expense of others. God is our shepherd. God provides. Not government, not we ourselves, but God. Lead me in the righteous path. Sometimes we can’t do that until we have calmed down, until we have breathed, until we have taken a serious moral inventory and sought to make amends for those hurts we have caused by our actions and by our inaction.
Maybe we need to pray this psalm before we enter the house or before the guests arrive. God is our shepherd. We will make it through this meal and this season of our lives. We are thankful to God for bringing us this far and we have so much farther to go.
Way back in 1998, I sat down at tables at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA. I was there with 200 other LGBTQA advocates trained in nonviolence by a group called Soulforce. We went there to encourage Jerry Falwell to change his rhetoric demonizing the LGBT community. Soulforce founder Mel White had been Jerry’s ghost-writer and had documented his popular and hurtful statements. He got Jerry to agree to have 200 people sit down at tables with 200 of our people. We were supposed to have a meal together, but the meal got cancelled when someone said that one should not eat with sinners. The scripture says “thou prepares a table”, it doesn’t say put food on it. So we sat at these awkward tables with bottles of water. We spoke about our lives and tried to form community until our bladders runneth over. We didn’t solve all of the problems, but we gave voice and faces to each other. No longer were we gay activist and fundamentalists. We were instead people who cared deeply about our world, cared deeply about scripture, and cared deeply for our families. Ever since that day at those awkward tables, I have found it hard to pigeon-hole people based upon where they go to church, for whom they vote or whatever labels we place upon each other. We are much more complex than that. That’s the way God created us. And it’s by sitting at tables prepared in the presence of our enemies that we see our truest selves.
So as we prepare for Thanksgiving, consider today’s text as we consider today’s context. Some of us will celebrate with our families. For others it will be families of choice. Some of us will be alone. But for all of us, there will be memories of similar meals.
Psalm 23 says, “Thou preparest a table in the presence of mine enemies”. How do we approach such a table? Are we willing to take nutrition aside someone with whom we disagree? Or do we stay in our safe camps, free from distraction? We don’t have to solve lifetimes of hurt in one meal. Maybe breaking bread together is a good start,.
However you celebrate, may you do so with integrity. May you bring to mind those who have gone before. May you surround yourself with the armor of God to grant you patience and grace when someone pushes your buttons. May you find ways for the conversation to last beyond the table and the tryptophan stupor. May you find that we are not alone on this journey of faith. And may you give thanks for the one who leads you beside the still waters and restores your soul.
As we prepare for Thanksgiving, let us pray the psalm we love so well. And may it be a touchstone for us this holiday season.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
God maketh me to lie down in green pastures
and leadeth me beside the still waters.
God restoreth my soul
and leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for thy name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.