When I was young, my family ate our meals around an old wooden table. We lived in a small house, so there was no dining room. The table was in the kitchen. It wasn’t a fancy table. In fact, it had a lot of scratches and dings. One of the legs had been chewed up by a puppy years before—you could still see the tooth marks That table held a lot of memories. On special occasions—like birthday parties or Thanksgiving or Christmas, my mom would have us pull apart both ends of the table to insert an extra leaf in the middle. Which turned it into a table with plenty of room for extra food and dishes and people. A table that seemed much bigger.
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus talks about another way to make a bigger table. Jesus is having dinner at a Pharisee’s house. And Jesus tells his host that when he gives a banquet, not to just invite the typical guests like relatives or friends. Instead, Jesus suggests a radical party. He tells him to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” The disenfranchised of that time. People who can never repay the favor. This, Jesus says, is what the Kingdom of God looks like.
It’s like that old kitchen table that seems way too small for your own church family. But just insert some of God’s grace in the middle, and suddenly there’s more than enough room. Room for those people who have nowhere else to go. Room for food. For acceptance. For love. Jesus knew that. For that’s where much of the ministry of Jesus took place. Around the tables of friends and strangers, even enemies. We clergy people like to talk about Jesus with fancy words of theology—like salvation and incarnation and forgiveness. But Jesus was more relational than theological.
Those who lived and ate with Jesus didn’t gather around tables to hear scholarly lectures. They came to hear stories about God’s love. They came for healing of their bodies. They came for comfort for their souls. They came for relief from their oppressors. That was the kind of bread they longed for. That was the kind of hospitality they dreamt of.
The same is true for us today. For despite the hatred and evil we see all around us in our world, Jesus still teaches us about a Gospel of welcome. The Gospel of a bigger table. This morning’s second lesson from Hebrews begins with the words, “Let mutual love continue.” The word for “mutual love” in the original Greek is “philadelphia”—which most of us have heard means “brotherly love.” Or to use a more inclusive translation, “sibling love.” Which, of course, is metaphorical. It doesn’t just refer to family members who sit around a dinner table. But also to the kind of love that should be the core value of any church. The kind of love people today so desperately need.
A couple years ago, I attended a training in New Jersey for people like me working with new ministries in the ELCA. I was excited to meet LGBTQ pastors like myself, and others working to welcome those who have felt rejected by Christians. Following the words of Jesus, congregations like St. Mark’s are trying new approaches to reach those in need. Strategies and experiments that sometimes mean you might make mistakes along the way.
We heard a story about St. John’s Lutheran Church in Passaic, New Jersey. A few years ago, their church decided they wanted to do something to help the homeless in their neighborhood. So, they decided to offer a free meal after their Sunday service. The members spent lots of time making plans for this new ministry.
The church advertised. They recruited volunteers. And on the Sunday after Easter that year, they prepared the first meal. Then they waited and waited and waited. But no one came. Nobody! The planners couldn’t believe it. They just couldn’t figure out what they’d done wrong. So, the members turned to their pastor and asked her what they should do. Then one of the volunteers said, “Hey, there’s usually a line of men standing outside the Walmart store, looking for day work. Why don’t we take the food to them?” And that’s what they did. So, began their new ministry in a parking lot, serving hot meals to the hungry, along with songs and prayers.
Like St. John’s Lutheran, I believe Jesus is calling our congregation to find new ways to bring the Gospel to those who stand outside the doors of many churches. Here in our new space at Temple Beth El Synagogue, I envision God will reveal new opportunities for us and our ministry in the coming months and years.
Today, Jesus is inviting us to build a bigger table. Today God is calling us to create a community of welcome. A church that accepts each person who comes to us no matter what. And you and I are part of that welcome.
And perhaps you are someone who needs to feel that kind of welcome. And if you are struggling with a difficult period in your life, even if you feel lost or forsaken, please know that there are people in this community who can meet you wherever you are in your journey of faith, doubt, or uncertainty. Just know that you are not alone.
Even if religious leaders or other Christians have condemned and shamed you in the past, even if someone has told you that you don’t belong to their faith group, Jesus is here to greet you with open arms.
And we are here, too. We have set a special place for you at our banquet table. A table where Jesus gathers us all in together. A table where there’s plenty of room for everyone. Come, for all are welcome. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”