Here is a communion sermon that focuses on inclusivity in the body of Christ and at his table. It is another in my series of sermons on themes related to disability. I preached this in 2005 as our church’s new accessible fellowship hall–our dining room–was being completed.
The King’s Table
A Sermon on 2 Samuel 9 and Luke 14:1, 12-24
Mephibosheth was afraid. He trembled when he came before King David. The behavior of his grandfather Saul, first king of Israel, had cast shame on the whole family. Moreover, David had done what kings predictably did: eliminate anybody who might try to claim the throne. Mephibosheth’s fear was perfectly understandable. But how sad that the felt he had to put himself down in so ugly a way in the king’s presence. He referred to himself as a dead dog, an epithet meaning worse than scum. Dead dog equals yuck! Unclean!
Mephibosheth had had a hard time. Now about twenty, he had been living with mobility impairment since he was five years old. The accident had occurred when news reached the household that his father Jonathan and grandfather the king had both died in battle. The family was in danger. As they hurried away, Mephibosheth’s nurse dropped him. Most likely he suffered broken bones. Both feet were crippled.
Without any modern techniques of setting and repairing bones and treating infections, people who survived fractures often ended up with lifelong deformity and lifelong disability. And unless their family had means, that also meant lifelong poverty. And it meant shame. Most folks believed that tragedies like this didn’t happen to you unless you somehow deserved it. Religious law reinforced the shame and stigma. For example, people with disabilities or even certain conditions we would consider minor were forbidden from serving as priests. Only unblemished males were considered good enough to serve God in this way. Anything less was an insult to God.
Maybe Mephibosheth was putting on an act of humility before David, hoping to protect himself. But my hunch is that he had internalized his family’s shame, and that saw himself as others did: damaged goods, second class at best. His very name meant “shame.” The word bosheth in Hebrew means “shame!” That wasn’t his original name. His original name was Meribbaal. Baal is a word meaning “lord.” But now his name was bosheth: shame!
The situation for people with disabilities hadn’t improved much in Jesus’ day a millenium or more later. People with disabilities were often lumped together with sinners and others thought to be losers. The poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind were all lumped together as unfortunate and even unclean in some people’s eyes. Certain people with an extreme concern for purity and holiness believed that people with disabilities had no business even coming near God’s house! (See, for example, the purity rules of the Qumran community: 1QSa 1:25-2:11.)
No wonder word quickly spread that Jesus didn’t chase such folk away. He welcomed them and helped them. They came from everywhere asking, “Lord, help me. Lord, help my child. Lord, help our paralyzed friend. Let me, let them see. Let them walk. Let them be clean again.”
It’s not easy for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses now. Sometimes simple thoughtlessness on the part of others makes it unnecessarily hard. The other day I was eating lunch out with a friend of mine who uses a wheelchair, and she looked over at her car and saw that somebody had parked their car in the no parking space in front of the ramp, the space my friend needed to get in and out of her car.
Sometimes people just don’t think. And sometimes they wish people with disabilities would quit needing so much, quit wanting so much, quit putting demands on the system, such as the school system. Quit asking for costly accommodations. Just lay low, stay hidden like Mephibosheth laying low in Lo-debar.
David sought him out. The scripture says that David wanted to show steadfast love for the sake of his best friend, Jonathan. The Hebrew says that David wanted to show hesed, a word that almost always refers to what God does, to God’s steadfast love that endures forever. David wanted to practice hesed, even to the family of his enemy, even to someone who might not prove altogether loyal. (And incidentally, later Mephibosheth’s loyalty to David was cast in doubt.)
“Don’t be afraid,” David said when Mephibosheth came before him. “I am returning your family’s land to you. And I want you to eat at my table always.”
Mephibosheth was shocked. This was a totally unexpected gift, a totally unexpected invitation. Table fellowship was the way enemies became friends, and friends became closer. Table fellowship was not taken lightly in that culture. Being asked to the table was the same as being invited to be part of the family. It was incredible! Mephibosheth was wanted at the king’s table, which also meant he was wanted in the king’s family.
“That’s how it is the kingdom of God,” said Jesus. “It’s like a man who prepared a huge feast. And when others ignored his invitation, he insisted that his hall be full. He told his servants ‘go out and get the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind and fill up my banquet hall!’ And somehow his main servant already knew this is what the master would want. ‘We’ve done that,’ the servant replied, ‘and there’s still more room!’”
Jesus also said, “When you give a banquet, number one on the guest list shouldn’t be your friends, family, rich folks that can do something for you. You invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
Christ’s whole ministry was about gathering people around God’s table, and into God’s family. When he was on his way, and when he arrived, the first word to come to humanity about Jesus was, “Don’t be afraid.” He literally sat at the table and ate with sinners, and with the poor and the outcast. He touched lepers, bleeding women, others considered unclean. He healed people with sickness and disabilities, and he refused to take part in the blame game. He would have none of it, for example, when his disciples tried to figure out what sin caused a man to be born blind.
On the night before he was betrayed, knowing they would betray and deny and run away from him, Jesus gathered his disciples around the table one last time and said, “Eat this bread. This is my body, given for you. Drink this cup. This is my blood, poured out for you. You all need it. Whenever you do this, do it in remembrance of me.” You are invited to, you are wanted at the king’s table.
To the grandson of his archenemy, to a man whose very name meant shame, King David issued a gracious invitation. Mephibosheth became a member of the king’s family.
How much more gracious and generous Christ the King is, to sinners, to outcasts, even to enemies! “I want you dining at my table always,” he says, “And I want you to give that same invitation to others.”
Maybe some folks take the invitation for granted. But many are like Mephibosheth, and they don’t take it for granted. Some of them feel great shame, or remember when they did. I looked up the name Mephibosheth on the Internet this week because I had read in about a group that call themselves Mephibosheth Ministries. I found that group and more. I saw a testimony from a woman who said, “Call me Mephibosheth.” She had a history of drug addiction and had survived domestic abuse. She did not take her welcome at God’s table for granted. For her it was unexpected and precious. To be wanted at the king’s table! To be wanted in the king’s family!
As a congregation we became aware of what a great hurt it was that the dining room of our church building was inaccessible. All the family of God needs to gather together around this table in here, and together around those tables in there. As a congregation, you decided to practice hesed, to practice steadfast love. You decided to put your money where your mouth was. You put your love and your prayers and your sweat on the line. And now all the king’s children will be able to come to the king’s table here. No more separation, no more segregation when we eat together as the people of God!
Our new dining room is beautiful. It looks beautiful. But it’s going to be even more beautiful when the children of the king, no matter what their age, no matter what their condition, no matter what their past, are gathered there side by side as equals. Nobody’s an object of pity at our king’s table! Nobody’s somebody else’s mission project! Everybody’s a full-fledged, wanted and beloved member of the king’s family!
Mephibosheth needs a name change! Take the shame out of his name! And no more thinking of himself as a dead dog. Here’s what Christ said he would call his people. “I call you friends.”
Praise to the God who prepares this table before us! This is the table where sinners become saints, where the wounded are made whole, where enemies become family. This is our King’s table. You are wanted here.