A man "organized a dinner at his church to raise money for famine relief in Sudan. About 80 people signed up to come. He had tables set for various-sized groups - as small as six, as large as 15. People came in and took seats at random. Then the servers came out. The smallest tables were served first. They received an abundance of rich, sauce-laden food, hot, tender, tasty. The servers were polite, attentive, quick to bring more food at the slightest indication that it was running low. They were quick to do the guests' bidding, and usually anticipated their wishes.
"Next, some of the larger tables were served. Theirs was a sparse, messy, bland meal. The few dishes were brought out in no particular order. The servers were curt and hurried. There were no seconds.
"Two of the largest tables were served second to last - after the few guests at the first tables had already had all they could eat and their dinner plates, piled with uneaten food, were whisked away and replaced with rich desserts and coffee. At the large tables, the servers plunked down, with rude haste, one bowl of rice in the middle of each table. No one got a plate or bowl. There were no utensils for serving or eating. The waiters never came back.
"The very largest table was served last of all. They got a bucket of water. There was barely enough to go around. The water was brown and lukewarm. If you wanted some, you had to drink it from a wooden ladle, passed along with the bucket. Most people didn't bother.
"At first the people at the largest tables, the last ones served, complained. Several people got up and spoke to the servers. The servers ignored them. Some went to ... the organizer. He ignored them. He and the servers paid attention only to the guests who sat at the smallest tables and who had received the most. The servers would come around often to those tables, ask if everything was pleasing and agreeable, and did they need anything else? There was much laughter, banter, politeness.
"After a while, it became obvious to everyone what was happening. The church was being given a taste of how the world works - its lopsidedness, its patch rhythm of muchness and emptiness, of affluence and desolation. Some got to experience, and all got to witness, the hunger of the hungry.
"The offering for famine relief was good that night."
Holy Nativity's neighborhood stretches from Kahala to Hawaii Kai. Many in this affluent area are lost sheep, not so much persons desperate for food or shelter but starved for spiritual food. Our immediate neighbors may appear hale and happy. Yet appearances can be deceptive. Get to know them; really listen to them. Then you will learn of their health concerns, addictions, financial worries, broken relationships, fears for their children, the numerous days they awaken to wonder why they live, and so forth. They need God's loving, life-giving presence.
One in five Episcopal congregations is growing. Holy Nativity can easily join the ranks of those growing congregations. This beautiful, architectural award-winning campus offers an important potential connection with God. Each of you, and your relationships with one another, are similarly another potential point of connectivity with God. Yet another potential point of connectivity with God is the gift of God's life-giving presence in our celebration of the Eucharist. According to theologian Ilia Delio, "A eucharistic community should be a new energy field, a new pattern of relatedness; the joy of being a eucharistic people is the renewal of energy for the sake of transforming relationships in the cosmos."
To grow, we individually and collectively must:
Invite: ask people in a non-judgmental way to visit Holy Nativity
Welcome: wear your nametag, speak to people you don't know, make our worship as visitor friendly as possible, and so forth
Connect: involve newcomers in our various ministries and missions, even offering to let the newcomer take one's place
Fr Chris is spearheading this initiative for us. Congregations do not grow serendipitously or by accident. Congregations grow because leaders intentionally promote growth-oriented policies and programs.
Few first century shepherds owned their flock. The flock may have belonged to the village or to a wealthy person, perhaps from Jerusalem or another affluent community. If, at day's end, a sheep was missing, one of the shepherds would search for the lost animal while the other shepherds took the flock home. If the sheep could not be found, then the shepherd or shepherds responsible for the flock bore the cost, perhaps eight days' wages, perhaps more. In a subsistence economy that excluded women from the paid workforce, a shepherd who lost a sheep, and his family, depended on the charity of neighbors or starved. No wonder Jesus' anecdote of a shepherd searching for, and then finding, a lost sheep resonated with his hearers.
May you and I, walking in Jesus' footsteps, eat with today's sinners and tax collectors; may we genuinely rejoice when persons lost in the dark of disease, despair, despondency, or debt join us in feasting at God's table. Amen
Fr. George Clifford