A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on August 29, 2010.
Luke 14:1, 7-14
This is a wonderful little story about the “table habits” of Jesus and the conversations that took place around the table. It was around the table that the first breaking of the bread and the common cup was shared among the disciples in the upper room on the night that Jesus was betrayed. It was at a campfire on the shore of the Sea of Galilee that the disciples had one of their last conversations with the resurrected Jesus. It was around a meal that the promise of the Holy Spirit was given. All kinds of things seemed to take place while reclining at the table. Jesus did not limit his mealtimes with only those he knew and loved best. In fact, part of the scandal of Jesus from the religious establishment was the reputation of Jesus of being “a wine bibber” and eating with sinners. Imagine that, Jesus had a bad reputation! His biggest problem was that he just never could draw the lines tight enough to suit the religiously uptight.
At the heart of Jesus’ words on servanthood and humility, in the hidden words we did not read, is an on-going conflict. It’s not merely a low-level dissent against Jesus; rather, it’s a deep-seated opposition to what Jesus was doing. So why does Jesus counter their arguments by teaching about humility? Why didn’t he fight back with confrontive power against resistance? Why the words on humility of all things?
Jesus ate with anyone who wanted him it seems, but pointedly he ate with social outcasts of one kind or another and he refused to avoid them because of the messiness that would create. He ate with people in despised trades: Tax collectors, adulterers, prostitutes, extortionists, murderers, and idolaters. He ate with folks who failed to keep the Law according to the standards of the religious authorities and he ate with Gentiles and Samaritans.
Jesus’ critics held an iron-fist on how faith was to be practiced and his popularity to the masses was a threat to the religious power brokers. He lived the faith before them and leaders were resisted his strength and moral power.
Why the table? Why would the table come to represent the deepest message of the Kingdom of God and the reign of God? What could be more common among us? All of you remember happy times centered upon good food, good companions, and joy. While the holiness laws meant exclusion and separation, the table in Jesus’ way of thinking represented inclusion and togetherness. It’s an altogether fitting image for us to consider in this passage. The Sabbath laws described and formed a sacred time and a sacred place but they ignored the sacredness of human persons.
So in our scripture is an example of Jesus leaning against the idolatry of religious habits. Jesus asked the obvious, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” (Luke 14:3, NRSV). With no answer from his critical audience, Jesus healed a man. He nailed their silence to the wall with his commentary on the Sabbath with this observation, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5, NRSV). The gospel tells us they had no words to say about this.
This story gives us all the subtle clues up front. While Jesus had been invited to come and join the group for the meal, they were all watching him closely. Have you ever been invited to a meal with a group knowing that they were all planning to watch you closely and would be taking note of everything that you had to say? Would that make you nervous? The power of the situation was that they weren’t just watching his manners. They were taking note of everything he had to say … everything! All of them had no doubt heard him before teaching in the Synagogue or teaching out among the crowds. But they were listening past the actual words that he spoke and they were straining to listen “between the lines.”
Is there anything new in this story about conflict? In an article posted on the Ethics Daily website this past Monday, Bill Wilson, President of the Center for Congregational Health, wrote about the rise of conflict in churches. From his vantage point of watching churches in crisis all over the country, Wilson noted that congregational conflict is on the rise. Clergy terminations are up and he claims that the 21st century is “more stressful, more toxic and more likely to end in termination that ever before.”
Wilson claimed it’s difficult to measure the impact of conflict upon the unseen aspects of congregational life but cited there is a “loss of passion and vitality for the gospel, (a) reduction in sacrificial giving, … jaded spirits, … ministry thwarted, … disillusionment among younger people, … loss of hope, (and) cynical attitudes.” Does that sound familiar? It’s good to note these characteristics are not unique to us but are rather evidence surfacing in church after church after church.
There are four groups mentioned here: the lame, the blind, the maimed and the poor. Recognize them from somewhere else? They are the same ones Jesus describes in his coming out as Messiah when he first declared his ministry. That calling had encoded itself deeply into his heart. Those people were the very ones he described when he read from the scroll that first day in the Synagogue in Jerusalem. Funny that they would show up again here.
What is Jesus saying to us all? The banquet table of God is open to everyone. It’s the word: “Inclusion.” Everybody. No one left out. No one outside the circle.
The church has always struggled with that because we are human beings. All races, all genders, all economic levels, all ages, all sexual orientations, whatever your circle of exclusion, God says they are all the center of God’s love in equal measure. No one is left out. No one is without God’s love and acceptance. We are God’s creation and we are loved … each and every one of us.
And don’t just think that these people are to be the focused mission work of the church to just attend to the physical and spiritual needs of these people … it is a call to invite them to dinner! We are to invite them all into the house of God where the big banquet is being given. Let everyone have equal access to the work of the Kingdom. There is a place for everyone. This is the New Testament’s understanding of hospitality. In fact, the word, “hospitality” means, literally, “love of a stranger.”
To love others as God loves them demands our utter humility. We must relinquish the death hold we have on God’s announcement in all creation. We must join God in announcing this good news to all we can. This place must open its doors fully and completely.
I want to invite you today to accept the calling. God is calling all of us to be involved in extending the invitation to others to come and find their place at the table with us.
God is throwing a wonderful party! The one who came to be known as a party-animal is reaching out in some of the most unusual of places to try and invite them in. God needs our help to extend the invitation. God has no interest in building a country club filled with self-righteous hypocrites who only look good on the outside. God wants us to move out into the most desolate of places extending the invitation to all who are needy and lonely to all who are filled with pain and who have no place to turn to all who are thirsty or hungry.
 Wilson, Ibid.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).