Monroe Congregational Church, U.C.C.
June 17, 2001 - Pastor Diane Schmitz

Mother's Day, Father's Day, Graduation, vacations: this is the season of family gatherings, picnics and parties; friends and loved ones gathering around the table to enjoy each other and celebrate life.

One of my favorite metaphors for church is God's people gathering around the table. A table that is open and inviting; welcoming. A table that celebrates the wonder and awe of creation and how the Spirit continuously and mysteriously weaves itself among us creating stories of God's presence in the world.

This morning I invite you to reflect on hospitality; what it means to welcome other people, what it means to welcome God to the various tables in our lives.

Hospitality is something we all know about or have experienced. We can recall special gatherings, birthday parties, Thanksgiving, or welcoming new neighbors: the preparations for a bountiful meal, the engaging conversation with friends and/or family. Something special often happens in those times. There is a delight in experiencing one another. God's presence bursts forth in moments like these - shining through the laughter, smiles and acceptance of those who gather round the table. In times like these we experience what Jesus spoke about welcoming.

We can also recall other gatherings. Times where our experience was not so positive; times where we felt unnoticed and not cared for. Gatherings where we were left out and not invited. Or those times where we were invited, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, but more ignored than really welcomed. The birthday party invitation we didn't receive, the dinner with the in-laws that served up a healthy dose of tension, the church visit in a different city where we felt out of place. We may have felt judged or ostracized. And, unfortunately, we may have done the same to others. Intolerant or ignorant of others' beliefs or lifestyles we may have withdrawn, and forgotten about what it means to be a welcoming person. In such situations, there isn't much room left for God to shine through. True hospitality is absent.

Listen again to Jesus speaking: "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple - truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."

I want to tell you about Margaret, my 88-year-old neighbor. When we first moved into the neighborhood 10 years ago she invited us over for a welcome dinner. We feasted on food from her huge garden and enjoyed the company of several of her friends from church. My sons were introduced to the bowl of candy Margaret always had out on her coffee table. Around the table we shared stories. We learned things about each other. I realized Margaret was a spirited, optimistic woman with a deep sense of faith. I learned how she loved to entertain and to take car trips around the Northwest with her friends. We left that evening feeling enveloped in a gracious welcome. We left feeling cared for and appreciated. There was no doubt that God was welcome at Margaret's table.

Margaret and her friends often go to eastern Washington to escape the rainy spring weather here. She once told me a story; it is one that I recall every spring when the fresh cherries come on the market.

It was June and Margaret and a friend were headed over the mountains towards Wenatchee on yet another adventure. Rain had been more intense than usual in Seattle; the weather had been cool. Margaret was eager to experience some warm sunshine. It was late afternoon as Margaret and her friend came through the mountains and headed down into the sun-filled valley; the rays glorious on the tree-filled orchards. The sweaters came off, the windows opened and they both took in a whiff of the spring scent of ripening fruit and flowering trees. They stopped at a roadside fruit stand. The red cherries looked ripe and delicious. A young girl, about 12-years-old, with a straw hat perched on her head, offered them samples. The women were delighted by their sweetness and purchased two boxes. Margaret asked, "What is your name?" The dark-haired girl seemed pleased to be asked. "It's Janet Maria Gonzales," she said proudly. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Janet, " said Margaret. "It's quite warm here today. Do you get a break sometime soon?" "Oh, I will be here until my mother gets through picking in the fields," she said. "I stay here and keep an eye on Luis (she nodded toward her 18-month-old brother resting in a car seat on the ground)." "That's quite a long day for a young girl like you," said Margaret. "It's okay, I'm used to it," replied Janet. "The sun is better than the rain. When it rains, I get cold and the time seems a lot longer. The dust today is not as bad as usual and hopefully we will get to eat hotdogs tonight if the ice in the cooler has kept them cold. My mom worries about spoiled meat and us getting sick."

"Where do you live?" asked Margaret. The girl hesitated, and with eyes somewhat downcast said, "Well, for right now we are camping. "Camping?" said Margaret. "Is there a campground near here?" "There is," said Janet, "but it's already full this year." "This year?" asked Margaret. "Well, then where are you camping?" Janet looked at her somewhat apprehensively as if trying to reassure herself about something. "Who do you work for" Janet asked. Margaret laughed. "Honey, I worked for a long time, but now I'm retired. That means I get to play some and travel around meeting new people like you!" "Oh," said Janet, with some relief. "Well, right now we are camping a little bit away from the fields by a small grove of trees." She pointed off in the distance. "We're not really supposed to be there but we have no place else to go during these weeks when my mom picks cherries. Last year, we at least had toilets to use and tables to eat on. This year, we brought a small tent we can crowd into if it rains, but generally we eat and sleep on the ground and use the bushes for toilets. Sometimes the growers provide us with shelter, but now there are some special rules that say they can't do that and so we have nothing. My mom says it's because the government people are so busy trying to figure out what they should do with us that they don't remember we are here. They don't ask us what we want; in fact, Mom says, most of them don't even like to come around us. I asked her why. She doesn't really answer me. I think they don't like us. I think they only like the cherries we pick for them."

Margaret was silent for a bit. "Janet," she said. "What would you think if we came and shared a meal with you? We have lots of food in the car, more than we could possibly eat. And we are excited about eating the delicious fruit you and your family have made available to us. We would like to show our appreciation. "I'd have to ask my Mom," Janet said. "What time is it?" Margaret answered. "It's getting close to 5pm." "My Mom should be meeting us at the camp soon" Janet said. I think it would be best if I went and talked to her about you joining us; sometimes she's so tired she falls asleep while we're eating. I'll come back and let you know." She pushed her hair back off her face with her fruit-stained hands, picked up the car seat with Luis in it and began walking down the dusty dirt road towards the gathering of trees.

Margaret and her friend sat and talked about Janet, her mom and the other cherry pickers. Questions stirred in them. Grasping for understanding, Margaret wrestled with what she had just seen and heard. After awhile words from a familiar hymn arose in the silent pained space inside Margaret: "Still your children wander homeless; still the hungry cry for bread; still the captives long for freedom, still in grief we mourn our dead. As, O God, your deep compassion healed the sick and freed the soul, use the love your Spirit kindles still to save and make us whole."

Margaret got up. "Let's drive the car down towards the camping spot," she said. As she parked the car by the trees, Margaret said to her friend, "There are some empty sacks in the trunk. Let's fill them from the cooler and the boxes in the back seat." A bottle of cranberry juice, a chicken-almond salad, a loaf of fresh-baked bread, and a chocolate cake went into a sack. A box of crackers, a wedge of cheese and fruit went into a second one. "Let's go," said Margaret. The two women, both white-haired, one using a cane, walked slowly and carefully on the dirt path leading to the gathering of trees. They looked at the scene before them. There were several small wood fires; the smell of corn roasting/meat grilling, green and brown tents and tarps providing shelter, many blankets scattered on the ground, people milling around, children playing, and occasionally babies crying. One man was massaging his arms, another was huddled under a blanket coughing. Margaret spotted Janet following toddling Luis as he chased a squirrel. As Margaret and her friend walked toward them, Janet saw them. "Hello" she said. "My mom has walked over to the other campground; she has been hoping for a couple of days to take a shower. The line is always long; often the wait is two hours or more. She'll be back sometime. The others will share food with me. It would be wonderful if you would eat with us too. My mom said we didn't have any extra food, but I told her you said you had some to share. She said you were welcome to share the table with us. Of course we don't have a real table, but we use some of these old tree stumps and they work fine." She smiled warmly at Margaret.

Margaret and her friends brought out their food. Janet moved closer; her eyes watching and growing large. "Oh, it's been a long while since I've had chocolate cake." She smiled at Margaret. "It's been a long while since we've had visitors. It is good to have you here." Luis began whimpering. Janet picked him up, walked around briskly, murmuring consoling sounds. Margaret offered to hold Luis while Janet ate. Janet surrendered Luis gratefully. She sat down and took a slice of the fresh bread, first bringing it to her face and letting its smell waft over her before she began to eat it. Luis was given a small cup of juice and a cracker with cheese. He grinned as he stuck the whole cracker in his mouth. The four sat there companionably as the sun began to go below the horizon and the light began to fade.

Singing could be heard over in the direction of one of the fires. In the growing darkness, Margaret could see the outlines of people seated around the fire. With Luis in her arms, she stood up and walked closer to the crackling flames and listened. The song sounded vaguely familiar. The voices were strong as if this was a song they knew well.

" I'm gonna eat at the welcome table . . . Allelu . . . "
"We're gonna feast on milk and honey. . .Allelu . . . "

Margaret listened and thought of the many dinners she had been to, the many times she had been welcomed by friends and family to an abundant feast of food and fellowship. She thought of her home. She thought of the box of cherries in her car and the pies she would make to share with family and friends. She thought of Janet, Luis and their mother. She looked at the other migrant workers around the fire, homeless, tired, and still trusting in a future that would be full of welcome, full of abundance. From a deep place in her heart she prayed a compassionate wish that these people would soon be welcomed at a table in this world where they would feel cared for, appreciated, honored. She held Luis' hand as they walked back to her friend and Janet. The night was cooling down. They sat together tucked in blankets. Margaret told the Janet and Luis stories about when her children were young. Janet talked of her family's life as migrant workers following the harvests. It was sacred time.

Janet's mother returned to their camp about a half hour later, her long dark hair wet, her walk weary, anxiety about her children showing on her face as she glanced around looking for them. She saw Margaret standing by Janet. She offered her hand to Margaret and said, "Welcome." "Janet has told me how kind you were to her. Thank you for sharing your food." She looked around and saw what had been shared. Her eyes filled slightly. "The food is a treat, but what will continue to feed us, long after you are gone, is your compassionate and generous spirit. God has visited our table tonight. We are blessed."

Morning comes early for migrant cherry pickers. It was time for Margaret and her friend to leave. They said goodbye, got into their car and drove off. The drive to a nearby town and the waiting motel was short. But, the night stayed long for Margaret. She would never eat a cherry in the same way again. She would never eat any food in the same way. Every time she invited people to her table, she would remember Janet and her family. She would remember how God was present and welcomed at that dinner on the tree stumps. She would continue to ponder these things.

The night was a bit longer for Janet, too. She stayed awake for a time thinking of the unexpected delight this day had brought with its surprising visitors and bounty of food and conversation. She yearned for more of the same. It had been a long time since she had felt so thankful. And when she went to sleep that night, she felt warmer than usual; her dreams were more peaceful.

And in the dark sky that night, God's welcomed light burned a bit brighter.