Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 23:5, and Luke 14:1-24
This was the week for the iconic American Thanksgiving feast. According to the National Turkey Foundation, 51.6 million turkeys were consumed. [22% of them were raised in Minnesota.] That’s about 736 million pounds of turkey eaten! Along with the turkeys, Americans consumed something like 3.1 billion pounds of sweet potatoes, 859 million pounds of cranberries, 50 million pumpkin pies and 40 million green bean casseroles. Add to that gravy, corn bread, rolls, apple pie, pecan pie, butternut squash, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and macaroni and cheese, among other sides, and you have a colossal feast!
According to the American Farm Bureau, a typical Thanksgiving dinner costs $5 per person for the food. An average of 3,000 calories is consumed at Thanksgiving dinner with the big ticket calorie item being the pecan pie. I had a large piece of pecan pie! [Thanksgiving food statistics from: https://spoonuniversity.com/lifestyle/thanksgiving-day-food-facts and https://us.blastingnews.com/food/2017/11/the-number-of-turkeys-consumed-on-thanksgiving-day-002187613.html]
Thanksgiving is definitely our national feast day. Countless social service agencies and food banks and churches provide Thanksgiving meals to those made poor. People who are alone are invited to dinner by neighbors and coworkers. With the narrative of the Pilgrims and the Indians fading into the background, Americans still sat down to a feast day last Thursday.
The abundance of food at Thanksgiving is reminiscent of the scene portrayed in the book of Isaiah. The prophet images God’s intentions for humanity in terms of a feast: At a meal of rich foods and well-aged wines, all people come together and there is no fear, no sadness, and no scarcity. Thanksgiving almost seems to be our national enactment of the concept of the commonwealth of God albeit for one meal; no one is hungry or thirsty and everyone has a place at a table. I hope we never lose that glimmer of heaven even if it is only once a year.
Given that the feast is a common way of imaging the intentions of Divine Love, it is not surprising that Jesus was famous for feasting. He enacts the idea that the realm of God is among you through food and eating in story after story. Jesus is remembered for being at dinner with people to the point of being a glutton and a drunkard. Think of the last supper, and the meal at which a woman anoints Jesus’ feet with oil, the wedding in Cana, the dinner at the home of Zacchaeus the tax collector, to name a few. Jesus is also remembered for feeding people. Each of the four gospels includes the story of the feeding of the multitudes and the gospel of Matthew includes it twice. And in every case, there are leftovers. Abundance, no scarcity. And Jesus is remembered not only for eating, but for telling stories about feasts and dinners and eating.
In the story we heard this morning from Luke, Jesus is at a dinner and he teaches using the imagery of meals. We are told that this meal is at the home of a Pharisee. This is someone from the ruling religious class, so someone important, with the status and means to host a banquet. Jesus begins by healing someone on the Sabbath. This can be seen as a violation of Sabbath Law. So this act is a direct challenge to the authority and legalism of the Pharisees who are entrusted with upholding the Law of God. So, from the get-go, Jesus is enacting the commonwealth of God, embodying the saving, healing power of Divine Love for all people at all times.
Then Jesus goes on to talk about who gets invited to dinner. The whole banqueting thing was about the host inviting prominent people to impress them, to impress those below the host with the host’s status, and about getting the guests to then be obligated to the host – to invite the host to a banquet to impress and improve the host’s standing and status. So a banquet was about promoting status and privilege, and keeping people indebted to you so that you could expect their loyalty and cooperation when needed. A banquet was an occasion to increase and solidify power and prestige. And this was very much tied up with who was invited and where they sat.
And in this very setting, absolutely aware of the situation, Jesus talks about taking a seat of lower status, and inviting people to dinner who can’t invite you back: Those made poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Jesus is choosing these categories of people because these are just the people who are denoted in the scriptures for receiving favoritism from God. Jesus is explaining the commonwealth of God in a way that completely undermines what his host is doing, as well as overturning the expectations of all of the guests present. Think, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. That is essentially what Jesus is saying in a context in which the first are trying to stay first, and those who are not first are trying to get in with those who are first.
Then Jesus tells another story to those at the Pharisee’s banquet. It is about someone throwing a banquet and the guests refusing the invitation. They are too busy. Caught up with other matters. So, those made poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind are invited. They come. The implication is that the “important” people refuse the invitation to be part of the realm of God present here and now. Those who are the “Establishment”, the structure legitimators, the privileged, those with status, they turn down God’s offer and instead invest in maintaining their own power and place. And those made poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, those from whom nothing can be expected in return, they accept the invitation to be part of God’s reality. They are held up as the recipients of Divine Blessing because they accept while the others choose to protect themselves and their power constructs rather than being part of God’s realm.
Jesus, like Isaiah, envisions a feast for all people. Those with status and privilege, as well as those on the margins and fringes of society. All are welcome. In the scene at the Pharisees dinner, as the stories unfold, the realm of God is welcoming to all, but those with power and property to protect opt out. To create community based on Divine Love, religious, social, and economic hierarchies that privilege some over others must be dismantled. There are no haves and have nots. All are beloved children of God.
Jesus knew that creating such community, embodying Divine Love, living out the reign of God, would not be accepted by all people. He knew there were those who would want to protect their power, privilege, and place. And he encountered their opposition. Jesus loved those who were threatened by God’s realm. He offered them a place. He courted their presence at the table. But they chose not be part of Divine reality.
Here we think of that verse that was read from Psalm 23. We tend to think of this psalm as one of comfort and assurance especially at a time of death and grief. But there is that indelible verse: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” This is an image of the banquet of Divine Love where everyone has a place. We have a place. Our enemies have a place. And when we take our place with our enemies, as Jesus did, we experience the overflowing of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Our cups overflow.
Given the current polarized political climate in our country, it is inevitable that some of us sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with our enemies. There were articles and posts and blogs and even a training event at Eckerd College about how to deal with people with whom we disagree at events like Thanksgiving dinner. Sometimes our first reaction is to avoid the situation. But that can be very hard at a holiday.
And we have more holiday gatherings ahead in the coming weeks. Social events with family, clubs, teams, coworkers, organizations, and other groups. These gatherings may include people we do not agree with, especially about the current political situation in the United States. Some of us anticipate these gatherings with dread.
So let’s remember these scriptures about feasting and banquets and parties as images for the commonwealth of God. Everyone is welcome. That means even the people we vehemently disagree with. The image of eating together is a universal image that everyone can relate to. It is important that people sit down to eat together. This simple ritual reinforces our common bond as human beings. We all need to eat. We all need each other. And we are all recipients of the bounty of Earth. With the banquet image we are reminded that there is more than enough for all. That means even the people we may deem undeserving. In the feast image, everyone receives from the goodness of God. It is grace for everyone. There is no pecking order, or hierarchy, or power to protect. Think of a round table not a rectangular one.
In that verse from Psalm 23, there is mention of enemies. A table set before us in the presence of our enemies. There is the assumption that we have enemies. It is not assumed that we are living harmoniously with everyone. It is assumed that we have enemies. Maybe those we consider “other.” Those who are different and seem threatening in some way. Those whose beliefs and views are abhorrent to us.
In the season to come, we will likely have to deal with some of these enemies at a holiday gathering. We are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of Divine Love in Jesus, showing us what it is to be a human being, full and free. These gatherings are an opportunity for us to incarnate Divine Love: To be present at a table with our enemies. To have a conversation with someone we don’t like. To sit near someone we disagree with. To speak our truth in love. To enact and incarnate the reality of God. That is what it’s like in the realm of God. In the love of God there is room for all at the table.
And what happens at that table with the enemies? The psalm tells us, “My head is anointed with oil, my cup overflows.” As we embody love in these difficult situations, we may find meaning and purpose. We may experience grace and even peace. We may grow and learn. We may feel in some small way more a part of the reality of Love. That, after all, is the reason for the season before us.
So, with Thanksgiving behind us, we look to the feasts and parties and gatherings ahead. The invitations will come. Jesus spent more time at dinners and banquets and meals than in the synagogue. It is at the table that beloved community is created. That is where the gospel is experienced. May we be willing to be present even in the presence of our enemies. Especially in the presence of our enemies. Dinner’s ready. Are we? Amen.
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