Open Table

By Sean Palmer

Maxine was stunned when Jason and Kari Martin, along with their children, Aidan and Regan, stood outside her front door with expectant eyes. As far as Jason and Kari knew, they’d been invited to dinner at the home of our church’s matriarch. If there’s an unquestioned sage at The Vine Church, it’s Maxine. She and her late husband, Ron, served as medical missionaries in Africa, raised three children (one of whom is an elder at The Vine), and around our church, once Maxine says something, nothing else needs to be said.

The reason the Martins were at Maxine’s this sticky, Texas Saturday night was because Maxine had invited them. But Maxine was surprised for two reasons.

One, while she had invited a family from church, it was another family she had confused with this family. And two, during the week, Maxine’s air-conditioning went out, forcing her to change her plans. So while she had invited the Martins via e-mail, she had uninvited them via phone, but she had uninvited the wrong family, leaving the Martins on her front step and Maxine red-faced.

It Started with Facebook

The whole thing was my fault, really. Maxine invited the Martins to dinner as part of a teaching series and churchwide initiative I started called Open Table. The idea for Open Table was from an unlikely place: Facebook!

Only a few weeks before Maxine’s embarrassment, I found myself disbelieving as I scrolled through my Facebook news feed and saw my Christian friends’ hard-edged and knee-jerk reactions concerning Michael Brown and his shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. What shook me weren’t the facts of the case, but rather the callous and cruel ways those on both sides of the argument blasted and blamed one another.

We’d become a clanging gong on all sides, an empathy vacuum.

In a flash, I was reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

Our national reaction to Ferguson was America’s loudest cry that we truly don’t know each other. I began to wonder, if the salve for discord is knowing, what if our church could play a part in healing?

I knew healing a fragmented world wasn’t something we would do with a speech, protest, or campaign. It certainly wasn’t going to happen through food fights on Facebook or shout fests on cable news. We could play our part, though, but not yet. We didn’t yet possess the necessary skills. But we could rediscover them.

Radical Openness to the Other

I realized that to play our role in healing God’s world, we must recover the spiritual practice of hospitality.

Sean Palmer preaches about his “Open Table” initiative at The Vine Church in Temple, Texas.
Sean Palmer preaches about his “Open Table” initiative at The Vine Church in Temple, Texas.

Hospitality isn’t what many think. I’m from the South. When people here say “hospitality,” we mean “hosting,” but that’s not enough. Hospitality is radical openness to the other. To dive even more deeply into the definition, the other is the person who is not like you. In fact, throughout the Scriptures, hospitality is a critical value, just like life, honesty, and faithfulness.

Jesus gives us a picture of hospitality in Matthew 25 as he explains his return.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25: 34-36).

Jesus identifies with the other, the stranger. To open our lives to the other is to open our lives to Jesus; that’s hospitality. Once we become aware of God’s call to hospitality, it becomes hard to miss. When we open our Bibles to the stories of Abraham, Sarah, and the angels (Genesis 18), to the sending out of disciples who greet and live with anyone, to Jesus’ teaching on the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), to Jesus’ parable about a friend who knocks at midnight (Luke 11), to the Hebrews writer’s teaching concerning our entertaining of angels, we begin to understand that the mission of God is built on hospitality.

Since hospitality is core to the Bible’s story, it ought to be core to our story.

I asked our church to open their homes to someone within our congregation who is different from them—a person or family living at a different stage of life, or of different politics or race, or any of the thousand ways difference blooms in the garden of community. We do this because we believe there is healing in knowing.

Healing Through Knowing

Healing through knowing is how a young family ends up standing outside our church matriarch’s house. It’s how an older widow sits in a living room with a young family laughing at the twists and turns that led to this moment. Healing through knowing is how young and old, black and white, Democrat and Republican, blue and white collar, can break bread together, at any table, and especially our Lord’s table.

In a world as big and complicated as ours, there are no sound-bite, quick-fix, pundit-sponsored answers to our mounting divisions. Like the world, the church can too quickly wield the carving knife and fragment us into constituencies driven by agendas. What if, rather than joining in the carving, we stun the world by knocking on each other’s doors and sitting at each other’s table?

Later this year, we will deliberately open our tables again, though I suspect many among us have continued to do so. Only this time, our guest will come from outside our congregation. We will be hospitable. We will know. We will heal.

Sean Palmer serves as lead minister with The Vine Church, Temple, Texas. 

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