(Luke 14: 1-24)
We continue this morning in our ConnectTPC sermon series, Connecting with our Neighbor, asking who our neighbor is and how we connect with them as we connect with God and with our church family. Today’s passage comes from the 14th chapter of Luke, verses 1-24. It is a story about a meal, but it is also a story about meals within that meal. Luke loves the whole idea of fellowship at the table, and we learn a lot of important things about Jesus and the kingdom of God around that table. Today’s scripture will be interwoven into the sermon – Rebecca will read part of the passage and I’ll sermonize a bit. So with that, my friends, listen to this:
One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move. Right before him there was a man hugely swollen in his joints. So Jesus asked the religion scholars and Pharisees present, “Is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath? Yes or no?” They were silent. So he took the man, healed him, and sent him on his way. Then he said, “Is there anyone here who, if a child or animal fell down a well, wouldn’t rush to pull him out immediately, not asking whether or not it was the Sabbath?” They were stumped. There was nothing they could say to that.
The table is set, as all tables are when guests are coming. It’s taken all day to get it ready. And truth be told, the planning and preparation has taken even longer – getting the menu set, purchasing items from the market, the actual table put in place and the meal prepared. These meals were significant events in the homes where they took place and the people they were for. It was more than just having a few friends over for a bite. It was the very embodiment of cultural etiquette and principle.
A lead Pharisee had graciously offered his home, invited Jesus and the others. And even though Jesus is not the host, he is very much the center of attention. He is the reason this table has been set in the first place. They all have their eyes on him, we are told, watching his every move. We cannot help but wonder what this was about. Were they just curious, or suspicious? Did they genuinely want to learn more about Jesus, or were they looking for a weak spot, a contradiction, something they could use against him later?
An unwell man is there at the table, suffering from swollen joints that bring him great pain. In truth, we all bring our pains to the table one way or another. But there are protocols to be followed, there are do’s and don’ts; and Jesus takes them on directly, bringing out into the open that which everyone else would prefer not to see. He heals the man, even though this is a breach of decorum. He sends him on his way, even as others wonder why he had been there in the first place.
The table is set. But for what, exactly? What is to become of this meal, and what will happen when it’s over? The table is a place where meals are enjoyed, where fellowship takes place, where people gather as one. But the table can also be a place of conflict, uncertainty, and unexpected grace. What happens when our table looks like that?
Jesus went on to tell a story to the guests around the table. Noticing how each had tried to elbow into the place of honor, he said, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left. “When you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, ‘Friend, come up to the front.’ That will give the dinner guests something to talk about! What I’m saying is, If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Last week I Facetimed my brother on his birthday. He, his wife, and their precious daughter were at my parent’s house, sitting at the Lindsley dining room table, enjoying a glass of wine and a piece of cake. The phone was passed back and forth between conversations with my brother and watching my two-year old niece do two-year old niece things. And it was ten minutes into the facetime before I noticed that my sister-in-law was sitting in my mother’s seat. This is the seat at the end of the table closest to the kitchen door, and it has been where my Mom has sat at every family meal from my earliest memory all the way up to our last visit there.
I commented about this, and there was a chuckle. Apparently Mom’s role had evolved somewhat – she was still host of the meal, but she was also the official toddler-wrangler, and you cannot stay in your seat very long and do a good job with that!
My mom is not protective of her seat in the least, but I know some are. I know some care very much about who sits where – and not just at dining room tables but in board rooms and at school PTO gatherings and at city council meetings and yes, even at church. We all know well the sensation of entering a space where it is clear that position to power means everything. You can feel it in the air, like an approaching storm.
Jesus is calling us here to engage in a little mischief, a little deconstruction of our pecking order and caste culture. He is inviting you and me to do something that does not come naturally – to intentionally take the seat that the world sees as beneath us. To voluntarily relinquish our access to power and privilege, precisely so those who would not normally have access to those things can. Jesus knew that the bedrock of any meaningful societal change is for those in power to empower the powerless. And he knew it had to begin at the table.
Then Jesus turned to the host and said, “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”
The carpenter gets to work, for there is a table to be built. And at this table, those of similar status and stature will sit in their pre-assigned seats and understand that the invitation they receive is in reality a transaction – an unspoken expectation to return the favor and host their own meal at their own table, and invite those same people of similar status and stature who will sit in their pre-assigned seats and anticipate the next invitation. It is a dance for which everyone hums the same tune.
The carpenter constructs a sturdy table made of the finest wood. He steps back to admire his handiwork, and it is true, it is gorgeous. But there is something missing from it. He is not sure what. At first glance it could not be any better. The woodwork is exquisite. It is more than durable. What is not there?
And that is when it occurs to him that it is not a what that is missing but a who. All those people the host already knows; all who can repay him in kind. Such a small group of people, really, when you think about it.
And so the carpenter decides to change the design. He refashions the table and adds a leaf on the top, a sliver of wood that can be inserted in the middle to expand the surface. He adds multiple leaves, in fact; so even more people can gather around the table. So the invite list does not have to be restricted to the same old same old, but can grow to include those who wouldn’t otherwise have a reason to be there, those who’d normally be the last to get an invite if they even made the list at all. There are so many of them, so many that those who can return the favor just might wind up staying home altogether. There are too many other folk who are more than eager to gather at this table now.
Jesus then said, “There was once a man who threw a great dinner party and invited many. When it was time for dinner, he sent out his servant to the invited guests, saying, ‘Come on in; the food’s on the table.’ Then they all began to beg off, one after another making excuses. The first said, ‘I bought a piece of property and need to look it over. Send my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I just bought five teams of oxen, and I really need to check them out. Send my regrets.’ And yet another said, ‘I just got married and need to get home to my wife.’ When the servant told the master what had happened, he was outraged and said, ‘Quickly, get out into the city streets and alleys. Collect all who look like they need a square meal, all the misfits and homeless and wretched you can lay your hands on, and bring them here.’ The servant reported back, ‘Master, I did what you commanded—and there’s still room.’ The master said, ‘Then go to the country roads. Whoever you find, drag them in. I want my house full! Let me tell you, not one of those originally invited is going to get so much as a bite at my dinner party.’”
We make plans. We love our plans. We make judgments on who is invited and who is worth inviting. What to put on the table and which course to serve first. What the dinnerware will look like, what napkins we’ll use, where people will park their cars and where they will leave their coats.
And it is an act of greatest faith, these plans; because there is no guarantee that anyone will actually come, is there? It is an act of faith. If we are lucky, they will show up just as we hoped, just as we imagined when we first started making all those plans.
But the table can be a place of the unexpected; and it is entirely possible that no one will come. Maybe they have good reasons for not coming, maybe they don’t. Maybe we just picked a bad time, didn’t think things through, left out an important detail or two. Or maybe sometimes our plans just don’t work out.
But what is more important than the plans we make, are the plans that God makes. Who God invites. Where God wants people to sit. What God wants to happen at the table.
Because the truth of it all, my fellow tablemates, is that this table is not our own. It was put together by the carpenter who had his own plan for it – an ever-expanding surface with room for everyone, and I mean everyone. And the meal is not ours either. No, this meal is prepared by none other than God, and it consists of just two courses, the bread and the cup. And it is enough for us, it is more than enough; it is enough to satisfy our needs and the needs of the whole world over.
People of God, the table is set. We have our place. Who else needs a seat at this table?
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
Featured image from https://www.pawsup.com/events/montana-long-table