Wednesday, September 4, 2013

You Host the Banquet

Scripture for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost includes Jeremiah 2:4-13; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

When you are invited to a banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host, and your host comes and says to you, “Give this person your place.”

Oooh…. Not a good thing to happen to you.

Academic communities (at least those with long histories) once upon a time had formal dining halls, refectories, and at one end, raised on a dais, would stand the high table. My seminary had one when I arrived at Chelsea Square in 1969. Faculty members and graduate fellows sat at it—well, some faculty, older professors mostly, while the younger sat at student tables. Even though we were all graduate students, if you weren’t a graduate fellow you wouldn’t make the mistake of trying to sit at the high table.

Unwittingly, I came close to that experience at another place and another time. It was during a retreat at a monastery in the early 1980s, before moving here. There was still a lot of formality and antiquity around that refectory, including a high table—though it wasn’t elevated, so perhaps it’s better to call it a head table, where the Superior of the order sat, and where he called the shots as to who else sat there with him. Though meals were often in silence, with a brother reading aloud from an edifying book, this evening may have been a feast day when conversation was allowed; and the Superior had his agenda, prompting him to say to one guest and another, So-and-so, sit here—ensuring that a strategic conversation could take place, with him.

I entered the room and went to the central space among the tables. The Superior was there, greeting guests, so I went to him and after saying hello I stepped to one side while he continued being the host. Then I heard him say, “Peter, come and sit at my table.” I was surprised to hear that, but obediently I went to the remaining chair at that table; whereupon the Superior looked at me and asked, “Why are you sitting there?” The Peter he had in mind was standing to his other side.

To be honest, I can’t recall exactly how this played out, except that I felt just like Jesus foretold in his parable: disgraced. I may have voluntarily relocated to another table (that “lowest place” Jesus mentions) or it may be that the Superior, after making a humorless hash out of this little snag in his plans, may have officiously urged me to stay put (they’d find another chair somewhere). What I do remember is that there was no conversation whatsoever in the little cluster of people I got cloistered with at that meal. If it was the head table, the head was turned in one direction only.

What I’ve remembered from that evening is my relief at leaving that room.

It could be that Father Superior was giving much-needed pastoral care to the guests within his orbit. It could be that he was greasing the gears of creating friends of the monastery. It could be that he was indulging his own desire for conversation with like-minded people he already knew and enjoyed. All three possibilities are entirely natural and commendable.

But the words of Hebrews chapter 13 do not come rolling to mind as I recall my experience of that meal. “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The injunction is actually to put yourself in the sandals of your guest. Just as caring for prisoners requires of us an empathy “as though (we) were in prison with them,” so meeting and hosting strangers calls for that same power and skill and blessing of empathy, feeling-with the other.

Do you think of your coming to church as an opportunity to be obedient to this call to practice mutual love? Blessed are those who do, and blessed are the strangers whom they greet and befriend and share what they themselves already have: a familiarity with this remarkable community of people, a respect and affection for the foot soldiers in this ragtag army of disciples, a place in the life and mission of St. John’s, given to us by God, to be done for God and by the Spirit of God.

What might happen if we learned to think of ourselves as hosts of this banquet? Would we let anyone who comes to our house a stranger remain one for long? If you imagined having your own head table—the people you will give your attention to today—will you welcome to your circle today at least one or two people who you don’t yet know?

Believe me, I know the objections.

I’m an introvert. I never know what to say. Give them a warm greeting. Give them your name, let them give you theirs. Trust where it goes next. Have a simple conversation. If they’re new, thank them for coming. If you’ve just discovered they’re 8:00ers who overslept, or 10:00ers with their golf clubs in the back seat, say it’s good to get better acquainted.

I’m wiped out, weary, and am here to get my tank refilled. And maybe what has you on fumes is all the hosting and caring that you do at work, at home, as a volunteer… But what comes to you here comes through doors and windows of your soul that you open. And did you catch the prophet Jeremiah’s sharp words for people who dig out cisterns for themselves, only to find they’re too cracked to hold water? By contrast, he reminds us that the living God is to be met in encountering the fresh and the new, that God is a fountain of living water to be splashed around in, not a commodity measured by the cupful but a deep freely flowing wellspring.

And perhaps the most intimate objection: I’m afraid. What if my approach is rejected? And what if the stranger I’m facing is noticeably different from me? (Doesn’t fear always get us focusing on differences?) I’m old—what do I have in common with a first-year at college? Or, as we heard Jeremiah express his fear last Sunday, I am only a child—what do I bring?

So we need that coaching from Hebrews: imagine yourself in the sandals of the stranger you face. You’re afraid? And he or she is not?

And the very otherness of experience and viewpoint and opportunity is the treasure revealed when the banquet we host is blessed with such variety as Jesus values for his guest list: the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. These are essential, he says, for his banquet. And we should be afraid of difference?

What will happen if we all believe ourselves, and behave as, hosts at this banquet?

More and more people will believe that they belong at this table, and that, unlike any high or head table, this one has no limit as to who has a seat, who belongs.

No one will fear feeling alone at coffee hour.

Circles of people in conversations will never close but always be open to draw in one more person, always one more person.

No one will fall into the gulf between the announcement of a parish picnic and the enjoyment of a parish picnic.

People will more quickly find their next calling to serve, their next adventure in ministry, and the grace to do it encouraged, supported, and blessed.