There is a restaurant near my church where I sometimes have lunch that has a “community table.”
It’s a long table in the middle of the restaurant with room for at least twelve people to sit. Table tents identify it as a community space. The idea is that those who choose to sit there open themselves up to conversation and interaction with others.
Whenever I eat lunch at this place, I always look to see who has chosen to sit there. Sometimes it’s completely empty; other times, it’s full of lively conversation. I confess I have never tried it. I tell myself this is because I’m in a hurry, I just need a quiet moment to myself, or I’m having lunch with someone specifically to have a personal conversation with him or her. However, I suspect that often I’m simply avoiding the intimidating idea of dialogue with strangers.
On any given Sunday morning, we invite all sorts of people to a Community Table, and it’s no wonder that there is resistance and tension. There are those who are in a hurry, seeking to take the nourishment “to go” and get on with their lives. Others come in order to escape a frenzied schedule, wanting nothing except to be left alone in the quiet for even a few minutes. Plenty of people come wanting to enjoy the experience, but seeking to limit their connections to their friends and family, identifying church as a place to reconnect with those they already love.
Not everyone chooses or feels comfortable with community space. Yet, the preached Word calls everyone together into a shared conversation. As enemies, strangers, friends, and family, we encounter one another in the text. While a sermon can be intensely personal, it is always communal and contextual, as well. Through the Word, the Holy Spirit works to renew both individuals and communities.
This is a tall order for preachers, calling the hesitant to the Community Table. Sometimes, I do feel like I’m preaching to a room full of people working hard to avoid me, choosing instead to read their own books, make their grocery lists, enjoy their latest iPod playlist, carry on their own private conversations, or (at the very least) ignore their neighbors and focus on their own needs.
But the ease with which we can isolate ourselves demonstrates the great need and the great gift of preaching. It is bold to assume that one message can be relevant for so many, but the new life promised in the death and resurrection of Jesus is precisely that bold. We believe that the power of the Word to show us both our sin and our salvation is that far-reaching, and that inclusive. It has the power to draw us out of ourselves and bring us into relationship with God and with our neighbor, relationships that renew and sustain all of creation.