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.” (Luke 14:1;7-14)
It’s back-to-school time which means in addition to spending many hours over the last weeks buying new gym shoes and school supplies, many of you have also had the “school lunch” conversation. Bring lunch or buy it? Brown paper bag or insulated reusable lunch sack or hard-sided plastic lunch box? If a lunch box, the pink one with Dora the Explorer on it or the green one with the picture of Justin Bieber? Turkey sandwich or peanut butter? Yogurt or granola bar? Apple slices or carrot sticks? Pudding or cookies?
Back-to-school time makes us think about school lunches, and in this context today’s gospel reading – which deals with meal politics – seems oddly appropriate. Where do we get a clearer picture of the connection between meals and status than in a school cafeteria?
The gymnasium at Ardmore Elementary School also doubled as the cafeteria, with long tables that were built into the gym walls, which would be folded up during gym class and unfolded during lunch hour. Each class had their own assigned table, along with a laundry basket sitting on the floor at the head of the table, where kids would place their empty lunchboxes on their way outside to post-lunch recess.
If you looked all the way down to the wall-end of the table, you’d see that there was a pocket in the wall for the benches to fit into when the tables were folded up. This bench-width pocket was the coveted seat on both sides of each table. You could sit on the bench sideways, and lean back into the pocket, and practically disappear into the wall. EVERYONE wanted to sit there. When classes arrived at the door to the lunchroom, it was as if a starter’s pistol went off – everyone ran to the far end of their class’s table, trying to be the first to snuggle into one of the pockets. If you managed to sit in one of those special seats, other kids offer to give you the best bits of their lunch in exchange for your seat, and would bargain with you to try to get you to help save the seat for them the next day.
Meals in community always bring up questions of status and honor. Think about a middle school or high school cafeteria, where the adolescent caste system of cool kids, athletes, musicians, nerds, and outcasts is never demonstrated more clearly than where people choose to – or are forced to – sit. Think about a wedding reception, and the way that you are oddly conscious of your own self-worth when you have to pick up your table number and discover how close or far your table is from the head table.
Meals symbolize two particular human tendencies: the desire to draw lines about who is “in” and who is “out,” and the desire to claim for ourselves honor or status.
Both of these themes show up in today’s gospel. Our gospel reading today is one of many stories in the gospels that tell of Jesus eating in community with other people. It’s not surprising that the gospel writers recorded so many stories of Jesus eating – when Jesus sits down to a meal, important things tend to happen. He stands in front of a hungry crowd of 5000 or so and feeds the miraculously with a handful of bread and fish. He feasts with tax collectors – like Matthew and Zaccheus – and dines with sinners. He attends a wedding feast and turns water into wine. He rises from the dead and shows up to his disciples on the lakeshore over a breakfast of freshly-caught fish. He eats bread with disciples who would betray and deny him, and in the midst of the meal stands up to proclaim that the bread and wine of this last supper are his own body and blood. In story after story, Jesus shakes up the expectations of the people he eats with and uses the meal to illustrate something about the kingdom of God.
Today is no exception. Jesus accepts an invitation to a dinner party thrown by a prominent Pharisee. It was likely a dinner for religious leaders and other prominent members of society – an exclusive affair. When dinner is ready, everyone is called to the table, and Jesus watches the guests as they strategically pick their seats. He watches as some of the guests push their way to the seats of honor, at the right and left hand of the host, and as other guests likely pick and choose where to sit based on who they want to schmooze or whose attention they want to receive or whose in presence they want to be seen (or not seen, as the case may be).
Jesus observes in his meal companions both of those human desires that show up in school cafeterias: the desire to draw boundaries and the desire to grasp status and power.
Jesus has no patience for either of these maneuvers, and speaks up. First, he addresses the problem of status. He practically quotes the words we heard from Proverbs that advise against sitting in seats of honor, lest one be embarrassed if the host needs to move him farther down the table. God’s meal politics, Jesus says, have nothing to do with clamoring for status. At God’s table, there are no divisions, and no one is of higher status than anyone else. The poor and the rich, the high and the low, the successful and the unsuccessful, the pious and the reckless are all precious in God’s sight. God’s desire for us is not that we find ways to puff ourselves up, but that we find ways to humbly serve one another.
Next, Jesus turns to the host of the meal to address the problem of drawing boundaries around who is "in" and who is "out." “Shame on you,” he says, “for throwing a party and choosing to invite only the cool kids. Shame on you for putting together a guest list of people who make you look good, who have the means to repay your hospitality by inviting you to an event in the future. Instead, when you throw a party, invite people who don’t often get party invitations, who are hungry and in need, who might not necessarily make you look cool, and throw it with no expectation of receiving anything in return.”
God’s table is place where grace is given freely and abundantly to all hungry souls who have no hope of repaying the favor. We are all sinners and broken. We are all the poor, the lame, the outcast, the blind. And we are all invited to God’s banquet with no expectation that we have anything to offer. God’s table is open to all who are hungry for grace.
God’s table is open to lifelong Lutherans and long-term St. Timothy members…as well as Presbyterians and Methodists and new members and non-members and seekers. God’s table is open to married couples and single moms and teenagers and great-grandparents. God’s table is open to children and to families and, on occasion, hungry dogs who sniff at the bread out at Worship in the Woods. God’s table is open to those who dress up in their Sunday best and to those who wear jeans and flip-flops to church. God’s table is open to big givers and small givers, to organ-lovers and piano-lovers and jazz-lovers and guitar-lovers. It is open to people who agree and to people who disagree, and it is open to the world outside our doors and outside our borders. God’s table is open to all who are hungry for grace, no matter what their color or background or economic situation, no matter what their family looks like or what language they speak or what traditions they uphold.
God knows that we are all hungry, and so he invites us to a dinner party whose host is Jesus. We have all been picked up off the street to be guests at a great wedding banquet. Jesus doesn’t care that our clothes are shabby and that our hair needs washing. Jesus doesn’t care that our shoes are unpolished, and it doesn’t matter that we show up empty-handed, without a bottle of wine or some flowers or a box of chocolates. We approach the table simply as ourselves, each of us a mix of some really good stuff and really bad stuff. And when we get to the table, with nothing else to offer, we extend our empty hands to receive the very body of Christ, in which we discover the sweetest taste of forgiveness, grace, salvation, and life.