Texts: Psalm 72; Luke 14, 1, 7-14
Towards the end of 1968 Lyndon Johnson, anxious to begin peace negotiations with North Vietnam before Nixon took office, found his desires thwarted by a seemingly simple issue: the shape of the table for negotiations. The United States insisted on a two sided table with the U.S. and the old South Vietnam on one side with North Vietnam on the other; the north insisted 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. 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 took the history of Geoffrey of Monmouth and 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 and 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, in power structures, or in ourselves. Few of us like to be thought 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 were able to divide the poor whites from African-Americans based on color; had they realized their real economic and social interests were the same there would have been a groundswell 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 ourselves 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. The mess in the Gulf is a good example of competing interests. One group wants to start off shore drilling immediately, claiming the potential loss of 10 to 20,000 jobs. Another group, primarily shrimpers and tourist people lament that the spill has cost them millions in lost revenue. Environmentalists point out that we haven’t even begun to assess the real damage to the Gulf and its waters. All kinds of questions abound: where’s the so-called “missing” oil, the oil that seems to be unaccounted for? How do we measure long term interests against short term ones? Will prices at the pump go up? Now, there’s a real measure we can all feel.
Our insatiable demand for non-renewable energy is destroying us. In 2009 we still secured over 35% of its energy from petroleum with renewable energy only having 7.7% of the share. Contrast this to Germany where 16.1% of its energy came from renewable resources; in fact, the entire European Union has surpassed its 2010 goal of 14% from renewable energy resources 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 5.5% 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. Sure these 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 dethroning 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 pervaded our nation for at least the last decade. It means recognizing that others are our equals.
Second, it means changing our lifestyle, something that is easier said than done -- for 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 -- oh, what’s the great advertising term? “Previously owned” -- that’s it. As I stood in an enormous fabric store with my granddaughters last week, I found myself overwhelmed by choices. I really had to say “no” to myself; it wasn’t easy. As any sewer knows, a fabric shop can be really, really deadly. And then there are all the idea books. 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 junk galore and this year I decided to use my time to try to teach a little recycling in clothing. I had found a jeans bag at the Calico Cat -- only one so I knew I had to make a second one and that’s what we did for two rainy days: sew and make a bag, plan vests out of recycled items and a few new ones. I felt pretty good by the end of the trip except for just one thing: What to get them for Christmas. Can you believe they already are thinking about Christmas? So I looked at them and told them: Kids. You are getting kids from Save the Children, someone you can write to and learn about how really, really, really fortunate you are.
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. Our faith as followers of the one who showed us that we are all part of God’s world and that we are all in this together demands nothing less.
Let us pray: We acknowledge, 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.