Last week I wrote about the feasts my mother prepared at the dining room table for extended family members and friends. I recalled the impact those gatherings had on me as a child…how I imbibed a vision of the church along with the food as pastors and missionaries came to dinner.
But my mother also had another company table – the one on the back steps – and the man who showed up there impacted me greatly.
A couple times a summer a certain thin man dressed in black would politely knock on the back door about an hour before suppertime, leaving the little cart with his belongings out by the front gate. His face looked so old and weather-beaten, and he wore layers of clothing, even in the heat.
He would ask if there was any food he could have that night. My Mom understood that it was her obligation to feed him. So she locked the screen door, phoned for my Dad to come home from the mill early, and kept me in the house while the man in black waited outside.
Then she made a big extra portion of whatever she was preparing for us. She filled a plate for that man in black, and he sat on the porch steps and ate. After finishing his dinner he knocked on the door, said thank you, returned the plate, and continued on his way.
Afterwards my Dad launched into stories of the many men who passed through Souderton on freight trains during the Great Depression, looking for a meal, or sleeping by the grain elevators at the mill. They were homeless, said my Dad, down on their luck, and it was good for us to feed them.
Much later an older cousin told me that at Derstine’s Mill where he and my Mom grew up, they also fed transient men on their porch. With their farm and grist mill located right by the railway line, they had outbuildings where persons travelling the rails could sleep. It struck me that my Mom fed “our” homeless man – even in town – because that’s what she was taught to do as a child.
My cousin wondered – what if we had invited this man to sit with us at one of Aunt Martha’s family dinners? Surely that would have been hospitable – and unheard of in the 1950’s.
Yet my mother’s feeding of a homeless man on the back steps left a deep impression on me partly because of where it happened. To me as a child, it felt like my Mom’s company table was no longer confined to the dining room. If she could feed someone so strange and different in our own yard, right outside our back door, I had some thinking to do about who belonged and who didn’t.
Her act so many years ago likely fed into my decision in recent years to participate in our local Saturday night Stirling Suppers, where precariously housed people in our city become our guests, with table clothes, good food, and live entertainment in a church fellowship hall….
At some point I made the connection between my Mom’s feeding that homeless man and Jesus’ Parable of the Great Feast in Luke 14. That story of excuse-making insiders and startled outsiders fascinated me endlessly, compelling me to write a major paper on it many years later in seminary. Eventually it dawned on me that through the strange and wondrous diversity of folks around God’s banquet table, we catch a glimpse of what the reign of God actually looks like.
So in each of my ministry settings I began at least one sermon with “Mom’s Company Tables.” I always included both tables – the dining room and the back steps. In those sermons, the theme of a table of belonging for us – so vivid from my childhood – shared space with the theme of a hospitality stretching us well beyond our comfort zone.
For me, the most poignant Martha Clemmer Dinner sermon emerged from an invitation to preach at my home church in 2001. Souderton Mennonite had recently completed a major building addition which enveloped the whole block, including my childhood home.
That morning I privately reveled in the symbolism: Souderton preachers, including at that time my nephew Gerry, proclaimed God’s hospitality from a pulpit on or near the spot where my mother had fed a homeless man. I concluded the sermon:
“May the hospitality of Martha Clemmer’s table be extended by this congregation in ways far beyond her imagining.”
Questions for Reflection:
In what ways do you participate in the feeding of the hungry in your community? How is that happening with dignity and inclusion?
Next week: The Old Testament Trinity