By Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 14: 1; 7-14
At the first church Britt and I pastored after seminary, during our first Lent with them, we announced we would celebrate Holy Communion on Easter Sunday. An older gentleman on the church board – already displeased with his new young pastors – became visibly angry and agitated. “You can’t celebrate communion on Easter. Communion is about Jesus’ death.”
It is true that on the final night before his crucifixion, Jesus ate a special meal with his disciples; one we often refer to as The Last Supper. And we do reference that Last Supper every time we celebrate communion. Before we take the bread and cup, I recite the words: “On the night in which Jesus gave himself up for us…” But that Last Supper is “last” because it was a culmination of all the meals our gospels recount. Meals are so important in our gospels. In fact, the only miracle all four of our biblical gospels share in common is the feeding of the five thousand. Meals are a theme especially within the gospel of Luke. Luke mentions 19 meals and 13 of those are peculiar to his gospel.
In Jesus’ culture, meals were a social function and a social statement that defined and revealed one’s place within community. In the ancient world, “breaking bread” was no small thing. What one ate, how one ate, where one ate and – most importantly – with whom one ate, were all matters of great importance for two reasons: (1) it reflected and reinforced the host’s reputation or status AND (2) it reflected and reinforced the guest’s reputation or status. Thus these banquets were a reciprocal practice designed to reinforce one’s social standing. To eat with someone was a kind of public proclamation that you considered that person acceptable and that you shared common values and principles. So, a good, reputable Pharisee would invite to supper those who are good and reputable. He wouldn’t invite the poor. One would give alms, charity, to the poor. But, you wouldn’t invite them to eat with you because they could never reciprocate. They didn’t have a big house to accommodate guests and they didn’t have enough money to buy fancy food. Furthermore, you wouldn’t sit around a table with prostitutes and tax collectors because you certainly wouldn’t want anyone to think you share their values.
So, if I were to invite you to my dinner party and seat you with me at the head table, it is as if I have made a public proclamation to our village that I consider you a respectable and honorable person.
However, Luke informs us this was not the case when the Pharisee in this morning’s story invites Jesus to dinner. He does not invite Jesus in order to honor him. Rather, he invites Jesus to dinner so that he and his friends can keep an eye on him in hopes that Jesus will do something to dishonor or embarrass himself.
Often in his teaching and parables, Jesus images the kingdom of God in terms of meals. Meals are one of the most ordinary of human activities. As you might imagine, in the ancient world a feast was no small feat. There weren’t microwaves or convection ovens or refrigerators with freezers. If you baked a batch of bread or roasted meat – which was a rare treat – it wasn’t as if you could put the leftovers in Ziploc containers and stash them in the freezer for later. So that meant that meals were also about fellowship and sharing. In fact, even today, they still are. Food is meant to be shared.
But in the Jesus tradition, food is also meant to be a great equalizer. In fact, meals in the Jesus tradition, often involve a surprise role reversal. As I’ve already mentioned, in the ancient world, one wouldn’t sit at table with someone who was socially beneath them. And yet, that’s exactly what Jesus does over and over again, thus honoring the ones with whom he sits; folks who wouldn’t have been considered very honorable in that culture. For Jesus, every meal becomes an opportunity to reveal what life in the kingdom of God is like; an upside-down place where the first will be last and the last will be first. Jesus’ teaching throughout Luke's gospel is that the Kingdom of God belongs, especially, to the disenfranchised or marginalized – to those who are the least, the last and the lost; or, in this morning’s story, specifically, the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. In Luke these were the sorts of folks Jesus routinely ate with; folks like Zacchaeus, the tax collector; that wee little man. Jesus is clearly none too picky about the table company he keeps… and he expects the same of us.
But, Jesus’ message has never been an easy sell. Even his own disciples – who were with him day in and day out, hearing and seeing it all; at that Last Supper, as they gathered around the table with their Lord, argued about who among them should be regarded as the greatest.”
Friends, as Jesus followers across the millennia have taken bread and cup in remembrance, here is what we must always remember: not only at Holy Communion, but every single time we gather to eat as Jesus’ followers, our resurrected Savior is in our midst, the one who reminds us to receive with generous hospitality the least, the last and the lost just as he did.
You may be wondering about my sermon title this week: Rule 53. Let me assure you, I’m not trying to mimic Jethro Gibbs on NCIS. Rule 53 refers to the Benedictine monastic order. Their Rule 53 is this: “All guests who arrive [at the monastery] should be received as Christ.” Friends: we can’t ever engage with others according to the world’s pecking order and standards. We must respond to others as if Christ is present in them and through them.
In his book Soul Banquets, New Testament professor, John Koenig, shares the story of St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City across the street from the World Trade Center. When its priest, Lyndon Harris, arrived at the site on Sept. 12, he expected the church to be in ruins. Yet miraculously, not one pane of glass had been broken. Rescue workers at the site of the collapsed towers worked such long hours, they had no opportunity to go home to eat or sleep. So St. Paul’s began to provide meals, just cookouts initially. But then they decided that, in the midst of this tragic setting, the food and drink they served should be of the highest possible quality so that people would “see and savor the extravagance of Christ’s love.” A restaurant owner in the area became “food captain” and enlisted donations from New York City restaurants, including the Waldorf Astoria. After the building was deemed structurally sound, the chapel began to hold noontime Eucharist services. Anyone who came for lunch was welcome to attend, but none were required. Conversations over food continued at the back of the church while communion liturgy was prayed around the altar up front.
One volunteer chaplain wrote of his experience at St. Paul’s:
I attended mass with the most incredible hodgepodge of
humanity that I’ve ever seen gathered in a church… There
were the chiropractors and massage therapists doing their
thing along the side aisles. There were rescue workers
sleeping or eating lunch – some of them Jews wearing
yarmulkes under their fire helmets.
There were National Guard troops from the farms
and forests of upstate New York looking very young
and lost in the big city. People sat on the floor
and on the steps leading to the choir loft.
Some of the rescue workers who had not
shown much interest in the mass when it began
found themselves drawn into the ancient prayers
that promise life forever with God and ended up
taking communion with tears in their eyes.
This was Christ’s Church in all its
messiness, diversity, ambiguity,
brokenness and holiness.
Friends: as I close my sermon this morning, I want to remind you: meals matter. They matter because they are about community. That’s why our monthly Fusion gathering always concludes with a meal. There have sometimes been occasions when Fusion reminded me of that description of St. Paul’s. All kinds of people: some just sitting and resting, some with tears in their eyes, all sharing their stories. My Trinity family: we need more of you to participate in, and help with Fusion. It is an opportunity Trinity provides for folks to “see and savor the extravagance of Christ’s love.” It is, like those meals at St. Paul’s, sometimes a magical thing as we find ourselves in a setting that is messy, diverse, ambiguous, sometimes broken, and often holy; as we build connection around the table with the most incredible hodgepodge of humanity…folks that God has entrusted to us… to us!
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