The Dinner Party

Paula Northwood October 1, 2017

Scripture: Luke 14:15–24

Our text this morning is a parable that Jesus tells at a dinner party hosted by a Pharisee. One might wonder how Jesus got invited to this dinner, since his relationship with the Pharisees, as described in the Bible, seems so contentious. The Pharisees, whose name indicates that they were separatists of some sort, were religious conservatives, keepers of the law, and I imagine they had interest in what Jesus was doing.

As for Jesus, one has the impression that he did not have a steady job and relied on the generosity of others for his daily bread. Pharisees and Jesus enjoyed debate, so maybe that was what was behind the invitation.

Whatever the explanation, our story sets the stage with Jesus sharing a meal with these men of law, and he gives them some scenarios that test the laws of Judaism. For example, since Jews are to do no work on the Sabbath, is it okay to heal a child on the Sabbath or rescue an animal that has fallen into a well on the Sabbath? It reminds me of a situational ethics game we used to play as teenagers. We would ask each other questions like this: If you were are on a country road and see two neighboring farm houses on fire, which one do you go to? One is yours and the other belongs to a young couple who are expecting a baby. Your beloved grandmother and your favorite pet are at home, as are your neighbors. You can only save one house. Which one do you save? We loved to debate this kind of thing from all the angles because there are no black and white answers, only shades of gray.

In the verses before the parable, Jesus gives advice about not taking the place of honor when invited to a party in case someone more important than you shows up and then you get asked to move. (How embarrassing!) Jesus seems to be doling out suggestions like Miss Manners, the advice columnist. Be gracious and humble. Use your manners. Dress appropriately. He even tells them whom they should invite to a party: people who can’t return the favor because your reward will be given in the afterlife. Now, the Pharisees believed in an afterlife, while the Sadducees did not, so this sounded like a good thing. Since they have just had Jesus to dinner, and he will likely not repay them with a counter invitation, they thought they had this in the bag! One Pharisee gives what amounts to a toast: “Happy are those who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God.” I imagine a round of cheers and nodding of heads in agreement. I don’t know if the person who raised the chalice to say these words later regretted them, because Jesus goes on to challenge his assumption. Just because you think you are entitled to something doesn’t mean you are.

The toast, which was something like “Here’s to us!” is stopped short by Jesus, who asks if his hosts have ever heard the one about the rich person who invites all his worthy, wealthy friends to a party but they all make excuses not to attend. They all have better things to do. They are too busy, too important. They have property to inspect, oxen to test drive, a new relationship that is pulling them away. So the rich person asks “the poor, the differently abled, the marginalized” to be invited instead. Those who thought they deserved a place at the table or were entitled to the table but who were too busy to act on the invitation are shut out. And there’s a twist: All the excuses are good ones! What is wrong with acquiring some property, doing a bit of work or spending time with a love relationship?

This is not a celebration that denies the challenges and difficulties of life; it is a celebration that brings meaning even with the difficulties. These outsiders who are called to celebrate are living a difficult life. They could make excuses, too . . . maybe, even more serious excuses. These folks have burdens. They are poor. They have physical challenges. They are on the margins of society, and there is little hope that it’s going to change. The message of the banquet is that those who have been cast out, who do not belong, who are told they are unfit, who have no power over their situation, who appear to have little hope for the future—there is a place for them at the table of God.

To break our schedule as we break bread is an opening for the Spirit. It’s a thin place. The Celtic idea of the thin places, where the barriers between heaven and earth almost disappear, is an ancient concept. Who has not had an interruption when someone says, “I need to talk with you,” and it turned out to be a profound moment? Who has not had a meal where either the food or the conversation was so divine that you described it as otherworldly? We sometimes use the expression when savoring some tasty morsel, “It was to die for.” To eat together is a sacrament.

Today we celebrate World Communion. Around the globe millions of Christians are coming to the table to celebrate the unity and diversity of God’s people. Food can remind people that they belong. So this parable was Jesus’ reframing of what a dinner party looked like. God gets hospitality. And God wants us to understand it, too. God wants you to understand that you are invited to the table. You don’t need to stay outcast, or misfit, or on the outside anymore. God invites you in because God is always working to make outsiders into insiders. At Plymouth, the table is long and wide. You don’t need to believe in a particular creed. We invite you to the table whether you call yourself atheist, agnostic, seeker, mystic or follower of Jesus Christ. All are invited. The only ones left out are those who have made excuses.

Around the table incredible things can take place. One example of this happened to me when I moved to Minneapolis 25 years ago to pastor Faith Mennonite Church. Having lived for 10 years in Kansas among Mennonites who emigrated from Russia, I grew to love steaming bowls of borscht, a reddish-purple soup thick with beets, cabbage, potatoes and dollops of sour cream. We also ate zwieback, soft, buttery double buns made by pinching off one ball of dough the size of a tennis ball, then a smaller ball is pressed into the larger ball so that when baked then pulled apart, there is an indentation in the bottom half for a generous slathering of butter and jam

Here in Minnesota, I was invited to a welcome potluck. The table was laden with typical Swiss and Russian Mennonite food but also with spicy vegetable and meat stews served atop injera, a large purplish-grey sourdough flatbread. I had never tasted anything like it, but I loved it. This congregation had members who were Ethiopian Mennonites who immigrated to Minnesota. What moved me, even more than the scrumptious food, was that one family was Eritrean and the other Oromo, and, if they were in East Africa, they said they would be enemies. Their tribes were killing each other. But here, in this church basement, at God’s table, they had become friends.

When we gather together at the table to celebrate the Eucharist or any meal, sharing food is an act of solidarity, a chance to find and share comfort. Life, whether in Africa or America, Palestine or Puerto Rico, Mexico or Minnesota, is a dis-membering proposition. Conflicts and disasters tear us apart. What puts the comfort in food is the chance to nourish each other, re-member one another, to put ourselves back together, to see our place in the big picture, to find in the midst of the freefall of our existence the truth of God’s unbroken tether of grace that holds us and holds onto us. We come to the Table to feed one another, to be fed and forgiven and to try and find a fresh perspective, to be less concerned about being right and more concerned about how to love each other.

We do not always talk about how we celebrate communion and what it can mean. Sometimes we serve it by intinction, and we ask you to come forward for the bread, to stand in the unbroken line of all who have come before us and those who will come after us. This sacred bread line is a sign of our connectedness. We are asking the Spirit of God to put us back together again as the Body of Christ, and, by sharing the bread and the cup, we affirm we are all essential to that unity and connectedness.

This morning, the bread and the juice will be distributed to you as symbols, not of literal blood or body but metaphors for the nourishing love and promises of God. Love is fueled by sacrifice. We sacrifice to bring children into the world. We sacrifice to care for aging parents or an ailing spouse. We sacrifice for our country. We sacrifice “getting our own way,” our energy, our time, our resources, or, as Jesus did, we sacrifice our life for the greater good, and we do this out of love.

Jesus said, “Every time you eat the bread or drink the cup, remember me” not because he was a narcissistic egomaniac but because he was inviting us to remember to love. Hate has never healed the heart, only love. As the late Maya Angelou said, “Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.”

When we pass the bread and cup, we hold it for our neighbor and we offer each other God’s grace and extravagant welcome. Having communion is more than eating a little cube of bread and drinking a little cup of juice. You are metaphorically nourishing your soul and strengthening the church, the body of Christ.

What if we could hear those words of remembrance as an invitation to communion and community in every meal, in every cup of coffee, in every sip of wine or lemonade? Every time you eat and drink, look each other in the eye and remember, remember the love that binds us together and do whatever we have to do to forget the lies we have learned that tear us apart.

On this World Communion Sunday, may we make our way across oceans and opinions, across aisles and attitudes, and, in small steps and gentle gestures, let us offer each other the love and healing we long for. We serve one another, hand to hand, all the way back to the Upper Room. We are defined, redeemed and recognized in the breaking of the bread. Every time we eat, we articulate who we are and to whom we belong. We are called to be God’s people, the church, the body of Christ, a daring spiritual community transforming the world with love. May it be so. Amen.