Happy are they who fear the Lord *
and have great delight in his commandments!
One of the early things I noticed when Sey and I moved to the Berkshires was that people who were homeless did not gather on the streets or sleep in the doorways of churches or stores, or stand near stoplights asking for help. I knew that the Berkshires were not exempt from the needs of people who struggled to live through unemployment, illness, addiction, or countless other reasons why food, rent and health care become unaffordable. I wanted to know, who these people were and if maybe, I could be involved in their lives.
In the summer of 2014, Grace Church looked around to see who was missing from the table in the Berkshires. We knew that there were communities we needed to listen to, to hear their stories, to learn about their dreams and their challenges, to listen for how God was calling us to walk alongside them to God’s banquet. We knew that many good things were happening in our community and we wanted to be a part of that work. So a series of Community Network Dinners were offered. Church members invited different communities, prepared a banquet, and listened carefully. By inviting others to join us in breaking bread, we have worked together with Multi-Cultural Bridge to offer a summer camp for children that continues to grow. We have partnered with the Berkshire Immigrant Center to offer counseling and support for neighbors who seek to find a place in our community. We have provided tutors for persons learning English at the Literacy Network of the Berkshires. We have offered our time and creativity so children in our community will not lose ground in their learning over the summer.
We have continued to grow our connections between Gideon’s Garden, Taft Farms, Construct, Inc., CHP, the Guthrie Center and four local food pantries so that many more neighbors can join in the banquet. Many of these neighbors now join us in working in the garden. Being a part of these dinners as I arrived, I looked around and realized I was witness to God’s banquet. A gathering where all God’s children were welcomed, served and invited to sit in a place of honor—up close where their voices were heard and their presence was valued.
Jesus has come on invitation to the home of a leader of the Pharisees. Guests have already gathered. From the back room where the women prepare the feast, the fragrance of bread and meat fill the room with the anticipation of what is to come. Colorful rugs would be laid about to provide comfortable seating. Lanterns would be lit creating a soft glow. Conversation would have begun amongst those who were present—talk of business arrangements or important events in the village, gossip about rivals and strangers in town. First century middle-eastern dinner parties were political, social, and class affairs. At this dinner party, we may assume that those who were invited were friends, family or rich neighbors. People came to these dinners to close deals and grow relationships that would advance their social, or economic or political well-being.
We are told that the guests at the dinner party are watching Jesus. They are wondering what he will do or say. Will he follow the rules? With whom will he sit?
Jesus is watching too. But he is not paying attention to rules, he is noticing God’s people. This is Jesus’ way. He is always noticing God’s people, no matter the chaos around him. In pushing crowds, he feels the touch of a woman in need of healing. At the temple, he stops his sermon to call forward a woman bent over double. He sees his soon-to-be disciples hauling in nets and invites them to follow him. He notices Zacchaeus up in the tree. Jesus watches so that he can meet each person where they are to teach, heal, set them free, and invite them into the work of God’s kingdom. Jesus is watching as the dinner guests cluster about the head of the table hoping for a prime spot to advance their cause. He is watching how this scrum for a place at the table creates a scene of scarcity even in the midst of abundance. And so Jesus offers advice in the form of a parable. Jesus tells them to sit toward the back. Then they may be asked to move closer, receiving honor in front of everyone seated at the banquet.
But Jesus is not teaching social intelligence or good table manners. He is speaking of something much deeper. Jesus is always about making the table larger, including everyone at the feast, making sure that every person is welcomed and fed with the abundant love of God. Making sure everyone gathered finds a seat of honor. Jesus notices who serves and who is served. Jesus notices who is missing from the table and who is given honor. Jesus looks around this dining party and considers who is not present at the banquet. Jesus notices God’s people.
More than likely the women would not have been invited to join in the meal they had prepared. And also missing were the poor, people with different abilities, and other marginalized persons who would have been overlooked in the society of this time.
So Jesus tells the guests at this dinner in the home of the leader of the Pharisees that when they give a banquet, they should invite all. In addition to friends, family, business partners, religious leaders, people of power—invitations should be offered to those who cannot repay their hospitality. They should invite people simply out of “love of neighbor.” And in this way, they will be blessed and remembered as just or righteous.
Our reading does not record how the people at the banquet reacted. I can imagine them laughing in discomfort, rolling their eyes and shaking their heads in disbelief, questioning Jesus’ mental stability, or simply recognizing that here Jesus goes again. Really? Is Jesus serious? Does he have any idea what he is asking? It appears he does.
Jesus’ looks way beyond what we perceive as social constraints. Jesus is focused on the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God everyone is invited to participate and given a “place of honor.” Everyone is seen as valued. In the Kingdom of God everyone’s presence is welcome, because Jesus knows that each one of God’s precious children is needed at the table. Together the richness of God’s creation is celebrated. Together the gifts, the stories, the struggles are shared. The banquet is ready but the festivities are not complete until every child of God is side by side, receiving God’s abundant gifts of grace.
In Luke’s gospel, the dining table is taken very seriously. Both the Eucharist and revelations of the risen Christ occur there (24: 28-32). It was while eating together that Christ gives his disciples the promise of the Holy Spirit and their commission to go into the world to serve (Acts 1:4-8). And it is through table fellowship that people who follow Jesus came together to become a church (Acts 10:9-16; 11:1-18). It is at table that the followers of Jesus practice “hospitality” which means literally the “love of the stranger.”
In our reading today from the letter to the Hebrews we hear: “Let love of brother and sister continue; do not forget love of the stranger.” (13:1-2) Hospitality is not just about having over on Friday evenings those who share our sports teams, religious connection, business contacts, or social status. It is about flinging wide open our hearts and our doors so we can welcome those whose story we have not yet heard and welcome those lives who may very well save our own.
It is opening ourselves to the possibility of God’s great surprise coming through contact with another person. We may not just encounter angels, but something even more transforming and perhaps more challenging. The text does not speak of sending food to anyone; rather, the host and guest are to sit at table together. The clear sign of being open to a stranger, of recognizing our common need, of building fellowship, is breaking bread together. In the Christian community, all are invited to the table.
We are not living in a time where welcome is championed in our country. We too often hear words that imply that if we just keep everyone out and lock our borders tight, we will be “Great!” But this is not Jesus’ teaching. Jesus says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” The way I read scripture, Jesus is not about building higher walls or developing more rigorous rules that keep people away. Jesus is always about making the table larger, inviting everyone to sit down and eat, making sure that every person is welcomed and fed with the abundance that is God
Yet in the midst of hostile political rhetoric, there are so many examples of people reaching out to invite all to the table. A teacher on our southern border has set up a sidewalk classroom for all the children waiting with their families and therefore not receiving education in the long months. Let me know if you would like to contribute to this table.
A therapist who hears of a prisoner who has not received any visitors in all his years behind bars, begins a caring relationship through regular visits, welcomes him into the Episcopal Church, reaches out to friends to provide a supportive network, and recently through advocacy sees him receive a reprieve that removes him from death row.A whole community comes together to offer food, housing, health care, and comfort to a group of immigrants dumped at their bus station by immigration authorities.
Every Sunday, we gather at the table of gratitude to taste and see God’s beauty, to remember and share Jesus’s generous love, and to be filled with the Spirit’s expansive gift of wholeness. Being filled with this life giving food, how are we changed? How can our actions beyond this place show our gratitude for what we receive? How are we called to share God’s love in the world?
At Grace Church we continue to listen. We continue to seek opportunities that will encourage fellowship and inspire connections. Showing up, creating a place at the table, and sharing our abundant blessings is the kind of banquet Jesus invites us all to join. Every place is a place of honor in God’s kingdom. As people who follow Jesus, we are called to bring our lives, our love, and our open hearts to God’s table, ready to share the seat of honor with friends and strangers alike. How are you being invited to take your place at the feast?
Fred B. Craddock. Interpretation: Luke. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, 178.