When I was a lay member of the big, downtown United Methodist Church in Flint, MI, the most interesting task I carried out was to choose and arrange the pictures to be used at the beginning of the new Photo Directory, in those introductory pages. I put an announcement in the newsletter asking folks to send me any pictures they had of church activities, and I received a ton of snapshots to sort through.
What was so interesting was that in almost every single photo somebody was eating something – during coffee hour, Sunday School, UM Women’s meetings, Lenten programs, you name it, food was being served and consumed. I told people that I wanted to propose a new logo for the church. It would show a hand holding a half-eaten doughnut, surrounded by the words ‘The Church That Eats Together Stays Together’. Which, of course, was more theologically true than I understood at the time.
It is also one small illustration of the fact that we live in a place and time of such food abundance that it is hard for us to comprehend how complex and critical table fellowship was in the ancient world. Throughout the Gospels we read of Jesus eating with all kinds of people: his disciples, the thousands gathered to hear him teach, tax collectors and others of ill-repute, and in today’s lesson, the Chief Pharisee of a town, and all those he had invited to dinner.
But we may not think about the reality that hospitality then was much more complex than setting out some cookies from Cub Foods and putting on a pot of coffee. Meals were fenced around with guidelines, expectations and the Law of Moses. And meals also became, in and of themselves, the teaching moment for Jesus.
In today’s lesson we hear him tell his host and fellow guests that when they have a feast they should not just invite those of their same social class, station and educational background. After all, those guests would, in their turn, give dinners and invite those who had invited them, creating a kind of nicely balanced pay-back. No, said Jesus, parties such as these should be given for the poor, the homeless, the disabled, those with nothing to offer in return. At least nothing material.
We don’t know what the Pharisee thought of this recommendation, but for us it should trigger the recognition that to be the true body of Christ, we need to live deeply into this kind of Holy Hospitality. We can see this played out here at St. Johns. At one level, we give to each other, as various ones of us take on the responsibility for organizing coffee hour on Sunday morning, and the more extroverted of us hunt down any newcomers and try hard to drag them to our time of shared beverage and snacks.
There are also occasions of serving others, such as those monthly events when we cook, serve, share and clean up a meal at Our Savior’s Shelter or the First Nations Kitchen. We’re not half bad at showing hospitality to each other and to those in need. But I wonder, how we are at receiving the hospitality offered by those whom we might think of as being the ones in need? I suspect that it is much harder for us to be the honored guests, rather than the kindly givers.
When I was attending seminary at Yale, one way in which I worked my way through school was as a part-time physician for Hospice of New Haven – the first Hospice in this country. We didn’t have a building, so all the care was delivered in people’s homes. I’m sure I made more house-calls working for Hospice than in my years of general Family Practice.
One of the things I learned very quickly is that when folks are terminally ill, they often do not have the energy or the appetite to eat much. This was always extremely distressing for families, since feeding is a powerful way to taking care of someone. So one of the things my nurses and I did on our visits was that we did the eating.
“Janie, Dr. Joos, can you sit down for a minute and have some of my wife’s ravioli?” The answer was always yes. It was a way of taking up some of the slack. New Haven having the ethnic composition that it did, we ate a lot of Italian food. “Margie, how about more of the cannoli?” The answer was always yes. Some times we may be the host. Some times we are called to be the guests. Both are modeled on the life Jesus lived among us.
What is certain is that the point is really not about the food. We often miss this in our utilitarian relationship with the ingestion of calories – sending out for pizza, or making quick runs through McDonald’s, stuffing in the food as we drive to our destination. I might call these “episodes of eating”.
This is very different from what is experienced when food is joined to service and to presence. That is when we arrive at hospitality, given and received, as we gather around a table, touching and being touched, serving and being served by the others who are present. Such gathering together is not meant to be an obligation, a standard that we had better live up to if we want to be judged worthy of the Kingdom of God. Rather it is the Kingdom, where we can experience what Professor Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School refers to as, “…the drama of embrace…. the will to give ourselves to the other and welcome them, to readjust our identities to make space for them.”
When Jesus taught the Chief Pharisee and his guests that the table should be set for the needy, he wasn’t really recommending a mitzvah, a good deed that could go on the credit side of the ledger. Rather, he invited them to meet and to know, the ones from whom life circumstances would otherwise probably keep them isolated. He threw open a new door for them to see an expanded vision of God’s presence.
This teaching is for us as well: at table fellowship with the least, the lost and the stranger, we might learn something – about those others and about ourselves. And we might just find that God has become visible in our midst. For you see, this is the kind of hospitality that God has set before us in creation, giving us a home in the universe, gifting us with all we need to sustain life and joy, and freely welcoming us to a place within the encircling love of the Trinity.