The 23rd Psalm is familiar to most of us, I imagine. You’ve heard it in hospital rooms, Sunday School classes, and funeral services. Perhaps you even memorized it, though you may have used an older translation: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters; he restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” We know these words well, probably better than we know most other parts of Scripture.
It’s tempting to think that because we’ve already heard a text several times that we no longer need to pay much attention to it. We go on autopilot instead of engaging with what we read or hear. So what if we stop, turn around, and spend some time digging deeper into the text?
For example, let’s think about that table. What do you imagine when you think of a table prepared for a feast? (Yes, I do want you to use your imagination here.)
First, where is the table? Are you in a restaurant, at home, or visiting someone else? What does the table look like? Is it round or square or rectangular? Is it made of a particular kind of wood? Does it have a tablecloth or placemats? What are the chairs like? Did you have to borrow some folding chairs from church so that all the guests would fit? What sort of plates are on the table? Are they your grandmother’s best china, your everyday dishes, or disposable paper plates? Did you get out the cloth napkins or are you using paper?
And, now that the table is set, someone will need to bring in the food. Who is carrying everything? Is it a waiter or a family member? What is the main dish? Roast Beef? Turkey? Ham? Enchiladas? Burgers? Lasagna? How about sides? Mashed potatoes, green beans, garlic bread, fried rice, stuffing, fruit salad? Are you drinking water, lemonade, wine, or milk?
Finally, who is there with you at the table? Are there many or few? Is it your whole family, gathered together like you do at holidays, or is it just your immediate family, or maybe a group of friends? Is there space for someone else to join you?
I don’t think the psalmist chose this table image as a mistake. As you could easily testify, we all know about tables. When I asked you about your feast table, I suspect most of you had a particular table in mind. I imagine the spread my grandma put out every year at Christmas when I was a kid, with festive tablecloths and the holiday dishes, and all the cousins scrambling to get another serving of mashed potatoes and gravy before the bowl was scraped clean.
Tables are places of feeding, of gathering, of community. When I was growing up, my parents insisted that my whole family join together for dinner every evening, and that we share together about our days. Many families have such a habit of sharing a family dinner every day, or maybe once a week if their schedules are busy. They do it because when we eat together, we become closer.
Sharing a meal is more than just meeting our nutritional needs together, though. We share food, but we also share our successes and failures, our joys and our pains. Eating together is part of being a community—just ask the people who stay after worship every week for coffee and treats if they experience community around the tables in the fellowship hall. We become a community by acting like one—by the simple act of eating together.
But the psalm doesn’t just say that God is preparing a table for us. It says that God is preparing a table in the presence of enemies.
Who are your enemies? Or, maybe a better way to put it: who is the last person you’d ever want to invite over for dinner? Who would you avoid at all costs if you saw them in the grocery store? Who do you dismiss offhand as someone you could never, ever, in a million years, become friends with?
God is preparing your table right in front of those people. The table is set, the dishes are prepared, and the meal is ready. You have a seat and begin to eat—and so do they!
It’s tempting to imagine that God would prepare a fabulous feast for the chosen people and then leave everyone else to watch and drool. And it’s pretty satisfying to think that we could have our very own table prepared to enjoy right in front of our worst enemies.
The fact is that God’s table doesn’t work that way. God prepares a table for us in front of our enemies—the very same table God is preparing for our enemies in front of us!
God brings each one of us together at one table.
And when we come together at that table, that’s when we start to become a community instead of enemies. We share food, but we also share our successes and failures, our joys and our pains. Eating together is part of being a community. We become a community by acting like one—by the simple act of eating together.
What table does God prepare? I’m not talking about potlucks or coffee hour, though community is surely formed there.
I’m talking about this table, prepared with bread and wine.
This is God’s table. At this table, enemies are transformed into beloved community. After all, when Jesus first instituted this meal, it was the night of his betrayal. Within hours of the Last Supper, Judas would turn Jesus over to the Jewish leaders and Peter would deny that he ever knew Jesus. Despite the ways that the disciples betrayed Jesus by their actions and words—despite the ways that we betray Jesus by our words and actions—Jesus still invites them to “take and eat.”
God prepares a table.
This is God’s table. God prepares it in the midst of God’s enemies—us. When we take advantage of someone else, when we refuse to forgive, when we gossip, when we accept stereotypes instead of people—in short, whenever we fail to live up to God’s expectations—we make ourselves enemies of God.
Still, somehow, God prepares a table for us.
This is God’s table. At this table, sinners come together, divided by hate and fear and misunderstanding, and they become saints, joined to Jesus Christ and joined to one another. That’s why we welcome everyone who believes in Jesus as their savior to this table, young or old, rich or poor.
God prepares this table for you.
You may come to the table as enemies of God or even of one another, but here God makes community. No longer do you live as God’s enemies, but instead you live as God’s beloved children.
God prepares a table. You have a place at this table, at God’s table, now and forever. Amen.