“A Table with Room for Everyone
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
1 September, 2019
Proper 17 C
Luke 14:1-14
Hebrews 13:1-8

Oxford, in England, is a pretty extraordinary place to live and work.  Not only is it home to one of the very best universities in the world, but it’s also one of the oldest.  Its alumni list includes 28 British Prime Ministers, at least 30 other international leaders, 20 Archbishops of Canterbury, 12 saints, 27 Nobel laureates, 50 Nobel Prize winners, and one Sir Stephen Hawking.  There are too many eminent and esteemed authors, actors, journalists, academics, scientists, doctors, lawyers, business and political leaders to count.

What that means is that it’s a place that prominent and powerful people are frequently invited to come and speak, or hang out, or perform.  It’s a place where you’re bound to bump into famous and exceptionally accomplished people, sometimes without even knowing it.

When Joel first accepted his job there, it was going to be almost nine months before our family would be able to move.  So, he made a separate trip a couple months early to search out a place for us to live, and to get things set up for his teaching.  I didn’t have a job or ministry lined up, but we knew wanted to get involved in a church as soon as we arrived, so he also visited one of the churches in the center of the city.

After the service was over, an older gentleman approached Joel and said, “Hello!  I don’t believe I’ve met you yet.  My name is Roger.”  He asked Joel a few questions and escorted him to the fellowship area, where he introduced him to a few other members of the church.  Eventually, one of the assistant priests approached Joel and said, “Hi, I’m Charlotte Bannister-Parker.  I noticed you’ve already met my father, Roger.  We’re glad you’re here!”  Roger had moved on and was greeting others, and it took Joel a few moments for the penny to drop, but suddenly he realized who had greeted him. Joel remembered learning about Roger as a child.  The man who extended a warm welcome to my husband that day was none other than the legendary runner and Olympic athlete, also a highly regarded neurologist, Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to break the four-minute mile.  To this day, there’s a plaque attached to the wall outside the running track in Oxford where he shattered the myth that it couldn’t be done, and set the new world record.  Neither his daughter nor anyone else at the church treated Roger differently, though: he was neither more nor less important than the rest of the group.  At church, he was just Roger—one of the mutually-loved and mutually-loving children of God in community.

In my ministry as chaplain, I met numerous famous and prestigious people, especially when they appeared for one reason or another at Mansfield College.  Twice a week in college, we had what’s called “formal hall.”  Pre-dinner drinks were served either in the Senior Common Room or in the Principal’s lodgings, as the students assembled in the dining hall.  When the Principal and celebrated guests were ready to eat, a gavel would be banged.  The students would snap to attention and stand respectfully behind their chairs, as the honored members (the Principal, Fellows, and guests) processed into the hall and up to the high table in silence.  (This isn’t the case at Mansfield, but in many colleges, the high table is actually elevated, so the “people of honor” are literally above everyone else.)  The Principal, Chaplain, or highest-ranking academic in attendance would pronounce a formal prayer, and then we’d all be seated.

Seating arrangements at the high table were carefully thought through.  Often, we’d have more than one famous or “eminent” person joining us for dinner, and it was always interesting to see who our Principal—herself a member of the House of Lords and quite self-important—chose to have seated next to her. (And, whom she avoided).  Formal dinners were always potential opportunities for significant conversations and connections to be made.  I also found it endlessly fascinating to observe the dynamics that played out, as highly accomplished professors and professionals interacted with these other prominent and powerful people—and how the esteemed guests carried themselves amidst their fame and power.  Most of them, I noticed, were accustomed to having others become servile in their presence.  And some clearly expected to be uniformly treated with deference, regardless of their own attitude.

Formal dinner parties thrown by and for powerful or popular people are hardly a new thing.  As his popularity grew, Jesus found himself being invited to more and more of them.  In today’s Gospel lection, we heard that he was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees on the sabbath.  And, we’re told, “they were watching him closely.”[1]  One reason powerful people invite other powerful people to dinner is to keep tabs on them.

The verses that are omitted by the lectionary tell us that as Jesus approached the house, a man with dropsy appeared in front of him.  And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?”  Last week, we heard about how upset the leader of the synagogue became when Jesus healed a bent-over woman on the sabbath.  (This may have been one of the reasons they were watching Jesus closely.)  But whereas the leader of the synagogue protested, in this case, the men were silent.  And so, Jesus, whose position on the matter we already know, healed the man and sent him on his way.

This is significant: prior to entering a scene where he knew there’d be a display of powerful people jockeying for position and recognition, Jesus recognized and prioritized a person whom the others would have ignored.  A “nobody”, someone not invited to the party.  Not only did Jesus acknowledge the ailing man, confirming his fundamental dignity and worth, but Jesus healed him: he made it possible for the man to fully participate in community, rather than perpetuating his experience of being pushed to the margins.

Before he even joined the banquet, Jesus was making it clear that he that he was not encumbered by the rule system governing the behavior of the others around him.  He was not beholden to the social structure that guided this world—a system that operated with a sort of pecking order, or unwritten pyramid.  It’s the structure of ancient Rome, which relied on people being indebted to one another.  It’s a system that still operates to a certain extent today, that suggests: if you do something for me, I owe you a debt of gratitude, and I’m somehow obliged to you until I repay that debt.  It’s a system of quid pro quo, where we feel obligated to another who has given us something.  Or, we feel entitled to expect something from someone else if we’ve done something for them.

But Jesus spent his entire ministry trying to help people understand that that’s NOT how God’s social structure was designed, and it’s not how it operates.  In God’s system, we’re given the gifts of life and abundance, of grace and salvation, even though we’ll never be able to repay them.  We’ll never even come close, because the abundance God lavishes upon us is so great, we’re not even aware of how much we receive.  But God delights in sharing divine abundance, and wants us to experience a similar delight.  What Jesus was trying to help others understand is that there’s unparalleled freedom in humbly sharing whatever we have, joyfully and without expectation of being repaid.  That foundational paradigm is why he was willing even to sacrifice his very life so that others could see how God’s love and life are still more abundant even than human greed and fear.

Back to the story.  After Jesus healed the man, they entered the party venue.  He surveyed the space, spotting the head table and the places where people of “lesser” status or honor would be seated.  Luke says that when Jesus noticed how the guests were staking out places of honor for themselves, jockeying for position and esteem in close proximity to the host, he told them a parable.

“When you’re invited by someone to a fancy party or banquet,” Jesus began, echoing Old Testament wisdom, “don’t embarrass yourself by assuming you’ll be sitting with the host in the place of honor.  Instead, take your seat at the lowest place so that the host can invite you to move up.”  One of the things you can learn by associating with the least and the lowly is that they, too, have compelling stories to tell.  They have lives and loves, dreams and accomplishments and pains, just as surely as those who happen to find their way into power or fortune do.  And then Jesus states the point of the parable: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”[2]  As usual, Jesus inverts the worldly order of things—because that’s what God’s realm always does.

And then he deepens the inversion, when he advises the host: “If you really want to throw a party that rewards you in ways you can’t begin to fathom, don’t invite the easy ones—your friends or family members or your rich neighbors—because you know they’ll repay you somehow.  If you truly want to experience God’s intended design, if you want to participate in the realm of eternal life today, don’t go for reciprocity.  Instead, go for extravagant generosity: invite those who won’t be able to pay you back—the poor, the lame, the blind, the crippled.”

It’s a challenging instruction—scary and hard for most of us to think about.  Even harder to put into practice.  But Jesus knew what he was talking about because even then, he was setting the table for the communion feast each of us is invited to enjoy.

Every one of us is in need of what Christ’s banquet provides—and yet, regardless of our status in the world’s eyes, we may as well be poor or lame, crippled or blind, because not a one of us can possibly come close to repaying what we would owe for the gifts we’ve received from God.  Maybe if we invite the rejects and the despised and the powerless members of society to our party, dignifying them with the same sort of personhood and concern that Jesus demonstrated toward everyone he met, we’ll have a deeper appreciation of God’s character and values, and God’s intended social order.

Jesus saw clearly that the world’s game of who’s “in” and who’s “out”, who’s worthy and who’s not, is endless and fickle.  He knew that our anxious scramble for greatness by the world’s standards will lead to nothing but more anxiety, more suspicion, more loneliness, more hatred, more devastation.  Because the world’s version of greatness is rooted in a mentality of scarcity, and playing by the rules of that structure is depleting, soul-destroying.

In God’s realm there is always room for another, and another, and another at the party, regardless of how dodgy, mundane, or impressive their back story might be.  Regardless of how much we personally might like to withhold the bounty or delights of the banquet from certain individuals.  The divine social structure is one that inverts all of this world’s self-centered priorities, hierarchies, and values—because God’s realm is rooted in the same abundance in which this world and our lives were originally created, overflowing with grace and love.  It’s a realm in which we don’t need to prove ourselves: we are already welcome, already loved, already cherished.  And the social currency of God’s realm is humility, not arrogance; generosity, not stinginess or hoarding; hospitality, not fear.[3]

As Joel happily experienced on an autumn Sunday nearly 15 years ago, the Church is meant to model God’s intended social structure in the world today.  We’re called to practice the humility of recognizing that, even if we happen to be famous or highly accomplished or greatly esteemed by the powers of this world, we are nonetheless called to serve and welcome others as being equally-precious children of God—including those whom the rest of society might otherwise ignore or even recoil from.

As we gather around Christ’s communion table, spread for anyone and everyone who wishes to receive from it, may our own church community be nourished by the abundance, the love, and the everlasting life it proclaims.  And may we share that abundance, love, and life with the world beyond these walls.  Amen.

[1] Luke 14:1

[2] Luke 14:7-11

[3] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1070-table-manners

“A Table with Room for Everyone
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
1 September, 2019
Proper 17 C
Luke 14:1-14
Hebrews 13:1-8

Oxford, in England, is a pretty extraordinary place to live and work.  Not only is it home to one of the very best universities in the world, but it’s also one of the oldest.  Its alumni list includes 28 British Prime Ministers, at least 30 other international leaders, 20 Archbishops of Canterbury, 12 saints, 27 Nobel laureates, 50 Nobel Prize winners, and one Sir Stephen Hawking.  There are too many eminent and esteemed authors, actors, journalists, academics, scientists, doctors, lawyers, business and political leaders to count.

What that means is that it’s a place that prominent and powerful people are frequently invited to come and speak, or hang out, or perform.  It’s a place where you’re bound to bump into famous and exceptionally accomplished people, sometimes without even knowing it.

When Joel first accepted his job there, it was going to be almost nine months before our family would be able to move.  So, he made a separate trip a couple months early to search out a place for us to live, and to get things set up for his teaching.  I didn’t have a job or ministry lined up, but we knew wanted to get involved in a church as soon as we arrived, so he also visited one of the churches in the center of the city.

After the service was over, an older gentleman approached Joel and said, “Hello!  I don’t believe I’ve met you yet.  My name is Roger.”  He asked Joel a few questions and escorted him to the fellowship area, where he introduced him to a few other members of the church.  Eventually, one of the assistant priests approached Joel and said, “Hi, I’m Charlotte Bannister-Parker.  I noticed you’ve already met my father, Roger.  We’re glad you’re here!”  Roger had moved on and was greeting others, and it took Joel a few moments for the penny to drop, but suddenly he realized who had greeted him. Joel remembered learning about Roger as a child.  The man who extended a warm welcome to my husband that day was none other than the legendary runner and Olympic athlete, also a highly regarded neurologist, Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to break the four-minute mile.  To this day, there’s a plaque attached to the wall outside the running track in Oxford where he shattered the myth that it couldn’t be done, and set the new world record.  Neither his daughter nor anyone else at the church treated Roger differently, though: he was neither more nor less important than the rest of the group.  At church, he was just Roger—one of the mutually-loved and mutually-loving children of God in community.

As a college chaplain, I met numerous famous and prestigious people, especially when they appeared for one reason or another at Mansfield College.  Twice a week in college, we had what was called “formal hall.”  Pre-dinner drinks were served either in the Senior Common Room or in the Principal’s lodgings, as the students assembled in the dining hall.  When the Principal and celebrated guests were ready to eat, a gavel would be banged.  The students would snap to attention and stand respectfully behind their chairs, as the honored members (the Principal, Fellows, and guests) processed into the hall and up to the high table in silence.  (This isn’t the case at Mansfield, but in many colleges, the high table is actually elevated, so the “people of honor” are literally above everyone else.)  The Principal, Chaplain, or highest-ranking academic in attendance would pronounce a formal prayer, and then we’d all be seated.

Seating arrangements at the high table were carefully thought through.  Often, we’d have more than one famous or “important” person joining us for dinner, and it was always interesting to see who our Principal—herself a member of the House of Lords and rather self-important—chose to have seated closest to her (and whom she avoided).  Formal dinners were always potential opportunities for significant conversations and connections to be made.  I found it endlessly fascinating to observe the dynamics that played out, as highly accomplished professors and professionals interacted with these other prominent and powerful people—and how the esteemed guests carried themselves amidst their fame and power.  Most of them, I noticed, were accustomed to having others become servile in their presence.  And some clearly expected to be uniformly treated with deference, regardless of their own attitude.

Formal dinner parties thrown by and for powerful or popular people are hardly a new thing.  As his popularity grew, Jesus found himself being invited to more and more of them.  In today’s Gospel lection, we heard that he was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees on the sabbath.  And, we’re told, “they were watching him closely.”[1]  One reason powerful people invite other powerful people to dinner is to keep tabs on them.

The verses that are omitted by the lectionary tell us that as Jesus approached the house, a man with dropsy appeared in front of him.  And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?”  Last week, we heard about how upset the leader of the synagogue became when Jesus healed a bent-over woman on the sabbath.  (This may have been one of the reasons they were watching Jesus closely.)  But whereas the leader of the synagogue protested, in this case, the men were silent.  And so, Jesus, whose position on the matter we already know, healed the man and sent him on his way.

This is significant: prior to entering a scene where he knew there’d be a display of powerful people jockeying for position and recognition, Jesus recognized and prioritized a person whom the others would have ignored.  A “nobody”, someone not invited to the party.  Not only did Jesus acknowledge the ailing man, confirming his fundamental dignity and worth, but Jesus healed him: he made it possible for the man to fully participate in community, rather than perpetuating his experience of being pushed to the margins.

Before he even joined the banquet, Jesus was making it clear that he that he was not encumbered by the rule system governing the behavior of the others around him.  He was not beholden to the social structure that guided the others—a system that operated with a sort of pecking order, or unwritten pyramid.  It’s the structure of ancient Rome, which relied on people being indebted to one another.  It’s a system that still operates to a certain extent today, that suggests: I owe you a debt of gratitude, and I’m obligated to you until I repay that debt.  It’s a system of quid pro quo, where we feel obligated to another who has given us something.  Or, we feel entitled to expect something from someone else if we’ve done something for them.

But Jesus spent his entire ministry trying to help people understand that that’s NOT how God’s social structure was designed, and it’s not how it operates.  In God’s system, we’re given the gifts of life and abundance, of grace and salvation, even though we’ll never be able to repay them.  We’ll never even come close, because the abundance God lavishes upon us is so great, we’re not even aware of how much we receive.  But God delights in sharing divine abundance, and wants us to experience a similar delight.  What Jesus was trying to help others understand is that there’s unparalleled freedom in humbly sharing whatever we have, joyfully and without expectation of being repaid.  That foundational paradigm is why he was willing even to sacrifice his very life so that others could see how God’s love and life are still more abundant even than human greed and fear.

Back to the story.  After Jesus healed the man, they entered the party venue.  He surveyed the space, spotting the head table and the places where people of “lesser” status or honor would be seated.  Luke says that when Jesus noticed how the guests were staking out places of honor for themselves, jockeying for position and esteem in close proximity to the host, he told them a parable.

“When you’re invited by someone to a fancy party or banquet,” Jesus began, echoing Old Testament wisdom, “don’t embarrass yourself by assuming you’ll be sitting with the host in the place of honor.  Instead, take your seat at the lowest place so that the host can invite you to move up.”  One of the things you can dlearn by associating with the least and the lowly is that they, too, have compelling stories to tell.  They have lives and loves, dreams and accomplishments and pains, just as surely as those who happen to find their way into power or fortune do.  And then Jesus states the point of the parable: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”[2]  As usual, Jesus inverts the worldly order of things—because that’s what God’s realm always does.

And then he deepens the inversion, when he advises the host: “If you really want to throw a party that rewards you in ways you can’t begin to fathom, don’t invite the easy ones—your friends or family members or your rich neighbors—because you know they’ll repay you somehow.  If you truly want to experience God’s intended design, if you want to participate in the realm of eternal life today, don’t go for reciprocity.  Instead, go for extravagant generosity: invite those who won’t be able to pay you back—the poor, the lame, the blind, the crippled.”

It’s a challenging instruction—scary and hard for most of us to think about.  Even harder to put into practice.  But Jesus knew what he was talking about because even then, he was setting the table for the communion feast each of us is invited to enjoy.

Every one of us is in need of what Christ’s banquet provides—and yet, regardless of our status in the world’s eyes, we may as well be poor or lame, crippled or blind, because not a one of us can possibly come close to repaying what we would owe for the gifts we’ve received from God.  Maybe if we invite the rejects and the despised and the powerless members of society to our party, dignifying them with the same sort of personhood and concern that Jesus demonstrated toward everyone he met, we’ll have a deeper appreciation of God’s character and values, and God’s intended social order.

Jesus saw clearly that the world’s game of who’s “in” and who’s “out”, who’s worthy and who’s not, is endless and fickle.  He knew that our anxious scramble for greatness by the world’s standards will lead to nothing but more anxiety, more suspicion, more loneliness, more hatred, more devastation.  Because the world’s version of greatness is rooted in a mentality of scarcity, and playing by the rules of that structure is depleting, soul-destroying.

In God’s realm there is always room for another, and another, and another at the party, regardless of how impressive, mundane, or dodgy their back story might be.  Regardless of how much we personally might like to withhold the bounty or delights of the banquet from certain individuals.  The divine social structure is one that inverts all of our self-centered priorities, hierarchies, and values—because God’s realm is rooted in the same abundance in which this world and our lives were created, overflowing with grace and love.  It’s a realm in which we don’t need to prove ourselves: we are already welcome, already loved, already cherished.  And the social currency of God’s realm is humility, not arrogance; generosity, not stinginess or hoarding; hospitality, not fear.[3]

As Joel happily experienced on an autumn Sunday nearly 15 years ago, the Church is meant to model God’s intended social structure in the world today.  We’re called to practice the humility of recognizing that, even if we happen to be famous or highly accomplished or greatly esteemed in this world, we are nonetheless called to serve and welcome others—including those whom the rest of society might otherwise ignore or even recoil from—as being equally-precious child of God.

As we gather around Christ’s communion table, spread for anyone and everyone who wishes to receive from it, may our own church community be nourished by the abundance, the love, and the everlasting life it proclaims.  And may we share that abundance, love, and life with the world beyond these walls.  Amen.

[1] Luke 14:1

[2] Luke 14:7-11

[3] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1070-table-manners

 

© 2019 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC