St. George’s United Church, August 28, 2016
Sermon: “New Table Manners”
Preacher: Rev. Ryan Slifka
Scripture: Luke 14:1-14
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner,” Jesus says, “don’t invite your friends, or your brothers, or your relatives. Or your rich neighbors, just so they can return you the favour. Instead,” he says, “instead when you throw a party like this, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” Jesus is at a dinner party. Clearly a dinner party of friends, relatives, and neighbors. One where the poor, the crippled, and the lame are missing. This is a party of like-minded people who live similar lives.
These like-minded people are known as the Pharisees. This dinner party is hosted at the home of, it says, “a leader of the Pharisees.” One professor of mine said that whenever the Pharisees are on the scene, Luke wants us to boo and hiss. They are some of the people most actively opposed to Jesus’ ministry. The bad guys. One of the things though, is that the Bible kind of gives the Pharisees a bad rap. It paints them in a negative light. In the scriptures we only get to really see them at their worst. Rather than their best.
At their best, the Pharisees thought that religion, spirituality, was too conservative, and increasingly disconnected from people’s actual lives and experiences. For us modern people, the Bible is often disconnected from everyday life. It’s often reduced to a bundle of ideas that we say yes or no to. But the Pharisees were finding ways for their faith—for God—to make a difference in every single area of their lives. We would find that they took some parts of the scriptures too literally or rigidly. But they also cared deeply about a lot of the things that we care about. Especially in the United Church of Canada tradition. They were very concerned with things like care of the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the lame, and the afflicted. Those who are left out, on the margins. What we might call social justice. They were people very concerned with personal morality, and holiness. But they were also people who were concerned about the state of the world. They cared about the conditions of people’s lives, in addition to the state of their souls. So the Pharisees here aren’t all bad. In fact, they are kind of good.
But these Pharisees, who take their Bibles seriously, want to live good, upright lives in the way God has always intended for them. These people who are generous with their money, serve the poor, and are adamantly for justice for those who are on the fringes of society. When it comes to party time, time to gather as a community, there isn’t a poor person, a sick person, or a disabled person to be seen. They have little or no real world personal contact or relationships with these people. Jesus instructs them to invite the poor, the lame, the sick, the homeless, the people on the fringes. Because they aren’t there. Despite their concern for those who are left out, the people who they serve and advocate for are nowhere to be seen. They have no place at the table of this party. That’s the inconsistency that Jesus sees.
That’s one of the problems with Jesus. Jesus sees what other people can’t see. The Pharisees didn’t notice this about themselves. And it’s something I don’t think we often notice about ourselves, either. As individuals, and as church.
I’ve shared this story with some of you. Very recently for some, which is why it’s been in my mind. The first church I was a part of in downtown Calgary really appealed to me for several reasons. It was downtown, took a concern with and put cash and volunteer hours towards homeless issues and advocacy. The church was an open and welcoming place, especially for the gay and lesbian population in Calgary. The church marked aboriginal Sunday celebrations, and there was conversation about reaching out to First Nations community. We talked social justice a lot, and even formed a justice committee. Like the Pharisees, we took the scriptures seriously. And wanted a spirituality that informed our whole lives. Not just our personal ones. I liked this about my church. I didn’t like everything. But this stuff made me proud.
But one day, I started thinking about things differently. Because one day, like the Pharisees, I think Jesus pointed out . At coffee time following church one Sunday we were gathered in the hall, which was pretty much like our hall at St. George’s. Everyone was grouped together in the hall, sipping coffee. Perhaps having cake. And, from across the hall, there was a family, 2 parents, 3 or 4 kids step on to the wooden floor. I noticed them because, unlike the folks in our congregation who were generally cleancut. Dressed in collared shirts, dress pants, and leather shoes, they were dressed in ball caps. Sweatshirts and sneakers. And were First Nations. And they all had backpacks stuffed full, which said to me that they were either homeless. Or pretty close.
This family, which definitely stuck out, found their way to the coffee. Poured themselves some. Grabbed a muffin. And then stood there. Milling around. For five, ten, fifteen minutes. And in that time, no one came near. No one shook their hands. No one welcomed them. Including me. And eventually, they just turned around. And they left. Here we were… the social justice-seeking, super-inclusive, reconciliation-loving downtown church. Here we were. And there they were. But when some of them actually walked in through our doors. We didn’t know what to do.
Like the Pharisees in our passage, we can have all the right opinions on all the right issues. We can serve people, we can give our time, and our money. We can be all about justice. We can do all of these things. And not have a single friend, or relationship with someone who is different than us. From those who we seek to serve. And the problem with this is that those of us who find ourselves on the edge of things end up being a charity case. A project. Somebody to fix and condescend to. Someone to make those of us who are haves feel better about ourselves. And our own lives. Those who find ourselves on the “outs” are always seen as “them” and not “us.” Rather than holy friends, brothers and sisters, for whom Christ died and lives for. That’s when Jesus may point out that someone’s missing. Not just from our tables, but from Jesus’ table. The table he not only invites us as guests. But acts as the host. And that’s a problem.
Now, if you are like me, you might find yourself with a sense of guilt. More or less when Jesus opens his mouth. When that family showed up at my last church I felt guilt in the way that only a young, white male progressive university student can feel. Because sometimes it seems like it’s just another thing to add to the list that you’re falling short with Jesus on. But Jesus doesn’t say these things to make us feel guilty. First, the Christian tradition says that Jesus came to put an end to guilt. But always hidden within God’s judgment is God’s grace, God’s blessing. “You will be blessed,” Jesus says, “for you’ll be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” So often we can see “inclusion,” “justice,” and “charity” as things we do for others. But Jesus actually says in doing so, we are the ones being blessed. That we are actually being transformed in the process. We are the ones made new. As we say every Sunday, Jesus Christ is both the host and the unseen guest.
Because you see, in Luke’s gospel, the table isn’t just a table. The table is always a symbol, a sign. One that points beyond itself to the future. To the way God has always dreamt the world to be. In the Bible, God’s future, the mending of all creation, the world set right, is figured as a heavenly banquet table. Where all are welcomed, and all are fed and made new. Jesus instructs the people at the dinner party to invite those who are not like them, have less than them, people who they wouldn’t normally associate with. To build relationships, and friendships. Not to assuage a sense of guilt. Not to make themselves feel good, Not to pat themselves on the back for the diversity quota. But because in doing so, we may all experience the kingdom. We may get a glimpse of the future, a foretaste of that heavenly banquet here and now. Perfect justice, perfect mercy. Perfect peace, where we experience full life. A table where not only those being served are blessed, and made new. But those who serve are blessed and made new as well. The table isn’t just a table.
Speaking from my own experience, I have come to know this kind of blessing. Before I came as this congregation’s pastor, two years I’ll admit that I didn’t really have relationships with anyone who was a whole lot different than me. But now that’s changed. I mean, I feel good about myself, that’s true. But it’s more than that. Through the relationships I’ve built, I’ve found myself growing into the image of Christ. Through the soup kitchen, through the pantry, through just hanging around on the front stoop, I have been changed as a person. I have grown in love, respect, and understanding in ways I never thought I could. Or even needed to. God has changed me for the better. This is heavenly banquet type stuff.
So, friends, as we gather together today. Coming into God’s presence, whether we are rich or poor. Weak or strong. Whether we have hope, or have none. Whether right now we are doing the serving or being served. Remember that this community exists for God to teach us whole new table manners. At the soup kitchen. At the drop-in and the food pantry. In Sunday worship, and after at coffee time. But most importantly in our houses and on the streets. In our every day lives, where we have the opportunities to welcome Christ and be welcomed by Christ as friends. Here God is teaching us new table manners. Ones that promise to bless and change us. So we can bless and change the world.
May it be so. In the strong name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.