In 2008 I was in my final year of seminary and a student pastor at Lafayette United Methodist Church in St. Louis. This was an urban church, right in downtown. It was surrounded by poverty and violence. A large, stone building – its pew were mostly empty on a Sunday morning, but those who were there were fiercely devoted to their faith. Because of the centralized, urban location this church sat in, it maintained a small food pantry. And, while it didn’t have the people or financial resources to hold a community meal, it did keep a supply of freshly made packed lunches to be handed out to those who appeared at the church door in need of food. Whomever was available at the church, either the senior pastor, associate pastor, or myself would greet someone at the door with a packed lunch when they rang the bell. The associate pastor, Sharon, had an interesting story I want to share with you.
There was a woman, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, who would come to the church about once a week to get a meal. Sharon, the associate pastor, happened to be the one who was there each time this woman showed up. So, Sharon developed a relationship with her. Over time, Sharon and this woman began to sit together while she ate her meal on the bench next to the church. It was a sincere friendship and one that Sharon found very meaningful. She delighted in telling the senior pastor and me all sorts of stories her new friend told her. And, Sharon was so grateful for the chance to really engage with a member of the community around the church, to learn about her life, to learn about the difficulties she experienced, and to provide pastoral care to someone who needed to hear about God’s love.
But then, one day, something very unexpected happened. Sharon was sitting on the bench while her friend was eating her meal when this woman took a deep breath, steadied herself, turned to Sharon and issued an invitation. She asked Sharon to join her at her home and she would do the cooking. Sharon was taken aback. “Oh no,” she said, “that isn’t necessary. You don’t owe me anything.” The woman responded that she invited Sharon not because she felt she owed something, but because she wanted to extend hospitality to someone who had shown her so much. This was a genuine offer, one made with an open and eager spirit. This woman, despite having extremely limited resources, wanted to open her door and her table to someone who had shown her so much kindness.
Now, I want to tell you another story, this one my own. And I do so with some trepidation, and I am doing it today because, being a holiday weekend, I knew not many people would be here. I have been here for 51 weeks now, so it is time for you all to understand something about me. You need to realize, just how much of a nerd I am. When I was an adolescent, in middle school, I was the awkward, slightly weird, quiet kid in class. I had friends, but I was not cool. And, I was obsessed with Star Wars. Like obsessed. So much so, I decided to throw a Star Wars themed party that included a ceremony to make me a Jedi. Yes, that’s right – I invited theyentire 6th grade to my house for a party that would include me pretending to become a Jedi Knight. So, my reputation for being awkward and weird was solidified. At a time in life when fitting in felt like a way to survive, here I was standing out – and just diving fully into my nerdiness. I planned a full party that included costumes, lightsaber duels, and Star Wars themed food. There were printed invitations that invited people to witness me becoming a Jedi Knight. And everyone got one – whether I considered them a friend or not. Because, in my mind, everyone would obviously want to come.
I am going to circle back to the end of those two stories in a bit, but first let me explain why I am sharing them this morning – other than because it seemed like a good idea when I wrote this but now I am having second thoughts about sharing that second story. But there is a genuine reason. And both stories have helped form me as a Christian and follower of Christ. Because Jesus turned everything upside down. He looked at the status quo, said it is not of God, and spend his entire ministry trying to change it. He said the last will be first and the first will be last. He said God’s love was for everyone, not just the rich and powerful. He said the meek will inherit the earth, and the lowly will rule. He turned everything upside down and that is what he was doing in the scripture we read this morning.
Jesus was invited to a dinner at the home of a religious leader, in other words an elite member of that community. Jesus shared a meal with everyone, including the powerful. But, because he was Jesus, he could not, he would not, pass up the opportunity to teach. He looked at people as they situated themselves around the table, placing themselves in a sort of hierarchy common in that day. Jesus looked around at the status quo and needed to turn things upside down. He said, once again, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Jesus is saying that at God’s table, at the heavenly banquet, no one person will be more honorable or more favored in God’s sight. Everyone is welcome at God’s table and all are equal. One of the ways to practice this, or make it a reality here and now, Jesus is saying, is by setting aside our need to be in the place of honor and let another person – perhaps someone who is considered by society to be less than, to let that person have the seat of honor. Once again he is saying the human structures of power and place have no meaning in God’s Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom, Jesus teaches over and over again, our assumptions about people’s worth based on whatever prejudices we have, fall away. In God’s eyes, Jesus teaches over and over again – our worth is equal, now and forever.
So, let me get back to my two stories. First, my own. I was the weird kid, the outcast, the one people either looked over or laughed at. Not able to understand or fully grasp this, I reinforced my otherness by inviting my class to a party that basically celebrated just how different I was. I wish I could tell you that they all showed up, that in a moment of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom – each one set aside their assumptions about my worth and came to my party. Of course though, we know, that didn’t happen. The entire class didn’t show up and help me celebrate my weirdness. But, this isn’t a sad story. Because, my friends, did show up. My small group of friends, who, let’s be clear, also thought I was weird, could see past all of that and see me as a friend. They showed up and partied with me like the Emperor had just been defeated and the Rebel army had won. They showed up to their weird friend’s weird party and had a good time. I will never forget that. None of them really understood me, but their ability to see past my oddities and see me as a friend, as a person of worth, was much more powerful. They showed up and I loved them for it.
When the associate pastor of Lafayette United Methodist Church was invited to the humble home of a woman whose life was lived in a delicate balance, she was nervous about going. Things would be upside down. Before, she was the one to provide the food, to show the kindness. But in a moment of incredible bravery and genuine humbleness, she went to that woman’s home. She sat in that woman’s space, accepted her hospitality, and experienced, for that evening, what God’s table really looks like. A table where the power and assumptions of human society fall away. A place where God is the host.
In a few minutes we are going to be celebrating communion. We will come to this table and participate in an ancient sacrament, one that remembers Christ’s radical message and his ministry of turning everything upside down. At Christ’s table everyone is welcome. At this table social standing has no meaning. The poor participates in the same way as the rich. The hunger eat the same as the full. Those who struggle, find the same welcome as those who excel. The popular eat alongside the weird. Pretend Jedi Knights find just as much acceptance and love as anyone else. Everyone is welcome and everyone is celebrated just as they are. Because this is God’s table and, thanks be to God, we all have a place at it. Amen.