march 22 the open table
As many of you know, Britt and I met during seminary. I grew up in PA and Britt grew up in Ohio. The fall after we married, we knew it would soon be necessary for us to make the decision on where we would live once seminary was completed. Each fall, representatives from the conferences would come to the seminaries and visit with their students and, usually, have dinner with them. That particular year, the Western Pennsylvania representative visited on a Tuesday. Britt and I both had a Tuesday evening class. But he had relatives in the area and told us that he would be happy to stay over an extra day if we could have dinner with him the following evening. We agreed. He greeted us warmly. The waitress came and took our drink orders, then returned shortly with the beverages bread. As she set the bread down, Dick turned to Britt and me and said, “It was important to me to have this opportunity for us to break bread together. Let’s pray,” he said, and proceeded to say a word of grace that created a truly holy moment. Never before had I heard someone invoke the presence of Christ over an evening meal in quite the same way. At the end of that evening, it was clear to Britt and me that something extraordinary had happened in that meal – something simple, yet something sacred.
What Britt and I experienced that evening at dinner with the district superintendent was what some might define as a sacramental. That’s your word of the morning. It has a lot of letters in case you need a long word for Scrabble. Most of us, I assume, have heard the word sacrament. In the United Methodist Church, we have two sacraments: Holy Communion and baptism. Yet, baptism and communion do not hold the monopoly on God’s grace. We have other signs or actions that, when they take place within the context of Christian community, become a real and palpable experience of the grace of Christ. That was what happened to Britt and me that evening at dinner. We did not, technically, partake of Holy Communion. And yet, because we gathered together to break bread and to celebrate Jesus’ presence in the midst of our lives, our ministries, our studies, the eating of that meal became a sacramental, an event through which we experienced the grace of Christ.
In the ancient world, breaking bread was no small thing. First of all, just having an adequate supply of bread to eat was no small feat for a first century Palestinian. Furthermore, eating was always a social or communal experience. What one ate, how one ate, where one ate and – most particularly – with whom one ate, were all matters of great importance. Perhaps you have noticed in your own bible reading how often Jesus tells parables involving meals and how often his teaching takes place within the context of meals.
The context of this morning’s parable is that of Jesus dining in the home of a Pharisee. Now who one ate with was of tremendous importance for two reasons: it reflected and reinforced the host’s reputation or status AND it reflected and reinforced the guest’s reputation or status. Here is how it played out… The Middle East was and still is a culture concerned with hospitality and reciprocity. I have already shared with you all the story of my trip to Petra in Jordan on what turned out to be a dreadfully cold day. When our guide saw me shivering, he laid his scarf over my shoulders. And when we returned to our bus he had no intention of letting me give it back. But here’s the thing… after receiving that scarf, I then had to rise to the challenge of purchasing a gift for our guide because that is how things work in eastern culture. To receive his gift without giving him something in return would have been an insult. Even with intangibles, like compliments, as you receive one you are expected to give one. To simply respond to a gift or a gracious word with nothing more than a “thank you” is insulting. It functions as an abrupt conclusion to our interaction; as if I have verbally turned my back on you. Therefore, in the world of Jesus, when one hosted a dinner, one only invited to the dinner those who were in a position to return the favor. And one would only serve food of a quality commensurate with the diner’s ability to reciprocate. In other words, if the best you could provide for me were hotdogs and hamburgers, I would not invite you over for steak and lobster. It would be both foolish and insulting. Secondly, to eat with someone was a kind of public proclamation that you considered that person acceptable to you and that you shared common values and principles. So, if you are a good, reputable Pharisee, you will invite to supper those you consider good and reputable. You certainly wouldn’t invite the poor to eat at table with you. You would give them alms, charity – because that’s the proper thing to do for the poor. You wouldn’t invite them to eat with you because they could never return the favor. They have not the means or the resources to do so. And, you wouldn’t invite prostitutes and tax collectors to dinner because you certainly don’t want anyone to think you share their values.
So, let me tell you how that relates to our understanding of this morning’s parable… It is about an obviously wealthy man who is hosting a dinner. He sticks to what would have been a common social custom in his day – the double invitation. One first sends their servant to the guests to give notice of the upcoming meal. Later, after everything has been prepared and is ready, the servant goes back to let folks know it’s time for the feast. Now, two things can happen in the interim between the two invites. First, on a practical level, folks clear their calendars. That’s not strange. We do that today. Secondly, folks talk to each other. They figure out who all has been invited and decide whether or not this little shindig is in keeping with their social reputation. And it is very likely that those on the same social level will, together, respond negatively or affirmatively to the invite. If those invited determine that attending this dinner will in any way jeopardize their good standing, they will come up with an excuse and when the servant returns to announce that everything’s being “plated,” so to speak, the guests that do not consider this party good enough for their reputation will come up with some reasonable sounding excuse for their absence.
Now, if that happens, it creates a real conundrum for the host. He has been slighted. And, his good reputation can only be maintained if he is able to find substitute guests of as good a reputation as those on the original guest list. But in a culture of “one for all and all for one,” this will not be an easy thing to do for word spreads quickly in a communal culture.
The host in our parable, however, comes up with a very radical solution. This food will not go to waste. He’s going to offer this feast to those who are way, way below his social standing: people from the other side of the tracks, from deep in the hood, folks in the ghetto or the projects. This would have been like throwing a dinner party at Lawry’s Steak house in Chicago for residents of the notorious Cabrini Green. Only today we might have at least thought that the dinner host was just trying to be charitable or looking for a tax write-off. But, in the world of Jesus’ day, there would have been no upside to this behavior. This dinner host, whose reputation has already been insulted, would have surrendered his last shred of decency by inviting these kinds of folks over for a meal. And yet that is exactly what he does. The rich host of the parable invites the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Jesus had already instructed the Pharisee who invited him to dinner by saying, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers, or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return… But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” And why? Because, these folks will not be able to provide you with an immediate reciprocal gain – a social tit for tat. They were just the sort of folks Jesus ate with. As last week’s story about that notorious tax collector Zacchaeus revealed, Jesus chooses to eat dinner with Zacchaeus, a scoundrel and a swindler. Jesus is clearly none too picky about the company he keeps… and he expects the same of us.
There is a wonderful little book entitled “Soul Banquets: How Meals Become Mission in the Local Congregation.” It is about the amazing, grace-filled moments of ministry that take place when the church begins to fully embrace the meaning of breaking bread together – not only among ourselves, but when we reach out to draw others in to our circle of fellowship. The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia. That comes from two words – philo, which means love and xeno which means stranger. So the Christian practice of hospitality, strictly translated means: “the love of strangers.” To practice Christian hospitality doesn’t mean simply to invite friends over for tea. It means to go out of our way to break bread with someone we do not know, a stranger.
Rev. John Koenig, the author of “Soul Banquets” begins his book with the story of St Paul’s Chapel in Manhattan near ground zero. Their unique mission began when the staff found themselves gathering at a nearby restaurant immediately following 9/11 for food and fellowship and mutual comfort. But there was more to it than that. Their pastor, Rev. Lyndon Harris, explained. They also began to pray and plan for ministry. New Testament stories of Jesus’ words and actions at table came quickly to their minds leading them to determine that their first response to this horrible disaster would be to provide round-the-clock food service for all the rescue personnel. Initially, the church was not cleared for entry. So they set up a grill outside. Soon thereafter, however, they were informed that outdoor air quality was not acceptable for cooking. And yet, at the very same time, their sanctuary was cleared for occupancy. They moved in doors and made another decision. The meals they would prepare would be of the highest possible quality. Rev. Harris said, “We wanted people to see and savor the extravagance of Christ’s love.” Over time, local restaurants joined the ministry donating meals and chefs.
Ten days after 9/11, when the church building was fully secured, public celebrations of communion began to take place each day at noon. The timing was intentional. People who came to lunch could also attend the service, and while the majority of diners did not join the worship in a direct way, they honored it as a sign of the church’s mission. Without conflict, the wall between secular and sacred virtually disappeared. One guest described their experience:
I attended communion with the most incredible hodgepodge of humanity I’ve ever seen gathered in a church… There were chiropractors and massage therapists doing their thing along the side aisles. There were rescue workers sleeping or eating lunch – some of them Jews with yarmulkes under their fire helmets. There were National Guard troops from the forests of upstate New York looking very lost in the big city. People sat on the floor and the steps leading to the choir loft. Some of the rescue workers who had not shown much interest in the service when it began suddenly found themselves drawn in by the prayers that promise life everlasting with God and they ended up taking communion with tears in their eyes. This was the church in all its messiness, diversity, ambiguity, brokenness… and holiness.
What the people of St. Paul’s experienced was more than the sacrament of holy communion. In fact, their entire ministry of hospitality became a sacramental as they shared with friends and strangers not only the gift of bread, but the gift of Christian fellowship. As they broke bread together, Jesus was in their midst, touching their lives with his grace.
Friends, as we travel the journey of the Visioning process we have begun, our journey will not go far without sacramentals and philoxenia. Hospitality is far more than turning on the lights on Sunday mornings and unlocking the doors. True hospitality is a love for those we do not yet even know; a love so strong that we will go to them and not simply wait for them to stumble through our doors. And, when we love like that, we will find ourselves caught up in the wonderful web of God’s grace.
And this morning I want to encourage you to take one small step in that process. As most of you know, on Easter morning we don’t have our regular Sunday School classes. Instead we gather during that Sunday School hour for an Easter breakfast with fun activities for the children and wonderful opportunities for fellowship. I want to challenge you to invite someone to come with you for that breakfast. Of course, we’d also love to have them stay for worship. But maybe they’re not ready for that yet. Don’t worry about whether or not they go to church anywhere right now. If they do and it interrupts their Easter worship celebration, they will no doubt thank you for thinking of them and explain they are already committed at their church. But what if you are only assuming they’re going to church on Easter Sunday? Wouldn’t it be sad for them and for us to miss that opportunity for breaking bread together? After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good breakfast? So go down the road, down the street, or down the lane and issue an invitation. It’s just as easy as that.
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