I spent a couple of days this week on continuing education with colleagues at the coast. This is a group my predecessor Haywood started with friends 15 years ago, and has become, through his guidance, a seminar on multi-staff head of staff pastoral leadership. We each bring a couple of questions to the group, and we wrestle with issues of changing trends in the church, pass around books for each other to read, we listen and sometimes offer advice. These men and women from ages 35-75+ are a rock in this odd and wondrous calling.
A few years back as a couple of members neared retirement, we discussed enlarging the group, so that others who could benefit from this time. The group was generally amenable, and we knew we could find space for folks to sleep, etc, but one colleague kept coming back to one thing: “Can we all sit around one table?” That was his cutoff. We can add whomever for whatever reason, but we all have to be able to sit around this one dinner table.
Which I thought was strange until I realized that whenever people are talking about tables they are actually talking about community. When we’re talking about a bigger table in our Lenten book read, we aren’t talking about plastic or wood, circle or square. We’re talking about who we are called to be to each other, for the world. Because when you start talking about tables you immediately think about who is sitting there. Who is at the table and who isn’t? Why is that?
Jesus loves these kinds of questions. In Chapter 14 Luke gathers four units of material in the context of a meal. These four stories do not depend on each other for meaning, but it is important that they all occur ‘at table.’ For Judaism, for Jesus, and for the early church, table fellowship was also laden with very important meanings, religious, social, and economic. When you ate, and where, and with whom, mattered. The chapter begins with Jesus going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees for a meal on the Sabbath. On the way he heals a man, debating the related law with them. Jesus makes clear that the law must be interpreted in light of human need, not the other way around.
This tension sets the stage for the dinner party, and Jesus immediately notices the jockeying for position. This section has two parts. Jesus first tells people to come in and don’t, even if they are of some social standing, move right to the head table, even if you are friends with the host. It would be terribly embarrassing if you sat down and then had to be asked, in front of everyone, to move to a lower level place because someone fancier had arrived. Start at a lower table. You would much rather be there and have the host go out of his or her way to invite you to a better seat, than suffer the shame of being asked to move. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
The second part helps interpret the first. If it was only this first section you could argue that Jesus is pushing us towards a false humility. You don’t have to genuinely BE humble. You just have to SEEM THAT WAY. This scene can feel more about social posturing, the acting we do in groups, trying to fit in, hoping the right people notice. But on the stage of the drama of social relationships, Jesus pushes us deeper. He walks up to the host – and this is bad manners – and says not to invite the rich, your family or neighbors. Don’t invite anyone who could return the favor. When you throw a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. THAT is what the feast looks like in the kingdom of God.
It is this angle that I think is important for us. We all have our invitation lists, in our homes and in our churches – people we want to be around, people we’d like to include us. Sometimes its people who we think can offer us something. Often its people we have much in common with, some sense of shared history and values. And these circles of relationships matter. Good, close friends, people you can count on and trust, who are safe, is a big deal. But the community for each of us, and the church of Jesus Christ, especially when it involves relatively homogeneous groups – people who look the same and think the same – must never stay there. I am convinced that our God-given diversity is one of the most important ways the Holy Spirit teaches us. I am convinced of it. All of our like-minded tribes gather too quickly around our own tables in a way that is not who we are called to be. We gather around tables where we get our news, what we believe, things we value on the issues of the day. We gather with people who look like us, who grew up in the same neighborhoods, went to the same schools. And this might seem nice for awhile, it is both too easy and spiritually empty. The default will always be homogeneity. We’ll always stay the same unless we work not to be. We have to keep pushing the boundaries out, grabbing another chair for the table, taking the risk to extend a hand. That requires us be so the spiritual work ourselves, to know both where we find our heart and be open to others. To someone who most certainly knows some things about life and the world that we don’t know. Who has things to teach us about God. Christ remains persistent. I will always invite more people than you want to invite. Always. He presses us all.
We know, John Pavlovitz articulates in our Lenten book read, this is HARD:
When disparate groups of people interact, there is going to be turbulence, and the common danger, especially in faith communities, lies in believing that this turbulence is something to be avoided. Faced with such tasks as deciding how church funds should be allocated, navigating a response to controversial local legislation, debating theological positions, or determining what kind of music to have on Sunday mornings, many Christians read any discomfort as reason to abort discussion because these conversations must be pleasant and easy to be faith affirming. In reality, this discomfort is the fierce crucible of redemptive spiritual community and what we should be seeking, because it means that we are straining to include those still excluded and that we are seeking to make our abstract faith work in a real and messy daily existence.
The spiritual work to broaden the table, for every single one of us – Jesus doesn’t let anyone off the hook – is so important. It’s really hard. But it matters. It is the fierce crucible of redemptive spiritual community. It’s really hard. But it matters, and it’s worth it.
Back in January I invited you to a fundraiser for a colleague. Three years ago two friends who met in seminary, Revs. Ben Johnson-Krause and Allen Brimmer, left their jobs and stable calls and moved here to begin a new church, called Farm Church. They worship downtown at SEEDS, have a couple of garden plots, and are doing some really thoughtful work on issues of hunger and food insecurity. Ben, who is about my age with 3 young kids, was recently diagnosed, out of the blue, with late stage lung cancer. It has been crushing for that community, and for their family. The Presbytery has made some changes to help get them better benefits, and a number of colleagues and friends got together, led by Durham Presbyterian, and sponsored an off-Broadway musical called, “Pump Boys and Dinettes” that they put on at the Hayti Heritage Center. Heath and I went that Friday – and it was a super collection of people in that great space, a fun show – the spirit in the room was powerful. After the show ended, Ben walked up on the stage. And the place got silent. He took a moment to thank everyone for coming, folks who put in so much work and how it filled him with gratitude. Then he said, “I wouldn’t wish this diagnosis on anyone, I never would. But. I do wish everyone in the world could feel what this feels like, that as you fall, you can feel the whole world come and bear you up.”
We live in a world in which its too darn easy to categorize each other and decide who THEY are, whoever they are. What if we could pray, really pray, that the Holy Spirit might open us up? As Jesus reminds us, the invitation list is always more complicated than we might think, and includes people that ALL of us might prefer wouldn’t be there. Because the kingdom of God isn’t about us and our preferences, but burns through all of those things, and IS BREAKING in, making all things new.
May it be so, for you and for me, and for all God’s glorious world. Amen.
 Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p 175.
 A Bigger Table, John Pavlovitz, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2017), p 88.