Sermon from September 1: Table Talk
Pentecost XII (O. T. 22); September 1, 2019
Luke 14:1, 7-14
I know that some of you still do dinner parties: you have people in for dinner, perhaps you play games, or you have good conversation over the table. When I was a student in Spain, I learned a word that has no equivalent in English: “sobremesa.” It literally means “over the table,” but what it describes is that time after you’ve finished eating and you’re sitting at the table, perhaps with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and talking. Imagine the plates and utensils still sitting in front of you, but the conversation about federal trade policy or Martin Scorsese’s latest film is so good that you all sit together and talk.
That’s the point of dinner parties; am I right? Sometimes you have one in order to impress someone, such as your boss, or to welcome someone, such as a new neighbor or new pastor, and of course we have wedding receptions and rehearsal dinners and other scripted occasions. But if you do dinner parties at all, or go out to dinner with other folks, it’s primarily for the sake of friendship: to build relationships.
The reason this occurs to me as relevant to Luke’s story is that Luke calls it a “parable.” I decided not to walk you through all the twists and turns of thinking that led me to where I’m taking you with this story, but simply take you there. Jesus is doing more than simply giving good advice about how not to be embarrassed at a wedding reception – telling you to sit at a less important spot than you think you’re entitled to, so everyone will see you being raised up – but is telling us quite explicitly that in the kingdom of God, those who try hard to be important will be humbled. Those who humbly serve will be exalted (good word, isn’t it? How often do you say “exalted” in a typical day?).
And so the advice to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to your dinner parties is not merely a way to win brownie points with God. Yes, if you scratch the back of someone who cannot scratch yours, then you will be rewarded in the kingdom of heaven. That is true. But I think there is a deeper truth here, and it goes back to what I was saying about dinner parties.
We’re not here in God’s Church just to learn how to go to heaven. We’re here to learn how to help our world be a little more like heaven. And one place to start is the dinner table.
Last week, one of you suggested that we have weekly meals for our neighbors. Well, every week might be a bit ambitious for a start. But here’s the genius in your idea: it’s not only a way to be of service; it’s a way to get to know people. If you wish to follow through and make something come of your idea, please don’t do it just as an avenue of service, and don’t do it in the hope of recruiting church members. Do it as a way of building relationships, of meeting people that you would not usually get to know.
So in Jesus’ advice he suggests getting to know people not because of what they can do for you but simply for their own sake. Right, you have the boss to dinner in order to make a good impression and maybe get a promotion. And you can expect tit-for-tat if you invite people who will return the favor. But those who are not going to return the favor may give you a deeper favor: friendship.
The most interesting thing about my job is I get to hear people’s stories. When people talk about themselves, I get invited into the mystery of who someone is. Where you came from, the people who have been important to you, the work and activities you love, what frightens you. People are endlessly fascinating. Well, I don’t want to overstate this. There was the time I was on the California Zephyr heading east and my seatmate learned I’m a pastor; the whole way from Omaha to Burlington he told me about his life – all the way across Iowa. I really wanted a break to read for some of that time. But, generally speaking, my life is enriched by the invitation into people’s lives.
Imagine the richness of conversation with folks over dinner simply for the sake of having that conversation, without another agenda. Is it not a blessing to have dinner with someone and, in your mind you’re thinking, “The only thing I want from you is you. Your story. Your company for a little while. And maybe your opinion about the City’s transportation initiative.”
Although I’m not going into the whole process of my thinking, I will say I’m inspired by the Prophet Jeremiah’s observation that the people of Judah had abandoned the fountain of living water and instead dug out cisterns that could not even hold water (the Old Testament reading of the day was Jeremiah 2:4-13). We do something similar when we get distracted by scrambling for position, trying to make good impressions, working at marginal and unimportant things, while neglecting those things in life which matter: the love of God, our families, friendships.
I think if we invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind simply because we want to do something nice for them and maybe God will notice and reward us, we miss the point. We are trying to drink from cisterns that cannot hold water. But if we have dinner with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind in the hopes of getting to know them, then we are much closer to the fountain of living water. We are eating and drinking with Jesus.
Our Church hosted Crossroads Connection on Easter; our Deacons prepared a lovely meal for the inmates and their families and we all enjoyed it together after worship. And I noticed that the hosts, the people from our Church, did not all sit together, but dispersed among the guests. You were listening to their stories. You were building relationships. You were drinking from the fountain of living water. You were having dinner with Jesus.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master