A Table of Enemies
When I was a seminary intern at North Street United Church in Kingston, the pastor was out of town when I got the call that a member of our church has died quite suddenly. I hadn’t yet had any courses in pastoral care and counseling, had never done a funeral, and indeed had avoided even attending funerals whenever possible.
Nonetheless, I summoned up my courage and headed out to make that pastoral call, hoping I’d be granted some wisdom along the way about what on earth I was supposed to say or do once I got there.
When I reached the family’s home, I rang the doorbell, still having no clue what I would say when the door opened. A few seconds later, the door opened and the widow of this man stood there in front of me, eyes swollen and red, looking to me to be her pastor. And I froze. I had no idea what to say. And after what felt like an eternity, I started reciting the only words that would come to my mind. The 23rd Psalm. And I’m pretty sure I set some kind of speed record for getting through it.
When I finished my breathless recitation of those ancient words, I returned to my frozen and mute posture. The widow stood there stunned for a few minutes, and then finally a grin spread across her face. She reached out to hug me and said, “I needed that. Come on in.”
In the 17 years since that summer, I can’t recall a single funeral in which I haven’t recited the 23rd Psalm at some point, almost always in the King James, because that’s how I learned it growing up.
And more than any other scripture, those ancient words of the Hebrew poet have an almost mystical power to sooth and comfort in times of despair and loss. And although it is actually the 22nd Psalm Jesus cries out with from the cross—My God, why hast thou forsaken me—this is indeed the week in which he begins his journey through the valley of the shadow of death. A journey we are asked to take up our crosses and travel with him on our way to the resurrection.
There is a great deal of depth to the words of this psalm, words that can somehow reach through our sorrow and despair and touch the darkest corners of our lives, shine a light of hope into our bleakest moments. But one phrase in particular stood out to me this week reflecting on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Jesus’ whole life has been spent sitting down at the table with those considered enemies. He has eaten and drunk with prostitutes, with sinners, with tax collectors, with Pharisees, and later this week, he will sit down at a table with Judas, later kneeling to wash Judas’ feet. Some of those enemies were simply outsiders to the community, people who for one reason or another didn’t adhere to the community standards of Jesus’ day. But others were indeed enemies who at some point meant to harm Jesus, who would turn against him, deny him, or sell him out for a bag of silver.
Now one way to read this psalm is that sitting down at a table in the presence of one’s enemies is the ultimate revenge. God has set out this feast for me, with a cup that runneth over, and all those people I hate, all those people I call enemies, all those people who mean me harm, are stuck just outside the gate, watching me feast but unable to get to me. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much I could enjoy such a feast—I would far rather feast alongside friends and loved ones than mock my enemies by feasting in front of them.
But I also can’t help but notice that when Jesus sits down to feast in the presence of his enemies, he is not at a table while they’re held at bay. They are all sitting at the same table. Friend and enemy alike. Even though Judas will turn around later that same night and send Jesus off to his death, Jesus sits at the table with him, sharing his bread, sharing the cup, washing his feet, and telling Judas that he loves him.
And somehow, that is the table of the Lord, the same table that greets us beyond our darkest valleys, the same table that is set for us even when we betray Jesus or betray one another. For God does not bring us through the darkest valleys to set before us a table of revenge, but of reconciliation. That table is in the presence of our enemies, because if we were not all at the same table, then friends, it would not be God’s table. Because your enemies are not God’s enemies. My enemies are not God’s enemies. And it is when we sit at the table with our friend and enemy alike that our cup runneth over.
Throughout this week, we will come to this table many times. Today to celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Thursday to celebrate Jesus’ final meal with his disciples, including those who would betray and deny him. Saturday, in the dark of night, to nourish us in our vigil of prayer, and next Sunday, on that glorious Easter morn, to celebrate the resurrected Christ who continues to come to us in bread in wine.
Perhaps at some point you will find yourself at this table, at God’s table, in the presence of an enemy, or at least in the presence of someone with whom you need to reconcile. Remember this—the table that awaits us across our darkest valley, the table that God prepares for us, that is the table where friend and enemy alike join in the feast. Even the table where enemy becomes friend, and friend is welcomed in love, in goodness, and in mercy.
Let that table be our table, every table, this week, and throughout our lives.
In the name of God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.