Sunday, September 1, 2013
Text: Luke 14: 1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. . . . 7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
“Keep your elbows off the table, and put your napkin in your lap,” said the Lord God NEVER.
Yet most world religions assume that God IS interested in our table manners—in what and how and with whom we eat. For instance, many religions have rules forbidding certain foods: pork for Jews and Muslims, any meat for Hindus, alcohol for Southern Baptists (when they are around other Southern Baptists, to be overly simplistic and to tease my many Southern Baptist friends and family).
Of course, most Christians today easily explain away the dietary restrictions in the Hebrew Bible, insisting they no longer apply to those of us who like the B in BLTs and the shellfish in our gumbo. Yet some of these same Christians inconsistently uphold literal interpretations of other culturally-situated rules about “women remaining silent in church,” for instance, or “men not lying with other men.”
World religions not only declared what foods are permissible but also developed sacred practices related to food, instituting periods of fasting, periods of feasting, and rituals in which food is not only a body-sustaining substance but also a soul-strengthening one.
Initially, world religions may have ritualized certain table practices to forge group identity and set apart their adherents as “the people who don’t eat such-and-such.” But Jesus used food to break down barriers and bring people together. That’s why we at Open Table always celebrate open communion that includes anyone who wishes to participate. A very Jewish Jesus violated social customs to upend constraining social conventions. He demonstrated an alternate understanding of God’s welcoming ways through actions as subversive (and peaceful) as the racially integrated lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s. Through mundane meals, Jesus challenged injustice, included those who’d been excluded, and pointed to a godlier way.
The Gospel of Luke is packed with stories of Jesus talking about food, feeding hungry multitudes, and dining with the nefarious—to the horror of the Pharisees. Table fellowship that included all people is the central image he used to describe what this world will be like when God’s reign holds sway. Jesus’ disciples also drew criticism when, for example, they did not wash their hands before meals as ritual demanded, and they gleaned grain and ate it on the Sabbath. Notice that today’s Gospel story begins as Jesus, in response to an invitation to eat in the home of a Pharisee, is apparently already under suspicion and is being watched closely (Luke 14: 1). We might wonder if his enemies had set up this dinner invitation just to catch him violating a custom or rule in something like a religious “sting.”
Yet in this instance Jesus “turned the tables,” so to speak, on his detractors. Verse 7 emphasizes that JESUS was observing their behavior, and he “noticed how the guests chose the places of honor.” If the religious leaders were hoping to catch Jesus violating a religious law, he instead “caught” them grabbing the places of honor at the banquet, a serious misstep in their day when great shame fell upon those who were caught claiming greater status for themselves than had been conferred upon them. He then told a thinly veiled parable about wedding guests whose attempts to enhance their status backfired. How embarrassing to be told you must move to a place of lesser status, Jesus warned. Even for those who cared little about developing the humility Jesus modeled and recommended, it was clearly prudent to avoid embarrassment by behaving modestly. Jesus eases into his main concern by describing the obvious irony well-known to the self-serving: sometimes humility can be a key to self-advancement.
But Jesus particularly disapproved of the “table manners” of his influential host, though the host was merely following his culture’s practice of patronage. Jesus quickly moved from commenting on the guests’ manners to a pointed critique of his host’s behavior.
What temerity for the invited one to say to his host, “You’ve invited all the wrong people to this dinner.” Not “Thank you for inviting little ol’ me to your posh party.” No. Jesus says, “You know, you should have invited the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. You should have omitted the A list folks, and you should have omitted the B and C list folks, and instead you should have invited the Z list. You should have ignored social custom and invited the very people who would lower your status. I challenge you to ignore your rich uncle. Forget about your friends in high places. Instead, bring in the riff raff and give them the special places of honor because they cannot advance your social status. If you do that, your concern for them will bring you (wait for it) . . . spiritual rewards.”
No wonder the Pharisees and scribes were soon “grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them'” (Luke 19:7). No wonder “the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people [started] looking for a way to kill him” (Luke 19:47).
Fittingly, Jesus’s ministry ended with the disreputable disciples over one last supper just before his arrest, which was provoked largely because of what we could call Jesus’ extraordinarily bad table manners.
Friends, this story has challenged me to consider our table manners. I’m wondering how a church called Open Table continues to make sure that Jesus-like table manners matter to us, which is to say that all manner of folks on our society’s Z list matter to us. I’m wondering how we can, in effect, place our elbows on the table and forget to put our napkins in our laps. If we, too, are “watching Jesus closely,” we will act boldly for things that will really matter. Not a juvenile stunt to thumb our noses at convention. But a gesture of courageous compassion.
Yes. I know. Already we’ve set the table for the LGBTQ community as an open and affirming congregation. Already we’ve set our table to include immigrants like our Iraqi Muslim friends, who face prejudices and other challenges to make their way in our culture. We’ve also played a part in a movement to welcome Hispanic neighbors who, because of Alabama’s draconian immigration law, face similar hardships. As a matter of fact, later this month one of my pro-immigrant sermons will be published in a book of sermons and speeches by Alabama clergy working for humane immigration reform. That sermon testifies to this congregation’s concerns about those on the margins. You inspire me with your convictions and courage.
In addition, Open Table has welcomed the poor and rich alike. We’ve set a table where women and men are equal, where racial divides disappear, where mental health needs are named, and where children’s voices are heard. We’ve set a table where we remember other creatures—and indeed our leftover communion bread is used to feed the birds just outside our door.
But I want to name two new opportunities for expanding the guest list at the Table of the Lord. Then I want to speculate about what our “rewards” might be for engaging in things that really matter rather than unthinkingly adopting society’s manners.
1) The Mobile Area Interfaith Conference, in the process of merging with The Quest for Social Justice, has applied for a Department of Justice grant to fund a new resource center for recently released inmates. This center, to be housed next door to Government Street UMC, will provide GED tutoring, assistance with job searches, and other services to support the overwhelming needs of ex-offenders. Imagine the challenges someone faces trying to start afresh outside the prison walls–without a place to live, without any prospects for a job, without a support network, without transportation, often without a high school diploma. Imagine ways God may lead us to support this new resource center. We’ll be hearing more about this center in the coming months.
2) Next Sunday we’ll learn about another way we might practice our “table manners” at Open Table. In our 4:00 hour we’ll review a proposed addition to our Safe Church policy by anticipating the possibility that a registered sex offender might visit our services or at some point request membership in Open Table. Other churches like ours have sometimes found themselves facing such a situation, so we think it wise to develop a policy that could, in that situation, guide us in the direction of safety for all AND welcome for all.
This is a tough topic. It will challenge us to hold together in healthy tension two core values–of safety and welcome. After several months of research, discussion, and prayerful reflection, the council wants to present a suggested policy addendum that could guide us if a registered sex offender seeks to be part of our faith community. The current draft of this policy, which you’ll receive by email this week and which we’ll discuss at 4:00 next Sunday, is sensitive to the fact that in a typical congregation there are people who have been victims of sexual abuses, perhaps even in a church setting, and who, therefore, will find this topic painful. Be assured the proposed policy also stresses safe guards, including full disclosure to the congregation of the ex-offender’s status and a covenant agreement that requires the transparent monitoring and supervision of that person so that no abuse ever occurs here. But the proposed policy is founded upon a theological commitment to the work of reconciliation and the hope of redemption and healing.
In whatever ways we grow in service to our community, we want to live up to our name, Open Table. We want to make sure our table manners are less about impressing the A list and more about including the Z list.
“What’s in it for us?” asks the Pharisee within? Well, according to today’s Gospel story, maybe suspicion and disapproval and trouble. Jesus, the author of the anti-Prosperity Gospel, said there would be NO reward and in fact we should reach out to the very ones who CANNOT repay us. Jesus said the only thing you can expect in return is some kind of recompense at the “resurrection of the righteous.” The exact meaning of that phrase is not clear, but it is clear that Jesus is not promising a literal payback. He’s promising intangible rewards of the spiritual kind.
When we disregard social expectations, ignore the cost to our status or success, and choose instead to love selflessly, the Spirit forges us into authentic community and forms us into spiritually mature individuals. We change. WE change. Not the size of our bank accounts or the size of our congregation. But whenever our faith community welcomes those not welcomed elsewhere, we become God’s beloved community. We are resurrected from deadening convention and are able to do a new thing. Which is the very work of Creator God.
Through ongoing discernment, through communal worship, through private meditation and observation of the world around us, you and I, dear table companions, are discovering what really matters. Through the meal we share each week, we are practicing our table manners.
O God, what lessons you offer at your spacious table. Amen