Sunday Night Worship – 9/2/07

“Table Manners”
Luke 14: 1, 7-14

You know how, at many wedding receptions, there is a special table for the wedding party? Lots of people long to be at that table, close to the bride and groom, hearing the inside stories, captured in the background of all the pictures. As Elizabeth was saying this morning at Wesley Memorial, some folks even switch their place cards so they can “trade up” to a table closer to the special one.

I am not one of these people. Not, as Elizabeth was noting, because it is so incredibly rude. Nope. In fact, I am someone who would often rather sit at another table even when I am in the wedding! I prefer to be around the edges, rather than smack in the middle of the picture. I’m not looking for the so-called best seat.

So, in some ways I am probably not the best person to be preaching on this text. At least, not if we think it is about table manners of this sort. Where to sit, how to behave, which fork to use. I’m probably not even the best person to be preaching on this text if we think it’s about how to get what you want without seeming to want it. Since I want the best seat, I’ll take the worst one and then oh-so-graciously accept an upgrade. Trust me, I really don’t want to be at the special table!

But is that what we really think Jesus is talking about here? One-up-manship and false humility?

I just finished reading an excellent book by Sara Miles, entitled Take This Bread Take (This Bread: A Radical Conversion, Sara Miles (New York: Ballantine, 2007). It’s her conversion story and it is centered on what happens at this table. Much to her surprise, after a lifetime of living as an atheist, Sara walks into an Episcopal church in Sans Francisco in the 1990s and joins in the worship. The table was open and when it came time to celebrate Communion, she opened her mouth and took in Jesus. “[T]hat impossible word, Jesus, lodged in me like a crumb,” she writes, “…the word was indisputably in my body now, as if I’d swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh” (Miles, p. 59).

She felt the meal, the communion, that community, God working on her as she continued to wander in each week, hungry, to the table. At some point she began to see a vision. She saw the abundance of the Eucharistic meal spilling over the table and into the lives of the poor and hungry who were outside the doors of the church. The table of plenty for all God’s children.

Around this time she also saw an advertisement for the area’s food bank, which was expanding into new areas of the city and needed volunteers to launch the new sites. This is the vision I’ve been having, she thought. Why not serve the hungry, the poor, and the homeless right from this very table? Sara was adamant that the new food pantry take place in the sanctuary and right on the very altar table. Rather than being a program of the church, operated out of the fellowship hall, she envisioned it as one more way of being church, another act of worship, an extension of the table fellowship they celebrated each week. As we’ve been fed by God, now we share the abundance with our neighbors.

This sounds great. Inspiring. Uplifting. Something practically any Christian could get behind, right? Well. It’s amazing what happens when you invite everyone and when you make all who come to your table welcome.

In addition to the inspiring, uplifting moments Sara and the other volunteers had, they also experienced frustration. They worked all day on Fridays in order to service the 3-hour food pantry. Their hungry neighbors showed up early in the morning to stand in line. Some of their hungry neighbors urinated in the yards of other neighbors. Some didn’t smell clean. Some fought or used drugs. One woman carried a weapon into the church, in order to defend herself from the man who beat her. One little girl showed up scared, pointing to the baptismal font, and asked if the water would protect her. One recovering alcoholic stood in line for a few weeks, then offered to come in and help the volunteers. Some would wait in line all day, only to find that the bread or some other item they needed had run out before they got their turn. Some would try to sneak in early and snatch a little extra for themselves.

When you invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” this is the kind of scene you get (Lk.14: 13). There are no place cards but there is a place for everyone.

It is interesting that Jesus gives instructions for both the guests and the host in the story from Luke. It is likely there are times when you are on one side of that relationship and other times when you are on the other. In the church it seems we too often make the mistake of seeing ourselves only as the host, inviting and welcoming others into the fold. But strange and beautiful things happen when true hospitality unfolds. Roles become more fluid; giver and receiver are harder to discern.

Sara Miles describes this phenomenon as she writes about the transformation occurring at the food pantry as the great variety of people began brushing up against one another in community around the table (pp.138-9):

“They [guests turned volunteers] were people who, like me, had come to get fed and stayed to help out. Who, like me, took that bread and got changed. We were all converting: turning into new people as we rubbed up against one another. The transformation amazed me. I’d think about it as I unpacked the food: blushing red potatoes and curly spinach and ripe peaches that grocers had discarded, and that instead of being trash were feeding people. Once I picked up a huge grapefruit and showed it to a volunteer from St. Gregory’s. ‘That’s the stone the builders rejected,’ I said, quoting Scripture aloud with only a twinge of embarrassment. I could see, now, how we were like that, too: the volunteers, and the families who came for groceries. Each of us, at some point, might have been rejected for being too young, too poor, too queer, too old, too crazy or difficult or sick; in one way or another, cracked, broken, not right. But gathered around the Table in this work, we were becoming right together, converted into the cornerstone of something God was building.”

Real hospitality happens when the first choose the last place, knowingly giving up power and privilege for someone else. Real hospitality happens not just when we revise our guest lists but when we make room for the stranger even when we don’t feel like it – when we didn’t even have a party or a meal planned.

The remarkable thing is that Jesus does not choose sides. We often mention that Jesus “ate with sinners” – and rightly so, because for many of us that is the harder pill to swallow. But Jesus – read the story again – also ate with Pharisees (The People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 234). He doesn’t accept the invitation in order to condemn them, but to invite and include them at the table, in the kingdom. There are instructions for everyone. There is a place for everyone – if they are willing to take their places.

So what about you? What place will you take around God’s table? Grad student teaching and taking classes simultaneously, fourth-year anxious about the next year, first-year still finding your way around Grounds – doesn’t matter, these instructions are for you. Sometimes you will be the guest, other times, the host. Sometimes you will not be able to tell which one you are.

Some weeks when we gather round this table you will be lonesome, nervous, unprepared, overworked, behind in every class. Some weeks you will be gregarious, joyful, forward-thinking. No matter, there is a place for you.

But this place is bigger than it looks and this table can feed more than we think. Religious leaders and prostitutes can all fit around this table. So what does that look like in the UVA context? What would it look like to invite more of our neighbors in to the feast? And to be served by them?

What if fraternity and sorority members ate here with computer geeks? What if students from NOVA were the guests of those from Danville? What if the O-Hill cafeteria workers and the Cabell Hall custodians came to satisfy their hunger? What if this table became one of the few places on Grounds that is truly racially integrated?

What if the taste of heaven we receive in a few minutes transforms us so that we live now like we are already there? What would that look like? Where would you sit? Whom would you invite? Whom would you allow to serve you?

Because this isn’t a “memory meal” to make us feel good about Jesus. It’s the bread of life and the cup of salvation! It’s God breaking into the details of our lives through ordinary things like bread and wine. This is God’s feast and our opportunity to “becom[e] right together, converted into the cornerstone of something God [is] building.”

Thanks be to God!

© 2007 Deborah Lewis