Come to the Table?

A sermon preached on August 28, 2016 ~

The question mark at the end of the sermon title is intentional.  Welcome to the table.  Welcome to the table?

Are we a truly welcoming congregation?  Are we a radically hospitable congregation?

One afternoon this week, I spent some time sitting here, and then walking slowly through this sanctuary. Which of you were involved with the design and building of this space?  Those of you who were may be aware of things that others of us take for granted – and I bet that Marion is aware of these things as well! —  and I wanted to really take it all in.  The beautifully grained and carved and polished woodwork.  The elegant fabric used for the pew cushions and communion kneelers.  The graceful ship’s hull design of the ceiling.  The beautifully crafted banners.  The stunning windows, with their rainbow of blue hues and their intriguing symbolic designs.  (I didn’t even know, until I came here, that the seashell is a symbol for baptism — and I like the seashell window so much that I photographed it for the illustration on my business cards.)

The windows – take a look at the windows on the back wall.  Do you know, without looking, what they are?  One portrays a cross with a wine chalice; the other, sheaves of wheat and a cluster of grapes.  That means that when you walk forward for communion, you come from the symbols of the Lord’s Table, and then you return to the symbols of the Lord’s Table.  And what I wondered, as I wandered through the sanctuary, was whether we live up to the radical hospitality symbolized by that table?  Do we live up to the beauty of our sanctuary in our overall lives as a congregation?

When we invite Jesus into our congregation, does he fit in easily and comfortably?  Or does Jesus, with his ideas and exhortations and his entourage of the poor and the homeless and the broken, create some challenges for us?

We have a story today that starts out simply enough.  Jesus has gone to the home of one of the Pharisees for a Sabbath dinner.  Jesus is always sharing a meal with one group of people or another, and all kinds of conversations happen at these meals.  That’s pretty much the same in our own lives, isn’t it – we gather over meals, and all kinds of things happen – especially if your family is one of the more complex versions of family.  A lot of us these days have the kinds of families in which some of the people who might be present at a big gathering have labels like “former” or “step” or “half” or “ex,”  and while there are families which handle those situations quite well, others are a bit prone to drama.  Well, when Jesus is present, drama has a way of emerging, albeit for different reasons. And at the particular meal that we’re speaking of today, the Pharisees are watching for it.  Is he going to suddenly reach out and heal someone? Is a woman going to appear with a jar of oil and stoop down to wash his feet? Is he going to call someone out for some reason? It can be a little nerve-wracking, to share a meal with Jesus.

At first, Jesus just watches, and offers a bit of advice.  He watches the guests jostling for position, and then he tells them a story about a wedding banquet, pointing out that, rather than grabbing a place of honor and risking the humiliation of the host asking you to move and make way for someone important, it’s better to take one of the seats in the back. Perhaps then the host will do you the honor of asking you to move forward. Nothing too surprising here.

But then he goes a little further, and proclaims that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  With Jesus, it’s never just about the meal.  It’s never just about the ordinary events and experiences of life; it’s always about a deeper meaning.  It’s always about the kingdom of God, the kingdom he has come to inaugurate here on earth.  The kingdom which we, too, are invited to proclaim, in the everyday circumstances of our lives.

A couple of weeks ago, several of our youth came in for an event at which we discussed some of the challenges of high school. We had prepared several questions for them to reflect on, one of which was, “What would you do if you saw a new kid sitting all alone at lunch?”  A couple of the young people pretty quickly came up with the idea that they would invite this new kid to join the group at their table, so they’d have someone to eat with and get to know a few people.  Kingdom behavior.  And do you know, at Bible study this week, as we discussed this passage, the same sort of scenario came up – except this time — at church.  What do you do when you notice someone sitting alone at a Soup Supper or another event?

Jesus himself moves pretty quickly from his story about wedding banquet guests to his kingdom message about humility to this even broader kingdom question of hospitality.  When you are a guest at a banquet, take the lowliest seat, so that you will not be embarrassed by having over-stepped your place.  As a guest of God, know that humility is valued over self-exaltation.  And then: when you are a host . . .  when you are a host, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” – invite those who are in no position to repay you with a reciprocal invitation.

Now, suddenly, we’ve moved way beyond good manners, or even appropriate recognition of honor and humility.  Now we’ve moved into the arena of radical hospitality.  We’ve moved into the arena symbolized by those windows at the back. We’ve moved into the question of what, and who, are this beautiful sanctuary and this expansive building for?

The Rule of St. Benedict, written over 1,500 years ago as monasteries were being established all over Europe, says that, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.”  In an era in which travel was arduous and dangerous and few overnight establishments existed, the monasteries performed a vital function in welcoming travelers of all sorts.   In writing about the sort of hospitality in which Benedictine monks continue to engage today, monk Daniel Homan says

“Hospitality does not focus on the goal of being hospitable.  It is not about the one offering  hospitality.  Instead, it is singularly focused on the object of hospitality – the stranger, the guest, the delightful other.  One of the inherent problem with programs to develop radical hospitality  is the focus on hospitality as  a goal.  Hospitality requires that our focus is on the other rather than attainment of a concept.”[1]

I think our youth in the cafeteria have the idea.  Their immediate focus was on making the new kid more comfortable by welcoming him or her into the group – on relationship.  On “the delightful other.” How do we do this in the church?

The Methodists have a few things to say about radical hospitality, using Benedict’s words 1,500 years later.  They tell us that “ ‘radical hospitality’ requires intentional invitation and welcome. It goes beyond greeters at the door and handshakes during worship to welcome every person as an honored guest.’

Certainly, being a “friendly” church is good. But being in ministry in a confused and hurting world calls for “radical hospitality,” which breathes our core value: people are important to God and to this church.”[2]

And what about Lutherans?  On a website called “Radical Hospitality for the Rest of Us,” I discovered a short blurb about Peace Lutheran in Tacoma, Washington, “a 100 year old church that has successfully transitioned from being a dwindling ethnic German-Russian congregation in the 1960s to a diverse and vibrant congregation that reflects the demographics of the neighborhood and is deeply engaged with the needs of its community. The church is an unusual combination of Lutheran solidity (efficient systems and accountability) with vibrant relationships and an openness to the unexpected. It is a congregation that embodies the best of the Lutheran heritage of service and grace.”[3]

Well, what does all of this mean for us?  We know that as guests we are to exercise humility – ok.  We know that we do in our daily lives, in even the smallest of ways, has the potential to reflect the kingdom of God.  We know that we are to treat our guests as if they are Christ himself.  But how. Exactly, do we make the leap from being a friendly church to a radically hospitable church?

In have three suggestions for us, from small to big to the challenge of leaving our own space.  Small, and this one is from the Methodists: Decide that each Sunday you are going to greet two people you don’t know.  If it turns out that they are long time members whom maybe you should know, that’s ok. (I know that everyone worries about this!) No one gets to be insulted or embarrassed – that’s the humility part!

Big:  Whom might we invite to one of our events – to a Soup Super, or to something new? Students from Tri-C?  Guests from the Knickerbocker?  People from I don’t know where?  Whom might we welcome as the faces of Christ into our beautiful building?

Going out? We are a people sent by God to share the good news of God’s love. Where might we be sent to share that love through hospitality – to help serve a meal, to deliver food, to in some other way give of the abundance we have been given?

This all started with a story about who gets the seats of honor, and who perhaps does not.  But where Jesus is concerned, everyone gets a seat of honor.  Those symbols in the windows at the back, those symbols of bread and wine and cross – they are not just for us.  They are for the whole world and we, like Jesus, are called to be for the whole world.  We all, in fact, sit at the same place.  We are all invited :to sit at the Lord’s table, and there are none who are either too high or too low in status to be excluded.  As the old saying goes, ‘The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.’ “[4]

Welcome to the table is not a question – welcome to the table is an exclamation.  All are welcome – all are welcome by the Host of Love to the community of love.  Amen.

————

[1] Lonni Collins Pratt with Father Daniel Homan, OSB.  Radical Hospitality.  2011.

[2] Poona Patodia, “Is it time to move from friendly to radical hospitality?” http://www.umcom.org/learn/is-it-time-to-move-from-friendly-to-radical-hospitality.

[3] http://www.radicalhospitalityfortherestofus.com/?page_id=71

[4] http://gluthermonson.blogspot.com/2016/08/gods-etiquette.html

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