"To eat a meal"-Sermon for Proper 17, Luke 4:1, 7-14
As my waist line might suggest, I love food. Almost all of it…with the exception of raw bell peppers…the green ones in particular. I know that’s sort of weird. I have always felt like uncooked bell peppers make everything they touch taste just like them, which is just plain rude. I have always thought that one of the blessing of being an Episcopal priest is that I get to wear lots of black and black is of course slimming…and robes, or to use the church word, vestments…have been a great gift in hiding a life-long love affair with Jack in a Box tacos…two for 99 cents…it’s a real bargain. And, I don’t just love food…I love to cook food. It is perhaps my primary avocation or hobby…certainly the one I indulge in most…even better when singing along to 80’s new wave music playing in the background…stirring in time with the Clash or Depeche Mode. And, I love savoring lovingly prepared food and drink…the more seasonings…the more ingredients…the more complex and rich the flavors…the better. And before you take me entirely as a glutton, please know I would easily be three times as large as I am, if I allowed my appetite to always lead the way. But for me, even way better than cooking and consuming food, is sharing the experience with others…friends, family, even strangers…both the process of creating delectable dishes and then delightfully digesting them together, as we take our place around the table with others…adding to the experience…good conversation to complement the good cuisine…now that is divine.
I don’t remember from whom I first heard it…but somewhere along the way I picked up a phrase that I often share, which is that food always tastes better when you share it. It’s just true. And, the phrase has come to mean for me much more than simply the gift of breaking bread with other people…but, instead, for me it expresses a deep desire to share a life together. For, as much as I like food, Jesus reminds us that humans do not live on bread alone. In addition to food, water and shelter, I believe we literally feed on the love we share with each other. In his book “Can You Drink the Cup?”, the late Catholic Priest and beloved author, Henri Nouwen, while reflecting on dinner time in the home he grew up in, writes, “No one in our family would ever drink from his or her glass before everyone had been served [the meal] and my father had lifted up his glass, looked at each of us [and] spoken a word of welcome…. Lifting the cup is an invitation to affirm and celebrate life together. As we lift up the cup of life and look each other in the eye, we say: “Let’s not be anxious or afraid. Let’s hold our cup together and greet each other. Let us not hesitate to acknowledge the reality of our lives and encourage each other to be grateful for the gifts we have received” …We lift the cup to life, to affirm our life together and celebrate it as a gift from God…Thus, as we lift up our cup in a fearless gesture, proclaiming that we will support each other in our common journey, we create community.”
I believe what Nouwen is suggesting is that table-fellowship, sharing food and drink with each other, becomes, again, a metaphor for the act of sharing our lives with each other. As I like to say, I need you and you need me. We feed off the care and encouragement and affirmation that we receive from each other. We become more whole and fully alive when we speak the truth in love to each other, even when it is hard, that we might understand our impact on others and choose to grow…to become better lovers and life-givers to the benefit of those entrusted to our care…and to God’s own glory. As I also like to say, our salvation…our shalom, wellbeing, wholeness, peace and potential, in both this life and the next, is all wonderfully tied up in each other. And this is all so powerfully and centrally pointed out to us in our worship as Episcopalians, for at the center of our shared life, as the people of God, is a meal. We call this wooden table that sits before us in our worship space an altar…and that is right and good for it holds sacred things…but it is also a table…where with Jesus at the very center…we share a meal…we lift up the cup of life and break the bread and share a meal…that reminds us that we are an interdependent family and that makes us more completely a holy union…intimately bound in this life and the next to God and one another. I need you and you need me and we need every single person created in God’s own image that God has set on our Journey’s path. Each and every person we meet has a way to stretch us…to grow us…to teach us…to be and become more the person that God in Christ has created us to be. And, we have so much beauty and giftedness and love to share in return…making them more whole and full and fully alive.
And, I take as encouragement of my own love of table fellowship…the fact that Jesus was surely a fan of the dinner party as well…all shapes and sizes. The gospels are dappled with stories of Jesus at table with friends and strangers alike. From intimate settings with loved ones like at the Last Supper, where Jesus inaugurated the particular meal we share each week in this place and at this table…to wedding feasts…to the time when he served a whopping 5000 people…stretching with God’s own grace a few basic ingredients, bread and fish, such that all present were fed and filled with some even left over. He ate and drank with the well-healed…people with power, privilege and authority, like in today’s gospel reading. And, he ate with outcasts and sinners…people on the fringes of polite society…those with no power, no privilege, no authority…those living vulnerable lives…those who were more often hungry than full. And, though I like to think Jesus was a fan of the culinary arts…rich and satisfying food and drink, I think first and foremost he choose to gather at the table with all sorts and conditions of people for the reasons I have already outlined…because the table represents a life lived together…a chance to feed on God’s own love that we share with one another…a chance to remind us that we need to slow down and pay attention to each other…like we do over a meal or cup of tea…a chance to remind us that we do not live by bread alone…but God’s own words of love that we graciously sow into each other’s lives. Jesus wanted to show us that we need each other and remind us that we find and meet him most profoundly in the grace, the love and the time we intentionally give one to another.
So, turning specifically to our Gospel lesson today, which is, again, set at a dinner party, Jesus has some advice and wisdom to share with his host…but not the host alone…but us as well…who get to overhear their conversation. Advice we should, indeed, heed as we gather at our own tables. Advice on how to make the most meaning out of the gift of table fellowship…out of the blessed opportunity to break bread with one another. And to this end, Jesus makes at least two suggestions. And the first has to do with, of all things, seating arrangements. And, I don’t really think Jesus’ primary concern, in regard to where one chooses to sit, is actually about how we might use where we sit as an opportunity to receive praise or public acknowledgment…not an opportunity for the host to simply honor us with a prime seat at the table while the rest of the guests look jealously along. Instead, I think St. Paul sums up Jesus’ point precisely when he writes to the Romans, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but think of yourself with sober judgment…in Christ we who are many are one body, and each member belongs to one another.” And Paul goes on in this passage to say, “Love must be sincere…Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Outdo yourselves in honoring one another…Share with the saints who are in need. Practice hospitality.” Thus, in my words, Jesus is saying to both his host and us there is a place at the table for each of us. Thus, how we gather is as equals. For, the one who hosts the lives we lead is the God of love alone…the one who has offered the food we eat and the air we breathe…and we are to share all of it as sisters and brothers…as friends and fellow pilgrims. And the same should be true for our own tables, beginning with this one we share in this place. There are no places of privilege and everyone has a seat. We are all blessed by sharing this meal and the life it empowers together…and all are welcome. For our own life is found, affirmed and shaped by sharing with one another the love of God that is in us, as spiritual food graciously given to each other…and all eat and are filled.
And the second piece of dinner party etiquette that Jesus offers today is about who are to receive the invites…who is invited to the table. And, I will begin again with what I don’t think Jesus is suggesting. I don’t think Jesus is really saying to never have your friends and family over for dinner…especially if they are well off and comfortable. Instead, Jesus is asking us to avoid living a “quid pro quo” kind of life…to only invest in and share with those from whom we will receive some sort of reward or advantage. I think Jesus is saying that we should be thoughtful, even prayerfully intentional, about considering who needs to be invited, not just to our tables, but into our lives. I think of the Thanksgiving table set in my home growing up. Like I am sure was and is true for many of us…there were always those present for whom creating their own sort of feast was not possible…whether because of the expense or because of distance or disagreement with their own loved ones. And, there were always extra seats and plenty of food if someone unexpected arrived to bless us, and I mean bless us, with their presence. This was just one small way my parents practiced hospitality and saw to the needs of the saints. And the only reward received was more love present in the room…on which all fed and were filled.
Who then needs to be invited to our tables and into our lives…at home…at the office break room or the school cafeteria…and who needs to be invited and welcomed into our church…to this table…beginning with the most vulnerable…those hungry whether in body or spirit…those who may look, live, love, even believe differently than we do. For, the one who hosts the lives we lead is the God of love alone…the one who has really provided all the food we eat and the air we breathe…and we are to share all of it…as sisters and brothers…all have a place…and there is a place for all. In doing so, we find that there is plenty to go around. The more really the merrier. For our own life is found, affirmed and shaped by sharing with one another the love of God that is in us, as spiritual food graciously given to each other…and all eat and are filled. Amen.