“Setting the Table”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.

 

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

September 1, 2013

Scriptures:  Luke 14:1, 7-14

 

Well, I’ve been with you for four whole weeks now…  In that time, I’ve met a lot of people and learned almost as many names.  I’ve asked a lot of questions and heard a lot of stories.  I’ve learned a few things about this community.  And here’s an important one:  this congregation knows how to eat.

I had a hint of this back in May when Matt and I came to Woodstock for my candidating weekend.  You prepared a wonderful pot-luck on Saturday night, and a great fellowship hour feast on Sunday morning.  I got the sense that eating together was something you do well—and that sense has been very strongly confirmed since I arrived in August.

I’ve had so many opportunities to eat with you that I feel a bit like the Very Hungry Caterpillar—do you know that picture book?  “On Monday, he ate through one apple, but he was still hungry.  On Tuesday, he ate through two pears, but he was still hungry.  On Wednesday, he ate through three plums, but he was still hungry.”  You get the idea.

In these four weeks, I’ve attended one cottage lunch, two cottage dinners, three meetings over meals…  I’ve had four coffee dates, six lunch dates, and innumerable goodies left in the Servery for us to feast on during the week.  You have brought me produce from your gardens—green beans and eggplants and peppers and squashes and tomatoes.  We have shared meals of quiche, and salad, and soup, and lasagna, and stew, and ice cream, and berries, and pound cake, and pie…  We have drunk lemonade and iced tea and cider and coffee…

And then, of course, there’s the chicken barbeque.  When I stopped by the kitchen on Thursday afternoon, the potato salad makers were hard at work, and you should have seen the quantities.  Tray upon tray upon tray of potatoes—more than 150 pounds worth!  An enormous bowl of onions.  Another huge bowl of celery.  Can you imagine all that chopping?  It was a sight to be seen and a smell to be smelled—it was wonderful, and I can attest to its deliciousness after enjoying a helping yesterday at the Fair.

These opportunities for eating show no signs of stopping.  There are more cottage meetings coming up in September, and even more in the works for October.  There are many more lunches and dinners and cups of coffee to be had.  I look forward to feasting with even more of you in the coming weeks and months.

This congregation knows how to eat—which is great, because I do, too… and so did Jesus.

 

In the gospel of Luke, from which today’s scripture reading comes, Jesus is portrayed as particularly interested in eating.  Luke’s gospel contains more references to eating, banquets, tables, and sitting at meals than any of the other three gospels.[1]  The common table and the shared meal are key moments for teaching and conversation between Jesus and his followers, and his antagonists as well.

In today’s text, Jesus sounds a bit like a first-century Palestinian Miss Manners.  “Don’t assume you’re the most important person in the room,” he warns.  “If you seat yourself in the place of honor, and then someone more prestigious than you arrives, you will be humiliated when you have to yield your seat to that luminary and take whatever seat is left, probably the worst one in the house.”  Instead, he counsels us to take a lower seat than we feel we deserve, so that we might look humble when the host invites us to step up and take a higher place.

And then he goes on.  “Don’t think you’re being righteous by inviting those who will reciprocate later,” he says.  “Rather, invite the people who can’t reciprocate—the ones who have no home to invite you to visit, the ones who have no food to share with you, the ones who come from the wrong side of the tracks, the ones whose names will never be found in Who’s Who.  Those are the dinner guests you should invite, because then you will be showing true generosity, not tit-for-tat exchanges disguised as kindness.”

 

We could hear in these teachings an etiquette guide that will keep us from embarrassing ourselves.  We could hear a call to cross the social boundaries that divide us—the lines of race, and class, and education, and language.  We could hear a teaching about the inherent worth and value of every person, about the difference between God’s Who’s Who and ours.

But here’s what I hear in this text today.  I hear a question that echoes behind the words of Jesus’ teaching.  It’s a question implicit in both halves of today’s scripture—in the piece about not seating ourselves in the place of honor, and in the piece about who we ought to invite.  In both of these teachings, Jesus has in the back of his mind this question:  “Who’s not here?”

Who’s not here?

 

Jesus asked a lot of good questions, and this is an important one for us, his followers.  Asking Who’s not here? moves us toward hospitality, toward reconciliation, toward ever-broader connections that take us beyond ourselves.

When we ask ourselves Who’s not here?, we follow in Jesus’ way of wide and extravagant welcome.  Never satisfied with the obvious in-group, Jesus was always inviting new people to feast at his table and to follow his teaching.  And it wasn’t because he needed them to be there—it was because he knew that they needed to be there, that they needed to hear the good news of God’s extravagant love, that they needed to be fed in body and in spirit.  Who do you know who fits that bill?

When we ask ourselves Who’s not here?, we follow in Jesus’ way of building bridges and mending relationships.  Jesus taught his followers to love one another, and not just when it was easy.  He asked them—he asks us—to love one another when it’s hard, too, to offer forgiveness more times than we otherwise would, to be the ones to reach across the gap when it needs to be bridged, to extend an olive branch of reconciliation to our friends and also to our enemies, because they need to know the tenderness of God’s forgiveness, and so do we.  Who do you know who fits that bill?

When we ask ourselves Who’s not here?, we are reminded of our connections with our sisters and brothers throughout time and space.  We remember the women and men who occupied these pews before us, the ones who built this church and carried it on down through the generations, and the ones who are still yet to come.  We remember those who once sat beside us but are now confined to their homes or hospital beds, and those who have moved away, and those who have died, but whose memory and influence lives on.  Who do you know who fits that bill?

 

Jesus asked a lot of good questions, and this one—Who’s not here?—is an important one.  Because here’s the thing:  God calls us to a table where everyone— everyone—has a place.

At God’s welcome table, corporate CEOs sit next to single moms on welfare.  Israelis break bread with Palestinians.  Border Patrol guards pass the salt to undocumented immigrants.  Republicans and Democrats pour drinks for one another.  People of all racial and ethnic backgrounds hold hands and say grace together, because the content of their character is much more important than the color of their skin.

At God’s welcome table, sisters and brothers who haven’t spoken in years embrace.  Our beloved dead sit beside us again.  Our long-ago forebears and our yet-to-be-born descendants enjoy one another’s company.  And God delights in it all.

God’s sets before us a table where everyone has a place.  And here’s where it starts:  at this communion table.  Here Jesus is the host and we are all his guests.  Here, everyone is welcome and there is more than enough for everyone.  Here we break bread and share the cup together—and this feast that we share becomes a part of us.  It sinks into our bellies and changes us from the inside out until we become living invitations to the welcome feast of God, until the day comes when we don’t have to ask, “Who’s not here?” because every person under heaven knows that she is welcome, and every child of God knows that he is loved, and every sister and brother can eat together at the welcome feast of God.

Amen.



[1] Sadler, Jr., Rodney S.  “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 14:1, 7-14.”  In Bartlett, David, and Barbara Brown Taylor.  Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, p. 21.