What would a great banquet, a great feast, look like to you? Perhaps it would be like a grand buffet in a fine hotel, with a someone in a chef’s hat carving roast beef, with choices of meats and vegetables and fruits and all the side dishes one could want presented on a long table. The tables might be covered with fine linens, and the wait staff would be standing nearby to fill any empty glasses and to serve in any way needed. Or maybe it would be at someone’s house, still with excellent food and lots of wine and drink available. You would know many of those present, and you would meet the other fine folks invited as you mingled over appetizers before dinner. Only the finest foods would be served, and everyone would be dressed nicely and behaving genteelly. For, really, only the well-to-do throw dinner big parties. Poorer people simply cannot afford to throw a dinner party. And they certainly would not be invited alongside the rich folk. That would just be uncomfortable for everyone.
And yet in both of these scriptures, in Isaiah and in Luke, the poor, the handicapped, the despicable, the ones we see as enemies, are invited to the table. There is no cost, and the food is good, and it is food that will satisfy. Do you see yourself at that table? If not, where will you be instead?
In the gospel story, Jesus had been invited to a banquet at the home of a leader of the Pharisees. On the way there, he saw a sick man, and he stopped to heal him. In other stories, the Pharisees and lawyers would ask Jesus how he dared to heal on the Sabbath. But here, Jesus preempted their questions, and asked them, "Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?" No one answered him. Jesus pushed a little more: "Well, if a child, or even an ox, fell into a well on a Sabbath day, would you let it suffer there until the Sabbath was over, or would you go and pull it out?" Again, no one answered him. Always ready to trap Jesus, they were reluctant to answer him when he asked their opinions, perhaps because they were afraid of being shown wrong in public. The answer was obvious. Generally, it was wrong to heal or help on the Sabbath, because it would be considered work, and the Jewish law prohibited work on the Sabbath. Even the meal to which Jesus was going would have been prepared the day before, so that the host and his people did not have to work on the Sabbath. But everyone knew that Jesus would say that compassion would have them ignore the law, and help those who needed help. So no one spoke.
They headed on to the fine banquet, and Jesus noticed that the people were vying for the prime seats, seats nearest the host, which would proclaim to others that they were honored guests. So Jesus proceeded to give some etiquette lessons. Though the text says he told a parable, these sayings are really more like warnings. Jesus addresses how people should treat other people. Putting yourself ahead of others, he says, may be overrating yourself. So start low, he recommends. Then, if you are promoted to a higher seat, it is because others see you as worthy of that seat. Do not over-estimate your own merit, he recommends. For, after all, in God’s eyes, "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted" (14:11).
I am not sure about the ways of the ancient times, though this passage makes it appear that people were prone to put themselves first even then. This same kind of jockeying for the most honored place, whether it be the best basketball tickets, or the closest seats at the theater, or admittance to the most prestigious university, still goes on today. There is a saying, "If you don’t toot your own horn, don’t complain that there is no music." Or, in other words, if you don’t promote yourself, no one else will. We live in a very competitive society. We are not inclined toward the humility that Jesus suggests.
Next Jesus addressed the hosts of such parties. And his words were very odd. He said not to invite those you would normally invite – your friends who are as rich as you, or at least wealthy enough to invite you in return, and your family, who should also invite you at some point. Instead, says Jesus, invite those who have no money and those who are handicapped. And then, he says, you will be rewarded by God. Again, this goes against anything we might believe or normally do. We tend to invite folks like us to our parties. We do have some expectation that they might invite us to their house at some point. In fact, if we invite someone several times, and never get an invitation in return, we are likely to drop them from our guest list. These are just the ways of hosting. And yet Jesus suggests such different ways. And so does Isaiah.
Maybe, then, you are getting the idea that the banquet in these passages is not the usual dinner party. And the food, though good and rich, is something more, perhaps more like the Living Bread which the Gospel of John calls Jesus.
The people of Isaiah’s time were anticipating coming home from many years of exile, from years of being oppressed. Their invitation to come and feast without cost would be a source of great joy, both to feast on real food, but to also feast on the Word of God without having to hide it from their oppressors.
One cannot read these verses without applying them to many scenarios in today’s world that apply to strangers and refugees and those of differing faiths or races or genders. These and other Scriptures seem to clearly tell us that to deny others because of their differences is not the way of God, and should also not be our way. The love of God extends to all peoples, and God expects us to also extend love to all people.
So, if we want to glean some learnings from these scriptures about banquets, and more, about the heavenly table, I would offer three observations: ( 1) Be assured that there is a place at the table for you; (2) It does not matter where you sit at the table, as long as you are there; all seats are seats of honor at God’s table; and (3) Invite others to the table – others who might not have been noticed or invited before. For you never know what their being included might mean to them, or to you.
As I chose the title for the sermon, I remembered that I have a book by the same title, A Place at the Table. The book records a series of interviews that the author had with religious teachers from around the world, from Billy Graham to Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, Marcus Borg, Max Lucado. He asks them all questions to help define who Jesus is. But though I have turned to this book before, and read some of these interviews, I had never read the introduction. This time I did, and in it, the author, William J. Elliott, told his own story of coming to find his place at the table. His father died, and then his mother died six months later, when he was only 12. Until that time, Elliott was a believer, and he believed in miracles. His mother had taken him to church and taught him that God was his friend. Her favorite painting was one she owned of the Last Supper. But when his mother died, the painting was given away to a friend, and Elliott’s faith died as well. His life was so hard that he was even ready to die at the age of 21, and prayed for God to kill him.
At the age of 39, he approached his editor with a manuscript for a novel. The editor did not even look at it, and proposed that he instead write a book about Jesus. Elliott said he felt irritated, enraged at the idea. He walked away, but the idea nagged at him. He remembered how he had felt suicidal at 21, and had laid in bed imagining himself dead. He all of a sudden felt himself "immersed in God," and he realized that "God had always been with me, though I hadn’t been aware of it." He likened his experience to the ploy in some cartoons where a character goes into a totally dark closet to hide, and they think they are alone, but all of a sudden there is another set of eyes there with him. That is how he felt, he said, and he was "filled with the knowledge that without a doubt, God had loved me, and had loved all of us, since the beginning – and even before the beginning, and throughout all our lives." It was, he said, his understanding of Christianity that had failed him, not Jesus. Now he knew he "could start anew, knowing I had been conceived and always lived in the midst of love, not fear; in meaning, not meaninglessness; in the presence of the Spirit, and not abandoned or forsaken." (Elliott,p.6)
That, my friends, is just what these passages we read today, and many more in our Holy Book, are telling us. We have a place at the table, we have always had a place at the table, we will always have a place at the table of our Lord. We may wander away for a while, we may even mess up badly, but the table is always set for us, with finest linens and the richest nourishment God can give – God’s love. The invitation is so wide that it includes those most of us would never think of including. But there is a warning contained in today’s passage – until we realize that the expanse of God’s table goes far beyond us, and we invite those unlikely ones to join us, we may find ourselves shut out of the grace of God. We have been given free will and the ability to choose whether or not we want to come in along with all of these others. We can go back to our own rich houses and throw our own parties, inviting only those with whom we want to associate. But we will most likely not experience there the love of God in the way we will when we are willing to let anyone in. We are all beloved children of God, and God expects us to treat one another as such, just as God treats us. It sounds like an easy lesson to learn, and yet it takes a lifetime to assimilate. We harbor opinions and prejudices from our youth, unable or unwilling to change just because society seems to be changing. And that may be right at times. But if we examine the changes going on around us alongside the Bible and our faith, and if we realize that they actually conform to the will and grace and love of God, then perhaps we can better maneuver the scary waters of change. This is what this church will endeavor to do in the next few weeks per Chris’ letter that went out to you this week.
Remember that God is not static or staus quo. God is not easy to define – "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8). When we think we have pinned down what God says, we are probably wrong and need to look again.
But the one thing we can be sure of throughout all the change is that God is all about love, in fact, that God IS love. The Bible shows us this over and over, from the Creator so carefully crafting the earth and all its creatures, to the Maker of the commandments who so wants the people to live in order and in love, to the revelation in the Son who came to not only tell us about God’s love, but to die out of love for us, and to rise again in the greatest triumph of all over evil and death. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." We need to be open to new and higher ways. The hard part pf maneuvering in today’s fast moving world, I will admit, is determining what is of God and what is not. I believe that we can only make such determinations together, as we wrestle with the issues of life in dialogue, around Bible study, and in fellowship. There are no easy answers in today’s world. But we have always the assurance of God’s love. We all have a place at the table. And God wants us to invite everyone else to sit down with us too. For after all, it is not our table, it is God’s table.
All praise be to God, the Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Elliot, William J., A Place at the Table: A Journey to Rediscover the Real Jesus With the Guidance of Various Teachers (Doubleday Pub., NY, 2003)