Lectionary Texts: Luke 14: 1, 7-14 / Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, August 28, 2016
- Where is Your Place at the Table?
So, where is your place at the table? If you are the first one to arrive, where do you sit? I guess I tend to gravitate to the middle. I suppose I’m humble enough to not want to be counted at the head of the table, but I am, admittedly, selfish enough to want to at least be part of the conversation and not be relegated down to the end. What about you? Where do you usually sit?
So, if you go to a play or a concert that doesn’t require you to sit where your ticket assigns you, where do you sit? My guess is that most of us would try to get up toward the front so that we can take everything in but maybe not the absolute front row which is a little presumptuous (and in some venues almost lower than the actual stage itself). OK, what about Southwest Airlines and that whole cattle call thing? I personally hate it, but I will usually try for toward the front but not the very front and definitely not one of those middle seats.
So, where is your place at church? Why do we want to sit at the front for everything except church? Why, given the choice, do we choose the cheap seats in the back? You’ve been invited to a banquet. Jesus has invited you to a feast. So, where is your place at the table?
- But Who’s Invited?
So, think about this. You get an invitation. You get an invitation to a banquet. It’s from this guy that with whom you’re sort of enamored. You’ve heard him speak. You’ve read some of his stuff. Or maybe all you’ve been able to do is follow him from afar on his Twitter account that has 8,368 other followers besides you. But now…Dinner? Dinner! You get to have dinner with him! So you get dressed in your finest dinner attire and you make sure to arrive late enough to not be the first and early enough to get a good seat, preferably next to the host.
But when you arrive, you are clearly overshadowed, even feeling a little out of place. The people are clearly out of your league—well-known politicians that you’ve only seen on television, wealthy investors, the movers and the shakers, the crux of society. So you hang back a little, prepared to take the last seat at the table—you know the one that’s right by the swinging service door of the kitchen. But as you approach your chair, you hear something incredible. “Hey, come sit beside me.” So, with shaking knees and a throat that seems to be closing with each step, you slip into the chair that is right next to the Master.
So, weeks later, you surprisingly get yet another invitation. You do the same thing. You get dressed up and you head off to the dinner. But THIS time, you’re more comfortable. You sort of know the drill. And you plop down in the same chair as before. But, this time, the host asks you very politely if you wouldn’t mind moving. He shares that there is someone who’s never been here before to whom he would like to offer this seat. So, a little embarrassed even though he was very gracious, you move down and sit in the chair that’s right by the swinging service door of the kitchen. It’s sort of a retelling of today’s Gospel passage with a Twitter feed added.
III. An Uncomfortable Story
We read that Jesus goes to a leader of the Pharisees for a meal. They were watching him closely. See, Jesus was sort of a troublemaker. He had already mixed with the unclean and healed on the Sabbath. These people had rules and this renegade rabbi was running around making them all look bad. God knows what he was going to do next or who he was going to let in the door. They probably felt a little betrayed by him. He was observant of Torah but his take on it was totally different from theirs.
Because, see, there was an etiquette to serving guests in a home. It was more than just a time to share a meal and good company. Meals were the ways that social divisions were maintained and enforced. Who was invited, where and with whom they sat, even what they were fed told the whole story of who was who and who was not. Guests would include people from all levels all society. But those with higher status got the best wine and the best food; others got something that probably tasted more akin to vinegar and portions that were not near as gracious or tasty.
You could also tell who was at the top of popularity charts by the seating arrangement. The host would always be nearest the center. These “tables” weren’t really like ours. They were more often like couches arranged in concentric circles so the host would sit in the center. And the most honored guest would sit nearest the host. But the clincher was that if someone arrived, even late, that was one of higher status, the guest seated nearest the host would be asked to move—well, probably not just asked, but required. So there was always danger in assuming a place of honor. At any moment, you might be asked to move down the line. It really put people in a vulnerable position. Because where you sat defined who you were and it carried out into other parts of life.
So, we may smile a little when we think of those who insist on sitting in the same pew in church. But this was a bigger deal. Where you sat was where you were ranked in the community. It affected how successful you were, how many friends you had, and how important you were. And once it was assigned, it couldn’t be undone.
When I read this passage, I was reminded of our family reunions when I was a child. We have a really large extended family—the reunions are usually over a 100 people. When I was little, we always went to Aunt Mabel’s. She lived in this big ranch-style house in Brookshire with lots of rooms. So my grandparents’ generation would gather around the formal dining room table. Then my parents’ generation (the “first cousins”) would be seated at this really long set of tables that was put up the whole length of the den. The “older” grandchildren (and some of the younger first cousins) were at a table in this center room between the den and the living room. The youngest grandchildren were at the kitchen table. I was part of the “middle” grandchildren and the eight of us were seated down a long hallway, past a bathroom, and crammed into Uncle Nubby’s study. It was not the best seat in the house. The idea was that as you got older, you moved up to the better tables. The problem was that we never moved. We eventually quit having the reunions at that house and my cousin Jo and I just recently realized that we had never really gotten out of the study. See, when you have places of honor that you have to earn your way into or grow your way into, there are always those that are not treated the same. There is always someone that is left out or left behind or just left.
So, Jesus was watching all this as well. And, true to Jesus’ way, he was asking them to think outside of the box of the social norms. First of all, Jesus asked, “what is all this clamoring for the highest seat?” Have a little humility. Don’t always put yourself and your friends and those that you know first all the time. Sit in one of the lower seats and let the host ask you to move up. And, besides that, look at who has been invited. Think about it the way God does. God doesn’t just invite the ones that are wealthy or powerful or important. God doesn’t just invite the ones who are acceptable. God invites everyone—the lost, the blind, the lame and welcomes them in and says, “Come, sit beside me.”
What Jesus was saying is that God’s table doesn’t look like this. God’s table doesn’t have one place of honor; God’s table has only places of honor. God’s table welcomes all. God’s Kingdom takes all that we know, all those rules that we make, all the expectations that we have and turns them upside down. Our seat at God’s banquet is not a clue to who we are. There are no members or non-members, no acceptable and unacceptable ones, no one that is of greater or lesser value to God. Every single person that accepts the invitation to the banquet is met with “come, sit beside me.”
- Entertaining Angels Unawares
So, there’s a lot to this passage. It’s a reminder to us that God welcomes all, that at the table that is prepared for us, there is always room. But it’s also a call for us to look at the ways that we exclude people or relegate them to a lower status based on some arbitrary hierarchy. As those that are made in the very image of God, we are called to welcome as God does, to include those that God includes, to make room at our tables for all who come into our midst.
It’s about hospitality. Remember what it says in the Hebrews passage that we read. We read that we are told to “show hospitality to strangers.” What, really does that mean? Most of us probably think of hospitality as being a good host, offering really good food and plenty of it, perhaps making sure the house is clean and having a centerpiece of beautiful flowers. But it’s so much more.
In Biblical times, hospitality was not just being nice to each other; hospitality was an expectation. When people traveled, they did not stay in inns normally because they were frequented by bandits and prostitutes. Travelers would stay with other persons of faith. They took care of each other. Hospitality meant not just offering welcome, but shelter and safety as well. In fact, people’s lives might depend on being offered hospitality.
Hospitality is from the Latin word, hospes, which means stranger or guest. It’s also the root for hospital and hospice. Early hospitals were not where every sick or injured person went. They were run by nuns usually and provided a place for those who had no where to go. Taking care of those in need was the way the Gospel spread.
- How Hospitable Are We?
So, how hospitable are we? Patrick Henry said that “hospitality invites to prayer before it checks credentials, welcomes to the table before administering the entrance exam.” Hospitality is not just welcoming or being nice; it is sharing who we are and at the same time opening ourselves for others to share themselves with us.
In her book, Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson tells the story of her college graduation trip when her mother and her toured Scotland. On the say that they toured the Highlands, they arrived at their destination town rather late and the bed and breakfast in which they had planned to stay was full. Darkness had fallen and it was raining. They were simply given a boarding house to try and so the cab just dropped them in front of a house with no lights on.
They knocked on the door and a surprised couple answered. They asked if they had room and when the couple answered that someone was already in the room, she said their faces must have reflected their washed out spirits. But they told them to wait outside the door and Marjorie and her mother heard muffled voices. The door opened and the woman told them to come in. She showed them to a lovely room with a warm bed where they sank, exhausted.
The next morning, they were served a scrumptious Scottish breakfast of eggs and sausage, toast and jam and wonderful Scottish tea. It wasn’t until they were gathering their luggage that they realized that the couple had slept on the sofa in the living room. They had given the travelers their own room.
Years ago, I was on a choir tour through Eastern Europe, where we sang in some of the most wonderful cathedrals. In Budapest, we also crossed the river to the poor side of the city and sang in the worship of a small congregation whose average income was $700 per family per year. Following the worship service, they invited us into their fellowship hall for the most incredible banquet that I have ever seen. And they wouldn’t allow us to serve ourselves. Instead, they heaped mountains of food on our plate and brought them to us. $700 a year and they provided us a feast.
You know, we attribute the phenomenal growth of the Christian movement or The Way of Christ, as it was called in those early years following the Resurrection, to evangelists like Paul and the disciples. But historians will tell you that a big part of the reason that the movement grew so fast is because the people of Christ were known for their hospitality. They welcomed everyone into their midst, even if it meant that they were inconveniencing themselves or even putting themselves at risk.
So, did you know that the Latin word from which hospitality and hospitals come is also related to the form of the word from which hostility or even hostage comes. They all have to do with relationships and with strangers. They have to do with the action of the host toward the guest. So, yeah, sometimes providing hospitality is a risky notion. But it’s what we’re called to do.
- Come, Sit Beside Me
Henri Nouwen once wrote that hospitality is “creating space”, not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. So, what that means is that if you open yourselves in hospitality, open yourselves to welcoming others, to gathering in together, you are also opening yourself to change. As we become part of one another, even those who are different from us (no, correct that…ESPECIALLY those who are different from us), we enter the Kingdom of God.
Being a member of a church is not the same as being a member of a club. There’s really no protocol. There’s no entrance requirement. There’s no set fee. Unlike other organizations, we don’t limit ourselves to those who are like us. In fact, we celebrate our differences and grow into them. That’s the reason that we in the United Methodist Church have open communion. Everyone is welcome at our table.
Becoming a part of a church community means that we are responding to God’s invitation to “come sit beside me”. And then with hospitable hearts, we move down the table and free up chairs so that the stranger that comes to the door can be greeted with “come sit beside me.” This banquet that is laid before us is not ours; this is God’s banquet and there’s always room at the table.
You Tube Video: Room at the Table (Carrie Newcomer) at https://youtu.be/92OM5bdQ4N4