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Parables of Hunger: The Dinner Guests

July 23, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on July 23, 2017. This is the second of three sermon of the Parables of Hunger

Psalm 63: 1-9         Luke 14: 15-24

Last week we began talking about the Parables of Hunger, a designation I have made up to bring together several parables about food and eating and who Jesus ate with, and with whom we are encouraged to eat. It’s important to realize that most of the people Jesus told his parables to were hungry. They experienced hunger as a fact of life and struggled with it daily. We read together the Parable of Leaven and talked about daily bread. Daily bread – the bread Jesus bids us to pray for – is that which assures us that we have not only eaten today but will eat again tomorrow. The Parable of the Leaven, in which the Kingdom of God is compared to leaven that leavens enough dough to feed a village, much like the actual miracle of loaves and fishes on a Palestinian hillside, was given to hungry people. And they ate it up.

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Comparing God’s messianic reign or realm to a banquet is commonplace in Hebrew scripture. Psalm 107 speaks of the redeemed being gathered in from all the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, for “God satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry God fills with good things.” The prophet Isaiah said that “On God’s holy mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Isa 26: 5-8). The great feast is not only an image of God’s justice, peace and abundance achieved and celebrated but of God’s justice, peace and abundance as, itself, a celebration! Jesus used this image of a rich banquet, or a wedding feast, or inclusive party in several of his parables. These parables invites us to wonder: In what way is God’s realm like party?

The context for our passage today is that Jesus has accepted an invitation to share the Sabbath meal at the home of a leading Pharisee. Once in the home he observes the guests jockeying for position near the host, and Jesus tries to introduce a little humility where humility seems to be lacking. And then he tells this parable. He says the kingdom of heaven is like a party where “the expected guests are absent, and the most unlikely ones are present.” His point, on this occasion, seems simple: God desires all people to sit together in the kingdom of God, to enjoy fellowship with one another and with God, and the invitation is open. But we may be surprised who shows up, and who doesn’t. Who runs away or is sent away. And why.

Now, parables are many things, but one thing they are not is simple. They are not short stories with a moral point. If they were, we wouldn’t have to wrestle with them as we do. Parables defy easy categorization or summary, which is why some of them rank both among our favorite and least favorite passages of scripture. Understanding parables is not a straightforward business where this person represents this, and that action represents something else. Parables are puzzles that defy solution; they tickle our intellect, our heart, and our emotions into listening harder. And so we listen to them until we know them so well that they can begin to speak to us. We listen to them until we know them so well we can recognize them when they come to life before our eyes. We listen to them until we can hear the many answers they offer and, importantly, the many questions as well.

Let me illustrate what I mean. This is a story shared by a college student with her classmates with whom she was studying scripture a couple of years ago. This student explained,

Yesterday my roommates and I made a feast for dinner. We’d invited nearly a dozen friends, and so we spent all day shopping and cooking from scratch: two big pots of soup, two loaves of homemade bread, a giant salad full of vegetables, and two pecan pies for dessert. But then, at about three o’clock, just as we were putting the pies into the oven, the phone calls started coming in.

One by one, our friends called to cancel: one couple had car trouble, another was sick, another was overwhelmed with work. It was uncanny. By five-o-clock, all but one person had backed out – and then the phone rang one more time. And so there we were, three people surrounded by enough food for fifteen.

And then it hit me, probably because of the reading we’ve been doing in this class. I remembered the parable Jesus tells about the great banquet and how when the invited guests refuse to come, the hosts go out into the street and invite the poor and the blind and the lame. And I thought: this is our chance to enact the parable. This is what we are supposed to do with all this food we’ve made.

But I didn’t say anything. And so we ended up doing just exactly what you’d expect us to do: we called around to a couple of other friends, had a smaller dinner party and put the leftovers in the freezer for later. And now today, I’m wondering what happened, why I didn’t speak up, why we let that opportunity slip by.[1]

This student already realizes something about scripture that it takes many of us a long time to get: namely that scripture is not something simply to be read and understood, whether in a classroom or a congregation, but it is something that we live, that can come to life in our lives when we think about what ultimately matters. And when she found herself in the midst of biblical story, it spoke to her personally. “I’m wondering what happened, why I didn’t speak up, why we let that opportunity slip by.” These are, of course, important questions. Why do we let opportunities pass us by? Why do we hold back from what we know is right? It’s not wrong, nor is it unfaithful to the scripture or unhelpful to our lives to ask these questions. But hearing scripture as an address to each of us individually falls short of what Jesus is really up to in his parables.

One of the other students in the bible study commented, “Well, I don’t know why she didn’t speak up, but I know why I wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t know whom to invite. I don’t know anyone personally who was hungry last night or who’s particularly poor, for that matter. And even if I do have some acquaintances who might be, it would feel strange and hollow to invite them over to dinner suddenly, like extras in my little morality play.” Now she understands that the parable addresses not only our inhibitions and desires, but our social location. It questions who we know, and who we don’t, and the nature of our relationships. And this is how parables work. They reveal our commitments and the brokenness of our communities. They function as what one commentator calls ‘a revealing challenge’ precisely when we cannot easily or gracefully enact them. This parable clearly reveals that charity and pity toward others are no substitute for dignity and equality with others. In God’s realm, the poor are not the second string guests, invited to save face and honor for a snubbed host. Jesus says the poor are blessed and inherit the earth, and that those who are hungry will be satisfied.

Jesus used this parable to poke at the pretentions of a relatively privileged group. Remember that Jesus told this story about a wealthy man’s table while he was enjoying a real meal at a real table with the Pharisees. On his way to the meal Jesus met a man who was sick and healed him. He’s presumably still sitting outside throughout the meal.

So imagine, imagine what it would be like to hear this parable of the dinner guests as a person whose “whole circle of friends is privileged, able bodied, and comfortable.” How can they take part in the gospel drama? How can they share in the good news Jesus announces to the poor and hungry and the captive if they have no genuine, relationships with people who are poor, hungry, or captive?

One of the things that I love about our congregation is not only that it is in the city, but that we have faith in the city. By this I mean we build relationships not only with other organizations or participate in activities, but that we welcome people as individuals no matter where they are on life’s journey. Each week there are individuals who come seeking help – sometimes they’re hungry, sometimes they’re confused, sometimes they’re in need of health care, sometimes they’re looking for housing, or parking or clothing or a nursery school that will provide a scholarship so their child can have an even start with other children in kindergarten. All of us have needs – all of us. Every one of us here has needs. And many of us here know just what it’s like to not have enough money for food, or to come up short on the rent, or to have a health care crisis because we cannot afford the treatment we need. Others of us are just skating by and we try not to think about it too much; one crisis away from the whole house of cards collapsing. I say this because when one of our human rights isn’t met – say the right to health care – the rest are endangered. I say this because when we are living precariously – skating by, hoping by luck we’ll avert a crisis, the stress increases on every front. We often don’t want to think about it too much because it’s counterproductive. We muscle through, hoping.

So many people came to Jesus who were physically hungry, physically hurting and unsure where to turn for help or relief. And that’s true of so many people who come to our doorstep all week. But what I think is incredibly good news, is that they turn to the church. Somewhere they learned that the church is supposed to help. The church—both its individual members and as a congregation – loves its neighbor as itself, meaning it sees its own well-being entwined with that of others and risks itself to ensure we all have what we need to survive.

Jesus’ parable is not only about what we do as individuals. It is. It is certainly that. It is a challenge to us, like it was to those college students. But it’s also more than that. Jesus wasn’t addressing the Pharisees individually, but collectively. And whenever we come across religious leaders in the gospel – whether they be Pharisees or Sadducees — we should just read “church” because that’s today’s analogy. They’re the “religious establishment.” And so this parable is not just about the important decisions each of us as individuals make each day, it’s about the values we live out as a congregation. It invites us to wonder, how are we showing the love that Jesus would have us show to one another when we stumble on life’s way. Because, you know and I know, it’s a stony road we trod.

So I want to share a few examples – just from this past week – of how our church endeavored to live out the call of this parable.

  • Many of you know that Church Street has been closed for a couple of days because they are shooting a major motion picture. Because this also closed off access to Grace Episcopal Church, the soup kitchen needed a temporary home. So our church became that home this week. And we welcomed more than 100 guests to eat and be renewed. More than that, Olga went down to the kitchen and was greeted with hugs and kisses because everybody knows Olga – because she, like others in this congregation, has volunteered at the soup kitchen.
  • I had several conversations with a woman who has now been released from prison and is facing a dire health care crisis. She and I met a few years ago when she was going into prison. In fact, August wrote to her and we sent books. Now she’s out. But you know and I know – because we’ve been studying the prison system and re-entry issues – how hard it is, even in the best circumstances, to land on one’s feet. What I could do was be a sounding board for her decision-making and to promise to walk with her as she discerned her next steps.

Jesus is serious about the table of God’s kingdom being a table around which all are gathered simply because God has invited them. It is the reason a table, a large table, is the central symbol in our worship space. The communion table is a table open to all. Those who have been baptized recognize this table as the place where status accorded by the world to some because of power and wealth or denied by the world because of poverty, ethnicity, physical ability is laid aside for a different kind of status – our status as children of God, equals in God’s sight. And through our baptism we affirm that every person is a child of God, created in God’s image, invested with dignity and worth.

  • This week, I had a really special meal with a man named E—– at NY Presbyterian Hospital. E—– has a variety of challenges and had gone in to get his medications adjusted. Over the years he’s had jobs and lost jobs, been homeless and found an apartment, and over the years he’s needed meals – real meals – to help him survive. I’ve brought him dozens of meals and bags of food over the years. But this week, E—– was hosting ME for dinner at NY Presbyterian Hospital. This was his treat for me. I was his guest. What a beautiful meal it was. Two men, sharing food, sharing our lives, giving thanks.

At this table, a table set by God, the equality proclaimed and realized at this table brings joy, brings hope, and satisfies.

Sermon Hymn: Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table

 

 

 

[1] Dorothy Bass and Susan Briehl, eds., On the Way: Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life. (Upper Room, 2010).

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