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By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 16:19-31
This morning we continue with Trinity’s fall stewardship campaign: Setting the Table for Trinity: How Table Talk Shapes Our Hospitality and Generosity.
Over the past few months, I’ve been visiting with Trinity members and asking some common questions. Of all the questions I’ve asked, here is the one people have seemed to find most challenging. The question is: share a time in your life when you were impacted by generosity; either someone showed remarkable generosity toward you, or you were able to be unusually generous with someone else. So this morning, I want to begin with an invitation for you to turn to someone near you and address that very question. And let me say, by generosity I don’t mean only money. We can be generous with our money, generous with our time, generous with our talents, even generous with our attention. So turn to someone near you and share a time when you have been impacted by generosity; either someone showed remarkable generosity toward you or you were able to be especially generous with someone else. Describe both the experience and the feeling that it invoked in you.
Stewardship is fundamentally about generosity. Generosity is about recognizing, experiencing and responding to God’s grace. So if we are unable to name and identify the presence of generosity in our own lives, it will inevitably impact our understanding and experience of God’s grace; and our ability to share the grace of God with others.
Furthermore, hospitality, open table fellowship, is a tangible, contextual experience of generosity and grace. Last Sunday Britt and I heard United Methodist Bishop Karen Oliveto preach. In her sermon, she reminded us of Martin Luther King’s famous quote that “the most segregated hour in Christian America is 11:00 on Sunday morning.”[i] But, said Bishop Olivet, “Today, perhaps, our most segregated hour is our daily lunch hour.” Think about that. Do you ever sit down to eat lunch with someone who is different from you – a different economic status, a different color of skin, a different nationality, a different political perspective, a different religious experience?
In the ancient world, table fellowship was a sign of friendship and acceptance. But is it really any different today? Even today, we avoid breaking bread with those who are not like us; with those who may make us uncomfortable. Numerous times over the years I have, with other church members, helped serve meals to those we might categorize as “in need.” But, on nearly all of those occasions – on nearly all of those occasions, we did NOT sit and eat and fellowship with those we served. And why? Why don’t we break bread together? Sitting at the table together would transform our experience of one another. We would no longer be categorized as “the helper” and “the helped.” Rather, had we sat together around the table, we would have become, simply, fellow diners. When Jesus fed the hungry, he ate with them. The ministry of Jesus, the ministry we are called to emulate, was a ministry of indiscriminate shared table fellowship.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus clearly states his mission: to seek and to save the lost. But his mission strategy is that of table fellowship, specifically with sinners and tax collectors; a strategy that infuriates the religious establishment.
Now, this morning’s bible story is not about a meal. It is, rather, a parable Jesus tells about the absence of table fellowship and its consequences. This is a story about an opportunity deliberately missed.
Some context: At the close of chapter 14, Jesus is teaching a large crowd when he reminds them what is required of those who choose to follow him, saying “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”[ii] Chapter 15 opens with Jesus once again dining with tax collectors and sinners, fueling the ire of the religious leaders who once again grumble and say, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”[iii] Jesus’ response to the religious leaders’ criticism is to tell a trilogy of parables: the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (or prodigal) son. They are parables in which the one who is seeking the lost is willing to expend every resource at their disposal (demonstrating a generosity of time, energy, and money) in order to be reunited with that which has been lost to them. Chapter 16 is then composed of two parables, both of which begin with the words, “There was a rich man…”
In this morning’s parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus, we are introduced to characters who share nothing in common except close geographic proximity. The rich man lives an indulgent lifestyle, wearing expensive clothing and feasting on a regular basis. And deposited just outside his gated community is this poor man, named Lazarus. The origin of his name means “God helps” and Lazarus is the only character ever given a proper name in any of Jesus’ parables; a detail that serves to emphasize his status. The Greek verb that describes his posture at the gate means, “to throw or let go of something without caring where it falls.” So Lazarus is, likely, lame and someone has deposited him outside the rich man’s gates with no more regard than I give to throwing a bag of trash into the dumpster. Lazarus has open sores on his body which would have rendered him unclean. He is sick, neglected, judged and despised.
Now, the rich man is obviously aware of him and has observed his condition because, upon death, he refers to Lazarus by name. He knows his name. Yet, even in death, he shows no regard for Lazarus. He looks off and sees Lazarus resting in the bosom of Abraham, Israel’s exalted patriarch. Clearly the tables have been turned and Lazarus is now the one in a position of prominence. Yet even so, the rich man thinks Lazarus should be his water boy and his errand boy. Even in death, his attitude toward Lazarus has not changed. He implores Father Abraham to show him and his brothers the kind of mercy he quite consciously withheld from Lazarus during their life together on earth. So easily he could have alleviated the suffering of Lazarus. But he didn’t.
Friends, over the past couple of years, Trinity has begun to focus on shared meals. Not simply feeding the hungry; but sitting down at the table with people we don’t know; people who might be very different from us; people whose lifestyles or politics or theology might even be offensive to us. And here is why: when we eat with people, we can no longer ignore them. We see all the people; we get to know them. The rich man observed Lazarus; yet he never really saw him. There’s visual perception and then there’s the kind of seeing that leads to knowledge and understanding and compassion. When we break bread with others around the table and engage in dialogue, we are able to see all the people. We hear their stories. We understand their needs and their gifts.
Table fellowship teaches us a generosity of spirit that enlarges our own understanding and experience of God’s grace.
Friends, once again I want to remind you, when you give to Trinity, you are doing more than funding a budget. You are funding relationships through things like our Caring Fund, our Family to Family program and our monthly Fusion gatherings. You are funding our vision of growing in love and service through relationships with God and community. And that’s what Christianity is about.
There once was a territory ruled by a king and his wife who had one son. As they aged they were concerned that their son, next in line to the throne, seemed to think only of himself. They called a holy man who asked them, “What does your son care about?” “Well, he loves horses,” they said. The next day, the holy man arrived at the castle’s courtyard with a beautiful wild stallion. He said to the young man, “If you can ride him, you will prove yourself worthy of the kingdom.” The young man jumped upon the horse who broke into a gallop. Over hills and valleys, across streams, and through the woods, they rode on and on until, exhausted, the young man stopped the horse at a hut in the woods. He was lost and entered the hut to ask about the location of his father’s castle. Inside lived a humble cobbler, his wife and their beautiful daughter. They knew of no castle. But he was welcome to join them for dinner, to spend the night and look for the castle the next day. Going out the next morning, the young man was unable to find anyone who knew about the castle. He continued hunting the next day and the next, each night returning to the cobbler’s hut and hospitality. In time, he ceased searching. He fell in love with the cobbler’s daughter and they were wed and had two children. He learned the cobbler’s trade and worked alongside him each day. One day, playing in the woods, the children were chased by a tiger. They ran, screaming, and dove into a nearby pool of water. They disappeared beneath the water. The tiger also leapt into the pool and disappeared. Their mother cried out in despair and jumped into the pool. Even the horse ran toward the pool, jumping and disappearing from view. The young man let out one desperate cry and fell to the ground.
But when he opened his eyes, his mother and father, the holy man and members of the royal court were standing looking down upon him. His mother took him in her arms, hugged him and told him that the horse had thrown him and he’d struck his head and lost consciousness for several minutes. “Minutes?” the young man said. “No, I was gone for years. I married and had a family that I loved and meaningful work.” The holy man turned toward the king and queen and said, “He has learned to see beyond himself. Now he is ready to be king.”
Friends, if we are to set the table for Trinity, we must check the guest list. We must see ALL the people and we must spare no expense to show them the generous hospitality and grace of God.
[i] Spoken by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during an interview on Meet the Press on April 17, 1964.
[ii] Luke 14:33
[iii] Luke 15:2
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