My grandparents were generous people. They didn’t have a lot, especially when they were a younger couple, but any family members or friends present at meal-time were fed. Actually it didn’t have to be meal-time: if you showed up, they offered you food. Somehow Grandma could transform half a pound of ground beef and a can of tomatoes into a meal for a dozen people gathered in their tiny four-room house.
The village where they lived had a nearby rail yard, so it was not infrequent for hobos to drop by asking for food. Today “hobo”can have an offensive connotation, but in the first half of the 20th century hobo culture thrived. Grampa would tell me stories about how Grandma cooked up breakfast for them, and shared stories and conversation.
Because hobos were a community, they liked to help each other out. Often they would draw discreet symbols on fenceposts or the like to let each other know what they could expect from the owners of the home. One of the earliest symbols was a plus sign or cross (+). This indicated the people in the home were friendly and would be willing to feed you. Over the years these symbols evolved. The cross eventually came to mean: “these people will feed you, but you’ll have to listen to some bible-thumping first … and they might not get to the feeding.” Another sign like a small table (∏) gradually replaced the cross as a symbol for a generous home.
I was almost forty years old when I first heard the term “table theology.” It describes a type of worship that doesn’t focus as much on the crucifixion of Christ as his efforts to bring us together in loving community. Table theology doesn’t exclude the importance of crucifixion – the communion meal at the center of the table symbolizes Christ’s death! – but it promotes his message we are to love one another.
In secular society, the symbol of the cross has similarly evolved. Polls consistently show non-Christians no longer associate the faith and its most famous symbol with radical love and self-sacrifice, but with judgment and exclusion. Sadly that’s often true. Some churches are more concerned with who can’t come to the table (or enter the door, or lead the choir, or preach the sermon) than they are with sharing Christ’s unconditional love. James 2:16 tell us: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” Being welcome to the table is not a reward, because none of us perfectly deserves it; welcome is a default position because we are all wandering children of God who are hungry, even when we don’t know what for. Sharing this sacred meal opens an ongoing, sacred conversation among a person, a community, and our God. Come in from the cold. Have your fill of the Bread of Life. Tell your friends.
May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.