The Shape of the Table


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown

September 8, 2019


Texts: Psalm 72; Luke 14:1:7-14

       Toward the end of 1968 Lyndon Johnson, anxious to begin peace negotiations with North Vietnam before Nixon took office, was stymied by a seemingly simple issue . . . the shape of the table for negotiations. The United States had insisted on a two-sided table with the U.S. and the old South Vietnam on one side with North Vietnam on the other; however, the north was insisting on a four sided table with the Vietnamese National Liberation Front––the official name of the Viet Cong––seated as an equal partner in the talks. For months the parties wrangled over this issue until the Arthurian solution was presented . . . a round table, where there was parity of parties but without an acknowledgment of equal footing in the diplomatic sense. Amazing what diplomacy can rise or fall on. Simply amazing.

        The Arthur of legend lost in the murky history of fifth and sixth century Britain found himself faced with much the same issue. His noblemen fought over who would sit closest to the King so, according to Wace, an Anglo-Norman poet of the twelfth century, Arthur created the Round Table where all were equal. It was Wace who used the term the Knights of the Round Table and named the famed sword Excalibur. 

       In Arthur’s Britain, the Round Table came to signify a place where arguments could be resolved and the peace of the kingdom kept. As more and more knights came to be part of Camelot, the table just grew larger and people learned to sit close to one another, probably not an easy thing to do in an age of infrequent bathing.

        The story from this morning’s reading does not seem to suggest that kind of ingenuity. In fact, many wedding feasts today usually have a head table with the bride and groom and the important guests, usually family or the wedding party itself. We peons sit at the various round tables in the hall and wait for the bride and groom to come so we can have photos taken with us. In an age where seating indicated status not just custom, where one sat was considered an honor.                    Obviously Jesus was talking more about how the guests saw themselves in society. The more eminent persons would just take a place, assuming that it was theirs by right.

Things haven’t changed much in diplomacy, power structures, or in ourselves. Few of us like to be thought of as bottom of the totem pole, so to speak. It’s human nature to want to have importance, usually more importance than others.                   Oppressors and empires have known this for years. The white power structure in the South was able to divide the poor whites from African-Americans based on color; had those poor whites realized their real economic and social interests were the same, there would have been a ground-swell for equal rights. Empires also knew that the way to hold power was to divide conquered peoples from each other; the Dutch were especially adept at this in Indonesia where old divisions still breed resentment. 

        A round table capable of being expanded to fit all, however, changes everything. As we look at our world with its ever increasing population, we find it necessary to ask our-selves whether the table can expand indefinitely. I guess it may depend on how we use the resources that we have and the demands to allocate or share them. 

        Look at the current socioeconomic structure here in the United States, for example. Battles between environment-alists and coal miners provide a good example of competing interests. Told that renewable energy will threaten their jobs, coal miners were fooled into voting for a man who continues to support industry barons rather than the workers with black lung disease as a result of their mining have had their benefits cut. 

      In another case, one group wants to continue offshore drilling in the Gulf and even begin drilling along our coastline, claiming a potential loss of 10 to 20,000 jobs. Other groups, primarily shrimpers and tourist services lament that spills have cost them millions. And environmentalists point out that we haven’t even begun to assess the real damage to the ocean. 

      Our insatiable demand for non-renewable energy is de-stroying us. In 2017, we still secured over 35% of its energy from petroleum with renewable energy only having 18% of the share. Contrast this to Germany where 65% of its energy came from renewable resources. The entire European Union surpassed its 2010 goal of 14% from renewable energy re-sources already. Using biomass and other creative options the Europeans are well on their way to their 2020 goal of 27%––and that includes the poorer countries as well. Maybe we could learn a few things from their experience. 

        We in the United States are now at the head of the table not in per capita energy consumption––that prize belongs to Bahrain––but because of our population; with five percent of the world’s population, we consume about 25% of the world’s energy. China, growing at a rate of 6.6% per year, will surpass us in this century. Okay, so we consume a lot, including a lot of Chinese goods, giving them more incentive to keep growing. 

        Such statistics can be easily accessed on the internet. The critical question for us is not just in energy policy but the connection between energy policy, resource allocation, and our faith as Christians. What does this say to us as a people of faith regarding our place in the world and the shape of the table at which we all sit?

        First, it says we need to change the shape of the table. We must sit at Arthur’s round table where no one is more equal than others; any other approach will involve a de-throning and an upending. We really do still have time to do this. It does mean letting go of the “USA Number One” mentality that has morphed into the “America First” slogan now used by certain politicians. It means recognizing that others are our equals. 

        Second, it means changing our lifestyle, something that is easier said than done––or all of us. I know I struggle with the seemingly never ending supply of “stuff” I have and still tend to acquire. Sometimes I am able to justify it by buying used items––oh, what’s the great advertising term?  “Previously owned”––that’s it. 

         Going to New York has always meant going to the Strand bookstore. I see the sign in front of the Strand that advertises 18 miles of books and I begin to salivate. In addition to books, of course, there are other items. Temptation, temptation.

         Third, it means imparting a changed lifestyle to the next generation or two. I have to admit, apart from books, I’ve not done a bad job here. The granddaughters are the real challenge. They live in a house with so much stuff. And their bedrooms are packed. I have tried to shift their thinking from things to experiences. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

        I began giving them kids from Save the Children, some-one they could connect with and learn how really, really, really fortunate they were. Then I shifted to environmental groups, like National Wildlife Federation. That worked for a while, and then to books and art supplies. And I tell myself it’s not just more stuff, but useful stuff. It’s incredibly frustrating.

          Changing the shape of the table will not be easy, but if we don’t do it and not down the road but now, we’ll be stuck with a table that does not let anyone be equal to anyone else, including us. We’ve known this, really, for some time now. In fact, we most likely are more than frustrated at how the pub-lic national priorities have changed from renewable energy and conservation to the “me first” mentality.

         We continue as followers of the One who showed us that we are all part of God’s world to reorient our national and local priorities beyond the more and more mentality. It is difficult, to be sure. But as followers of the One who came to show us a new way to live, we must continue in this mission. Our faith demands nothing less. 

        Let us pray. We know, O God that we have been more concerned with ourselves and have not treated others with parity. Enliven us with your Spirit and with imagination so we can help create a world that reflects the way of Jesus who came to show us how to live with each other. Amen.