Sermon: Who's Coming to Dinner

18 February 2007

Rev. Jennifer Whipple
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
February 18, 2007

Who's Coming to Dinner?

Luke 14:1-14

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

For ages there has been a question on college applications that goes something like this, “If you were able to invite anyone in history past or near present to dinner who would that person or those people be, and why?” It is quite the challenge for people to figure out just who the perfect choices would be in order to impress the committees who would decide their future. Let’s take a moment, take the admissions officers out of the picture and instead imagine if you will, you’re ideal dinner party. Perhaps one with the most important people in your life. What are you going to eat? Who are you inviting? Where are they sitting? Think about how important dinner parties can be. In today’s society dinner parties can be used to make some pretty big decisions and announcements about jobs, relationships, family situations…you name it. When I think about my ideal dinner party I think about eating and enjoying time with my family. There is a catch, though. When Ryan and I are at home we have “assigned seats,” for lack of a better term. It is when everyone else comes over that we tend to be the ones who wander. Growing up was the same way. I sat at the same seat at my parents’ dinner table for years, but then my brother and sister-in-law got married, and once my nephew came on the scene I got the boot. Now there are no real assigned seats, and I wait. I wait until everyone else is seated in order to see where my seat will be. It is always an adventure when we have dinner all together. But what is not as important as where we are seated is who we are there with. I know that no matter where I end up, I am eating dinner with the most important people in my life, and I am learning more about them and sharing quality time with them. But then I think…Is there anyone missing?

I used to participate in an adult education program in my hometown called “Last Fridays.” Every last Friday of the month a group of people gets together to share in fellowship and Christian Education. Dinner is shared, and then the topic for the month is worked with and through. One of the topics was about Jesus and where we consciously find Jesus in our own lives. You see, if you are like me, then the mindset is that God is always there. God is with me whether I am hanging out, sleeping, or here at the church, and even having dinner. But I don’t often consciously think about that. For instance, was Jesus on the invited guest lists for your dinner parties? Is there a seat at our tables for God?

In our scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke this morning Jesus is invited to share a Sabbath meal. He waits until everyone is seated, paying particular attention to how people choose their seats at the table. Then he begins to teach in the form of a parable. He speaks of a wedding banquet, one that people are invited to, but not in the same way that wedding banquets or receptions happen today. Today, we assign the seats of our guests. There is rhyme and reason to the way people are seated. And if we allowed people to choose their own seats, there might be all out brawls to figure out who gets to sit closest to the bride and groom or other family members…or who doesn’t get to sit next to certain family members for that matter. During Jesus’ time, though, there was no such thing as assigned seating for banquets. Instead people chose their own seats. And according to our scripture one would think that people chose their seats based upon the level of their relationship to the host. Banquets, much like the dinner parties of today, were not a laughing matter. They were a form of communication in which important social messages were exchanged between the host and those invited, usually people of high status. And statements were made based on who was not invited or who was invited but didn’t show. Everything was done with a purpose, what was prepared and the way in which it was prepared and served spoke volumes about the host. And banquets were a way for the host and those invited to celebrate their relationships with one another.

So we see Jesus wait until everyone at the meal with him had chosen their seats, and then he teaches them a life lesson…once again turned a normal experience into a teachable moment. He teaches them about not thinking too highly of themselves. He teaches about humility. “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Not only does Jesus speak about humility while talking to these religious leaders and people who were the advantaged of the time, he then goes on to speak about who should be on their own invited guests lists. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner,” he says, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your 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, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Now we can imagine the leader of the Pharisees in whose house Jesus is receiving hospitality mind you. In the New Testament the Pharisees tended to play the role of Jesus’ opponents. They were concerned with things like ritual purity, tithing, and observance of the Sabbath. And here they were with a man who steps outside the box, who works from a completely different angle. In fact in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus healed a man just before he arrived at the Pharisee’s house for the meal. So Jesus was not only speaking to the Pharisees and those gathered about things that they could not understand, but he had blatantly broken the observance of the Sabbath by working on it. And it is made clear in the beginning of this passage that the Pharisees were watching Jesus closely, but instead Jesus becomes the watcher. He becomes the one who takes everything in and has the opportunity to offer some constructive criticism. And Jesus basically gives a list of verbal “no-no’s” to the leader whose house he had been invited to. “I’m sorry, sir, but you have it all wrong. This gathering should include people like the man whom I just healed on this holy day.” Jesus teaches these things among a group of people who criticized him and his disciples for eating with sinners. Basically Jesus comes into this house as an invited guest and turns everything on its head, as he did so many times in the gospel accounts of his teachings.

In this passage Jesus teaches about the universal nature of God’s love. God is not fooled by self-promotion like that of the people who choose their own seats of honor and then are asked to move to a lower place. Instead Jesus does not think about material gain or honor but rather the idea that the principle of love we learn about in the Golden Rule will be maintained. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Love others as you would wish to be loved by others. And we are not to do these things because we will definitely be repaid or loved back but rather because love is central to Jesus’ message and ministry, central to our faith as we know it.

Nowhere is the fact that Jesus practiced what he preached more evident than in the account of the Last Supper. Despite the fact that the people on the guest list were his disciples, his dearest friends, if we think back to their roots we realize that they were once the poor, the disadvantaged in some ways. This group of fishermen and craftsmen of the time, even a tax collector whose life had been spent taking advantage of other people, together with the man who would betray Jesus were a pretty motley crew. They were not the type of people you would expect a “king” to be traveling with. They had given up all of their own worldly riches to follow Jesus. And they did not travel with him because of their vast knowledge of religious beliefs either, but rather because they were willing to believe the message Jesus had to offer them and were willing to work towards bringing about God’s kingdom on earth. They were willing to believe in Jesus’ teachings about love, the disadvantaged, and the rewards that do not necessarily come in this life but rather in God’s kingdom. “Give up all that you have. Come follow me.” And despite the knowledge that one of them would betray him, Jesus still treated everyone in that upper room with unfailing love. He shared a meal with them. He shared his teachings with them. He shared his secret with them, one that meant that he would give up his life, not only for their forgiveness but that all would be forgiven…us included.

And what an amazing gift that is to us. In a society where we spend so much time trying to earn everything because that is what we are told we are supposed to do, as faithful people some of the most important things we have, and have in abundance, are gifts freely given. Namely the love and grace of God that gets us through so many different times both wonderful and difficult in our lives. We do not have to earn them. We do not deserve them. We cannot repay Jesus for all that we are gifted with. We cannot repay Jesus for the communion feasts or the agape meals that we have shared here in this place or in people’s homes. And yet we are invited all the same despite our own failings and hang ups. We do not have to be perfect to be in the presence of God. We just have to be ourselves.

And here we sit this morning. I don’t know about you, but I often take for granted that Jesus and God are here. I don’t usually feel it necessary to consciously invite them into my life and my heart. And yet maybe it should be as it was when Jesus walked the earth. Maybe an invitation wouldn’t hurt. So maybe what we need to do is worry less about our status, about what seat we get and instead think about some of the ways that we can consciously reserve a seat and invite God into our lives. Perhaps that is by sharing in service to God, offering our own time, talent, and treasures within this community to those among us and the world around us. Or perhaps we can go as far as to leave a place or plate at our dinner table, but we can also invite God to our dinner parties by offering a grace that asks God to be present not just with us but with all of the people who are gathered. We can invite God our lives through prayer. If prayer is a conversation with God what better way to invite someone into your life than by having a conversation with them and allowing them to share a part of you and what is happening in your life?

So let us leave this place today less concerned about earning and more aware of those important things in our lives that are not earned but freely given…and given in abundance. Let us leave this place today with a new idea of what sharing in meals and fellowship with other people could be about. And let us leave this place today willing to rearrange our own invited guest lists to include Jesus, so that we might be conscious of “God With Us” all of the time. Amen.

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