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The Welcome Table

Proverbs 25:6-7; Luke 14:7-24; Hebrews 13:1-6

It was a full, busy, stressful, rich and wonderful weekend here in our church. A memorial service Saturday morning for Rubena Friesen. A community fun night here later that day. A benefit meal and entertainment Sunday night in Moundridge. And you know an integral piece of each of these gatherings? The opportunity to eat together.

The gospels communicate all these cosmic and transcendent truths – incarnation, resurrection, salvation. These are the understandings we stake our lives upon, the promises we claim in faith. But you know the vehicle used in the gospels to communicate these literally larger than life, intangible, eternal principles – the ordinary. It’s the ordinary in the gospels that captures our imagination, our sympathy, our connection with another time and another people. It’s the ordinary that Jesus uses over and over when he spins his parables.

Theologian Fred Craddock writes, “The everyday activity of home and marketplace, farm and fishing boat provided Jesus not only revelations of the true character of his listeners but also opportunities to reveal the way life is in the reign of God. Plutarch once observed that it is in the small, apparently trivial act that character is most accurately reflected. The observations of Jesus support that statement. And if the incarnation teaches us anything, it is that the frequent and familiar are not to be overlooked in defining life in the presence of God.”

And what is more frequent and familiar, what is more ordinary than eating together? And so in this passage from Luke, we have these three different and unrelated table fellowship illustrations gathered together by the editor to reveal Jesus teaching us at least three large and weighty truths set in the context of meal time.

Let’s look at the first story. (Luke 14:7-11) In this lesson Jesus seems to be pulling on another of our lectionary passages for today, Proverbs 25:6-7 – “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among great men; it is better for him to say to you, ‘Come up here,’ than for him to humiliate you before a nobleman.” So the overarching message we get from this little vignette is the importance of being humble, cultivating humility. This is a challenge for most of us in some capacity or another. However, I’m also going to say that I know very few people who would intentionally take the best place at the table because they felt they were deserving of it. For the most part, if there is a choice to be made, people I know well would take the folding chair at the side, rather than the high-backed wood chair at the head.

I can think of at least two reasons to explain this. First of all, our context is rural America. We eat our share of humble every day. We work hard and much of our work connects us to the land – whether this be farming or a daily commute through the open fields and pastureland of central Kansas. This grounds us in a reality beyond ourselves. Somehow, I think it’s harder to maintain an elaborate pretense in a rural context and this for me is one of the greatest appeals of living in the country – as really all of us sitting here do whether our address is town or dirt road.

Second, we are Mennonite. As such, we strive to be humble almost to an ironic fault. I can hardly imagine a Mennonite seating him or herself at the place of honor at a table. What I can readily imagine is a group of Mennonites racing to see who can get to the lowest seat first and then taking pride in their show of humility, which admittedly, would kind of miss the point if we’re trying to be genuinely humble.

So the being humble piece isn’t maybe perfect, but we work at this and most of us try to be conscious of and keep pride in check. How do we do then with the second lesson Jesus teaches? (Luke 14:12-14) I’m not sure what to call this one, maybe “being compassionately inclusive”? Alright, all of us who feel like we’re doing a really good job inviting the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame to eat with us – let’s go ahead and raise our hands. (No hands go up) Well, we’re either all being really humble, or really honest.

I know there are a lot of people out there who get impatient with the topic of racism. Who see this as an issue from our past that has been mostly resolved, who believe black people, or brown people or whoever just need to “get over it” already. Now these kinds of statements might have sounded a little better a few years back, before all of these overt, violent and ugly expressions of racism started to emerge on a more regular basis reminding us that maybe we aren’t as “over” racism as we wanted to believe. And the truth of the matter is, I don’t think we’ll ever be over racism, at least in this fallen world. I also don’t think we’ll ever be over elitism or sexism. Racism and prejudice were both alive and well in the Bible, from beginning to end. It’s alive and well today. You see we instinctively seem to like hanging out with people who look like us or people who maybe are even perceived as just a little bit better than us in some way or another. We like to spend our time with people who speak like us, who have a similar level of education. We like to be with people who spend like we spend, who come from a similar socio-economic bracket. We like to hang out with people who believe like we do, who go to church on Sundays, who profess Christ as their Savior, just like we do. And so when we invite people to join us for a meal in or a meal out, by and large, with the exceptions only proving the rule, we invite people who resemble “us” in so many different ways. But this gets a little dark when “us” refers to the people in a society who hold more or most of the power. We don’t tend to break bread with today’s equivalent of the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind – with those at a distinct disadvantage, with those on the margins. We just don’t.

We celebrated the life of a pretty amazing lady Saturday morning. I think part of what drew people to Rubena was that she was one of those exceptions, gathering people to her and loving them regardless of their circumstances or station in life.

Alright, so the first little lesson is about being humble. The second is about being generously inclusive. This third is perhaps in part about being vigilant. (Luke 14:15-24) Lots of threads could be picked up here and preached on. A commentary writer gave me my “aha” moment this week when he pointed out how real the guests’ reasons were for not coming. These were not lame, made up excuses. They already had claims on their time, legitimate reasons involving livelihood and family obligations. Today we might say I have a meeting that night or my kids’ are playing in a game that afternoon or I’ve already promised my spouse we’d have a date night. These are good and acceptable reasons. We’re busy people. We can’t do everything. The Master’s response? He gets angry. He says, “Fine, you’re too busy to come, then you are no longer invited. You get no taste of this meal I’ve prepared. Instead I’m going to show you how to be compassionate and inclusive and I want at my table every person who’s willing to come. It doesn’t matter to me where they come from, what their background is, what they’ve been through or done, if they are willing to accept my invitation, I’m willing to find them a place at my banquet table.”

How then do we respond when the Church invites? When the Holy Spirit invites? Are we being vigilant as we listen for God’s voice asking us to come in for dinner?

Back to eating together. What happens when people eat together? Think about supper at home. Or a Thanksgiving meal with the larger family. Or sitting in a restaurant with friends. What happens when you eat with people? First off, I think we offer glimpses of our brokenness, our humanity to others. Maybe we get some food stuck in our teeth and we don’t know it. Or we have a smear of food on our lip and don’t notice. Maybe we quietly belch. If we’re the cook, perhaps the food doesn’t turn out quite like we imagined it would, the bread doesn’t rise beautifully, the sauce is too runny, the potatoes too salty. Or we have an allergy or an intolerance or a diet we don’t like to talk about so we uncomfortably push food around our plate and try and make it look like we’ve eaten more than we have. My point being, eating together with others gives us plenty of opportunity to be humbled, to know humility.

Thankfully that’s just one chapter in a much larger story. Because grander things are happening when we eat together too. We get a little more in touch with ourselves and let some of our defenses down. It’s not so easy to maintain boundaries when we are all relishing our food together. It’s a common ground experience. We all hunger. We all enjoy the experience of hunger satisfied. Rich or poor, black or white, we all enjoy our food in equal measure. And as we break bread, we almost can’t help but relax into one another’s company. And in this kind of magnanimous setting and mood we become more expansive, more inclusive.

Table fellowship is crucially important in the New Testament. Over and over again we find Jesus at the table eating with and enjoying the company of people from all walks of life. We find Jesus at the Last Supper tearing downs walls and sharing his body in remembrance. We find our risen Lord eating fish on the seashore and making resurrection real for his disciples. We find walls coming down again in the early church when Peter declares all food clean and encourages Jews and Gentiles to come and sit at the table together. The table is not only a symbol of divisions dissolving, this is actually what happens when people choose to break bread together, they become more inclusive, more accepting of the other who is no longer a stranger but a friend.

And the best hosts and the best guests, working to tear down walls together are also vigilant. It’s important to make sure the water glasses stay full. That everyone has enough food. That dessert and coffee are offered at the right time. That conversation works to pull in and include everyone at the table. That the host has a chance to sit and eat too. That a welcome isn’t over stayed. Sensitivity, manners, vigilance are all a part of table fellowship. You look out for each other in an effort to make everyone comfortable and at ease and welcome.

This brings us to our last lectionary text, from Hebrews. (13:1-6) (note: the word “entertain” is a code word, another word for table fellowship. When you entertained, you hosted a meal)

Of course, this whole image of breaking bread together, it is a metaphor of what we are to do in life. We are to be a humble people, treating others as better than ourselves, being content with what we have. We are to be a compassionately and generously inclusive people remembering and praying for those in prison, those who are mistreated, even going so far as to think of their suffering as our own. We are to be a vigilant people, keeping ourselves and our relationships pure and holy and righteous. Loving each other as brothers and sisters. Being on the lookout for a God who promised to never leave or forsake us.

But why? Why be humble? Why be welcoming and inclusive? Why be vigilant, listening for the invitation God extends us in unlikely places and through unlikely people? Why? Because in this way some have entertained angels unaware. And I’ll take this even a step further and point to Jesus’ very familiar words in Matthew 25:37-40 – “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? And the King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

I think this may be the greatest gift we receive when we break bread together, the opportunity to catch a glimpse of God in the person sitting across from us at the table and would that this person looked and thought and acted a great deal differently than us a great deal more of the time! Entertaining angels indeed! I suspect that’s the need that compels us even today to put food on the menu if at all possible, at funerals and community celebrations alike. Celebrating the ordinary and finding Christ in the frequent and the familiar. We’ve all got a place at the welcome table. God’s invites everyone to pull up a chair and have a seat.

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