The Great Equalizer
Grace United Methodist Church
August 1, 2010
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus* was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘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. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’
I have been generously blessed in my thirty years of life. Like so many of you, I can point to different things along the way that were particularly important to me, and perhaps still are, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. One such blessing in my life was the regular evening meals in the Travis household. Early on, I remember not much enjoying those meals because my parents always had the news on, and I thought the news was boring. Sometimes I would get annoyed when I would have to recount moment by moment my day at school. As my sister and I got older, our schedules got busier, and those shared dinners were not as frequent, but they still happened. And this much I know, if I had not had the opportunity day in and day out to sit around the table with my family, there would have been an emptiness; a void in my life. Now, I suppose had those family dinners not happened, I wouldn’t have known any differently, wouldn’t have guessed that I was missing out on something important. But because they did happen, I grew to a greater appreciation of the bond my family shared and of the importance of the Table.
Now, I’m a statistically-minded person, so let me share with you some statistics that reveal exactly how important the Table is. One of the single greatest preventions of juvenile delinquency is a family that shares dinner together at least five times a week; a child who eats together regularly with his or her family is significantly less likely to get in trouble with the law as he or she grows older. Here’s another reason the Table is important: nutritionists now suggest that one way to battle obesity is to eat at least one meal each day with friends or family. “Sociologists have long agreed that the simple act of eating food in groups lends itself to close relationships. As a social construct, [shared] meals promote conversation, the sharing of ideas, and a sense of belonging.” Important things happen when people gather for dinner. The Table is the place where we are all acknowledged and accepted, where we are loved and valued. And since this is what Jesus’ ministry is all about, it is no wonder then that Christ so often shares meals with others, or talks about meals together, as in this passage today.
Jesus here reminds us that it is a table at which the lonely find company, the hungry savor rich food, and the strangers receive a welcome. Perhaps you all remember the advice of the writer of Hebrews, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” At the Table, we are the unworthy recipients of Christ’s generous hospitality and from the Table we are sent out to extend that same hospitality to others; to offer a place of welcome for the stranger, to offer food to the hungry, to offer a place of honor to the poor and outcast. In referring to his native Dutch language, pastoral theologian Henri Nouwen explains that hospitality literally means, “freedom for the guest.” He goes on to say, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place…The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations.”
As Christians and as the church, we are called to a kind of radical hospitality; the radical hospitality that Jesus suggests here in this passage from Luke. We should be so hospitable that we humble ourselves even to the position of servant. We should be so hospitable that we should seek out the most unlikely person to receive an invitation to the Lord’s Banquet, and that is who we should invite; “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” As a church, we should be so radically hospitable that any person from any station in life would feel like a guest of honor the very moment they step foot on Grace’s campus! This is no less than what Christ asks of us everyday, and it is never more important for Grace than now! And here’s why:
Last Sunday, what might be called our sister church, Middle Valley United Methodist, made the difficult decision to close their doors. Their final worship service will be on August 22. Though their memberships will be moved to Grace, as you can imagine, the congregation at Middle Valley feels as if they have lost their home, as if their family is being ripped apart. This is an extremely sad time. What the members of Middle Valley need now more than anything is hospitality; they need a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on. They need a generous invitation and a warm welcome. They need freedom; freedom to speak their language and sing their songs, and freedom to discover themselves as a part of the Body of Christ in a new way.
I know that you here at Grace can offer just what is needed. I know that you can be hospitable in the way that Christ calls us to be hospitable. I have seen you do it in different ways and at different times. It is one of the many things that makes me proud to be your pastor! Indeed, we have before us a great challenge, but it is also a great opportunity; an opportunity that perhaps many of us have been praying for, to welcome new members into our midst. Yet it can only happen through radical hospitality!
Grace may look a little different in a month. But isn’t that what Christian hospitality is about; allowing space where the stranger can enter and become a friend? There may be things that will change. But isn’t that what it is to be a Christian? We are transformed by Christ in us! And who knows, perhaps through this change, we will find ourselves even better equipped to serve Christ in this little corner of Hamilton County. Perhaps through this change, our community will be transformed as well and we will come to more fully reflect the image of God and the ministry of Christ!
There is a little church near where I grew up in Oak Ridge. When the federal government began building a massive research facility in Oak Ridge during World War II, this country church faced an important decision. At the time, the church was led by the now nationally-renowned preacher, Fred Craddock, and Rev. Craddock urged the people of this little 112-year-old church to call on the newcomers in the area, to invite them to church. “They wouldn’t fit in here,” was the reply. Eventually, the conflict came to a head. Someone made a motion at a meeting that no one be admitted to membership in that church unless they owned property in the county. The motion passed overwhelmingly.
Years later, the Craddocks moved back to that area, and drove by the old church. They were surprised to see that the parking lot was filled to overflowing. Then they saw a large sign out front: “BARBECUE—ALL YOU CAN EAT!” The church was no longer a church. It had become a restaurant. The Craddocks went inside. Several of the old pews were over against a wall. Electric lights had been installed. The old organ had been pushed into a corner. And sitting around all the plastic and aluminum restaurant tables were all kinds of people. In Craddock’s words, they were “Parthians and Medes and Edomites and residents of Mesopotamia, all kinds of people. I said to my wife, Nettie, ‘It’s a good thing this place is not still a church, otherwise all these people couldn’t be in here.’”
At the Table, all are welcome! And just like the tables at that barbecue joint, the Table here in the church should be full of all kinds of different people! Somehow, we have to be the people to offer radical hospitality. We have to be the humble servants who carry Christ’s dinner invitation to every person we encounter; offering riches to the poor, healing to the crippled and lame, sight to the blind, honor to the lowly, home to the homeless, church to the churchless, compassion to the grieving, love to the lost, and welcome to all!
Maybe it’s barbecue, maybe it’s bread and juice, or maybe it’s just an attitude we have that says unconditionally, “You are welcome here.” Whatever it takes, that is what we are to offer in the name of Christ because that is no less than what Christ has offered us! Because that is what the Table is all about: hospitality, and freedom, and transformation! We have been welcomed and we have been loved, and as a result we have been changed. As a changed people, we are called to meet others where they are and to welcome them and love them with all our might! Let us remember this as we gather at the Table today!
 Jo Ann Emerson, “Returning to our Family Dinner Table,” http://www.house.gov/list/hearing/mo08_emerson/col_030830.html (accessed July 27, 2010).