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August 29, 2004 (Pentecost 13)—“Etiquette for the Banquet of Life”

Pastor David Barber

Luke 14: 1,7-14; Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

In a novel that I just finished reading, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, the author tells the story of Henry Townsend. Henry Townsend is a black farmer and a former slave.

One day Henry is building his own house along with a slave that he himself had purchased. He had purchased the slave along with his land from his former owner, William Robbins.

Henry and his slave have taken a break from building and are playfully wrestling when William Robbins rides up, watches for a while, and then tells Henry that he needs to have a word with him.

He tells Henry that the law expects him to know who is the master and who is the slave, and it doesn't matter if you're not much more darker than your slave.

Therefore, it's inappropriate and unacceptable to be rolling around in the dirt and being a playmate to your property because you've forgotten the line that separates you from your property.

So Henry heads off to his parents' house and leaves his slave there alone to work on and finish the house. Now you need to know that Henry's father is the one who first of all freed his wife from slavery, and also paid the price for Henry to be freed as well.

At this point Henry had stayed away and had not yet told his parents that he had purchased his own slave. They had just sat down to enjoy a piece of apple pie when Henry told them about the new house he was building. When his father asked him, who was helping him, Henry informs him, "I got my own man. I bought my own man, Papa. Bought him cheap from Mr. Robbins."

"You don't go back to Egypt after God done took you outa there," said his mother in disbelief. "Don't you know the wrong of that," said his father.

And then his father added, "I promised myself when I got this little bit of land that I would never suffer a slave owner to set foot on it...Of all the human beins on God's earth I never once thought the first slaveowner I would tell to leave my place would be my own child. I never thought it would be you...You could not have hurt me more if you had cut off my arms and my legs."

Protesting and defending his actions, Henry began to leave, but as he did so, his father took a walking stick and slammed the stick down across Henry's shoulder and he crumbled to the floor. "Twas how a slave feel!" his father called down to him. "Twas just how every slave every day be feelin."

Henry was intending to stay the night, but that had all suddenly changed. There was just enough moonlight to saddle his horse, and as he was riding away, his mother came out into the yard and watched him disappear into the dark.

Last Sunday and this Sunday, using the creed from South Africa, we confess: "We believe that all people have the breath of God in them and therefore have a God-given dignity that must be respected and affirmed...We believe in the vision of the kingdom of God where there is no distinction between people.

And yet, whether it's Henry Townsend, or any of us for that matter, it's easy to forget who we are and where we've come from. When we do this, we will not honor and we will not live the Good News that Jesus shares with us this morning.

The first verse of Our Gospel sets the scene. Jesus is invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees for a meal on the Sabbath Day. Luke is the only Gospel by the way that tells us that Jesus ate with Pharisees.

Verses 2 through 6 are not included in our reading, but these verses contain a controversial story about Jesus healing a man with dropsy, and of course, this is the Sabbath and a major offense. Jesus hasn't even gotten through the pupus, and he's already on a roll.

I like the way Robert Capon tells the story. "Imagine a modern house for this prosperous Pharisee--one with a dinning room to hold a fourteen-foot table. Make the meal to which he invited Jesus a sit-down dinner for twelve; and make the guests Episcopalians or Presbyterians...Then bring on Jesus.

He gets through the soup and the fish well enough, but just as the roast is brought in, he discovers that the gentleman next to him has a back problem. Being not only kindhearted but good with his hands (perhaps he has studied Healing Touch at a holistic health center), he suddenly decides to help the man, right there in front of everybody.

'May I have your attention just a minute, folks?' he says. 'Old Waldo here has a real bad back. Hurts him worse than a toothache. So if it's okay with you all, I'm just going to plop him down right here on the dinner table and do a little healing on him.

Er, Mrs. Terrwilliger, do you think you could move that roast down to the other end? Waldo's a pretty big old boy, you know. There! Up you go now, Waldo. And mind your feet so you don't get your shoelaces in the cauliflower.'"

Capon tells us that this healing is a crime against civility--against decency--and the received wisdom about how life is to be lived. This Jesus is impervious to the glue that holds everybody else's life together.

"What alarms us about Jesus," he says, "is precisely the appearance, in the midst of all [our] fearful living, of someone who has been liberated from the fear of death."

Herein lies some of the good news for today because such a liberation also frees us from all of our anxious and fearful clawing to the top. It frees us to remember who we are and from where we have come.

That's why the healing that proceeds our Gospel for today is important for what follows. In Greek "dropsy" is formed on the word for water and means something like "waterlogged."

Dropsy causes the body to retain fluids that swell tissues, and at the same time it creates a vicious cycle of unquenchable thirst. It therefore becomes a metaphor for insatiable desire.

Are the folks in our story then, driven by their own insatiable desire for places of honor, and does this table, and our own table of the Lord, become the place where our deepest hungers and thirsts are revealed? Will the hungers that Jesus calls out within us become insatiable if they're ignored?

James Nelson in a book entitled Thirst, God, and the Alcoholic Experience describes his journey with addiction. He asks, "What is the thirst behind the thirst? In one way or another," he says, "each explanation seems to be but a variation on the theme: 'I was thirsty because I was feeling incomplete, and alcohol helped me feel more whole, more connected, more alive.'"

He wonders, "Is alcohol, then, a way of searching for God, the ultimate source of wholeness and life. He then quotes from Bill Wilson, one of the fathers of the A.A. movement. "Before A.A. we were trying to drink God out of a bottle." And then Nelson adds: "We were trying to become divine by consuming the god; it was communion."

But such a god can never give us what we desire--primarily the longing to love and to be loved, and a desire for God, the source of love. It cannot satisfy our hunger for connection, and our restless yearning to find a place called home in the universe.

Nor can our insatiable desire for places of honor--or positions of status--or stations of wealth and security fulfill our deepest yearnings. For these things as well create with in us a viscous cycle of unquenchable hunger and thirst.

Today Jesus tells us that "when you give a banquet, invite those who are poor, crippled, lame, and blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you."

Certainly, we could talk this morning about the fellowship and the hospitality we extend in our homes and within this faith community to the poor and to those who live on the margins of life. We could talk about the fulfillment of God's vision when all sorts of such people will be seated together around God's gracious and abundant table.

But what about now? How does our insatiable appetite for honor and for position and security keep folks from all over the world from being invited to the banquet of life and receiving even the basic necessities of life?

How does our unquenchable thirst for oil as just one example, and all that oil represents for us, prohibit the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind from sharing God's table with us.

Again we confess in our creed: "We believe that people living in poverty are a denial of who God is...We believe that poverty is the greatest challenge towards us becoming one with Christ and one with each other."

This isn't an easy journey for us. It's not easy to give up our addictions even though we know they can't satisfy us or quench our thirst. But Jesus gives us a way this morning--the way of life and a way to become one with each other.

He speaks of humility and humbling ourselves. Such a word carries alot of negative baggage with it, but I believe it's a good word. For it means coming back to our human reality or "down to earth."

It means to remember our roots and where we've come from. It means to remember what we have in common with all who share this home and this good earth with us.

It means that we, too, can freely enter into the lives of all people, whoever they might be, because, through Jesus, we, too, have been liberated from all our fearful living. We, too, have been liberated from the fear of death in all its many forms.

God has set a place at the table for all of us and for all people. Come now to eat and to drink and be satisfied.

And as you leave this table, remember that you are the hands, the feet, the eyes and ears of Jesus and that even as a wounded body, you will bring healing and wholeness to God's wounded and broken world.


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