Sermon, August 21, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
So… we have scripture about Jesus at a dinner party…
Have you noticed, as I have, a general malaise in your social tendencies? Do you wish for the delight you used to absorb from connecting with others while simultaneously feeling exhausted by the mere idea of a party? Do you feel like your social muscle is like a fish out of water, withered and flabby and flopping around on land, gasping for air but not knowing how to launch itself back into the water?
Perhaps you, like me, feel the paradox of wanting conversation and connection yet not sure where to turn to rejuvenate that social part of your life after months and months of intentional isolation? I think we all are still grappling with how to emerge from the cautious distance and resulting shrunken social circles from our shared pandemic experience.
I was flooded with this mixture of emotions when reading this scripture. A dinner party, you say? What, pray tell, is a dinner invitation? I think I used to know but now it’s a vague memory…
And yet…In so many of my life experiences and travels, the most memorable moments always happen when people eat together. Eating together is an expression of humility, generosity, and comradery. There’s a lot of power in eating together.
Our gospel scripture today from the Gospel of Luke has Jesus participating in yet another meal, the 3rd one with the Pharisees in the gospel of Luke. Now, I’m not sure Jesus is an ideal dinner guest. First, he insults the guests, admonishing their presumptuous behavior to clutch onto to the status of the host - then he insults the host by criticizing his guest list! Can you imagine being invited to dinner and voicing such opinions out loud - and with the authority of someone who expects to be listened to!
‘Yes, yes, thank you for the dinner invitation, but I see here that all your guests are terribly impulsive narcissists, concerned more for their own image of who they sit next to then prudent in their respect for the unknown order of the day. But this dinner is obviously an exercise in vanity, because if you were truly interested in the Kingdom of God, you would have invited people who couldn’t return the favor of dinner.’ Well, that’s certainly not someone I’d be eager to invite again!
Jesus suggestions deserve some explanation for the way they were heard differently than what we may hear; to our ears, a dinner with assigned seating may represent arranged dinners like wedding receptions - and his second suggestion may bring to mind inviting a stranger over for Christmas who otherwise would not have company on that special holiday. But there was more to this verse in first century Palestine.
First of all, the tables. When I’m invited to a meal at someone’s house, I often find myself asking where I should sit - and rarely does it matter, other than inquiring what seats the usual members of the household occupy as habit. Sometimes there’s a head of the table, perhaps a patriarch or matriarch at a large family dinner - but many of our tables are square, so most tables have 2 heads to begin with - or round with no clear head. In Jesus time, these tables would be an elongated U-shape, with the host occupying the center of the U. Also, the guests would recline and make themselves quite comfortable - so being asked to switch seats would be quite a production of causing everyone to readjust.
And secondly, Jesus lived in a culture of honor and shame. It was a patron-client world; one did not survive by their own merit, as they do in our culture. Rather, one only got ahead by being related to networks, family, friends, and brokers of other patrons. Being publicly embarrassed, such as being asked by a host to give up your seat for someone more important, could impact your immediate economic livelihood, like the ability to barter with your neighbor for basic goods, or to arrange a marriage in your family. If you had the ability to throw a banquet, you were of the wealthy class, and you likely only invited those who would someday invite you in return to bolster your status. Jesus contradicts this status-oriented culture immediately, calling on followers to serve the sick, lame, crippled, and people who could in no way return the invitation, and therefore put their top status at risk - but changing the concern from what you can receive for yourself to what you can offer to be of good benefit for others.
Who do we usually invite to dinner? When you have hosted or received a dinner invitation, who is invited? Usually our friends, neighbors, colleagues, or perhaps that boss or client or love interest we want to impress, right? But do we ever seek out the company of those very different from us? Can you bring to mind a dinner event that was not intended to impress, but rather to reach across difference?
In one of my professional roles prior to ministry, I was organizing in a neighborhood agency that began as a soup kitchen. Every day, 6 days a week, they served 2 meals to hundreds of people. But rather than stop with the act of giving charity, A Just Harvest encouraged the practice of sitting and eating *with* the clientele who had come in for a free meal. Standing behind a counter or a meal line is a transactional act - you are giving and they are receiving - but a table is a great equalizer. Sitting across the table no longer makes your charity giver and charity receiver; rather, you become the same - two humans eating a meal. Two people who have the shared human experience, no matter how different. At my agency, A Just Harvest, it was over those meals that staff and clientele began having conversations. And through those conversations, they were able to start identifying those things that caused people to need a free supper. And that’s how they began organizing within the agency, and empowering the clientele to fight for changing the systems that caused their circumstances. Sitting at the table yielded much more of a relationship than any transactional interaction like an interview or a survey could have. To sit, rather than to serve, shows respect to the person at the table and enticed them to speak honestly and openly about their lives - because we were just talking over food, eating as equals. There’s great power in sharing a meal together.
In another role, as an intern during Seminary, I worked with young women living in a halfway house for pregnant and new moms suffering homelessness. Some of these women were teenagers, most were kicked out of their parents’ home when they got pregnant, and all of them were black. I was asked to do some work around food and nutrition a few days a week. Now, it was nearly impossible not to be dismissed as the do-gooder privileged white girl who had no business telling them how to live their lives. What did I know about how to survive without housing and try to feed myself on a few dollars a day? I really felt like I was getting nowhere… until my mother had a brilliant idea to do some cooking. Rather than talk about what’s healthy, let’s make some healthy stuff and eat together. It changed everything about that internship. Once we were cooking together, the girls began to open up. They showed their pride in their favorite dishes, their family recipes, their cooking skills that far outweighed mine. Bringing in the food equalized us - no longer was I an outsider telling them how to live, to be regarded with suspicion. Now I was just a guest at their table, as we sampled each other’s dishes and developed relationships.
There’s great power in sharing a meal together. Mealtime is when we all slow down enough to be generous with each other and listen to each other. People offer the gift of food, and you offer respect by receiving their gift of food and their traditions. Sometimes you have to watch to see how your food is to be eaten, or sample someone else’s version. But sitting at a table together humbles us and establishes us as equals. Jesus knew this, and was pushing his dinner companions to consider seeing the poor, the sick, the lame and the blind as equals, included at the table of the Kingdom of God, rather than stuck on the outside.
There’s great power in sharing a meal together - not only in expanding who is welcome at God’s table, but also in deepening our mutual love for each other. I have one more story - from one more professional role in my past life. I once met a man at a state hearing for health care reform, a Jewish man who responded to the call to offer moral testimony on the immorality of our health care system before Obamacare. I was so impressed with his testimony that we got into a long conversation. He told me how for 20 years, he had been meeting monthly with a group of 12 men for a special Shabbat dinner he called Chaverim. He said, quite simply, “every time we meet, there is delicious food, and then we talk.” The host of the month offers the food and the topic of conversation, and through that gathering they have talked through many a controversial subject and found mutual learning and better understanding, not only of the modern world but of each other. He told me that it was because of this longstanding investment in these deep friendships that one of the men could sit at his table just a few months ago, in tears, confessing that he was contemplating closing his medical practice because he could not stay ahead of the malpractice insurance requirements. This man told me that level of intimacy and vulnerability was really only likely because they had spent 20 years trusting each other and caring for each other - over a Friday meal, once a month. In order to tell you this story, I did a google search to help me remember the word he used for these dinners, Chaverim - and I learned the definition. In Hebrew, Chaverim means cleaving to friends, to stay very close to friends.
There’s great power in a sharing a meal together. There is nothing quite as effective in creating social connections as eating together. There’s nothing that puts us on level footing quite like sitting across a table from each other, listening to each other’s thoughts and life experiences. And there’s nothing that deepens relationships quite as well as sharing a meal on a regular basis.
Our church family used to be a great source of all types of social events, including these friendship-deepening meals. Now all of this went on hiatus for the last few years, quite appropriately for COVID precautions. But at the same time, the face of our congregation has changed, with new faces who have not had the opportunity to make those deep connections with other long-term members. Over the last year, I’ve noticed through our fish fries and potlucks just how hungry people are for the opportunity to eat together. And over the last few weeks, in our New Members class, I’ve remembered just how energizing it can be to spend time listening to others’ life stories and faith journeys and making those deep connections. So while we still need to heed the call to be cautious of our health status and surroundings, I think now is a great time to create new connections and strengthen the social fabric of our our church family by resurrecting our old tradition of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. This is an event where people choose to be hosts or guests, and are given an address and a time of when to arrive. I’ve heard there was a lot of fun in the discovery and a lot of good memories and connections made during those dinners. All are welcome - members and friends and visitors who want to get to know us better through small dinners! Signups begin this week, and all the matches will be announced on September 18th. We are looking for hosts and guests, we are looking for singles and doubles, we are looking for everyone to be a part of this church event. It’s an opportunity to sit at a table with someone you wouldn’t normally expect to invite to dinner - and to expand and deepen your circle of friends.
And, after having one dinner focused on getting to know each other, I’m hoping that you will have 2 more with the same group of people, and engage in continued dialogue about the issues of the day and of the future of our church. Like the 12 men meeting for Chaverim, I’m hoping this face to face time will offer the opportunity for people to think deeply about their values and how they feel called to be in the world, how our church interacts with the world and what is our vision for the future. I will provide a list of questions to consider, and would like you to capture your thoughts in these discussions with a few notes or quotes, so that we may publish them and share them with the larger congregation.
I am excited about inviting members and friends of our congregation to recreate this fun tradition that has helped start and deepen church friendships for so many generations before now. I hope you will join in and open yourself to the great power of sharing a meal together, so that we might together find new friendships, learn about each other, and have substantial discussion articulating y’all’s desire for the future for our congregation.
May these dinners begin to help us strengthen that muscle of social interaction and get us back in the practice of caring, of listening, of conversing, and of feeling connected to the wider world. Let us begin to widen the circle in the aim of expanding the welcome to the kingdom of God. May it be so. Amen.