God's Table: Playing Musical Chairs and Losing

By George Rizor

I’m a pastor for a Christian denomination where communion is one of only two sacraments observed.  It’s pretty important to us.

Recently with the debate over homosexuality in the church, including membership, ordination, same-sex marriage, etc., communion has frequently defined the analogy for the debate.  It often appears in the form of ‘how do we be inclusive and welcoming of all people to the table?’

As our society has made strides in social and legal equality for those LGBTQ persons who have been historically disenfranchised, the church has lagged behind and struggled with not only a debate of basic, fundamental rights for the LGBTQ community, but also has had to deal with religious, scriptural and ecclesial questions.  It’s not just ‘is it right?’, but ‘is it right in the eyes of God and in our faith tradition?’

In our denomination, I have heard a question related to LGBTQ equality in the Christian Church expressed using the table analogy.  That question distills to something like this: ‘If we embrace the liberal perspective and make room at the table for LGBTQ persons, are we pushing away from the table the more conservative folks, who in many instances have tolerated the change at the table as we made room for those who had been disenfranchised?’

An interesting question, but one that has some assumptions and presumptions that must be addressed to honestly answer the question of including in the faith process versus excluding (and pushing some away from) the faith process.

It has to do with an economics concept: that of Nash equilibria (John Nash, the real-life subject of the movie, “A BRILLIANT MIND,” and Nobel-winning economist) and zero-sum versus non-zero sum games (or economies or life, for that matter).  Zero-sum and non-zero sum, even if you’ve never heard of them, are very important to our fundamental understanding of the nature of God and omnipotence.  A zero sum game like Monopoly assumes that if one person wins another must loose.  There are a finite set of resources and players compete for them.  A zero sum game must end in a win-lose manner.  A non-zero sum game like The Prisoner's Dilemma assumes that there are not limited resources and that players can play the game, collaborate and orchestrate a win-win ending.

I'd like to suggest - again not addressing the issues that have been debated regarding liberal/conservative and why we've had to 'make room at the table' —our society and culture tends to be 'zero sum' and to perceive life as having a fixed, finite set of resources for which we must compete. And therefore, if someone 'gets' another person must 'lose.'  Our national economies and our personal economies are generally built on zero-sum assumptions.  Negotiations, competitions for jobs, personal economic transactions, etc. all speak to a notion that we have to do better than the next person, because if we are to win, it will be at their expense and vice-versa.

Now—we run into a real puzzle when we ascribe zero-sum thinking to faith journey.  Basically, if we adhere to a conventional and scriptural understanding of God as infinite and omnipotent, it is not possible to 'push someone away from the table.'  God's table can accommodate everyone.  That means that making room for someone at the table or pushing someone away from the table must encompass two aspects that have to be examined: first, what is the nature of God's table, through Jesus Christ, exemplified by Jesus' example and teaching?  Are there limitations?  Most important, is the table in any way exclusive?  Is there anyone who cannot be accommodated at the table?  Does God set a table where mutual exclusivity can exist?  Is it possible that if one person/group/identity is permitted at the table, another person/group/identity must be denied?  Can mutual exclusivity be applied to any two persons/groups/identities within God’s creation?

Can we—in any way—assess the breadth, depth and elasticity of God’s ability to accommodate all the diverse components of creation?  Even if we were able to discern whom God, through Jesus Christ would accept/reject, is that our purview?  Basically, how do we decide if God’s love is zero-sum, or even can approximate zero-sum, with some being permitted ‘at the table’ meaning that others cannot be present?

A completely separate issue is the second aspect: If we decide, ‘yes, God’s table will accommodate some and not others,’ who fits which category?  That’s where most of the equality/inequailty debate in the church today has centered.  But the reality is: are we trying to retrofit belonging to a belonging template that doesn’t exist?  Have we rushed so haphazardly to decide who is worthy and who is not worthy that we have ignored the fact that such debate seems to limit God and to set our human, finite, limited understanding as the model for God’s table?

Is zero-sum and mutual exclusivity a function of our societal and cultural existence that has slopped over into our definition of God’s nature and how God conducts ‘business’ with humankind?  And if that’s true, is it legitimate and defensible?  Our understanding of the nature of God needs to be addressed and understood before we begin contemplation of someone being pushed away from God as a result of human perceptions and actions.

Maybe, just maybe, God’s table is larger than our ability to imagine and more accommodating than we can possibly conceive.  Here’s hoping . . . 

The Table Reveals Us

Table talk is common among Disciples. To say that communion is central to our identity would be an understatement of the obvious. By observing how we come around the table you can see who we are and who we want to be. Simply put, table reveals who we are. At our best, Elders preside at the table, symbolic of their role as spiritual leaders in the church. Deacons serve, symbolic of their role as servant leaders in the church. Everyone is welcome to partake, revealing the unity we seek in Christ.

Some churches extend the invitation to children, even before they are baptized. This says something about the way these congregations view children. The table reveals who we are.

Some churches have the same elders praying the same prayer every week. This says something about the life of these congregations. The table reveals who we are.

Some churches have clergy at the table and others won’t let a minister near it. This says something about the dynamics of these congregations. The table reveals who we are.

While much of our church rhetoric includes the table, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our casual conversation around the table. When people complain that worship is too long, we often point to how long it takes to serve communion. When we plan a Youth Sunday there is concern about how the kids serve, making sure they know the proper way to line up. Deacon and Elder training is often about where to line up and when to move. Unfortunately, much of our conversation on being church follows suit.

We talk about numbers and programs. We talk about what music will attract people to our buildings. We talk about what program will bring people to our church. We talk about how to structure committees to better be the church. We talk more about the institution of church than how to better live out our faith. We worry about numbers and structure more than passion and purpose. Again, the table reveals who we are.

For Disciples, if something new is going to emerge, it will probably come up at the table. Who are we breaking bread with? Who is inviting us to share a meal? Who are we serving with when we set a table?

When have you accepted hospitality from another? When have you reached out beyond your comfort zone? When have you set a table for friends, strangers, enemies?

The table reveals who we are. It can also remind us who we are called to be.