Belmont UMC—September 1, 2013
Adam Kelchner, preaching
There is a feast set on that table. It is a simple meal of baked bread and the fruit of the vine. And in its simplicity there are deep, mysterious, and sacred characteristics. Some how in the setting of the table, the blessing of the cup and the breaking of the bread, this community of faith discovers the eternal saving grace of God. In our celebration of this feast at the Lord’s table, we live into one of Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples before his death. ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’
Years ago upon the death of my grandfather’s eldest brother, my great aunts, beloved cousins, and I sat around the dining room table looking at old discolored photographs. The particular photo that caught my eye was of a wedding banquet: there were tables stretched end to end across a room as wide as this sanctuary, candelabras adorning the tables every few feet, loaves of bread as big as tree trunks, and finely dressed Sicilian men and women dwarfed by the high backs of the banquet chairs. Indeed it looked like a party to remember-a feast of a lifetime. I doubt anyone went home hungry after that wedding banquet.
As I think back through my childhood and all the times I gathered around table with this extended family of Sicilians, I realize they probably inherited their table manners from aunts, uncles, and grandparents who planned that wedding feast captured in that dusty photograph. Often after dining on salad, homemade buttered bread, olives, cold cut deli meat, lasagna, coffee, delicately crafted cookies from the local bakery, and biscotti, I’d have to insist to my Aunt Rissa and Aunt Mae I couldn’t possibly eat anymore food. And despite my insistence another plate of noodles and sauce would make its way onto my place mat. Around Aunt Rissa’s dining room table I began tasting the fullness of grace. Maybe this is why Jesus spends so much time at dinner parties and ministering with food-indeed the Gospel of Luke has more stories of Jesus and food than Matthew, Mark, or John-these dinner situations can be powerful experiences and signs of the abundance of God’s grace.
So here we find ourselves in the middle of another one of Jesus’ teaching moments while he’s at a Sabbath meal at the home of a Pharisee. The lesson is one on humility and hospitality. After he sees guests jockeying for the place of honor he begins to teach. Don’t assume you should be sitting at the head table-you might embarrass yourself if the dinner host has that place assigned for someone else. Pick a place of low esteem so that you might be lifted up. No need to cause undue embarrassment for yourself.
Then Jesus goes on as he turns to his host to offer a few instructive words. I can just imagine the host’s eyes open wide as he hangs on each word wondering if Jesus is going to criticize the manner in which he prepared the Sabbath meal. Don’t invite the powerful and privileged-that’s self serving. If you throw a fine party and your close circles come, well then of course they’re going to invite you to their next get together. That’s not much more than an insular self serving cycle of private parties.
I’ve dined around many of your tables, sometimes for business and other times for celebration. I know that in the love you have for one another you break bread together often. You generously open your homes and make sure that guests are well fed. You understand the abundance that comes forth from God’s grace and your dinner menus reflect that.
And I suppose that the dining etiquette of Jesus’ contemporaries is not a far cry from the way we still plan who to sit by, what to wear, what to say, what not to say, and how to conduct one’s self at the dining table, when we break bread together as family, colleagues, business partners, fellow Christ-followers, and wedding guests. We do all these things for esteem and so that we might be invited back to dine another day.
But have you ever heard after the fact about a party or a dinner gathering that a close friend held? Perhaps you waited day after day for the invitation for an upcoming gathering but it never came. And you always thought that your relationship with this friend or family member guaranteed you a seat at their table? You know, a table, a meal, an invitation-they have a way of being very effective tools of bringing some people close and keeping others away-in other words, discrimination. This is the underside of a feast as we know it-a guest list that has been carefully culled over means someone isn’t getting an invitation. Our private parties are meant to be exclusionary but Jesus points out so clearly that the Lord’s Table is far from a private party.
Let’s get back to those words Jesus has about the guest list- do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, those who are disabled, the lame, and the blind. As much as Jesus is giving sound practical advice on how to be invited to the place of honor, this teaching points to something much deeper about what God is doing in the world. It’s a strong word to the church about who needs a place set at the table. Who desperately needs an invitation to Christ’s table because they are not welcome at any other table of power and privilege?
This table, Christ’s table, is set first for those who are at the greatest social and spiritual disadvantage-you who typically have no table on which to eat your meals, if you eat at all; you who have no place to call home anymore because your families despise you; you whose hands are blistered and calloused from work but still struggle to pay rent and put food on your child’s plate; you who have come to Christ’s table before to experience grace and all you found on the menu were plates full of condemnation and cups full of hatred; you whose sexual identity marks you for discrimination in the church, you who by the color of your skin can’t live and work in places without the weight of discrimination bearing down on you-Christ’s table is set for you. The good news of Jesus the Christ is that if you’ve ever been turned away at another table, it is time for you to come and feast on God’s grace. No one is turned away at this banquet feast. Come and be filled.