Proper 17C: A Place at the Table

Banquet TableFIRST LESSON:  Jeremiah 2: 4-13

Read the passage from Jeremiah

So, this is part of the “plucking up and plowing down” that we read of last week, apparently.  The second chapter of Jeremiah starts by going back to the time of the Exodus out of Egypt, when God idyllically delivered God’s people from bondage.  But here, God is sort of cross-examining Israel, asking them what exactly went wrong. At first reading, it sounds like the ancestors wandered away from God.  But, reading on, it is clear that they found nothing wrong with God.  The ancestors are being held out as faithful witnesses for God for more recent generations.

These ancestors did not need to ask “Where was God”, because their faith remained in God even through places of wilderness and darkness.  Eventually, God did bring Israel into the “land of plenty”.  But those recent generations who settled in the Promised Land, with everything for which to give thanks, did not respond with thanks.  Instead, they defiled the land and did not seek God.  They stupidly refused what God offered them and were foolish enough to ask where God was when God was right there all along.

Now remember that this is set in the context of the Sinai covenant, a mutual covenant between God and Israel.  But Israel has defaulted on its obligations.  They did not listen to the stories that they were supposed to remember, the stories of the God that led their ancestors out of the wilderness so that the current generation could have what it has.  Even the priests have forgotten the story, the ones who are supposed to lead the remembering.  There is a sharp contrast here between life that is “worthy” and life that is “worthless” (i.e. empty or vain).  Israel has exchanged the practices that construct a God-given life of true worth for a flimsy human structure based on questionable political alliances and religious compromises.  They had, rather, spent their days “keeping up with” those around them and had forgotten what it meant to participate in God’s redeeming work.

Walter Brueggemann has observed that what they had not spoken was the story of who they were as the people of God. They became worthless in serving worthless gods because they had not recounted the story of God’s actions in their history in creating them as a people. Several passages in the Torah instruct the people to retell the story of God’s deliverance in the Exodus to their children. In fact, those instructions are often cast as answers to questions: “When your children ask in time to come . . . then you shall tell them . . .” Even today, in modern Jewish Passover services that celebrate this event as the defining moment of God’s revelation to his people, the story of the exodus begins with a child asking questions.  Instead, they had chosen to turn away from the God who gave them the Promised Land.

The point is that part of being faithful witnesses is to ask the right questions.  That was the problem.  The people and even the religious leaders had quit asking questions.  They had quit asking, as generations before them had done, the question “Where is God?”  Where is God in my life?  Where is God in my family?  Where is God in my work?  Where is God in what I desire?  Where is God in every aspect of my being?  Perhaps we have the same problem.  After all, do we talk more about God or about what we do (or should do) to deserve God or find God or be with God?  This is a call to return, to return to the God who created us, who walks with us, and who continually and forever compels us to be better than we are, to be the one that God calls us to be.  Maybe our biggest problem is that we, like those who came before us about whom the prophet Jeremiah writes, are so sure of ourselves that we have quit listening, that we have quit asking questions of God and waiting for a response.  Or maybe something in our theology tells us that we must act like we’re sure, act like we’re faithful, and never question.

I think that when people find out that you went to seminary, they assume that you have all the answers.  Sorry, I guess I missed the class with all the answers!  The truth is, seminary doesn’t give you answers; it rather teaches you how to ask the questions.  And what you come to know is that faith is not about knowing; it’s more about trusting God enough to not need all the answers.  It’s about asking, always asking the questions so that God can respond in the way that God does.  And it’s about believing that somewhere in the depths of our questions and our confusions is an ever-present God who is God not just over the right answers but all of life itself.


  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What for you is the distinction between a life of “worth” and a life of “worthlessness”?
  • What is so important about telling these stories and passing them along?
  • How does this passage speak to us today?
  • Where is God….?



NEW TESTAMENT:  Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Read the passage from Hebrews

The author of Hebrews, in concluding this treatise (not really a letter), offers guidance regarding the shared life in the Christian community. As members of that community, people of faith are expected to “show hospitality to strangers”, to extol mutual love in these early faith communities. Inns existed, but because they were frequented by prostitutes and bandits, travelers generally stayed with other persons of faith.  They took care of each other.  This probably refers to the love within these communities rather than a broader love of all humanity.  In other words, this was a love of brothers and sisters in Christ.  Perhaps you will entertain “angels”, as Abraham did at Mamre: he looked after three men who were either angels or God himself.

This hospitality is one way that this love becomes real.  And taking care of each other providing havens of safety was the way that the Gospel would be spread.

The writer is also concerned that infidelity and greed can corrupt community life, so those should be avoided. God will look after your needs. (The quotation is God’s words to Joshua, after Moses died.) Emulate the way of life of your past “leaders”, now deceased. Jesus is always the same; the “word of God” that they spoke continues. Be “strengthened” by God’s gift of love, not merely law. Being a believer may involve persecution and even martyrdom; remember and share Jesus’ suffering. Focus on eternal life, not earthly. Offer the “sacrifice” of thanksgiving, made in faith. Lead an exemplary life of faith so your present “leaders” can be proud of you.

Most of us want to live a good life and be good persons.  This passage exhorts us to not neglect to do good and to share what we have.  Sacrifices such as this, according to the writer, are pleasing to God.  The claim here is that one cannot do good alone, but only in the context of this faith community of mutual love.  For this writer, this meant practicing fidelity and sharing one’s resources with each other.  To the writer of Hebrews, worship cannot be real unless it is in the context of doing good and sharing with one another.  After all, we never know who we are welcoming and we never know who we are turning away.  And, truth be told, they are all children of God.  It is through our love and compassion of each other—of all of us–that we truly praise God.  And it is through sharing ourselves with one another, being part of one another, that we know who God is.  Remember, do this in remembrance of me.  It is in that remembering that we receive life.


  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does hospitality mean to you?
  • What do you think of the idea of worship as doing good and sharing with others?
  • What would this message mean for our 21st century community?
  • How do we usually look at faith communities as compared to the depiction in this passage?
  • In what ways is our definition of hospitality different from this depiction in this passage?



GOSPEL:  Luke 14:1, 7-14

Read the Gospel passage

Here Jesus is not just eating with the unmentionables but with the Pharisees, those who are the leaders in the community. To imagine this we must assume that Jesus must have given the impression that he was an acceptable guest, ie. that he observed Torah strictly. Either Luke is making something up here or he is reflecting what was likely to have been the case: Jesus’ greatest conflicts were with those closest to him: the Pharisees. Why? Probably because they felt betrayed by his behavior. He was observant of Torah but in a radically different way. Still, at least Luke believed his manner of observance still made him acceptable to some leading Pharisees.

Here, we are also confronted by another ‘law’. It is not written law, but rather cultural law and was widely held. Meals are too easily obtained by most of us for us to appreciate their major role in the ancient world. Group meals, whether wedding banquets or communal meals, were an important community event. Jesus is present at such a meal, according to Luke, when he makes these comments.

Among the ‘rules’ for common meals of this kind we often find correct order of seating. There is a place for the most important and the least important and everyone in between. Some groups made a special point of reviewing the pecking order of seating every year. It was a huge thing in first century Palestine.  It is reflected in most meals mentioned in the gospels. Disciples reclining beside Jesus would have a special place. John’s gospel puts the disciple whom Jesus loved into such intimate proximity with Jesus. He lay down with his head close to Jesus’ chest according to John 13:23. Jesus had a corresponding position with God before the incarnation according to John 1:18.

We may smile at those people who always insist on sitting in the same pews or seats in church. But in the ancient world, place was guarded by most even more jealously. Society was strongly hierarchical. There was a place on the ladder. For many it was a matter of survival to make sure they either stayed where they were or climbed higher. Position was not just a matter of individual achievement. It was a community value. It was in some sense given by the group. Your value was inseparable from what others thought about you. Most to be feared was to lose your place, to be embarrassed, to be publicly humiliated by having to take a lower place. Losing face could not be shrugged off as easily as for many of us who have grown up in a strongly individualistic culture. Losing face was almost like losing one’s life.

But here, Jesus instructs the would-be go-getter to avoid putting oneself in the position where a demotion might occur. It is better to play it safe and be shifted up a notch than the reverse.  But the Pharisees were the “good” people of the day.  They were the ones who did everything right, who were always righteous followers of God.

The “banquet” is the clue.  In New Testament theology, it is often used to imply the Reign of God in its fullness.  All are invited, but there are not assigned seats.  We cannot work our way into the banquet or work our way up the table.  In fact, we are to include in our tables the poor, the lame, the disenfranchised, and those on the margins.  And, in true Jesus fashion, we’re supposed to give them our seat and not expect anything in return.  Our seat at the banquet is not the clue to who we are; it is whether or not, like Jesus, we will respond with, “come, sit next to me.”


  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does this passage say about hospitality?
  • Where do you see yourself in this passage?
  • Who’s on your guest list?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Humanity did not invent God, but developed faith to meet a God who is already there. (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Hospitality invites to prayer before it checks credentials, welcomes to the table before administering the entrance exam. (Patrick Henry)

What do I mean “open to God?”  I mean…a courageous and confident hospitality expressed in all directions…I mean an openness which is in the deepest sense a creative and dynamic receptivity—the ability to receive, to accept, to become. (Samuel H. Miller)




Let us be bread blessed by the Lord, broken and shared, life for the world.

Let us be wine, love freely poured.  Let us be one in the Lord. Amen.

(“Let Us Be Bread”, Thomas Porter, The Faith We Sing # 2260)



Epiphany 3C: Reading Between the Lines

Bible with LightOLD TESTAMENT:  Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10

To read the Old Testament passage

This passage that we read from Nehemiah may be a strange one for us.  Essentially, in very detailed precision, it recounts a public reading of the Law of the Torah for a community, not totally unlike the Scripture readings in which we participate each and every Sunday.  The public reading took place on the day that would be the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the seventh month, late in September or early October, according to our modern-day calendar.  The day would be a holy day.

This was not merely a requisite reading as part of a worship service, though.  It was instead a gathering of the community to celebrate and hear the word of God for that community. It was a time of thankfulness, a time of realizing what God had done, a time of becoming who they were called to be before God.  And this community was receptive, was indeed hungry for this word.

The context of this eighth chapter of Nehemiah is set soon after 539 BCE after Cyrus and the Persians conquered Babylon and the Jewish exiles began to return home.  But the city to which they were returning was very different from the one that their community had left.  Their land had been taken and redistributed so they had no way of making a living.  The infrastructure that had previously been there was no more and even the temple, long since destroyed, had not been rebuilt.  They were returning home but for most of them, there was no home to which they could return.  And so, for the most part, the fledgling city of Jerusalem remained unpopulated and unable to move forward and rebuild their lives.

The Book of Nehemiah is mainly about the work of the man Nehemiah, the Persian appointed governor of Judea whose responsibility it was to see that the city of Jerusalem was rebuilt following the return of these exiles.  The walls had to be rebuilt, the city had to be repopulated, the social abuses had to be corrected, the worship life had to return as a central part of the community, and the community of faith had to once again become who God intended them to be.  Needless to say, this was no small feat!  The first six chapters of the Old Testament book that we know as Nehemiah outlines the beginning of that rebuilding process.  Then in chapter 7, we are given a long list of returned exiles who have settled back in their towns.  These were the ones who had come home.  These were the ones whose character and traditions would lay the foundations to rebuild the community.  They knew what they needed to do that.  They knew that they needed some help.  And so, they ask Ezra to read the “law of Moses” to them.

Here they are, it says, gathered in a square opposite the Water Gate.  This was an area of the worship space in which laypeople could enter.  It may have been in the vicinity of the spring of Gihon, which was once Jerusalem’s main water source.  And they all came—men, women, and at least some children (all who could “hear with understanding”).  This was a very inclusive gathering.  And here were these people—concerned about their homes, their families, whether or not they would ever recover from what they had been through.  So they asked Ezra the scribe to read from the book of Law, the Torah, those words that had guided them for centuries and provided a compass for their very lives.

So Ezra stood on a raised platform, surrounded by some of the lay leaders, unrolled the scroll, and began to read.  And as he began to read, the people stood, a sign of reverence and respect.  This was not a passive crowd.  They really wanted to hear.  They really wanted to understand.  They really wanted to find in those words the comfort and strength and hope that they had always found.  As he read, it says that there were responses of “Amen, Amen” as they listened and understood.  The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.  The passage says that Ezra read from early morning until midday and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of law.  Can you imagine?  A Scripture reading that lasted at least four hours.  Oh admit it, most of our congregation would have been long gone.  (Good thing there wasn’t a football game that day!)  So the next time you complain about a sermon or a prayer that is too long, I want you to remember this passage.

This reading is about both the faithful and joyous reception of God’s Word seen in the people.  For them, the Word of God comes to life through these words.  The point is that these were not just words…this was the story, their story, and ours.  The celebration at the end is not, as we might think, because the reading is over.  It is because the sacred memories were alive once again.  Once again, the people have remembered who they are.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said this:  The Word of Scripture should never stop sounding in your ears and working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love.  And just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did.  That is all.  That is meditation…Do not ask “How shall I pass this on?” but “What does it say to me?”  Then ponder this Word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does it mean to you for the “Word of God” to come to life?
  3. What is a “faithful and joyous” reception of the Scriptures? What stands in our way of having that?
  4. What does it mean to “hear with understanding”?
  5. What does it mean to you for the Word to “take possession of you”?



NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Corinthians 12: 13-31a

To read the Epistle passage

This passage is a continuation of the Epistle that we read last week.  Once again, the passage focuses on our unity, our common body in which we live.  Paul is speaking here to some disunity and discord that had taken place because of views toward gifts.  Paul is affirming the presence of spiritual gifts but in his own way is also warning that just because someone possesses “spiritual gifts” does not necessarily make them “spiritual”.

According to Paul, whatever does not embody and reflect love is not Christian spirituality.  Paul claims that because we are of one body, the Body of Christ, there ought to be a sense of unity and solidarity.  According to the passage, all of these gifts, indeed, all of these roles are vital for the life of the whole Christian community.  The roles relate to particular functions, not to any sense of status on its own.  Paul’s list is not a complete compendium.  It is about functions within the roles that make up the community.

Paul challenges us to see ourselves as the embodiment of Christ in the world, not primarily as individuals but as local communities, yet belonging also to a larger whole. Difference is acknowledged. People are not all the same. They do not all have the same abilities. The common life is nothing other than the life of Christ, the life of the Spirit. This remains the constant. We are not asked as individuals to be Christ or Christs, let alone saviours of the world, although many suffer from this misconception and the burn out it produces. We are asked to be members of a body, of Christ, and to play our part – not more, not less.

It is essentially a discussion about stewardship, about using what God has given you and infused into your life to build up and bring in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.  But it is also about using the gifts of others, honouring them and empowering others to use their gifts.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. In what ways do gifts contribute to or deflect from the unity of Christ’s Body?
  3. What, then, does this say about what the Body of Christ is or what it should be?



GOSPEL:  Luke 4: 14-21

To read the Gospel passage

So, here, Jesus returns to his “hometown”, so to speak.  They had heard about how the hometown boy was doing good elsewhere and they all showed up to be taught by one of their own.  They had high praise for him.  As was the custom, Jesus stood in the synagogue to read.  He unrolled the scroll and began to read.  But something happened in the midst of the reading.  He saw himself differently after reading the lyrical words from the scroll.  So did those who heard him that day.  Through this reading, the community was born anew.  They saw things differently.

We probably pretty much take our ability to read or to hear the words read for granted.  But, there’s reading and then there’s reading.  Renita Weems says that “public reading of the Bible today would scarcely move anyone to weep or even to look up from reading the bulletin or filling out the offering envelope.  But every word in the Bible was written with the expectation that most of those who encountered it would hear it as a text read to them in a gathering of believers. This explains the lyrical, poetic, engaging style of much of the language found in the Bible.”

The point here is that reading the bible is more than entertainment or “information gathering”; it is transformation.  The Scripture that was read is a calling to something else.  It is meant to move the hearers (and the reader) beyond where they are.  The Word changes things.  Nothing will ever be the same again.


Hear the Scripture that was read: (Isaiah 61)


The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,  and release to the prisoners;
2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,  and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

5Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; 6but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
7Because their* shame was double, and dishonour was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;  everlasting joy shall be theirs.

8For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Much of that language is summarily tossed aside by us, relegated to a time gone by.  And yet, Jesus stood up before that crowd and read this aloud.  You could say that it was his manifesto.  He was meant to do this from the beginning, meant to shake the world out of its complacency and wake it up so that it might see where the need is the greatest, meant to show us what the world could be, and, indeed, what we were called to be.  Jesus was pointing to God and God’s vision for the world—a vision of good news and release, of recovery and freedom.

So, what do these words mean for our time?  How are we supposed to take them today?  (OK, do we need to read them again.)  These words ARE the words.  What do they mean for our time?  They depict a vision of good news and release, of recovery and freedom.  The fact that words are not comfortable for us to hear does not mean that they are not the truth.  So, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Can you hear me now?  Take the words, roll them around in your heart, and then imagine what vision they hold.  That is the vision to which we are called.  We just have to learn to listen.  We just have to learn to open ourselves to the Spirit that they hold.

Scripture has been compared to a lake whose depths have never been fully plumbed.  On the surface it looks like any other lake; that is, we see human words like those in other books.  But when we jump into the lake and begin to swim downward, we may be unable to find the bottom.  It is as if those human words become transparent to some mysterious and infinite depth we can never fully grasp.  Perhaps that is why one writer can say “Sounding in and through the human words of scripture, like the sea within a conch shell, is another reality, vaster than mind or imagination can compass.  God has chosen to be bound to the words of Scripture; in and through them, the Holy One comes near…It is not that the words magically or mechanically contain God’s Presence, but that as we allow the same Spirit through which the scriptures were written to inform our listening, the presence of God in and beyond those words becomes alive for us once more. (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast:  The Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY:  Westminster-John Knox Press, 1995), 19-20)


  1. What meaning does this hold for you?
  2. What would it mean to truly live these words, to digest them and make them a part of our very being?
  3. Why does our reading of Scripture today fall short of this?
  4. What would happen if we really heard what the Scripture was saying, if we really allowed the Spirit to trickle into our lives from the words?




Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


The larger the island of knowledge, the greater the shoreline of wonder.  (Huston Smith)


We do not always realize what a radical suggestion it is for us to read to be formed and transformed rather than to gather information.  We are information seekers.  We love to cover territory. (Macrina Wiederkehr)


If  then you are wise, you will show yourself as a reservoir than a canal.  For a canal spreads abroad water as it receives it, but a reservoir waits until it is filled before overflowing, and thus communicates, without loss to itself, its superabundant water. (Bernard of Clairvaux)





All-seeing One, above me, around me, within me.  Be my seeing as I read these sacred words.  Look down upon me; look out from within me; look all around me; see through my eyes; hear through my ears; feel through my heart; touch me where I need to be touched.  And when my heart is touched, give me the grace to lay down this Holy Book and ask significant questions.  Amen. (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast:  The Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY:  Westminster-John Knox Press, 1995), 23)