Sunday, August 28, 2016

August 28, 2016
Luke 14: 1, 7-14

Guess who’s coming to dinner!
It’s important to know where to sit at a dinner party. Even at a Round Robin dinner with 8 friends from church, we sometimes struggle to figure out who sits where. Mostly, we try to keep couples together, and to accommodate the left-handed people.
At more important events, where one sits takes on national and international importance. Today we use name cards and it’s relatively easy for a guest to sit in the correct place. A hundred years or more ago, large dinners used long tables, and it would have been easy to sit in the wrong place.
In the White house, at larger events these days, there is a rectangular head table, and the rest of the tables are round, so one’s social rank is not as evident. Thanks, King Arthur.

Two thousand years ago, the table setting was long tables, and the most important people in town jockeyed and pushed their way to the most important seats at their host’s table. Jesus notices this, and he comments on it. He calls it a parable, but it’s really just a set of party table manners.
“You all try to sit in the most important seats, near the head of the table. How embarrassing it is when someone more important arrives and needs your seat. Then you have to move to the only available seat in the house, among the least important. Wouldn’t it be better to sit at a lower table and be invited to move to a higher seat?”
Then, Jesus reflects on the pattern of inviting those who have invited them, a ritual of pay-backs that goes on forever.
It was just this sort of belief in the need to constantly pay back a dinner meal, a favor, a gift, that made my Nana decline all dinner invitations by her friends. If she went to dinner at their house, she could be OBLIGATED to invite them to dinner. And she hated being obligated, so she never went anywhere.
Then, Jesus says, “Instead of inviting those who will participate in this endless cycle of payback meals, invite those who can’t pay you back. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame to eat with you.”
Today, the same list might apply, but we could also include undocumented immigrants, refugees, gays and lesbians, women who have had abortions, the drug and alcohol-addicted, the homeless, those who support the other candidate for president, and maybe even those suffering from Zika virus.
What are we to learn from this? At least that all should be welcome in our homes, our worship services, in our church. To really express what that means, I have a few stories.
Many years ago, my congregation put on a “Hunger Meal.” Many who attended thought it was a meal to raise funds for the hungry, and it was that. We could all smell some delicious roast beef and mashed potatoes cooking in the kitchen.
After worship, those of us who had signed up got in line at the kitchen door. A youth was standing there, handing out tickets. They were simply pieces of paper, and some had some writing on them.
It turned out that if your ticket said ‘full meal’, you could go and get the roast beef dinner, with salad and dessert. If your ticket said ‘small meal’ you got the roast beef dinner, but no salad or dessert. The rest of the ticket holders got a bowl of rice.
There were about 3 people who got a full meal, about 6 who got the small meal, and about 30 who got just a dish of rice. There was a lot of grumbling and groaning. Those who got just the small meal grumbled that they did not get dessert. Those who got rice complained that they were still hungry, and above all that it was not fair.
That, we know, was the point of the Hunger Meal, to demonstrate that it is not fair that some got a lot to eat, and some were still hungry. Some people chose to share their full meal with those who got rice, but many did not. And that is also the point, that some have a lot and refuse to share it, and some have a little, and share what they have.
In 1967, the last few states with laws against inter-racial marriage voted to remove the ban.   The legal and emotional ban on the mixing of races was the theme of the movie “Guess who’s coming to dinner.” It was scandalous in the eyes of many people in 1967, and perhaps still so in the eyes of many people today.
The story is this: A wealthy white young woman named Joanna brings her African American fiancĂ©, John, home to meet her parents. Joanna’s parents had taught her to accept all people, all races, as equal, so she was surprised that the liberal attitude did not extend to marrying a man of a different race. As the different family members spoke with each other and with John, they finally came to the conclusion that color made no difference because they were in love. And, finally, they sat down to eat dinner.
During seminary, I had the opportunity to visit several congregations, to see if I wanted to do my field work there. I remember worship as “normal”, I liked the pastor well enough, but it was the parishioners who made the difference. I got a cup of coffee and a plate of goodies and went to find a place to sit, to get to know the folks. I spotted an empty place at a table and set my cup down. But the ladies at the table stopped me from pulling out the chair. “That’s Sally’s seat.” Of course, I found a different table, but the memory of the incident remains with me today. And I moved on to a different church.
So, now, an observation. Hope members are more welcoming than the members at many other churches in the area. I have seen Hope people make sure to welcome and share the peace with visitors in a very gracious and inclusive manner. It doesn’t seem to matter who the visitor is; they are welcome during worship.
But, I have observed, and I have been told several times, that we don’t do such a great job during refreshments after worship. Visitors often sit at a table, alone, and no one speaks to them. It seems we have assigned seats, sitting with our friends each week, and don’t want to go out of our way to include new people.
I have threatened a few times to hand out table numbers to people, to force you to sit with different people, but I also know how well that would work. There would be a great rebellion, and y’all would sit at the same table as always, no matter what number I gave you.
So, instead, I simply remind you to be aware of visitors and to be sure to invite them to sit at your table. Go get the visitor and invite them to join you if they come in later. If necessary, grab an extra chair. I know that you will welcome them once they are at the table, but they don’t know that.
What Jesus means by this set of comments on table manners and guest invitations is that all should be welcome in the family, in the community, in the congregation, and at your table in Luther Hall. Sometimes we need to go the extra step to include new people. Sometimes we need to look beyond the usual guest list to make sure all know they are welcome.
This warm welcome is an expression of love, God’s kind of love.

Please pray with me. Jesus, our host and our guest, you welcome us all at your table, and you are always welcome at our table. Help us be as inviting, as welcoming, as loving as you are. In your holy name, we pray. Amen