Who Will Share Our Table?

September 1, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert
Focus Scripture: Luke 14:1, 7-14

True hospitality is welcoming the stranger on her own terms. This kind of hospitality can only be offered by those who’ve found the center of their lives in their own hearts.
—Henri Nouwen

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.”

Radical hospitality is a theme of both the lesson from Hebrews and Jesus’ parable of the banquet in Luke. As we reflect on these readings, we are invited to celebrate all the ways that God fills our lives with good things and calls us to share the bounty with others. Let us pray, Gracious God, in your goodness, you provide for the needy. Help us to remove from our hearts the pride of place and the pursuit of power that distracts us from true humility. Open our hearts in generosity and justice to the neglected and lonely, that in showing care for others, we may honor and please you through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Amen

I’d like to invite you to recall a memory of a truly fabulous meal that you have attended at some point in your lives. Can you call it to mind and remember the people who were at that table, the food that was served, the ambiance. Was it a simple meal or a big feast? What made it so special to you? Gathering around a table is a wonderful way to mark an occasion, whether joyful or in times of worry or sorrow. We love to gather and share food as well as stories and laughter, perhaps tears. When I was a child, we sat down to dinner as a family almost every night and we still try to do that with our own children. I am guessing many of you were raised that way too. Sadly, I don’t know how many families still sit down together most nights to share a meal. In some of my favorite films, there are scenes of people gathered around a table enjoying an abundance of food and drink, lasting for hours.

If you were a fan of the PBS series, Downton Abbey, you may recall the lavish dinners that were thrown in their estate. And if you were a fan, I’m sure you are eagerly awaiting the film later this month! I was often struck by how often the family dressed up for dinner and how formal dinner parties were such extravagant affairs. On a few occasions, like Christmas, the Lord would invite all of the servants to join the family upstairs to light the Christmas tree, sing Carols and share some refreshments. It was clear that, while the servants enjoyed the gathering, they didn’t feel fully comfortable in this reversal of roles. In that class- based society, a working person would not have typically been invited to the table with the family. There were very clear distinctions about who was fully welcomed there.

In this reading from Luke, we find Jesus sitting at dinner in the home of a Pharisee, with a dinner crowd of “good church members” who watch him with suspicion, Jesus makes observations and gives advice that is really a clear instruction to us all about how to live in the reign of God: when making up our guest lists and deciding how to share the blessings we’ve received. He warns us not to be strategic. Don’t go for reciprocity. Be extravagantly, forgetfully generous. Invite the most unlikely, most unexpected of guests into your home and share that most necessary, most enjoyable experience of eating together. “You will be blessed,” Jesus says, repaid at the resurrection, for sure, but we sense that he’s referring to more immediate blessings as well. Each of us may hunger not just to count our blessings, but to be a blessing as well. In this week’s reading, Jesus helps his followers understand where blessings are to be found, and how to live as a blessing as well. (Reflection by Kate Matthews)

Whenever I hear this reading from Luke, and in other passages where Jesus instructs us to reverse some of the social practices that are common, even for us today, I feel challenged. Can I imagine just inviting folks from the street into my home for a meal? I’m sure we have all extended invitations to friends of friends or family and made room at the table for them. Sometimes, when an unexpected guest arrives it can bring a whole new conversation to the table. But if we take Jesus’ words at face value, it can certainly be a challenge to any of us. There’s also the question of being humble. We’d like to think that we are humble…and that we wouldn’t mind taking the last seat at the table, but would we be hurt if we were invited for a special meal and were seated far away from our host? As we get older, that may mean less to us. Being in a place of importance at the table, or being the center of attention can be exciting, but if we take Jesus at his word, we are invited to extend ourselves generously, to stretch our generosity, to really share what we have and to do so humbly. And not to count the cost; not to expect to be repaid…

In Hebrews 13, Paul continues to guide the people in how to live as a community of faith. He writes, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” He reinforces this important idea that Jesus shared, that we are invited to extend hospitality to strangers, to welcome a newcomer to the table and let them feel fully welcomed and invited to share all that is on the table…and by doing so, we may be entertaining angels, he says. We each carry a spark of the divine with us as beloved children of God, and we may be richly blessed by the joy of the conversation or in meeting a new friend, or simply by reminding ourselves of what kind of person we want to be in the world.

In the time of Jesus and in our present day, sharing our table is a very special thing. Think of holidays when children in large families often had the kiddie table. We still have one and often one or two of the older generation who end up sitting with the kids, but moving up to the big table is noteworthy. If you are worthy enough to have a seat at our table, then we see in you as a fellow human being, a child of God, a brother or sister in our common humanity. It is still a very sacred idea to gather and nourish ourselves. The manner in which we help another person to feel fully welcomed, even if we don’t know them well, or they may have a different worldview or different beliefs than we do, that is when we know that we have listened well to the words of Jesus. Sharing Communion in any church is meant to be a true reminder that all are welcome and should be welcome as full participants in our Christian community. Who is welcome at our table? How might we better extend a warm welcome in our homes or families and yes, here at church. We may feel that we try our best to help others feel welcomed, but it may be helpful to imagine how we may extend ourselves even further. When have we felt truly welcomed when we have been the stranger at a party or a gathering? Who took the time to reach out to us and engage us in conversation or listen to our story? Who brought us a plate of food and showed us kindness? Sharing our table is clearly a metaphor for how we organize ourselves in community, how we care for one another and live together in right relationship.

Russian author Boris Pasternak, probably best known for his novel Doctor Zhivago, once said “He comes as a guest to the feast of existence, and knows that what matters is not how much he inherits but how he behaves at the feast, and what people remember and love him for.”