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|Author:||Rev. Jeff Spencer|
|Scripture:||Luke 14:15-24;Matthew 14:13-21
|Copyright:||© 2011 by Rev. Jeff Spencer|
Please see the sermon manuscript for citations of sources quoted or used.
One of the things that drew me to Fremont over six years ago and that I continue to celebrate about the Tri-Cities is the ethnic diversity we have here. Fremont is, I’ve been told, the most diverse city of its size in the United States with over 120 first-languages spoken in the homes of our public school students. And yet, for all its diversity, barriers separating us into ethnic groups remain. And, as Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out decades ago, Sunday morning remains the most racially and ethnically divided time of the week. As Christians gather into their churches, largely identifiable by ethnic heritage, non-Christians carry on with their lives, often gathering into cultural groups if they are not going to their jobs.
Yes, it’s true that during the week we mix across ethnic groupings — be that in our workplaces or our schools, but that doesn’t necessarily make a difference. Consider the research that indicates that college and university “students who sometimes eat with other ethnic minorities in the dining hall are more likely to report good race relations on campus than those who don’t. The gap was similar for both whites and minority groups, although overall whites tended to think race relations on campus are better than do ethnic minorities. The impact of racial mingling in the classroom or the dormitories is nil by comparison. The researchers believe that the positive impact of racial intermingling is the dining hall has to do with the fact that it is voluntary and the interaction there doesn’t have the same kind of scrutiny as in the classroom.” [i] The research suggests that what we do in our free time, and especially what we do around the table, has a greater impact on improving racial and ethnic relations than does what we do on the job or in the classroom.
“In his 2008 book The Big Sort Bill Bishop documented how transient Americans are increasingly choosing to live in politically like-minded neighborhoods. While not shocking, the consequence of this is that people are less inclined to encounter others with opposing points of view, and when they do they seem very alien and even threatening. This movement toward homogenous neighborhoods is making it easier for [political] parties to gerrymander congressional districts, which merely exacerbates the problem. Primaries become the real battle ground in many districts, and independent voters end up being the losers.” [ii]
I find all this troubling because, as a progressive Christian, I understand our act of sharing bread and cup in Jesus’ name to be a representation of an ancient vision of God’s feast for all people. And one of the things that I think progressive Christians are called to do is to claim this vision, God’s vision, as our own.
The bread and the cup are central symbols of Christian worship, perhaps along with the cross, they are the central symbols in Christian worship. And the symbolism does not stand in a vacuum. When we gather around the table, we remember not only the stories of Jesus. We remember the stories of the Hebrew people. The bread reminds us of the stories about God feeding the Hebrews with manna as they wandered in the wilderness, moving from slavery to freedom. We hold the bread and remember the story of Elijah and an inexhaustible jar of meal. After Abraham had won a great battle, the mysterious “Melchizedek king of Salem, brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God most high” (Genesis 14:18) – bread and wine cementing a relationship between two ethnic groups.
Among the prophecies of Isaiah, we read of a promise of a banquet the God will prepare. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:6-8, NRSV).
Out of context, this sounds like something from the Book of Revelation or perhaps one of Paul’s letters. And, in fact, there are echoes of this passage from Isaiah in those New Testament books. In it’s context, this vision probably has something to do with the experience of deliverance from some war or exile or calamity — or at least the hope of such deliverance. Either way, the image is strong and hopeful.
It is important to note that in this vision of the banquet all the nations, tribes, and clans of the earth are God’s guests. No one is to be excluded.
Not only does the vision of God’s banquet in Isaiah evoke echoes of Revelation and Paul for me, it also connects to the most often told story in the gospels — of Jesus feeding the multitudes. In these stories, Jesus lays down no conditions for participation, establishes no barriers to the meal. Anyone who was there was welcome. They were simply invited to sit down and partake.
I also hear echoes of Isaiah’s vision in the parable of the great dinner from Luke’s gospel. According to Bernard Brandon Scott, [iii] banquets hosted by the rich followed a set form and they were not spur of the moment activities. In an honor/shame culture (like the culture of Jesus’ time), one of the primary purposes of banquets, at least among the upper class, was to bring honor to the host. If honor was to be gained, the guests had to show up. So, part of the set form of a banquet was an invitation issued days before the banquet. Normally this invitation was delivered by a slave who either read it (if he was literate) or recited it. After the formal invitation, a slave would return at the appropriate time to escort the guests to the banquet.
In Jesus parable, we start off at this point in the formal structure of banquet. But something has gone wrong with this banquet. Everyone who was invited has a excuse and refuses to come. It can’t be a coincidence that everyone who was invited has a last minute excuse. The host is snubbed. Instead of basking in the glow of his honor as hosting a successful banquet, without the invited guests, the host will wallow in shame.
And all the more so when you consider the hollowness of the excuses. Who would buy a farm before he inspects it? Who would buy five pairs of oxen — or even a single ox, for that matter — without checking them out before hand? Who would accept an invitation to a banquet and forget that he was getting married that day? These excuses are without merit, and the host is getting the cold shoulder from all of his “friends.”
What’s a host to do? More importantly, how can the host save face? His options are not very good. He could cancel the banquet and sulk off; not an adequate response. He could blacken the reputations of those who dishonored him, but this risks backfiring because it calls attention to his own dishonor.
He orders his slaves, “Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.” Perhaps he thinks that this will make those who have refused to come to the banquet jealous. He’ll show them! But this is a weak response, and his former friends will more than likely just laugh at him. Not only that, but after the first round of finding new banquet guests, there’s still room. So the slaves are sent out once more to gather in people from the back alleys.
And why not invite in the riffraff? The banquet was supposed to be one that would bring great honor and now it’s only going to bring dishonor. Why not invite in anyone you can find, including the dishonorable?
In telling this parable, Jesus takes the image of the messianic banquet from Isaiah and shakes it up. The messianic banquet is not about pie in the sky by and by, but food on the table here and now. And those who will be gathered around will be the peasants and anyone who can be found on the streets and lanes.
At his last supper with his disciples, Jesus invited all twelve disciples to share in the bread and wine, although none of them could meet the criterion of being “faithful.” Of the twelve, one betrayed him, one denied him, and the rest ran away. Still, all were welcome, regardless of how much faith they did or didn’t have.
Following this example of Jesus, we invite all people present to participate in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
It is probably no coincidence that many scholars today believe the stories about Jesus’ open table are considered some of the most authentic historical passages in the gospels, in part because they are so unique for the times. Marcus J. Borg wrote in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, “one of his [Jesus’] most characteristic activities was an open and inclusive table” (p.55), and, “The inclusive vision incarnated in Jesus’ table fellowship is reflected in the shape of the Jesus movement itself” (p. 56). [iv]
John Dominic Crossan writes that Jesus’ open table fellowship is a core teaching component and symbol of his life. He notes that Jesus’ practice of “open commensality [benefiting others without needing to benefit himself] is the symbol and embodiment of radical egalitarianism, of an absolute equality of people that denies the validity of any discrimination between them and negates the necessity of any hierarchy among them.” [v]
This unique table fellowship, seen in Jesus’ life, is foundational for our celebration of communion. As a progressive Christian, I assume that we are following the instructions and model of Jesus when we practice an open communion where everyone is welcome. We are acting out of a long tradition and a fundamental expression of God’s love, the heart of the original Jesus movement.
This is God’s vision for the world: one where all peoples live together in fellowship and harmony and equality. This is the vision we claim when share the bread and cup in Jesus’ name. Amen.ENDNOTES
[i] “Century Marks,” The Christian Century, 20 September 2011, p. 8; citing “Breaking Bread,” InsideHigherEducation.com, http://www.InsideHigherEducation.com/news/2011/08/23/study_points_to_importance_of_dining_hall_experience_in_promoting_good_campus_race_relations, posted 23 August 2011 (1 October 2011).
[ii] “Century Marks,” The Christian Century, 6 September 2011, p. 8; citing “The Good Report,” NationalJournal, August 2011.
[iii] Bernard Brandon Scott, Re-Imagine the World, (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2001), 114-117.
[iv] Quoted in a version of “A Study Guide for [2003 version of] The Eight Points by which we define Progressive Christianity,” by The Center for Progressive Christianity (now Progressive Christianity.org). I don’t have notes about when for from what url I downloaded this resource, but it was several years ago.
[v] Ibid, citing Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p.27, 1994.