This week, the congregation I serve has been involved in the ministry of acting as hosts for our area homeless. We open the doors of our fellowship center for them and they are able to stay inside for the night and avoid the elements of the winter’s cold weather. We are one of twenty-two local churches who take a week and extend this form of hospitality to our homeless community. We provide an evening meal at no charge. We have a station to check blood pressures. There is a clothing corner where donated items can be picked up by those who might need them. We give each person a Ziploc bag filled with toiletry items, along with socks and gloves. Last night, we had a woman with needle and thread who was ready to sew up any holes or put on any buttons that were needed. We have church members who stay the night to be available in case there are any specific late-night needs. We also have a group of people, including me, whose whole job is to walk around and shake hands, pat backs, and make certain people know we are glad to share this space with them.
Those who find themselves in need of this ministry have been very patient and appreciative during the week. They have waited in line for their food. They have asked politely when there was something they needed. They have expressed gratitude when their need has been met. I have listened as some told funny stories and sat with others as they cried. I have heard them offer prayers and nodded my head as some shared their stories. I have been reminded this week that there really is a small line that separates most of us from those who live on the fringes of society.
I have been in congregational ministry for thirty years and have ministered in many different ways to the congregations and communities that I have been part of. From preaching sermons to teaching lessons; from saying a prayer for a baby who has just been born into the world to presiding at a service in which we say goodbye to one of God’s beloved saints; from church camps to civic clubs; from board meetings to potluck dinners, I have experienced all that ministry is in the local congregation. And they all are avenues of God’s wonderful grace. But for me, I have never come closer to understanding what the realm of God is about than when I sit down with someone, like one of our guests this week, and share both food and the story of our lives.
At the same time that we are sharing in this ministry, our congregation is going through a Lenten Bible study called “At Table with Jesus.” We are looking at how Jesus used the table to express his radical sense of hospitality to all and to show that there was no one who stood outside the boundaries of God’s grace. Jesus sat at the table with all who welcomed him. Maybe he knew that one of the first major controversies in the church was one that involved table fellowship. Would the Jews and Gentiles sit down and eat together (Galatians 2:11-14)?
In the spirit of Christ, having a meal with someone is a form of acceptance and care. And refusing to have a meal with someone is a form of rejection and condemnation. A number of years back I had a couple in the church I was serving who could never get all three of their adult children together for a family meal. The reason – one of their daughters was a lesbian who had a partner. Their son, because of his understanding of his Christian faith, would not allow his children to be around his sister. So the family never got to have a meal together. The parents would have to have two meals every holiday if they wanted to see all their children and grandchildren. Their hearts were deeply grieved. I believe the heart of God was as well.
My understanding of grace and acceptance has broadened greatly over the years. That doesn’t mean I always agree with someone or that everything goes. It does mean that I am willing to set down, break bread and listen to someone’s story and share my own. I believe that in the midst of our conversation the living Christ is present and glad to be there.