Stephan Farris tells a story about a young pastor who arrived at his first church. He went into the kitchen on Saturday night to prepare the elements for Sunday morning communion. He cut the loaf into bite-sized pieces. He found no grape juice, but rummaging through the cupboard, he found a can of purple powder, maybe it was kool-aid? Assuming this was what the congregation used, either by choice or financial necessity, he mixed a pitcherful, tasted it, and found it palatable. He poured the juice into the trays of little cups and then put the bread and trays of cups into the refrigerator for the night.
The next morning the assigned deacon placed the elements on the table and at the proper time, the new minister moved to the table and said the words of institution and the elements were distributed to the people.
The minister sat down, bowed his head in prayer, behind the table. After a while, he stole a glance at the congregation and was stunned to find everyone, including the consistory looking at him.
The cups were filled with grape jello!
We don’t know what happened next. But I wonder. Was Christ present for those people in the jello? I don’t know for sure, but I think Christ sometimes meets us in extraordinary ways, in the midst of our ordinary lives.
And as you see the table is set for communion today. And we welcome all those who have chosen to follow Christ in their lives to join in the holy meal.
Our scripture lesson is a story of Jesus going to eat a meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees on the Sabbath. Jesus gives two sets of etiquette instructions, the first to the guests and the second to the host!
Like the lesson learned by the new pastor in the first story I told, the lesson to the diners is a parable about humility. The dining table was U-shaped, and the guests of honor would be seated at the curve of the the U. In the parable the guests were all trying to sit closest to the honorees. Instead Jesus counseled them to choose a lower seat and wait to be asked to move up. Jesus said, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The second instruction was directed at the host about who should be invited to the dinner. It reminds me of a science fiction story about a planet the earth was attempting to colonize. It was a harsh planet with terrible weather and hostile inhabitants. Earth’s best men and women were gathered into teams and sent to do the job. Expedition after expedition come home broken, each one having failed. Finally a new manager was charged with the responsibility of making the colonization work. But something surprising happened. This new leader did not look for the strongest and most qualified people he could find to establish the colony. Instead, he went to the poverty-stricken areas, the thieves, the disabled, the elderly, the people who were broken by grief and struggle. And quite remarkably, where the able had failed, the disabled succeeded.
Why was this so? Well, first of all they had already learned to survive in a hostile environment. Second, they had no place to go but up. (Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water (New York: Bantam Books, 1980).
This advice of Jesus points to the reversal of values that is characteristic of God’s kingdom. Humility is a quality of life open to persons who know that their worth is not measured by recognition by their peers but by the certainty that God has accepted them.
The second story lesson in this passage is about hospitality. After telling the guests not to look for the most prestigious places at the table. Jesus then tells the host to invite the lost, broken people to the table. The Pharisees grumbled about the kind of people who came to hear Jesus. Most were the the street people, the uneducated day laborers, the poor, the disabled, the widows, the tax collectors, the prostitutes. Yet these people of low social stature were the ones Jesus was particularly inviting into the kingdom of God. Mark’s gospel has Jesus saying “I have come to save that which was lost” (Mark 2:17) and in the gospel of Luke in his first sermon Jesus says,”He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor; He has sent e to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”(Luke 4:18) Again and again, we see the theme of Jesus inclusive love and hospitality to all.
Jesus vision of the kingdom of God is clear in his protest against discriminatory meal practices. For Jesus meals were a time of celebration and inclusive fellowship that foreshadowed the inclusiveness of God’s kingdom. Jesus is setting a new standard for table manners in God’s kingdom.
One way to look at our level of inclusion is to think about what happens at a traffic accident. Police officers who to respond to traffic accidents have noticed that there are often three groups of people at the scene of accidents. The first group was the bystanders and onlookers. They were curious and watched to see what happened but had little actual involvement.
The second group was the police officers who investigate the scene, assign blame and give out appropriate warnings and punishments.
The third group was the fire company or paramedics. They are the people most often welcomed by those involved in the accident. They don’t’ care whose fault the accident was and did not engage in lecture in about bad driving habits. Their response was to help those who were hurt. They bandaged wounds, freed trapped people and gave words of encouragement.
Of the three groups of people, one is uninvolved, one must assign blame and if needed give out a ticket, and one group is bandaging wounds, freeing trapped people, and giving words of hope and encouragement.
It is easy to be a spectator, just observing an not getting involved, or take the role of police, assigning blame. But Jesus wants us to reach out and help those “who cannot pay us back”.
At times we think like the scribes and the Pharisees whom Jesus confronted who saw themselves like the police, assigning blame and punishment. They were quick to criticize those who violated the many Old Testament laws. The story today begins with Jesus being watched by this group to catch him doing something wrong.
Jesus, on the other hand is like the paramedics, bandaging wounds, freeing trapped people and giving words of encouragement. The church is called to continue this work of reaching out to those in need within and outside the church walls.
The wonderful thing about our sacrament of The Lord’s Supper is that we are all invited. It doesn’t matter who we are, or what we have done, we are invited to the family dinner table. We are all imperfect, we have all sinned and come short of the better person we could be. But Christ, who became human to defeat sin and save us, joins with us at this sacrament of remembrance, community, and hope.
And so today, you, at what ever place you find yourself this day, are welcome to this table to receive the blessing of God. Do not judge yourself or others. No matter what has come before, you are forgiven. Come to the table. Spend some silence contemplating God’s incredible love. Be aware of your brothers and sisters in this community of faith. You are welcome at the table of Christ. Amen.