Sunday, August 29, 2010

Take Your Seat

Take Your Seat

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder

August 29, 2010

Luke 14:1, 7-14

When Jesus noticed how the guests chose places of honor,

he told them a parable.

If we pay more than passing attention to the gospel stories about Jesus, we can’t help but be struck by the importance of mealtime and dinner table customs in his teaching ministry. His most profound mealtime action – which we imitate and celebrate any time we gather around this table with bread and wine – came when he and the disciples were gathered at what has come to be known as the “Last Supper.” He joined for meals at tables with his disciples and with other followers, with the curious, with Pharisees, with those who became his enemies as well as those who were his friends. And much of what we learn from Jesus we have learned because he had much to say when people sat to eat together. Mealtime can be a time when conversation is possible, when new perspectives can be tried out on dinner companions, when relationships old and new can be celebrated.

Think of the important things people learn around tables: at the dinner table, the breakfast table, the coffee table, the Session table, the picnic table, the negotiating table. I often think that if the people of the world didn’t sometimes sit down at tables together, there would be even less hope for peace in the world than there already is. It is so difficult to hold fast to animosity toward a stranger when you have to keep saying to him or her, “Please pass the butter,” “may I have the corn, please,” and “would you like some more green beans?”

Jesus did a lot of teaching while reclining, oriental style, at meal tables. After having spent my share of time in uncomfortable chairs in lecture halls trying to receive an education under the tutelage of those who were trying pretty hard to pass one along to me, I am hard-pressed to think of a good reason why the custom of teaching and learning over vittles has gone the way of the seven course meal. It seems such a natural place for passing along learning.

Our reading today describes such a table-teaching time, with Jesus’ characteristic determination to see the motivations behind the things people do. When we think about Jesus’ advice on proper ways to chose seats at a banquet, we need to remember that he was concerned to reveal not so much what people were doing when they chose to sit here or there, but why they were doing it.

Once I was booked on a long, late Saturday night flight from Las Vegas to Portland, and since Saturday is generally a light travel day in the airline industry, I fully anticipated that my flight would have lots of available seats, maybe even a whole row in which I could stretch out and snooze. Even so, I habitually book an aisle seat any time I fly to cope with crowding on full flights. I was so happy I had thought to do that when I arrived at my seat that night. Even though I was one of the first people on the plane, I had seen that the gate area had been very full – not a good sign – and a young woman was already seated in the middle seat in my row, another bad sign for my stretching-out plan. Soon, another person came to claim the window seat. People streamed onto the plane in heaps and gobs. It was a totally full flight, even though it was not due in to Portland until 1:30 AM.

I was so glad that I had a coveted aisle seat. Glad, that is, until I realized the young woman in the middle was pregnant. I had planned to get at least two or three hours of sleep on the plane, but this person, politely, even sheepishly, tapped my shoulder repeatedly during the flight so that I could let her out to go use the restroom. Inwardly I fumed over my bad luck. But did it ever occur to me to give up my preferred seat and sit in the middle so she could more easily come and go as her needs dictated? Heavens no! I had gone to the trouble to arrange for that seat, and by golly I was going to keep it, even though to exchange seats would have matched our respective needs so much better.

Jesus knew that even a sacred time for relationships can be twisted around by human pride. He had spent his share of time at feasts and banquets as well as at simple meals in the homes of the people, watching the social climbers clamoring for seats of honor nearest the host, seeing the disappointment in the faces of the late-comers who had to settle for the seats nearest the kitchen. He knew that mealtime, a potentially sacred time when people could seek intimacy with each other, even this time could be distorted into an occasion for scheming and jealousy, for misunderstanding instead of an opportunity for a higher level of understanding.

It has happened to all of us at one time or another.

A few years ago I was asked to deliver an opening prayer for a large banquet, sponsored by a local civic organization. Two friends, knowing that I would be going to the dinner, asked if I would like to sit at their table. I was delighted at the idea, but it occurred to me that I had better check and see if there was some plan to seat me at the head table since I had been asked to give that prayer. If not, I would be free to sit with my friends – clearly my preferred arrangement, but I wanted to be sure it would be OK with the banquet organizers who were, after all, my hosts.

Someone from the church office called them: “Dr. Elder wants to know if there are plans to seat him at the head table for the banquet,” was the way they innocently approached the question. But what followed was a real monkey chase. The people organizing the banquet hemmed and hawed and did the “we’ll get back to you” thing on the phone. I was told that the banquet folks had seemed embarrassed by the inquiry. “Oh, for goodness sakes, just tell them I was hoping to sit with friends, but would sit at the head table if that was the plan,” I suggested. Too late. A presumption had been made that I had been hoping for that head table seat of honor, when actually the truth was quite the reverse. The folks sponsoring the banquet, not wishing to seat me “too low” by the standards we have observed among the feast attenders in Jesus’ story and the inscrutable standards of civic organization protocol, had begun to move heaven and earth either to get an extra seat at the head table, or to move some other “dignitary” to the floor level (perhaps over by the kitchen) so that Dr. Pompous could have his seat of importance.

Naturally, I wound up at the head table, a hundred feet away from my friends, making small talk with the spouse of the guest speaker, blinded by spotlights, looking into the darkness of the banquet hall, feeling for all the world like an also-ran on display in a cubicle on the old “Hollywood Squares” TV program. After my opening, an unremarkable prayer to the chief civic deity of Salem – three, maybe four sentences which even I have long since forgotten — I had to remain seated in front of all those hundreds of people, prop my eyes open, and maintain an undivided interest in what the speaker had to say, missing a whole evening of fellowship with friends in the bargain. All because others had not wanted to insult me by seating me “too low.”

I’ll tell you, my experience is that these seats of importance at feasts, they’re not all they’re cracked up to be. And, to address Jesus’ other point of instruction for a second, I didn’t see a single person there who looked as though they would be hard pressed to pay someone back for a dinner invitation either.

Jesus’ word to prospective dinner party hosts in his parabolic teaching is that invitations should be issued to those who cannot repay us with their own dinner invitations, this in order to imitate more closely God’s behavior toward us, since no one can repay God, no matter how many resources we may have at our disposal.

Here is a story about a dinner party experience a little closer to Jesus’ intention in his teaching about table manners. Charles Rice was a pastor in New Jersey, and taught at a Methodist seminary there where I did my doctoral work. When we were together at a conference once he remembered a wedding held in the church he serves. The invitation asked worshipers to wear comfortable clothes and to bring a gift of food. After the wedding service, the bride and groom rolled up their sleeves and cooked a meal for the St. Peter’s kitchen, a “soup kitchen” run by the church. Charles remembered what he described as “the inarticulate joy” of people off the street as, along with the guests from the wedding service, they accepted plates of food dished up by the bride and groom, sharing equally in the wedding feast, concluding as the newly married couple distributed to wedding guests and homeless people alike the slices of the wedding cake. This was no joyless social service agency-style food drop. Here were people who had appreciated the reality and the joy of Jesus’ table teaching, and had recognized that hospitality is meant to extend outwards from Christ’s table, not focus inward.

In the wedding liturgy I most commonly use, the concluding prayer for the couple includes these sentences: “Strengthen this couple to fulfill the vows they have taken... Fill them with such love and joy that they may build a home where no one is a stranger...” This is a great teaching not only for marrying couples, but for the church itself. We gather around a table every week in our church, a spiritual banquet has been prepared by Christ for us. When we receive this banquet, we shouldn’t close the doors and keep the good news to ourselves. We should open the doors, invite others to feast with us, even the least, last, lost among us, so that in the end, when Christ’s kingdom comes, truly no one will be a stranger.

It is clear from Luke’s portrait of Jesus in his Gospel that “where some eat and some do not, the kingdom of God is not present.”[1] While we tend to think of baptism as the test for a church’s willingness to provide entry into the church, the Bible suggests that the church’s willingness to include people is more accurately measured by our eagerness to eat with them.[2]

Christian table manners have little to do with which fork or spoon should be used first, and everything to do with building a table large enough to seat everyone that God has in mind for this fellowship. Is our table big enough? I think it is. Let’s fill every seat!

[1] William Willimon, “At the Table with Jesus,” Pulpit Resource, July-September, 2001, p. 39

[2] Acts 11:1-3.