A Seat At The Table
Once upon a time only white, European males sat at the table where decisions were made. Or, so they thought. There have always been other tables with other people making wise decisions. Unfortunately, these white, European males spread out around the world and took away all the tables where other wise men and women used to sit. Although most, if not all, of these white, European males called themselves Christians, and even crusaded to the Holy Land to make their point, but they seemed to forget some of Jesus’ core teachings, stories and parables – stories, teachings and teachable moments that were all about where to sit at the table and who to invite to the table. For the rest of us, this has been and is tragic, and it ought to be embarrassing.
In the central portions of Luke’s gospel, episodes along the journey to Jerusalem, a journey to the cross, a journey that most see ending in death on a cross, but others see as the gateway to new life, Jesus is repeatedly depicted doing and saying things on Shabbat, the Sabbath day. Shabbat is a realm of time set apart from the rest of the week. The rabbis throughout the ages have discussed and debated just what one can and cannot do, what one ought to and ought not do to observe the Sabbath day with holiness. Sabbath time is meant to be time spent with God.
And yet, over and over again, much to the surprise of all those around him, Jesus asserts that the direct pathway to God on Shabbat is by spending time with people you do not ordinarily spend time with: the poor, the lame, the sick, your opponents, tax collectors, prostitutes, widows, orphans, resident aliens and the like.
He not only acts this out, such as when he is invited to Shabbat dinner with the respectable teachers and arbiters of the law, of Torah and the Commandments, and he almost routinely spends time with someone who is sick, deformed or otherwise debilitated and heals them despite all the injunctions against “working” on the Sabbath. He as much as says, this is not work, this is how we enter deeper into the presence of God – by honoring the least of these my sisters and brothers.
And what kind of guest lectures the host on how one should find a place to sit at the table? Jesus says to his host, you may want to sit at the head of the table, but to do so risks being asked to move down to the other end. Instead, be humble and sit at the far end of the table and you may find that you are then invited to move up to the head of the table. What kind of guest does this kind of stuff?
Or, he will tell a story about a man who is having a very special dinner party. He invites the usual cast of characters – important people, people who have done things for him, people he would like to do things for him. Yet, they all have excuses why they cannot come. I have just purchased some new property, or some new animals. Or, I just got married. Or, I have to go bury my father. So the man decides to go the other way and instructs his servants to go out into the highways and byways and beat the bushes if they must to find the poor, the halt, the blind the lame and all those without resources – widows, orphans, resident aliens and all those who will never ever be able to reciprocate his hospitality and generosity. Or, so he thinks.
Jesus says to the very important man who had invited him to dinner, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
I’m going to suggest that Jesus was just kidding. Anyone who has invited the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to your table has found it to be a rewarding experience, and that often what they have to give to you is far more precious than whatever lavish meal you may lay out for them.
I used to go down to Paul’s Place, our Diocesan Feeding program, once a week. I would lead a gospel sing-a-long and afterwards a prayer session in a back room. Time and time again I was humbled by their generosity of love and spirit and gifts of all kinds. Once I asked them to pray for us as we were adopting our first daughter from South Korea. The next week a woman brought in several hand made things to decorate her room when she arrived. I have treasured those items and carried them from church to church throughout my ministry as a reminder of where true gifts come from. We mistakenly think the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind have little or nothing to bring to the table. Yet, often they bring an emptiness, a capacity that only God can fill. They have much to teach us about such emptiness.
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." Was there ever a more apt motto for our time and place right here and now in the US of A?
The prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah are constantly presenting God’s case: is this the kind of Sabbath I want? Do I really need your constant worship and sacrifices in my name? No! Hallow my name, keep the Sabbath day Holy. You are to love others as I have loved you – with generosity and hospitality for those I love: widows, orphans, and yes, resident aliens. That is, all people without resources. This is the kind of Shabbat I want. This is the kind of Shabbat I came in Jesus of Nazareth to show you the way – the way to a closer walk with me.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8
Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, once wrote: The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God. Jesus leads us, instructs us really, as to where that presence can be found, and in whom. We are invited to invite those to the table who can teach us about an emptiness that leaves room for God to fill us with God’s own presence.
Whom do we invite to join us at our table? Do we invite anyone at all? And if not now, when?