By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 7:24-26, 31-35
I want to invite you, for just a moment, to close your eyes and think back to one of the most wonderful and memorable meals you’ve ever eaten?
One of the most memorable meals I was privileged to be a part of was during seminary. While Britt and I were dating, Britt rented a room in the home of a seminary employee, named Tim. He was a young bachelor who’d purchased a home with four bedrooms. Along with Britt he rented rooms to two other seminary students; one named Dominic Nigrelli. Dominic was engaged to a young woman he’d known since childhood. Lilianna and Dominic grew up in the same Italian-American community. Both sets of parents came to this country from Italy and had orchestrated this romance as is the custom in Mediterranean culture. One week, Lilianna and her mother came to Dayton to meet all of Dominic’s friends through a dinner party. Tim – owner of the home – was from Memphis, a part of America that takes hospitality almost as seriously as Mediterranean folks do. So this was a big social event. After coming into town, Lilianna and her mother shopped for everything needed to make a fine Italian dinner from scratch. They started the prep the day before and spent the entire next day in the kitchen. Tim had a small dining room, but the table was large and we all gathered around it with great expectations as incredible aromas wafted through the air. Lilianna and her mother were introduced to everyone in attendance. But they didn’t eat with us. They served us; they spent the entire evening moving between the kitchen and that tiny dining room attending to our every need, insuring that plates were never empty. Tim sat at the head of the table. I think southerners are better story tellers than northerners and Tim is the best story teller I know. So for at least three hours on a Thursday night in Dayton, Ohio, we partook of a culinary and social feast. At least five courses of the most amazing, delicious, made-from-scratch Italian food I have ever eaten while Tim and Dominic drew everyone around the table into the conversation and celebration and even the slightest hint of a lull would be filled with a remarkably entertaining tale provided by Tim. I still recall how stuffed I felt when I got home; looking down at my own belly thinking that, if I were a cartoon character, my stomach would explode from having consumed so much. It was a beautiful and – as my story has made clear – memorable evening.
Today marks the beginning of Trinity’s fall stewardship campaign; which this year is titled “Setting the Table for Trinity: How Table Talk Shapes Our Hospitality and Generosity.” Together, we’ll be looking at meal stories from the gospel of Luke. Robert Karris writes that, “In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.”[i] Luke’s is the Gospel of food. But why; we might ask. Well; because “food is a central ingredient in our experience of God’s goodness.”[ii] Tim Chester points out that the verse from my scripture this morning – Jesus’ statement that the Son of Man has come eating and drinking – presents us with Jesus’ mission strategy. Jesus’ mission of seeking and saving the lost was accomplished largely through the strategy of meals. Jesus makes the rich grace of God real and tangible as he breaks bread with friends AND with those whom society and religion had marginalized and excluded. Some have even suggested that Jesus was put to death because of who he ate with. Jesus’ table fellowship is an offense to the religious establishment.
Meals, my friends, are about more than the food.
Meals are a social experience. Many of you know I grew up in an Appalachian culture where holiday meals were spent with family. In my forties, I offended a friend and church member in Gary who had invited me to his family’s Christmas Eve dinner. These were quite the shindigs and I declined because I assumed I would be an intrusion since I wasn’t related to the family. I thought that because of my culture of origin. But it was a faulty assumption; my friend’s view of family was larger – and more biblical – than mine.
This morning’s bible story may have seemed like an odd one to launch this stewardship series. Technically, it is not a meal story or scene and it never mentions money. But it does lay the foundation for what is to come in our stewardship series and for what takes place throughout the ministry of Jesus.
In this morning’s scripture, disciples of John the Baptist are sent by John to inquire if Jesus is the messiah the Jewish people have been waiting for. And Jesus’ response – which came a few verses earlier than where I began – is not a direct “yes” or “no” or even a “maybe.” Rather, Jesus tells John’s disciples to go present to John a summary of what Jesus has been doing, what his ministry has consisted of and it concludes with these words by Jesus: “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”[iii] But, in fact, many of the religious leaders were incredibly offended by Jesus’ actions and behaviors, particularly his choice for dinner companions. In fact, they have already gone behind Jesus’ back and asked his disciples why; why are Jesus and his disciples eating and drinking with sinful people; objectionable, unclean people. A few weeks ago, I preached about how, in biblical times, certain people were considered unclean or unholy. They might be that way because of sickness or ethnicity or certain behaviors in which they engaged. Many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were obsessed with maintaining social boundaries and keeping their distance from people who were socially and spiritually objectionable. But Jesus wasn’t ever concerned about that. In fact, those were the very people Jesus sought out. Because meals define our social boundaries, those were the very people Jesus and his followers ate with. Meals were, simply put, an expression of God’s grace and, for Jesus, meals were always a time of celebration and abundance because grace – by its very nature – can’t be a stingy or meager concept.
In the verses I shared from the scripture this morning, Jesus points out the differences between his and John the Baptist’s ministry. John the Baptist lived and preached an austere lifestyle. He ate a subsistence diet and called for people to cast aside their worldly goods and share them with the needy. His ministry was an example of simple and humble living. But Jesus came at things a little differently. Jesus’ ministry was about abundance; but not abundance reserved for those who could afford it. In Luke, Jesus’ bounty and extravagance is directed most of all toward those religion and culture would have identified as least deserving of it. Jesus’ ministry was like one big dinner party after another and you could have wound up sitting next to anyone. Jesus’ ministry was extravagant because it was an embodiment of God’s grace. In the early Church, sharing meals – feasting and celebrating – was a primary model of ministry. It became the way in which the early Church remembered Jesus and proclaimed the good news of the gospel as they awaited his return.
So what does this have to do with Stewardship? More specifically, what does this have to do with Trinity’s budget and your financial contributions?
Well friends, I am happy to tell you that Trinity is modeling the ministry of Jesus. We welcome anyone into our midst. Last Monday we kicked off our Fusion gatherings. Anyone was welcome to join us around the table as we listened to sacred story and shared our lives and a meal. What we did was much like what Jesus did. Last month in the newsletter, I shared information about Trinity’s Caring Fund. You’ll hear a lot more about what’s going on with our Caring Fund on Oct. 14 when we worship in the new GREAT Room and see a video. Through our Caring Fund we’re meeting people’s tangible needs while we serve together and fellowship together; while we build relationship. Trinity is trying our best to be an inclusive fellowship where everyone is welcome at the table.
But here’s the thing: that kind of caring does cost something; and that kind of caring is what you fund when you financially support Trinity. Jesus set a high bar. He didn’t simply toss a few leftovers toward the hungry and homeless. He invited them to join him at the table and it was a feast. But here’s what’s most interesting: although the meals Jesus hosts are always extravagant, open-table celebrations, they are never held in Jesus’ house because we don’t read that he had one during his ministry. Rather, those welcoming, celebrative meals are held in the homes of his followers; folks like Levi (who I’ll talk about next week); who were, themselves, despised sinners. Jesus sets a table of rich abundance but he never does it on his own. Even the miracle of the loaves and the fishes requires someone to donate their personal sack lunch; to give up everything they had with them that day.
Jesus is a host who welcomes everyone to a rich feast by drawing upon the resources of his closest friends and followers and transforming those resources into expressions of God’s goodness. Let me say that again: Jesus is a host who welcomes everyone to a rich feast by drawing upon the resources of his friends and followers and transforming those resources into tangible experiences of God’s goodness.
That’s what stewardship is about. If we are friends of Jesus, then we will offer him our resources – without reserve – so that Jesus can use them. Jesus doesn’t believe in skimping and cutting corners when it comes to people. Jesus always offers people his very best and that’s what the Church is called to do in Jesus’ name. That’s what our church is asking of you. Jesus came celebrating and dancing; eating and drinking and his critics judged him as a glutton and drunkard but Jesus was committed to grace that was lavish.
What will you bring to the meal? What do you have to offer so that the table of Jesus, our host, can be set with abundance and everyone can experience the rich, lavish grace of God?
Grace isn’t cheap. It costs something to truly care. Duke Energy doesn’t give free power to our church or to the people who come to us when they can’t pay their utility bill. There’s a cost; there’s a price if we want to join Jesus in the dance and in the feast. Trinity is striving to set an open, abundant, welcoming table. What will you bring to the table?
[i] Robert J. Karris, Eating Your Way through Luke’s Gospel (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006), 14.
[ii] A Meal With Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, & Mission around the Table by Tim Chester; Crossway Pub, Wheaton, IL; 2011; location 927.
[iii] Luke 7:23. NRSV
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