It’s not your table, it’s God’s table!
Max came to church about once a quarter. Even that was too much for some of the more “dignified” church members.
A few of them scolded me for not barring Max from attending, especially on the first service of the month, Communion Sunday. They suggested that if he were allowed to attend, the ushers should have a seat for him in the back of the balcony. They also said that Max should not be allowed to participate in the service of Holy Communion, because “everybody knows the kind of life he lives.”
One of the hallmarks of Methodist theology is the clear understanding and teaching that, “it is not your table or my table, it’s a table of grace, offered by a loving and gracious God.” Everyone is welcome to participate or to abstain from participation in a United Methodist service of Holy Communion. It is no accident that the opening words of our communion liturgy states: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” The response is a recognition of our desire to not only receive grace but to offer grace to others. “And also, with you.”
Max was an alcoholic bum that was often homeless. He was often unkempt, dirty and smelly. His clothes were worn-out, he needed a bath, a haircut, and a shave. Whenever he came to church he would teeter and totter his way to the front-row and be seated. Max always responded to any invitation to pray or to receive Holy Communion. He was never disruptive unless the ushers bypassed him during the offering. Max always had a few coins to put into the plate and he would get agitated when the ushers would ignore him. I wonder if any of those blessed saints calling for his head recognized his faithful insistence in giving from his meager resources. His stewardship challenged me.
I remember one communion Sunday, after church, while standing at the back door shaking hands, Max came through the line. He was right at the end and only two or three people remained at the church. One well meaning “saint” spoke up after Max left the building, “why do you let him ruin our communion service?” Before I could answer, another church member said, “hold on a minute, you need to know something about this man.” We all gathered around, and this is a summary of what we heard:
“Max was an eighth grader and was one of the best athletes in the city. He could play any sport with proficiency and skill. One day he came home to find his mom and dad engaged in a physical fight. He intervened and his father left the room, only to return with a shotgun. He watched helplessly as his mother was brutally murdered in front of him. Max’s life was never the same.”
The story of Max Bell (yes that is his real name) never improved and it did not have a storybook ending. Max was found one winter huddled in the corner of a garage frozen to death.
I often wonder what additional things we could have done to help Max. We got him in contact with social services, we provided him with places to stay, we tried to get him therapeutic help, we gave him money for food, but nothing seemed to work.
One of the comforting memories that I have is knowing that Max was never turned away from the Lord’s Table. He was never discouraged from receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion. Perhaps Max found comfort in the invitation, “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.”
I’m not sure that Max ever found the peace that was needed to stem the tide of turmoil turning within. I’m not sure that he was able to ever defeat the demons that haunted him day and night with the painful image of his mother being savagely brutalized as he stood powerless to defend her.
I am confident that Max, despite a few looks and an occasional misguided comment from well-intentional “saints” could recognize that Jesus was sitting with him on the front row, inviting him to partake of a meal where Max was the guest of honor.
I fully expect to see Max when I get to heaven. I hope he will say to me, “Pastor Frank, thanks for recognizing that the Lord’s Table was a welcoming place for all.”
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all people: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine majesty.
We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings;
the remembrance of them is grievous unto us.
Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father.
For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake,
forgive us all that is past;
and grant that we may ever hereafter
serve and please thee in newness of life,
to the honor and glory of thy name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.