Sunday, September 1, 2019

Welcome to the Table

September 1, 2019
Hebrews 13:1-2; Luke 14:1, 7-14

When you and I go to a large party, a wedding reception, for example, we know to look for the table with name cards. The cards will tell us where to sit, in an often-well-thought out plan. Bride and groom and attendants sit at the head table, parents and grandparents in the first row of tables. Other friends and family are scattered around the room, with natural groups of people who know each other sitting together. Sometimes the pastor sits with the parents or the grandparents, and sometimes with the photographer. That’s how a seating chart works.

In Jesus’ time, the seating chart was similar, and was based on social ranking. The most important people sat closest to the host, the least important people sat farther away. I found this image which portrays a saying from the Middle Ages which describes the way people are seated. It rather accurately reflects the Biblical seating chart as well.

The most important people are seated on chairs around a table with dishes of salt on the table. At one time salt was a very expensive seasoning, and only the most important people deserved to have access to it. The rest of the people sit on trestle benches at long tables, with no access to the salt. Guests are seated above or below the salt.

Jesus is saying that the important people should not immediately sit at the place they assume to be theirs at the head table. Rather, they should start at a seat below the salt, and wait to be invited to sit above the salt. In addition, Jesus says that, “in fact, the preferred guests at a banquet should be those who have no place at the table at all, even below the salt. The blind, the lame, the crippled should be the guests, because they will be truly grateful for the invitation.”

Jesus understands the giving and receiving of invitations to events as business transactions. Those who are wealthy perceive the invitation as a debt to be paid, or as payment for a debt already owed. This attitude plays out at all levels of society, in many places, even today. For example, my Nana rarely went to lunch with friends at their houses, because then she would be obligated to invite them to her house. Which, apparently, she didn’t want to do.

The author of Hebrews warns us that we should welcome all to the table, because sometimes, the unknown person is really an angel. In part, this is a reference to Genesis when Abraham and Sarah welcome three men to their tent. It turns out that the men are really angels with a message from God that Sarah will have a child within a year.

When we sit down with strangers at a table, we really don’t know anything about them. But if we are open to these strangers, we can meet some interesting people. If we are not open to them, we lose the impact their story may have had on us.

This is a story of how to not welcome someone at the table.
Many years ago, I was at a conference and Rev. Maxine Washington was the speaker. Maxine spent a few years as the Assistant to the Bishop in Southeast Michigan Synod. Later, she accepted a call to the ELCA Churchwide office in the Department of Multicultural Ministries. At the conference, she told this story. 

“When I moved to Chicago, I visited several churches near my home to find one I wanted to belong to. The first Sunday, I parked my car and walked up to the doorway to go inside. An usher gave me a bulletin and looked at me like he was thinking that I didn’t belong there.

“I took my bulletin and found a seat in the back pew. As I looked around, I realized that all the people were white. Soon, I noticed that a woman sitting at the other end of the pew got up and moved to the pew in front of me. Well, I thought there was something wrong with the pew, so I got up and moved, too!” 

While she made us laugh at her telling, she made her point. Maxine knew when she was not welcome at the table.

This is a photo of some friends of mine. Twice a month during the school year, my Kiwanis Club volunteers to help clients of the Key Training Center bowl. They are all developmentally challenged in some way. Several bowlers have Down Syndrome. One of the bowlers is deaf. After three years of having them stop by my desk at the Bowling Center to check in, I know most of them by name. Some of them need help holding a ball, while some of them bowl in the 200s. Here are stories about two of them.

Diane used to bowl, but her legs are no longer strong enough to hold her. She wears a helmet as a precaution in case she falls. She comes each time to join her friends at the bowling center. She wheels herself from table to table, and always stops to talk with me a couple of times while we are there.

She starts out, “Hello, Beautiful.” And I reply, “Hello, Gorgeous.” Or some variations on that theme. For over a year, we talked about her moving from one group home into a new one in Pine Ridge. It is a wealthier area of homes, on an acre or more of land, instead of the close-in homes of my neighborhood.

She told me of the court battle to resist having “her kind” of people moving into the new group home. Last spring, she was so excited to be able to move herself and her belongings into the new home, where she finally has a room of her own. And her own place at the table.

Each year, we designate a person as the Bowler of the Year. Michael gushed when he heard his name called and hugged me over and over again. “I have been trying so hard to get this award,” he said. “I have my shoes polished and my bag neat. I am always on time, and I try to help the other bowlers all the time. Thank you for seeing me as a good person.”

Diane and Michael have different abilities, but often, they are not welcome at the public table. I am proud to welcome them at my table anytime.

These days, it is hard to watch the news or look at social media and not find one person or group describing another group as “not welcome at the table.” Perhaps we are guilty of this as well. Our training in discrimination, in prejudice, goes deep into our early childhood psyche. And it is a hard, hard pattern to break.

In a few minutes, we’ll sing the Hymn of the Day, called, “For Everyone Born”. It lists people we may or may not want to include at our table. It has the usual lists of people: women and men, young and old. And then we are shocked to read and sing that the song includes people we may not want at the table: The abuser and the abused, the unjust and the just, those who hurt others, and those who forgive. While we may welcome the abused and the injured and the forgiver, and want to help heal them, we are not usually so ready to welcome the abuser and those who need to be forgiven.

When we think about who would be welcome at our own table, let’s remember that the model was set for us thousands of years ago, and again by Jesus. Abraham and Sarah welcomed three men who turned out to be angels. Jesus ate many meals with people the leaders called “unclean” and inappropriate. He ate with Pharisees and scribes, and also tax-collectors, whom many saw as traitors of the Jews. He talked openly with women, foreign women and women with questionable histories. He healed people who didn’t even ask for healing. He ate with Judas and with Peter, even though he knew what they would do in just a few hours.

And he lived by the spirit of the law instead of the letter of the law. Everyone was welcome at Jesus’ table when he walked the earth. We are welcome at Jesus’ table today and every day. … I wonder if you and I are as welcoming of all as Jesus calls us to be. May he forgive us and teach us when we need to be more welcoming. Amen