This post was originally the script of an episode of my short-lived podcast called
Not Your Ordinary Joe.
I believe there is a problem in the church. There are those who want to separate society into the deserving and undeserving. Those who belong and those who don’t. But that’s not the way of Jesus.
In a previous episode–number 3 called “Percolator Hospitality,” I talked about the memory of my grandmother’s percolator and having a spot at her table. Getting to return there is frankly my favorite image of the afterlife, and by extension, my favorite way of thinking about living in the presence of God today.
Maybe you have similar memories.
My paternal grandmother’s table was memorable, though very different. The taste of an Italian wheat cake they called pas-dee-dee-dahn (that’s the way I heard it, anyway) still lingers on my tongue. Easter bread with dyed hard boiled eggs baked into it, braciola, handmade ravioli, and meatballs the size of my young fist. I guess it’s been about 40 years since I’ve been at that table, but I can still smell it.
In my childhood home, we often gathered around the table to play pinochle while the stereo turntable played vinyl from Elvis, Chuck Berry, George Jones, and a Readers Digest compilation that I think was called Country Roads, a family favorite.
Then there are Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners, outdoor picnics, birthdays and the everyday gathering for dinner that bonds us as a family.
Social scientist tell us that eating together is an intimate act. It binds us to one another as few other activities do. Which might be the reason we do lunch to meet with a coworker, and wonder if dinner is too serious for a first date and choose instead for coffee or drinks.
That instant connection may be why we too choose to eat together as a the church.
There’s an old joke about us United Methodists, the denomination my family started attending when I was five, the church I have served my entire adult life. The story is that a group of kids were tasked to bring in something about their faith life for show and tell one day.
“I’m Jewish,” Ruben said while standing before the class, “and this is a menorah.” He went on to talk about Hanukkah.
“I’m Catholic,” Mary said when it was her turn, “and this is my rosary.” She told the other children about what it meant to her to pray the prayers of the rosary with her mom.
Finally, it was little Joey’s turn. He proudly stood before the class and said, “I’m United Methodist and this is a casserole dish.”
We do have a bit of a reputation for our covered dish suppers, potluck lunches, after worship brunches, and church conference meetings where everyone brings some food to share. Our reputation is very well-deserved.
When I was growing up in my church, I learned a strategy for these meals from my dad. I remember standing next to him as we selected food from one of those casserole buffets, and I watched him select something that… well the presentation was lacking… is one way to say it. He whispered to me, “Anything that looks this bad has to taste really good or they would not have brought it.”
Now that’s thinking. That logic has rarely let me down.
Tables and faith
The intersection of tables and faith, however, goes back much farther than my childhood church, much farther than the Methodists. Tables and faith go back to Jesus, and even back to the Hebrew Bible.
For a long time, I”ve been fascinated with the fact that the Gospel writers include so many meals in Jesus’s story.
Think about it. Very rarely do you read about a historical figure and learn about tables they sat around. While know just about every place George Washington slept, have you ever seen a plaque that said George Washington ate here?
But for Jesus, we read about it regularly. In addition to the feeding of the 5,000–it makes sense they would tell a miracle story–there are also meals with religious leaders. There’s a story about the disciples eating in a field. There’s the story about going over to his friends Mary and Martha’s house for dinner.
He’s so into this, that some of his critics call him a glutton and–my favorite King James Version word–a winebibber. His ministry begins at a wedding, and his first miracle is said to have been turning water into wine. And his ministry ends with the consumption of bread and wine at Passover.
When he raises someone from the dead, he orders, “Bring her something to eat.” When he’s resurrected he cooks fish on the beach.
Oh, and he tells stories about wedding banquets, bread, and killing fatted calves. He even helps the disciples catch fish and talks about hungering and thirsting after righteousness.
Go back into the Hebrew scriptures and you find the roots of what Jesus is doing. David writes this poem many of us know by heart, about his relationship with God. It’s about being a sheep in a field with the shepherd, until the metaphor appears broken with, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” A table for a sheep seems a bit odd, but for us, it’s awesome.
There are other stories too. To this day, our Jewish brothers and sisters gather for a meal each year to celebrate Passover where they remember God calling them out of slavery and claiming them as God’s own people.
The prophets also talked about the end of the world as a meal. One of my favorites is from the prophet Isaiah where we read, “On this mountain, the Lord of heavenly forces will prepare for all peoples a rich feast, a feast of choice wines, of select foods rich in flavor, of choice wines well refined.”
When the early Jesus followers formed the first church after his resurrection we are told that they ate together–the roots of Methodism? That’s an odd detail to include: “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers” (Acts 2:42 emphasis added). Teaching, community, prayers–those things we expect. Shared meals?
Food. Wine. Tables. Do you ever read the Bible and get hungry? Not just spiritually hungry, but physically hungry?
I have this weird image of Jesus’s Instagram account being filled with selfies at dinner parties. One night it’s with the religious people at a nice restaurant in their church clothes. The next day it’s a group of rowdies around a picnic table, smoke from the grill rising in the background, and everyone is in shorts and t-shirts. Then there’s one of him and the disciples at a diner grabbing something to eat on the road with a couple of exhausted people they met on the way.
It’s as if Jesus was a walking dinner party, inviting us all to come.
That’s exactly what he was doing.
“A certain man,” Jesus begins while sitting at one of those dinner parties, “hosted a large dinner and invited many people.” At the appointed time, when the host opened the doors for his guests to come in, no one came. (Luke 14 and Matthew 22)
Can you imagine? No one came to a large dinner party?
If you remember the story, everyone said they had more important things to do. Each of the examples of the guests’ refusals that Jesus gives makes perfect sense. One just got married. Another bought a farm, there was work to be done. The third just purchased some oxen, a first century tool. Maybe he wanted to stay home to read the manual. These all sound legitimate to me.
I know exactly what that’s like. I am far more comfortable sitting here at the keyboard at 5:00am than I am at a dinner party at 5:00pm. Because of that, there have been times that I have made excuses and said, ‘I cannot come.”
I have been one in the guests in Jesus’s story who would rather stay home and take care of their own stuff. There have been times when I have missed out on the fun, because it didn’t seem to fit into my schedule. I’ve wanted to do something else that seemed more important at the moment. Or there was something that felt urgent that needed my attention.
So when Jesus tells this story, it resonates with me. I can see myself in the story.
Jesus doesn’t end the story there.
In a movie, we would cut to the scene of the hostess in her party dress, feet up on the banquet table with a turkey drumstick in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other.
The camera gives us a wide shot so we can see all the empty chairs and the band packing up their gear in the background while the soundtrack offers some soft, sad music. She threw a party and no one came.
The camera would then zoom in as her best friend approaches to comfort her. They would say something about not letting the food go to waste and would wallow in self-pity as they ate from a silver serving tray of mashed potatoes and uncorked another bottle of wine.
But the response of the host in Jesus’s story is very different. He’s determined to have a party! And if those people don’t want to come, that’s OK. He’ll just invite more people. He sends out some servants to invite people who aren’t busy–people who don’t usually get invited to dinner parties–and they come!
But there’s room for more. So he sends them out again. He wants this party to be standing room only. There’s a bit of Great Gatsby flare to the whole thing.
This is the ministry of Jesus in parable. He is inviting us to be part of something bigger than any of us could imagine–a celebration–and everyone is invited. If the party is God’s, Jesus and his posse of 12 are the servants making the invitation to everyone to come. He is urging us not to miss out. Not to make excuses, but to come to the table and enjoy the celebration.
Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus found reasons to gather around the table everywhere, all the time, even when things were difficult.
It is Jesus’s primary image of the Kingdom of God.
Another example is the string stories told in Luke 15.
Jesus tells these three stories back to back, that unfortunately we often separate, preaching on them one at a time. And we focus on what is lost each time. But when we read them as a whole, we notice that each story is really about a party.
When the shepherd finds his lost sheep, he throws a party. When the woman finds her lost coin, she invites her friends over for a party. When the lost son returns home, the dad throws a massive party that is so good the elder son hears it as he is approaching the house. But instead of joining in the celebration, the older brother determines that his younger sibling doesn’t deserve a party and protests by not attending.
Here’s the problem today. Here is the root of the crisis in the church.
The older brother seems think there are rules to celebrating, such as who should be allowed to have a seat at the table and who doesn’t deserve one. He gives his dad several reasons why the younger son doesn’t deserve the party and why he does deserve it.
But that’s not Jesus’s concern. Instead, the father simply repeats the reason for the celebration: his son has returned home. He wants to celebrate and have everyone come, including his eldest son.
Jesus told this story to teach those who felt like they didn’t have a place at the table, those who felt shut out by the elder brothers of the world, that we have a place at the table. You belong. Come. Come to the party.
Come! It’s a celebration of foundness! The younger brother’s, and yours. It’s a celebration of love! It’s a celebration of peace! It’s a celebration of all of us being exactly where we belong!
Come! Come to the party!
You can’t deserve this
One of the hardest things about Christianity for many of us, is believing that God loves us. We know ourselves too well. We know about our younger brother years. The crazy thing we did in college. We know what goes on in our heads: how selfish we are, how greedy, how mean we can be.
We hear the preacher say, “There is a place for you at the table.” We listen to a podcast, like this one, that claims God loves us, but we have trouble believing it. We feel the love of a friend or family member, and we find ourselves rejecting all of that love because we don’t deserve it. We cannot come.
Many of us would also confess in our private moments that we have the voice of the older brother living inside of us also. We assume and set rules, build boundaries around who we want at the party and who we don’t. The older brother in us thinks a lot about justice, fairness, and tells us and others how the world really works. How parties are for those who have worked hard and deserve it, not for the screwups. Sometimes he tells us we don’t belong. Other times he tells us that they don’t belong.
Either way, we opt out. Like the older brother we refuse to go to the party. Like the guests we make excuses about stuff we have to do.
Jesus says exactly the opposite. In God’s grace-filled way, the party is for everyone. You are invited. You just have to come.
At the end of Jesus’s stories, the people who think they belong end up missing the party while those who are humble enough to just receive the graciousness of the host, find a place at the table. One that has been reserved just for them.
The church word for this is grace. We could go into a complicated explanation of what that word means, or instead, we can just listen to Jesus’s examples of grace in his stories.
One of my favorite understandings of grace comes from philosopher Peter Rollins who wrote, “Grace is accepting that you are already accepted.” I love that. And man, that is not easy. It’s believing that Jesus is really inviting you to the party. He really wants you there. All that stuff you think he would reject you for if he knew about it? He already knows and he;s making the invitation anyway.
God created you. He is proud of you. He really wants you at the party.
Don’t let your internal older brother convince you otherwise. You belong. There’s a place at the table for you.
One more thought
When my kids were little we used to read them P. D. Eastman’s Go, Dog! Go! We got it for them because it was one I remembered from my childhood. We read it together so often that our kids knew it by heart.
It’s a silly story about a bunch of dogs running around trying to get somewhere. We don’t know where.
They drive cars, ride scooters, and ski! They are all in a gigantic hurry, as dogs sometimes appear to be. So we cheer them on: Go, dog! Go!
Then, on the last page (spoiler alert) we learn where they’ve been going. They climb a tree for a dog party. There’s a ladder for them, because dogs can’t climb trees. That would be ridiculous. They aren’t cats.
There is something magical about that book. Everyone is trying to get to a party in a tree. I love that image.
Where are you going today? This week? This month? What’s the plan, the goal, the agenda? What is so important that it is going to occupy your mind, your time, your attention?
Maybe, just maybe, you need to drop that and sit at a table with people you love. Maybe you need to find that place where you belong. Maybe you need to accept the invitation to be loved, to be part of something wonderful, to be accept that you are accepted.
Welcome to the party!