January 20, 2019

Luke 14: 15-24

A Place at the Table

Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church

Last week I talked about how a few months ago, our church council spent an evening discussing what we think the “Good News” of Mount Seymour United Church is. We asked ourselves “what is the message from the Bible that best identifies and defines us?” By the end of the evening everyone agreed that the words radical hospitality seem to best describe what we are really all about or at least what we aspire to be about.
We all know what it means to be hospitable (although I’m probably going to challenge some of our assumptions about that today) but what does it mean to be “radically” hospitable?
Our scripture reading this morning, also known as the parable of the great banquet, is probably one of the best illustrations of radical hospitality we have in our tradition. This story about a dinner invitation extended to the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame when those with enough money to buy land, oxen and a dowry have rejected the invitation is actually part of a larger section of Luke’s gospel.
In the verses that precede this morning’s reading, Jesus talks about how to be a good guest and how to be a good host. His overall message has to do with hospitality that is freely given without need for any reciprocity and hospitality that is received with humility. The story we heard this morning adds to this by suggesting that as hosts, the people we should be inviting to our tables are those who are most in need of welcome.
Radical hospitality refers not only to table fellowship. According to one definition I read this week, it refers to all the activities and desires that inspire individuals and communities to welcome those who are unlike themselves. Rather than viewing any person in terms of how they benefit us, radical hospitality means accepting the person with no thought of personal gain. For the church that means instead of seeking out people to join us who will support the congregation, we are called instead to seek out those who need our support. To offer radical hospitality is to intentionally welcome the marginalized, forgotten and misunderstood among us.
Some of you may remember Ingrid Hartloff-Brown, a ministry student who was with us for a year of field education about 5 years ago. One Sunday, Ingrid led an all ages worship service in which we were invited to tell the parable of the great banquet together. As the worship service began, Ingrid randomly divided us into two groups. One group were the rich people who made excuses not to come to the dinner. The second group were the poor, the lame and the blind who received the second round of invitations. The first group were given pieces of tin foil to make jewelry and other items to dress themselves up in finery. The poor people were given nothing.
As we began to tell the story together, something quite wonderful and unexpected unfolded. The rich people who were invited to the banquet that had been laid out on a long fabric table offered up their excuses as to why they couldn’t come. I seem to remember someone saying they were going on a cruise and another saying they had to stay home and count their money. The poor people accepted the invitation but after they had their fill of the imaginary feast, they started to go and get the rich people and bring them to the table and that’s when the magic happened. Not only did the rich people come to the table, they started to share their tinfoil jewellery and crowns with the poor people.
It was for me a beautiful illustration of the way that in order to be truly happy and fulfilled in life, we need each other. We need each other across all lines that divide us. But it also illustrated the way that radical hospitality demands that those of us who have more, those of us in positions of power and privilege must be willing to divest ourselves of at least some of that privilege and power if we are truly going to sit down at table together with any kind of equality among us. To get there, some of us are going to have to give something up.
I mentioned earlier that I was going to challenge our assumptions about hospitality today. That’s because my own assumptions were challenged earlier this week when I was doing some reading about the origins of the word hospitality. Hospitality comes from the Latin hospes, which is built upon the word hostis, originally meaning stranger or more explicitly a hostile stranger or enemy. This suggests that there is something about being hospitable that includes taking risks. It’s not just about having your friends over for dinner.
Jesus was renowned for taking all kinds of risks when it came to welcoming the “other.” He touched lepers and engaged in conversation with unclean women. His table was so open he even knowingly welcomed Judas to his final meal, the one who would betray him by handing him over to the authorities.
Many years ago, now I heard American preacher Leonard Sweet tell a story about a trip he took to Africa at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. One night, while visiting a group of infected men in a small village, he was invited to share a meal as an honoured guest. The men sat together on the ground in a circle. When the food was brought in, Leonard quickly realized there was only one pot containing all the food. One by one the pot was passed from person to person as hands reached in to take out a scoop full of food. As he watched the pot, making its way around the circle he wondered who might have a cut on their finger or hand. He wondered even if someone did have an open wound if the virus could even be passed from finger to food. He didn’t know. He wondered these things not just for himself but mostly because sitting beside him in the circle was his teenaged son who he had brought with him on the trip. He wondered what kind of risk he would be taking if he allowed his son to eat from the communal pot. He knew that whatever choice he made in response to the pot that was coming his way would be the same choice his son would make. When the pot arrived in front of Leonard, he stuck his hand in and took out a scoop full of food in the same way his hosts had done and he passed it to his son.
In that moment, he decided that reflecting the good news of the gospel in which no guest seeks a higher place at the table than is offered by the host was worth the risk to his and his son’s wellbeing.
Whether you agree with Leonard Sweet’s decision to put his son at risk or not, what shouldn’t escape us about this story is the way it mirrors the story of God’s indiscriminate hospitality in which Jesus risks being hosted among us with the kind of love and unconditional welcome that ended up costing him his life.
A few years ago, a proposal went to the North Vancouver district to build a men’s recovery house in the Seymour area. Many of us were supportive of that initiative but there were others who lived in the neighbourhood who worried that welcoming the residents into the community would create too high a risk to their safety and the safety of their children. Eventually, the recovery house was built and in November when we gathered after Sunday worship to enjoy a turkey lunch together, we were able to host some of the men who were living in the house at that time.
I am grateful to those who made sure the men received invitations to join us and to those who welcomed them at your tables. Some of us are not accustomed to hearing the stories of people whose lives have lead them to a recovery house. The only scare these so-called risky strangers gave me that day was when one by one they started sweeping me into their arms to say thank you for inviting us and I wondered if they would squeeze me to death. They were so grateful to be invited to join us for meal.
It was a good reminder that no matter how old or how young we are, whatever our marital status, sexual orientation or gender identity is, whatever our ethnic or cultural heritage is, how rich or how poor we are whether we call ourselves Christians or not we all want and need to be welcomed and there are those in our neighbourhood and in our midst who need that welcome more than others, and those for whom we may need to give up some of our power and privilege in order to make a place at the table for them and those who need us to risk taking a chance on them so that they might know that they are loved. It’s the good news of the Christian faith; hospitality that is radical.