a sermon on a better banquet

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Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Luke 14:1, 7-14

This sermon is the fourth of a four-part lectionary sermon series entitled Sight Unseen.  This week focuses on “Faith Enough to Wait” – Faith trusts that we have not been overlooked by God.

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A few years ago, it made the news that an entrepreneur decided to streamline his nutrition by inventing a shake called Soylent that contained “all the protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and micronutrients that a body needs to thrive.” The product was geared towards software engineers whose work is so demanding that it’s difficult to get adequate nutrition, or for whom taking a long lunch break just to eat is a nuisance. Since then, other similar beverages have become available, including one called Schmoylent, one called –incredibly – Schmilk.

These shakes don’t sound appealing to me, and it’s not just because I love eating. It’s because meals are special. Meals have special significance in Jesus’ life, especially for the author of today’s text, the author of Luke and Acts. In Luke and Acts, food is mentioned over 100 times – referenced in about one out of every five sentences!

Jesus’s ministry means he is traveling from place to place, and meals are times in which he extends and receives hospitality – like in the banquet at Levi’s house with tax collectors and sinners, or at the house of Martha and Mary. Meals are where miracles happen – like in the feeding of the 5,000+. Jesus spends some of his last hours before his death sharing a Passover meal with his friends. In Luke’s account of the resurrection, the risen Jesus appears to his friends on the road to Emmaus, and after walking with him for some time, they finally recognize him when they sit down to eat. Perhaps Luke was signaling us to expect this sort of food-loving Jesus even when he tells the story of Jesus’s birth, in which his mother Mary lies him down in a cradle of animal feed. Meals with Jesus are often parables – stories that point us towards the kingdom of God.

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And meals aren’t just important for Jesus, they matter for us, too. Think about all our memories – painful or warm, delicious or repulsive – that center around meals…

… I remember mealtimes at my grandmother’s house – she always made Jell-o with little bits of fruit in it especially for us when we came over. She would fuss over the food so much that someone else usually had to remind her to sit down and eat. Afterwards, if I ate my vegetables, I got to have a scoop of mint chip ice cream…

… I ate Thanksgiving dinner in Ames, Iowa with my relatives on my dad’s side. There was my grandma and grandpa, four uncles, three aunts, and nine grandkids – seventeen of us total. We did not all fit at one table. So, like many families, we split into two tables, one for the adults and one for the kids. I liked sitting with my cousins but I also wished I could laugh at whatever the adults thought was funny at their table…

… When Josh and I were volunteers in Argentina, meals were an important way to build relationships. When someone invited us to their home, they would teach how to cook different things, each according to our gender, and we heard and told stories. This is the way we began to feel that we belonged in our new community…

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Working with the young adults of Congregación San Lucas to crimp the edges of empanadas. Grand Bourg, Buenos Aires.

Sharing a meal is more than just fulfilling our body’s need to eat and drink. It is partaking in that most important life sustaining activity – and doing it together. To gather to eat and drink together proclaims, “We’re not just surviving, we’re living! And we’re enjoying it!”

A meal is a ritual that tells the story of our life. Our tables reflect who we are as people and as a community. And the meal doesn’t just tell the warm and fuzzy parts. Our tables often reflect what is most broken about our lives.

I’m thinking of what it was like at lunchtime in the middle school cafeteria, for example: trying to find a place to sit with people who would accept me; making sure not to sit by that person, so that I wouldn’t be an outcast by association; dipping my french fries in my chocolate shake, even though I thought that was disgusting, because it was the cool thing to do; holding on for dear life to whatever bits of social status I could grasp. Maybe you had similar experiences during your time in school.

Even though we eventually outgrow that kind of lunchroom, that scene reflects a lived reality that we still carry with us. It’s not just in middle school that we learn that we’re not good enough, that we’re forgotten. We are still yearning for our place to belong, longing to be embraced just for who we are.

The world we live in teaches us that, in order to find that place of belonging, we have to earn it. We have to work hard and achieve a lot; we have to be the best students, the most diligent employees, the perfect parents, the most devoted people of faith, or be overlooked by those around us.

And in the world we live in, people profit off of our longing to belong. Advertising manipulates us to buy products that demonstrate how attractive, or responsible, or strong we are. Employers and schools reward us with approval – only when we meet external standards of achievement or success. Politicians appeal to the idea of the “American dream” – dangling that mirage of a carrot in front of us that says we can make it on our own if we just try hard enough.

This is the world we live in, and this is what our banquet tables – literal and metaphorical – look like too.

It was the same in Jesus’s time – society’s hierarchy was displayed and maintained by the seating arrangement. Honor and shame were the social currency and you advanced in the hierarchy by making friends with people with better seats. Those at the bottom – not to mention those who were not invited – were overlooked or forgotten. This is the world he lived in, and this is what his banquet table looked like.

But there is a better kind of table. There is a different banquet in the kingdom of God.

There is another reality right below the surface, in which we are good enough. In which we don’t have to earn our way alone. In which there is a place even for us.

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I have loved watching the series Stranger Things – a new series on Netflix. (I’ll try not to give away any spoilers). In the series, an adolescent boy named Will disappears into another dimension, like another universe parallel to the reality of his town, but much darker and scarier, and inhabited by a monster. This other reality is called the Upside Down. The separation between the two realities is thin, such that Will is able to communicate with his mother, and she is able to sense his presence – though in a strange way. There are scenes in which the separation between the right side up and the Upside Down is portrayed almost like a thin membrane of skin – through which light passes and sound might be heard, but which you cannot cross. Some parts of the membrane are thinner than others, and in some places, there is a “tear,” like a doorway to cross between realities.

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Will’s mom tears back the wallpaper in their home to reveal a thin, skin-like membrane separating her world from Will in the Upside Down. (Stranger Things S1 E4)

There are many good lessons to draw from Stranger Things, and I hope you watch it if you are a Netflix watcher. Today what I think it offers us is a vivid snapshot of what it’s like when there’s another reality right below the surface.

When Jesus is sitting in the home of a leader of the Pharisees on the Sabbath, he sees that banquet for what it is. Yet he also sees beyond that reality. He sees a different kind of table, one in which no one is overlooked, and society’s broken rules are turned upside down. (Not the malevolent reality of Stranger Things’ Upside Down,  but upside down in the sense that God brings justice through reversal.)

God’s banquet is so near, just beyond that thin membrane. (In Celtic spirituality, this nearness was called a “thin place,” where the boundary between Earth and Heaven was close.) We can almost hear the clanking of the silverware and the laughter of the guests, almost see the flickering candles and smell the hearty food. We can imagine what it must feel like to be greeted when we walk in the door, “Friend, take this seat,” to know that this place is for us.

By faith, we trust that that banquet is not far off. It is hard to perceive in some places. At other times, it feels so near; in fact, when we are most convinced of its nearness, the parties we throw start to look more and more like the kingdom of God. And there are places where there is a tear – where God’s table and our table are one: like here, in the mystery of the Eucharist.

By faith, we live knowing there is another reality beneath the surface. By faith, we look forward to those places where God turns our banquets upside down. By faith, we may even dare to make a tear ourselves.

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