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

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