The Welcome Table

Sermon for Pentecost 15, August 28 2016 // Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Encinitas, CA.

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.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor,
he told them a parable.

“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;
and 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.
But 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.
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He 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.
But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you,
for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

The gospel of the Lord.

+++++++

Grace, peace, and light to you from our loving and gracious God.

We have a custom in this profession of “preacher’s privilege” and I am going to claim a bit of that now.

I have been honored to be able to spend the summer with you all and take you on a journey through worship, this work together that we do, that forms us into the body of Christ and transforms us for service to the neighbor. What I saw and experienced last week at Bethlehem Serves – as we saw in the wonderful video earlier – was a community that is deeply committed to that service. I hope that this journey also helped you to understand that all of our ministries share a common genesis in our worship together here on Sundays. Those ministries, and indeed our entire lives, are also worship. My experience here has been one of deep and lasting joy, and I am very grateful.

When I began to prepare this project, it didn’t even occur to me to look at the lectionary texts for the season – the lessons we read each week. I knew that my time here was a set item; I wasn’t able to shift the timing of the project to “match” the best lessons.

So the Holy Spirit did it for me.

Seriously. As my project progressed, every week the lessons of the day somehow spoke to what my project was unpacking that week.

Our lessons come from all over the Bible, but the gospel lessons this summer were all from the gospel of Luke. And the clarion call to justice that we find in Luke intersected with my explanations of the things we discover and the skills we develop in each part of the liturgy, to help us understand how we are transformed for service.

Now, you may have noticed a pattern in Luke’s gospel: Jesus stands up for the little guy. The marginalized. The forgotten ones. Those who are generally referred to as “them.” Not “us.”

When he stands up, Jesus also has a tendency to say things that are tough to hear. Things like…
Let the dead bury their own dead.
I have come…to bring division.
One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.

And we who might not call ourselves “marginalized” begin to squirm. Are you talking to ME, Jesus?

But this week I noticed a shift in Jesus’ tone that I found most striking.

You see, Jesus has for weeks – WEEKS – been saying things that seem to imply that being “of means” (as the saying goes) is a bad thing.

But THIS week, Jesus neither criticizes his hosts nor any of the guests for their wealth.

He certainly could have. This is the second time in Luke’s gospel that he has a series of confrontations with the Pharisees and their crowd. You’ll note that in verse 1 today, we learn that everyone gathered at this particular Pharisee’s home was “watching him closely.” He’s already in the hot seat (not that he cares).

But Jesus is taking his teaching to another place. In the first part of the gospel, he echoes today’s first lesson: don’t take the seat of honor when you are invited to a dinner. Then you run the risk not only of embarrassment yourself if asked to move, but of embarrassing the host who must do the asking!

That lesson originates in the Book of Proverbs. This is a part of what is called “Wisdom Literature”, a genre of Jewish sacred texts that provide guidance and, well, WISDOM on how one should live one’s life.

So when Jesus gives this directive, he is reminding his audience of their own tradition. He’d noticed how folks were jockeying for position and he stepped in for a reality check.

One thing to keep in mind when reading the gospel of Luke: this gospel holds Torah and the temple in high regard. Wisdom Literature does not rise to the same level, but it is highly regarded within the tradition.

But this is not simply Jesus as first-century-Emily-Post or first-century-Miss-Manners. While it might SOUND like it, this is not simply Jesus saying, when you are invited to dinner don’t be a jerk. Don’t be THAT GUY.

No, this is Jesus talking about the kind of humility and servant’s heart that are essential elements of the kingdom of God. When Jesus recalls the wisdom tradition, it functions as a known quantity and also as something of a calling card for his audience.

I believe he uses this to set up what comes next: his advice to the host of the meal – to invite those who cannot repay him to his feast.
There’s an interesting difference in two of the four translations I consulted for today: two of them translate the Greek as “wedding feast” but the other two translate it as “feast or dinner.”

My Greek tools tell me the more accurate translation is “feast or dinner.” Here’s what I’m pondering: a wedding feast is a relatively infrequent occasion. A feast or dinner, however – that’s a different story. That could be quite frequent. And that changes the impact.

While pondering the frequency discrepancy, though, we can’t escape the latest in hard-to-hear Jesus advice about such occasions: invite people who can’t pay you back.

The reason for this is actually quite simple.

God operates on a gift and grace economy. If you invite people who can return the favor, that is operating on a transactional economy.

Think about this.

Almost the entire world is built on the idea of a transactional economy. IF I give you money, THEN you will sell me your goods. IF I want your goods, THEN I will have to give you money in trade. In contract law, this is called “consideration.”

But God’s economy is one of gift and grace. There are no requirements in order to receive that grace. It is a true gift, one given with no expectation of anything in return.

Instead – the expectation is that the recipient then becomes a giver themselves.

In the picture Jesus describes, which might be entitled “the Feast of the Others” – the host is encouraged to use his resources to enact a grace economy. It’s not bad to have resources – the question is what you will do with those resources! So Jesus says, invite those who can’t pay you back. It’s not for you to know how or when they step into the “pay it forward” role. It is simply for you to make that grace economy happen.

Why? Because what Jesus is saying, the advice he’s giving, is actually a set of instructions to become a participant in building the kingdom of God. The picture he paints here is one of “the feast to come” – not just the in-breaking kingdom of God, the “already”, but the incarnate, the eternal kingdom of God – the “not yet.”

A few years ago, I experienced for the first time the Sunday evening worship and dinner that takes places every week at Central City Lutheran Mission (CCLM) in San Bernardino, California – the poorest per-capita zip code in the United States.

Each week, a partner church sends a team to prepare and serve a dinner for anyone who has need. That team also worships with the folks who come for the service at 5. Dinner’s at 6-ish.

I watched as throughout the service, the old, somewhat decrepit chapel filled up with people: young, old, African American, Hispanic, disabled, homeless, poor – and then the little pocket of us white folks who kind of stood out, to be honest.

But we were all gathered around Christ’s table, in a sanctuary that doubles as a night shelter for homeless men, and we were all fed with the bread of life. We all received God’s love and grace without price. After worship, we all stood in line for dinner together and joked and laughed. And as I sat at the table with folks I’d have never met otherwise, I realized: THIS IS THE KINGDOM OF GOD. THIS. RIGHT HERE. IN SAN BERNARDINO.

People with no way in the world to repay the generosity they received were warmly welcomed and encouraged to come back for seconds. And people from the partner churches who might not have ever gone anywhere near CCLM found themselves becoming transformed instruments of God’s grace and welcome – and signing up for the next opportunity to serve.

Dear brothers and sisters, I think this is the same kind of transformation that keeps Bethlehem Serves going – and GROWING – every year.

We make school bags for children we will never meet.
Toiletry kits for people that many call “THOSE.”
We do painting for a shelter that will benefit women we’ll never know.
We do work for other non-profits who are a little short-handed – whose work will benefit more people than we realize.

A friend and I tried to figure out how many people were and will be positively impacted by the work of Bethlehem Serves on August 21, 2016. We quickly determined it was well into the thousands. The THOUSANDS.

We talked last week about the table of the Eucharist – Holy Communion – becoming the table of the world.

It is the welcome table. In the African American tradition, “Welcome Table” is a vocalized wish for radical inclusion by a people who have been systematically excluded.

WELCOME TABLE is a claim to a rightful place at the table.
WELCOME TABLE is a claim to decent and sufficient food.
WELCOME TABLE is a claim to life lived fully in God’s abundant and amazing grace.

And WELCOME TABLE gives voice to those whom Jesus urges us to invite to the feast.

We will set this table, week after week, so that we may be about God’s work of invitation, and so that we may learn to dance in that economy of grace.

long banquet tables

Meal. AKA Banquet, Feast.

 

We have spent the summer exploring how liturgy – our worship of the triune God – calls us to justice, through things we discover and skills we develop.

We come this week to probably the most radical element of our worship together: the Meal.

“Radical” because this is a meal without boundaries.  It’s a meal that transcends our human walls of race, class, gender, identity markers, and all the other ways we place restrictions on each other.

“Radical” also because this is a meal that transcends time.  This meal happens here and now, but it also happens across the continuum of time.  We are on this side of the table, and those who have gone before us – what the author of Hebrews calls “so great a cloud of witnesses” – are seated on the other side.

So this meal holds life, and it holds memory.  It holds hope and promise.  All of those held together remind us that this is “a shared meal of justice and love, where food is shared equally with all, where the goodness of God’s earth is respected and consumed only within limits, and where food and help are also sent to those outside this circle.”  (Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things.)

-In this meal, we discover:

*the concept of living in peace with those with whom we share other tables: tables for meals, tables on the shop-floor, tables in the office, tables in the market – and a host of other tables.

There are people in our congregations with whom we do not agree on some things.  That is the reality of the human family.  In gathering around the table where Holy Communion is celebrated, we admit that reality and also claim that God’s love and grace is sufficient – there is so much more that unites us than divides us.

This is a critically important discovery to take out into the world.  Luke’s gospel has the central motif of a meal running all through it – important things happen within the context of a meal.  I think this is because sharing a meal has for thousands of years been the basic symbol of hospitality and welcome.  A few weeks ago we heard the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the strangers traveling through their land, and of course they rushed to prepare a meal and show hospitality.  The “meal” we bring to the world from this table might be actual food, enacted justice, or something else – but it is always God working through us in spite of our differences with others.

How many times have we heard stories told of when someone not only encounters, but actually gets to know someone they might have termed “other”?  Over and over we hear of stereotypes shattered and friendships established.  God truly can make a way out of no way.

*realizing our dependence on God’s providence

This is probably one of the most difficult concepts for American Christians to grasp.  This, after all, is the land of rugged individualism.  But where the idea of “rugged individualism” falls short is in the actual workings of democracy.  A concern for the common good is essential for a democracy or democratic republic to function properly.  Selfishness and hoarding for oneself only function to set oneself over again – if not above – God.

One of our offering prayers – prayers we share after we have collected gifts for the sake of the work of the church in the world – reminds us “through your goodness you have blessed us with these gifts: our selves, our time, and our possessions.  Use us, and what we have gathered, in feeding the world with your love…”

When we acknowledge and recognize that everything comes from God, and that we are entrusted with things as stewards, it helps us to reframe how we use those things.

*experiencing the coming reign of God – but in an “already/not yet” way

A line from the beloved text “Let the Vineyards Be Fruitful” is “and give us a foretaste of the feast to come.”  This foretaste is not in the food so much as it is in the character of the community seated for the feast:  people from all times and places, from all walks of life, on all sides of the political spectrum, united as the body of Christ.  This prayer asks that we might catch a glimpse of that feast.

In our “already” world, we might struggle with the idea of being united at the table with someone whose politics are the polar opposite of ours.  We might chafe at the prospect of sitting next to THAT person whose choices make no sense to us.  But Christ came to remove the walls that divide us, and reconcile us to our loving God and each other.  While we squirm in the discomfort of the “already”, do we dare imagine what the “not yet” might be?  Can we get our heads wrapped around the image of a banquet table where there is no division or strife – only rejoicing?

-In this meal, we develop:

*the skills of distribution and sharing across barriers

No one at my congregation is quizzed or vetted before they come to the table to be fed.  Distribution is to everyone as they have need.  The barriers of race or class, of gender identification or of mobility are consciously and intentionally removed.  Just a few weeks ago I brought communion out to a woman who had distinct mobility issues; I will never forget the tears in her eyes when she realized that she was included without question.

*a sense of equality (and equity) and the valued place of all people and all creation

No one gets better bread than someone else.  No one gets better wine than someone else.  We provide white grape juice and gluten-free wafers for those who have need, in the interest of caring hospitality.  If someone brings their dog on Sunday, and brings them forward for a blessing, we are happy to give it.  God’s peaceable reign is for all of creation; we are called to embody that reign in any way we are able.

*an awareness of participating in the life of heaven

When we explained the Scandinavian church architecture custom of a half-circle communion rail – the idea is that those who have died are kneeling at the other side of the rail – there were audible gasps in the church.  So the following All Saints’ Day we had people bring pictures of deceased loved ones and clip them to a frame behind the altar, instead of setting them on tables to the side.  As the Eucharistic Prayer was prayed, we had an evisceral sense of what the Celts call “the thin place” – where the line between heaven and earth is so thin that you can see it for a fraction of a second.  We were on this side of the table; our loved ones were sitting across from us.

But the life of heaven is not just at the banquet table for the feast.  It is also knowing that as we depart from the feast, we take the character of the feast out into the world, so that others might experience the grace and love and mercy of God through our actions.  The life of heaven is a life that transcends our lived experience, not to mention our words – but it is always around us.

*our practicing the virtues of justice, generosity, and hope

In this meal, we practice the virtue of justice when we proclaim “all are welcome at Christ’s table.”  We practice the virtue of hope in our prayers that God will continue to work through Christ and the Spirit not only in this meal to form us into the body of Christ, but also to transform us for service in the world.  We practice the virtue of generosity as we move from the table to do justice and mercy in the world.

Luther insisted that this meal enacts God’s movement in Christ towards us and beyond us.  As we receive Christ, so we are moved to share Christ with the world.

This table of the meal, the Eucharist – becomes the table of the world.  The gifts of God for the people of God.  And the gifts of the people for the sake of the world.

THIS is the welcome table.

You may have heard the news report a while ago about the engaged couple whose groom called off the wedding just a day or so before the ceremony.  Rather than have the caterer throw away all the food that was in the process of being prepared for the wedding reception, the bride’s family instead elected to feed the homeless in their town.

They could have fed their friends and relatives, all the while kvetching about the groom.  Instead, they invited to the feast those who couldn’t repay them – as we’ll hear in our gospel text on August 28th.

Feast for the homeless

Christ invites each one of us to a feast we cannot repay, asking only that we go and do likewise.  That we instead pay it forward.

This indeed is the welcome table.

Caught in Grace – Called into Community – Created for Service

 

The title above is the tag line that Bethlehem Lutheran adopted during its 50th anniversary year in 2012.  It expresses clearly our experience as Lutheran Christians together on this journey.  This past weekend, we heard about how our young people lived this experience out daily on their annual service trip.

As I listened to stories from the trip, I was struck by how well these folks had absorbed what I’ve been talking about all summer – that our worship together forms us as the people of God and the body of Christ, and then transforms us for service in the world.  That is how their days were structured: worship together, leading to service in the world.

Looking at the tag line above, we are all “caught in grace” by the crazy and endless love that God pours out on God’s world – most deeply expressed in Jesus.  This love given freely to us and for us then frees us to love and serve the neighbor without consideration, without expectation of anything in return.

Jonathan, our youth director, raised up an aspect of worship that is critically important to keep in mind as we consider its transformational aspect: worship calls us into community – or, more accurately, the Holy Spirit works through our worship to call us into community.  That relational dimension, being made into the body of Christ, gives us the joy and the strength for the difficult work of being Christ to the neighbor.

We stand in the assurance that we are loved unconditionally by God.  Answering the call into community teaches us that all are loved unconditionally by God.  Jesus responds to the question “what is the greatest commandment” with two answers: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  It’s a bit of a twist on a cyclical pattern: God loves us and all the earth.  In thanksgiving for that love, we not only love God but we also love the neighbor and all creation.  I talked about it in a sermon recently as “pay it forward.”

I think this is the “created for service” part.  We love, because God first loved us.  Our neighbor-love takes form in more ways than we can count.  All of our ministries at Bethlehem, and through the wider church, are a form of neighbor-love.  We do these things because our hearts have been moved by the love of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, to be compassion poured out.

A few days into the week, I started receiving texts and emails from my colleagues in the East Bay area who were gifted with some of our young people serving at their sites.  They were deeply grateful for the hard work but were particularly grateful for the kind hearts, joyful spirits, and abundant generosity of 36 young people and 8 adult leaders.

These are the same young people that came to my house a couple of summers ago and washed ALL MY WINDOWS (I have nearly 30!).  They had posted a photo from that year’s summer trip of some window washing, and I posted jokingly “hey you should come wash my windows and I’ll make a donation to the youth group!”

Less than 24 hours later, one of the kids was on the phone and wanted to know if they could come out the following Saturday.

I was stunned.  What kind of young people do these things?  I told him I didn’t intend to MAKE them wash my windows!  But he insisted they wanted to do it.  So I told him I’d make tacos and they should bring their bathing suits and they could have a dip in the pool.

What kind of young people do these things?

Young people who are caught in grace.  The grace of God, lavishly poured out in Christ crucified, risen, and walking with us on the road.

Young people who are called into community – into relationship with one another and with God, through Christ’s example and the Holy Spirit’s working in their lives.

Young people who are created for service, and who not only realize that is how they are created but eagerly lean right into it as the logical next step after worship of the Triune God.

Grace, community, and service enable each other.  They move together in a dance that gives us a glimpse of the peaceable reign of God.

With cool t-shirts.

BLCYM 2016 Summer Trip044