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A few years ago, a door opened for us here at Blythwood to put on a free summer camp out of a public school in Lawrence Heights called Flemington PS. We burst through that door with a lot of help and a lot of collaboration from others churches, community agencies, and individuals. There was a lot of food involved. Morning snack. Lunch. Afternoon snack. I will never forget one particular lunchtime. It was pizza day which, as you can imagine, was always a popular day. A young child came up to where some of us were serving pizza, kind of threw his hands in the air and said, “This is like a party!” I laughed and said, “It is a party!”
That young boy was speaking an important theological truth. I know we often talk about following Jesus and compare it to a journey. It’s a great and familiar image. We are people who are on a journey, pilgrim people going along in a caravan toward the holy city on the mountain toward which we travel. It’s a great image and is built right into the concept of following.
This morning we’re looking at a different image – one in which less motion is involved. It’s a joyful image too. The reign of God is like a party. The reign of God is like a banquet. Life in the kingdom of God is like a party. What kind of party is it? Let us look at this scene – another table scene- with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and ask for God’s help as we do.
If there ever comes a time when you are remembering me, I hope one of the things you’ll remember is something like, “Man, that Pastor David talked a lot about eating together, and really liked for us to be eating together too!” I hope this will be the case. About this Gospel of Luke, someone has said, “Nothing can be for Luke more serious than a dining table.” We have already heard truths about God being made known at a table. The Eucharist – the thanksgiving meal – occurs at a table. After his being raised, Jesus will be made known to two followers at a table (after they’ve been travelling with him – so there are both images in one story). It is while eating with his followers that Jesus promises the Holy Spirit in Luke’s second volume of Acts – the continuing work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit in his church.
Wonderful! Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and along the way, he stops to eat a meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees on the Sabbath. They were watching him closely, and he was watching them. Truths about God and the reign of God are revealed in our everyday. At God’s banquet table, God is both inviting host and invited guest (remember, “Listen! I am standing at the door knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me.” Rev 3:20) We are at the same time guests and hosts at the banquet of God, in the reign of God.
So Jesus has a word for guests. Jesus’ table talk and I have to say that Jesus is stirring things up. He’s noticing something. There’s no seating chart here, and the invited guests are jostling for the places closest to the host – the places of honour. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,” Jesus tells them, “Do not sit down at the place of honour, 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 take the lower place.” (8-9)
Jesus is much more than a mere moralist. Jesus is much more than a first-century etiquette columnist. He’s not just saying, “Make sure you pay attention to seating charts when you go to a wedding. Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be if you decided you warranted a place at the table right beside the head table and had to be removed from it when the people assigned to those seats showed up. Jesus is teaching a great truth here about the reign of God. He's not saying, “Do this so you can be first!” which might result in a mad rush for the lowest spots so we can be first! Remember those words that Mary sang – “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts and lifted up the lowly.” We’re not often in a situation around a dinner where people are jostling for places in our day. Someone has compared the “me first” attitude, which is reflected in Jesus’ parable, to getting off an airplane. What is it with getting off airplanes? I haven’t flown in a while, but I imagine this still happens. There will invariably be people who ignore the “Stay seated until fasten seatbelt sign is turned off” instruction. They will collect their overhead luggage and start making their way up the still-swaying plane so that they might be first off. There may be a reason for this, of course, connecting flights. How often does this betray an “I am first, and my firstness is the number one thing for me” mentality? It also makes it impossible for those who have waited to stand up and get your overhead luggage off! Those who exalt themselves (or lift themselves up) will be humbled. This is what God does. Those who humble themselves will be exalted (or lifted up). The same words that Jesus will say in the story about the self-righteous Pharisee who prayed, “Thank God I am not like him!” and the lowly tax collector who stood far off and prayed, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” From whom does our righteousness come? From whom does our honour come? Our own striving? Our own clambering for the best seats/spaces that reflect our own sense of importance?
Or do they come from God, who humbled himself even to the death toward which Jesus is moving, and we are moving along with him? Lowly, Jesus who will ignore cries and taunts of “Save yourself!” and, in so doing, will save all. This is his table talk, and he’s stirring things up.
Jesus stirs things up even more with a word for hosts. “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 neighbours, 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.’”
I don’t believe Jesus is ruling out ever having your family over for dinner here or those who have the capacity to reciprocate. Let us not make reciprocating the point, though. How many times are we leaving someone’s house after having shared a meal, and we say, “Oh, we’ll have to have you over sometime!” One preacher tells of preaching a sermon on this passage, and he and his wife receiving three dinner invitations within a week. He says, “Which category of guest we came into we were too polite – or anxious – to ask.” Do not let our hospitable spaces be primarily about reciprocity or quid pro quos or “What’s in this for me.” Invite those who cannot repay you.
In inviting us to his banquet table, God has done something for us which we could never repay, and we’re not expected to. We need only accept the invitation, and the only thing we need to bring along is a humble recognition of our need for God. “What can I bring?” is the question that is often asked when dinner invitations are extended, and the answer we like to give is “Just bring yourself.” (Along with a host/hostess gift if you are that way inclined)
In Hebrews 13:1-2a we read, “Continue in mutual love. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…” We mustn’t leave this up to the professionals – hospitality professionals or religious professionals. The word that’s translated as hospitality here is literally “love of the stranger.” Continue in the love of one another that looks like something. Do not neglect to show the love of the stranger to strangers. “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me,” said Jesus in another story. In a world where so many relationships are so full of self-interest and/or transactional, Jesus says that in the reign of God, things are upside down/right side up. In Luke’s second volume, an enraged crowd in Thessalonica will drag Jason and some other followers of Jesus in front of the city authorities, and they’ll say, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also…”(Acts 17:6) May God grant that the same would be said of us. The call here seems very plain and very clear. We are called not only to provide for the needs of those who our society pushes to the margins, the forgotten, the outsider, the other but we are called to sit down around a table with them. We had our second meeting of the year with the CBOQ leaders and churches who are involved in the CBOQ Revitalization initiative. We were talking about creating a hospitable space where conversations can happen. Hospitable space where the reign of God is made known. Hospitable space where Jesus is encountered in the stranger, in the sick, in the prisoner, in the naked need of others.
What might this look like in our individual lives? We may have the chance to invite poor/crippled/lame/blind into our houses. If we do and we’re married, just make sure you speak about it with your spouse first (I learned that lesson). What might inviting the poor/crippled/lame/blind look like for us as a church? I look back over 12 years of my own ministry with you. I know what God has put into our hearts when it comes to inviting. People sitting in the sanctuary or on the front lawn on the first Wednesday of each month. Young people from Horizons For Youth enjoying pizza every other Thursday, sitting with us around a table. Saturday nights in the winter in the gym. The pandemic brought everything to a crashing halt, along with a lot of other things, and I mourn that. We’ve seen a resumption in the creation of hospitable space each Saturday at Seeds of Hope, and we’re thankful for this. We should be praying for those people involved in that ministry in the same way we pray for our mission partners in other countries. The question that I want us to approach prayerfully together now is, “What does it mean to go and do Jesus’ words here?” Even If it might make us uncomfortable. We enjoy our banquets too, and we’re called to gather around tables too, but don’t let it stop there. Jesus’ words must have made those gathered in that Pharisee’s house uncomfortable. In the same way, we’d be uncomfortable if someone stood up at one of our next church lunches and said, “How are we sitting down with the poor/crippled/lame/blind?
So someone calls out, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” We said last week that the kingdom of God is not simply about platitudes or slogans. We said last week that the question for Jesus is not so much whether we know the right answers as whether or not we do them. Jesus tells a story about an invitation to a banquet. These were two-step invitations. The first a kind of “save the date,” and the second is on the day of the party. The day of the party comes, and the invited guests can’t make it. Life gets in the way. Land. Commerce. Family. The poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame are sought. The lost are sought. All of us. People are compelled to come in. There’s no coercion here, though. I experienced something about being compelled to come in when Nicole and I were dropping her mother off to visit a Greek family she had known in Castoria one Sunday after church. The grandfather came out to the car and said, “Come in and join us!” I said we’d love to but had to get home/rest/do whatever. He took me by the arm through the car window. We need to be taken by the hand sometimes. People aren’t used to invitations that are based on nothing but self-giving love and mercy and forgiveness. There will be unexpected people at this banquet, and the expectantly presumptuous or self-righteous may find themselves left out. Of course, the invitation is still before us. To accept Jesus’ invitation is to live life in expectation of this banquet, to turn social hierarchies upside down. God has welcomed us; let us be God’s welcoming people. What that young boy at summer camp said was so true. “This is like a party!” May our generous and grace-filled God help us all to be generous and grace-filled hosts and guests. Amen