OPEN TABLE – an ecumenical Christian worship community which offers a warm welcome to people who are: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer / Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA) and all who seek an inclusive Church – began at St Bride’s Liverpool in June 2008, meeting once a month for a communion service.
At the first planning meeting, someone said: ‘Will it be “Open Table”?’ When she explained that it means all are welcome, all can come as they are, we felt this was so important because we hear too many stories of people who feared exclusion, or were excluded, from their church community, who felt unheard or unable to express themselves or give their talents. So Open Table was born. Now Open Table communities gather across the UK, hosted by inclusive churches, serving up to 200 people each month.
Last month we held a day called ‘Dreaming around an Open Table’, for members of active Open Table communities and those considering whether this is a ministry they wish to offer. Thirty of us gathered in Coventry to share experience, insight and visions for the future.
This is my reflection with which we started the day:
The Parable of the Mustard Seed is one of the shorter parables of Jesus. It appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Here it is in the Gospel of Matthew:
‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’
— Matthew 13:31–32, NIV
The plant referred to here is generally considered to be black mustard, a large annual plant up to 9 feet (2.7 m) tall, but growing from a small seed (this smallness is also used as a symbol of faith in Matthew 17:20 and Luke 17:6).
The parable suggests the growth of the kingdom of God from tiny beginnings. The man sowing the seed represents Jesus, and the plant is the Kingdom of God.
The nesting birds recall Old Testament texts which emphasize the abundance and universal reach of God’s kingdom, such as Daniel 4:12 (NIV):
‘Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed.’
However, a real mustard plant is unlikely to attract nesting birds, so Jesus seems deliberately to emphasize astonishing extravagance in his analogy. Some commentators have suggested that the birds represent Gentiles seeking refuge with Israel or the ‘sinners’ with whom Jesus was criticized for associating.
Some have identified a ‘subversive and scandalous’ element to this parable – the fast-growing nature of the mustard plant makes it a ‘weed’ with ‘dangerous takeover properties’.
Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (published around AD 78) wrote that
‘mustard… is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild… once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it.’
Jesus could have spoken of a genuine tree – the mustard plant demonstrates that
‘Though the kingdom of God appeared small like a seed during Jesus’ ministry, it would inexorably grow into something large and firmly rooted, which some would find shelter in and others would find obnoxious and try to root out.’
Open Table is now in its tenth year – when we first gathered as half a dozen members of a Changing Attitude group in June 2008, we couldn’t have dreamed that we’d be here in 2017 with representatives of 11 other OT communities and more than forty other churches wanting to join us in bringing this expression of the abundance of God’s love and outrageous hospitality to their church and community. In June 2015 there was only Liverpool, then came Warrington, then Manchester, relaunching its monthly inclusive Communion service which had begun a year before Open Table, then North Wales, then St Helens and Wigan, Stoke and London, Open Table Northeast, Sefton and Isle of Man.
Its growth has been both wild and, we hope, beneficial – it has provided shelter for those on the edges of our Christian traditions, like those Jesus was criticized for associating with by the religious authorities of his day. Some see it as subversive and scandalous, and would want to root it out – as we reflect on our growth as a diverse and dispersed community today, let’s pray for the courage, the creativity and the clarity to see it grow into something large and firmly rooted – a true image of the kingdom of God here among us.
We also launched our new short film to inspire people considering whether to offer this ministry in their community, called ‘Will it be Open Table?’ You can watch it here (3 minutes including subtitles – don’t forget to switch them on if you need them):
[…] felt overwhelmed by the scale of the task before me to develop and sustain this network. I recalled the reflection I wrote on the growth of Open Table in comparison to the improbable and abundant growth in the parable of […]