Expansive Table, Expansive Community

long table

Image Description: A very long, brown table with brown chairs with red table settings. The table is located in a room with white, cinderblock walls and a large number of windows. Florescent lights are hanging above the table.

This sermon was preached at Northside Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan and was focused upon the story told in Luke 14:1-14. An audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.

Well, one thing is for sure: Jesus is no Emily Post.

Throughout the gospels, I marvel sometimes at how frank Jesus can be — how he can upend the social order by sharing new ways of being, new ways of interacting.

So here he is, seeming to give advice about how to host a dinner party while he’s at a dinner party. He looks over at the host and says these things in front of the guests. I wonder if that was uncomfortable.

Of course, no one was engaging Jesus as an advice columnist. Instead, when our passage begins today, we hear this opening statement: “On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.” This seems to set the scene in some way.

Jesus was often watched closely by the powerful and marginalized alike. Sometimes, people sought to entrap him and catch him in his words. And many times, among the powerful and among the marginalized, people looked to him to speak words of wisdom and speak in empowering ways. People were drawn to him, and people resisted him. In both cases, Jesus was watched.

Jesus was being watched on his way to this dinner party, and as he was going there, Jesus saw a man with dropsy. And he asked a question to those who were watching him. “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not?” That was his question.

Now I have to admit that I get very uncomfortable with the thought that Jesus just spotted this man with an illness and began to use him as a test case in a way on the spot. After he asked that question — “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not?” — it seems that there was an interesting silence, both from the man with dropsy and those who were watching.

In the midst of this silence, Jesus then heals the man and answers his question with a different question. “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?” There was more silence. They could not reply to this.

Of course, the answer was obvious. Of course, they would do that — when it is their child in trouble, when it is their child separated and alone, when it is their ox in trouble, when it is their ox separate and alone… the answer seems to be different.

And so Jesus uplifts the intrinsic worth of neighbors — those who are experiencing trouble and those who continue to be separated off because of the ways that people structure society. Jesus uplifts this human worth and belonging, privileging these things more than legality. And that is something that is certainly relevant for these days we are living.

Jesus arrives at the dinner party, and the texts says that he notices things. He notices how the guests are seated and speaks a parable. “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” he concludes.

Then this is the moment when he turns to the host and says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, don’t invite your friends, or your brothers, or your relatives, or your rich neighbors in case they may invite you in return, and you will be repaid.” I sort of wonder what this might have felt like when Jesus moved from a parable toward being this direct.

When he says, “Don’t invite your friends, or your brothers, or your relatives, or your rich neighbors,” I almost imagine that he could have gestured toward specific people because there were likely friends with names, and the host’s brothers with names, relatives with names, and rich neighbors with names, sitting right there.

“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, and the crippled, and the lame, and the blind, for they cannot repay you,” at least not in the kinds of ways that were expected here. These dinner parties had certain social expectations attached. Sometimes this could involve climbing up a social ladder, or even a quid pro quo of sorts.

Again, Jesus is uplifting the intrinsic worth of neighbors. He uplifts the poor and people with disabilities who were so often separated off and excluded from community-belonging, resources, and care.

People were ready to react harshly against Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. They were willing to uplift that above the worth of their neighbor with dropsy, a person who blended into the social fabric of not being noticed, or perhaps noticed in a way that normalized being disposed of. Jesus is talking about something different. Jesus is talking about upending all of that because in the Kingdom of God, community-belonging is expansive enough for everyone to have that wonderful experience of having their worth mirrored to them, along with having the resources they need, along with receiving the care and connection they need. We all need this.

And of course, it brings us to asking, who is excluded in this way right now? Who tends to go unnoticed? Or perhaps noticed but separated and disposed of in ways that have become normalized?

I listened to a couple of lectionary podcasts this week that I really love, and I gained a lot of insight from those, but when it got to this question of who is excluded, I thought it was frustrating that in both podcasts, people right named a lot of marginalized people but didn’t actually name people with disabilities, even though disability is a major framework for this passage. And it’s relevant now too. Houses of worship have a formal exemption in complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and because of that, we have all sorts of churches and houses of worship that completely inaccessible to disabled people — folks who deserve belonging, community care, and opportunities to participate and lead just like everyone else.

And from here, we can expand more. Who is it that we tend to separate off? It wouldn’t be hard to name those who are houseless; those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer; those who are incarcerated and those who are formally incarcerated; those who are immigrants; those who have no legal status according to that framework, and yet those who belong to the household of God; and those who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Jesus is upending all of these things and creating a different vision where belonging is not about transaction, or climbing some sort of social ladder, or a quid pro quo, but really about truly giving and receiving because we belong to one another, and our vision is expansive, where everyone can have what they need and everyone can contribute.

This is a different vision. It is the vision of the Kingdom of God where kinship expands, where all is held in and through a loving God who has created us and invites us to co-create each other, forming each other and caring for each other. This vision can be central to our lives. It changes everything.

And with this vision in mind, I want to close with some words from Aric Clark, a Presbyterian minister who lives in Portland, Oregon. He’s also the Co-Moderator of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.

He says,

“For a moment, imagine everything you possess turned into cash and set in a pile near a street. Everything in your bank account(s), any equity you have in a home, any value in your cars or other goods, any investments or retirement accounts. Everything. Stacked up in hundred dollar bills by the sidewalk.

“Now imagine you are asked to go take a nap and leave that pile, however modest or large, unguarded. I know I couldn’t do it. My mind wouldn’t stop worrying about that pile. It could rain. The wind could blow. Someone could take it.

“This is what it means that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. We are helplessly drawn into the orbit of our possessions by the gravity of our preoccupation with securing our future. When Jesus tells us to sell our goods and give it to the poor it is in order that our heart might be with the poor, that our center of gravity might be moved into alignment with God’s trajectory for the world.

“Don’t mistake this as only a moral curative for greed. Even more important is the way it liberates us from fear. Can you feel how heavy that fear for your security is? Our society demands we be useful and productive. Tells us we’re on our own. If we don’t make our own living somehow everyone will just watch us starve. Watch us drown in our own futility. It’s happening everyday. There’s enough food. There are enough houses. But people are hungry and houseless all around us. To make sure that won’t be us or our children we hoard and we arm ourselves to protect our hoards and it’s exhausting and terrifying. We’re all EXHAUSTED and TERRIFIED, can you feel it?

“What if I told you that you don’t have to feel that way? That your future was never yours to secure. That there’s enough for you and me and everyone else. Enough for those families in cages at our border. Enough for the thousands sleeping on our streets each night. Enough for everyone. And you don’t have to fight for it or protect it.

“In fact, if you give up securing your future and instead give your energy and concern to your neighbors, and to the land you live on, if you work to ensure they have enough and the land can regenerate, you may discover that these things, community and land, are purses that don’t diminish, immune to thieves and rust and moths. If the houseless and the refugees are alright in your community then you will be alright. If the wildlife and the watershed are healthy in your area then you will be healthy. If the widows and the orphans in your village aren’t lonely, then you won’t be lonely.

“Can you set down your fear with me? Can you let go of your goods and trust your community and the providence of God to secure your future? Can we make each other and this land we live in our treasure, our heart? Can we imagine being that free?”

What if Northside Presbyterian Church were that free? What if we were that free?

Renee Roederer

— I borrowed the opening line about Emily Post from the Rev. Robb McCoy, co-host of The Pulpit Fiction Podcast.

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