Build Bigger Tables

Good morning, St. Matthew. We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging the hard past and praying our way into a better future.

And so we pray.

Holy and Patient beyond our understanding Lord – how we must tire you! No matter how many prophets you send, no matter commandments you give, and no matter how strong the Holy Spirit blows into our hearts – we seem determined to seek our own way and to declare our own categories. Again and again, you proclaim that all in your creation are equal and again and again we defy you, and find ways to create lives based on Animal Farm and Lord of The Flies, rather than on the Gospel of Christ. In your kin-dom, no one is more equal than any other. We are all your children, and we are all welcome at the table – but we don’t decide who is at that table or where they sit. Lord – we ask this morning that once again, you come to us with a word of inclusion, invitation and ingathering. Give us listening ears to hear and open hearts to love as you have asked us to do. Amen.

All are welcome at the table. What is your level of fancy? Mine is kinda low, and I have never really aspired to higher. Yet I have been to a couple truly fancy dinner parties and part of what makes the fancy, fancy are the rules. And there are a TON of rules! A super proper place setting can have up to 13 different forks, 13 different knives and 13 different spoons – and you’re supposed to know what they are all used for! If you have watched Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs, you have been made aware that, in English society, there are classes and a banana bunch of societal rules about how those folks are meant to interact. I lived in the UK and I am here to tell you, those ideas of class and “doing the done thing” are real and most Brits do not understand their US counterparts not comprehending those differences, which can lead to some sticky situations. I was in a discussion once with a friend who was working class and he was teasing about a mutual friend’s faux pas, to which, thinking I was speaking in a very British way, I replied, “Oh yes, that was so common.” I might as well have said they shot puppies for fun. Our friendship never recovered, and I learned a hard lesson that I had spoken class words that labelled me as an elitist outsider forever.

All are welcome at the table. I want you to keep that social distance in mind, because in many places and cultures, that distance matters. We have whispers of it here in the US, but we still believe it is possible to climb a social ladder. In most other places – that ladder simply does not exist. You are born to be who you are and “getting above yourself” simply isn’t allowed. Throughout Israel’s history, they were frequently at the receiving end of cultural genocide – but built into the culture was the certainty that they were the Chosen People of God. It is why, that even under the oppression of Rome – who were themselves pretty clear THEY were the centre of the universe – the Jews never felt they were somehow less. Remember in Matthew, John challenges the community leaders about trying to plead their birth right as a path to salvation.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his[b] baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore, bear fruit worthy of repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

So they are hearing anew what has been said to them throughout their history – that what makes them special is not WHO they are but WHOSE they are. So they aren’t in charge of their blessedness – it is a totally Divine gift. And that means they cannot lord it over anyone – God can choose anyone God pleases – and often does! The whole of the Old Testament is God choosing the least likely hero imaginable to carry the story of God’s love forward. So it should be no surprise – although it is! – that God keeps this going in the New Testament, choosing to enter human history as a poor man’s son, through an unwed mother, with no social status whatsoever.

All are welcome at the table. This flipping of the expected script is continuous throughout Jesus’ ministry, and in a society where one’s social rank was essential to one’s understanding of self, Jesus is dangerous. He is not a revolutionary because he demands equality – he is a revolutionary because he expects equality. He doesn’t behave like someone who is telling the bosses they have to share – he’s just walking in and opening up the pantry and asking what’s for dinner? If you recall, there was a movie made in 1967 called “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” The commentator Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, in the New Testament commentary True To Our Native Land, connects Luke’s text to the film, writing:

This move, produced at the height of the civil rights movement, addressed issues regarding “appropriate” behaviour between blacks and whites. Is romantic love between the two races acceptable? It also addressed concerns over physical separation and segregated facilities. What is the place of an educated black man in the home of whites? (In the original movie, [the mother of the black groom is] a maid in the white family’s household.) Should he or any other black be invited? Luke’s Jesus answers with a resounding Yes! People of every race, economic background and social standing, and with any physical ailment, must be at our banquet table and are surely welcome at the table of the Lord.  

All are welcome at the table. The movie “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” has a bigger punch because the white family is Old Hollywood personified – Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. For the selling of this film in 1967, it took that kind of star power to even get a movie asking such big questions about boundaries to be made. For thirty plus years, Hepburn and Tracy were A-list stars; the audience trusted them so much that they would go with them into new territory. Similarly, at this point in his ministry, Jesus already has a sizeable following; people are listening to him and taking his words seriously. Like Hepburn and Tracy, Jesus is speaking with the authority of the past – the prophecies of the Old Testament – but recasting it into new actions. In fact, Jesus is not just saying, but modelling, that part of being a person of faith is to have that attitude of openness to all. Which means that at our faithful community table, we are going to have people who are not like us, who have no idea what fork to use, or what rules we have made “normal”. Because the people trust Jesus, they are willing to hear this new expectation busting concept. And we know that it takes root, because Paul continues to apply the new model of welcome in Hebrews, doing exactly what Jesus did – rooting it in the past and expanding it into the present.

All are welcome at the table. Paul knows that Abraham was the one in Israel’s shared history who was known to have entertained angels unaware; it was an accepted cultural norm to feed those who turned up unexpectedly. But Paul challenges and expands this norm; don’t just feed the ones who turn up – go out and seek folks to feed – and more than that, seek the ones who are most hurting, most vulnerable, most isolated and bring them to the table. And that table is not a table of status and symbols with the guests displayed like trophies for charity points with your mates – no, this is a table of equity, of family, of unreserved welcome for all.

All are welcome at the table. There is a wonderful teacher working in the world of faith today named Brian McLaren, who writes about this kind of life in his book, “We Make the Road By Walking”. He writes:

The Spirit leads us downward. To the bottom, to the place of humility, to the position and posture of service . . . that’s where the Spirit, like water, flows. . . . 

If you listen to the Spirit, here is what will happen to you. You’ll be at a party and you’ll notice on one side of the room all the beautiful people laughing and having fun together. In a far corner, you’ll notice a person who is alone, feeling awkward, not knowing anyone. The Spirit will draw you to the person in need. You may become the bridge that connects the outsider to the insiders—and in that connection, both will be better off. . . .

Here’s what will happen to you if you listen to the Spirit. You will realize that someone is angry at you or resentful toward you . . . or worked behind your back to do you harm. Everything in you will want you to write them off or get them back. But the Spirit will draw you toward them in humility. . . . 

Here’s what will happen if you listen to the Spirit. You will see a person or a group being vilified or scapegoated. Everyone is blaming them, shaming them, gossiping about them, feeling superior to them, venting their anxieties on them. . . . But the Spirit will draw you to differ courageously and graciously. . . . You will risk your reputation in defending the person or people being scapegoated. And in that risk, both you and they will know that God’s Spirit is alive and at work in your midst. 

If you listen to the Spirit, here’s what will happen to you. It will be late. You will be tired. There will be dishes to do or clothes to pick up or trash to empty. Someone else should have done this, you will think with anger. You will rehearse in your mind the speech you will give them. And then you will think, But I guess they’re just as tired and overworked as I am. So maybe I can help. You won’t do this as a manipulative ploy but as a simple act of service. . . . 

There is a prison near you. A hospital. A park or a bridge or an alley where homeless people sleep. . . . There’s a country in great need or a social problem that few people notice. If you listen to the Spirit, you will be drawn toward an opportunity to serve. At first, the thought will frighten or repel you. But when you let the Spirit guide you, it will be a source of great joy—one of the richest blessings of your life. 

All are welcome at the table. We are all too willing to not listen, to follow the rules of society, to go along to get along. Listening to the Spirit is going to challenge the status quo – that’s a given. But here’s the thing – unless we open up that table, unless we sit down with all who come and all who are gathered, meeting them as friends, family and kin, disregarding the rules and the shoulds that we have sinfully elevated above God’s call to love – we are not going to be the people God has called us to be. This morning, I challenge you to listen to the Spirit and go to the places where She leads. It is only then that we will be invited to a place of honour, and oddly enough, by then it will no longer be our goal.  We won’t be concerned with proper behaviour or if we are using the right silver or sitting in the best seat. All we will desire is more of the joy of fellowship – letting mutual love continue. All are welcome at the table. Let the feast begin, and let it begin now!