How many of you remember sitting at the kids table at a holiday dinner? I remember one such occasion when my aunt hosted Thanksgiving dinner at her home. Her home had no dining room but an eat in kitchen. However, hosting over 20 people became a logistical nightmare when it came to seating. She ended up putting a large table in her living room for the adults while the kids were relegated to the kitchen table to eat. We were cut off from the conversation and more importantly, cut off from the food which we had to get up and go to the “big people’s table” to get another helping.
You couldn’t wait until an opening came up to move into the seats of honor at the adult table – it usually meant that an older relative no longer came and of course it went by age so if you had older cousins you had to wait your turn to move up in the pecking order. And if truth be told, it wasn’t always fun at the kids table – food fights, whining toddlers and only hearing bits and pieces of what the adults were saying about you.
Today’s Gospel reading gives us an insight into first century culture and social norms. It seems that table seating was a big deal. Of course, everyone wanted to be at the adult table and the closer to the head, the better! Your seating depended on your social status and if you sat in someone’s seat who had a higher social status, you were at risk of being asked to move.
In first century Palestine, the guest list for dinners would include folks from different levels of both affluence and influence. Depending on who you were, you were fed either the most expensive and exquisite food in the house or a cheaper, more paltry meal. Those with favored status got the best wine; others, more like vinegar to drink. Food and beverages were measured out like the host’s friendship: in degrees of both quality and quantity.
You could also tell who was at the top of the popularity charts by who got the best seat in the house. This place of honor was, in fact, at the innermost point of couches arranged in concentric circles. The more important the guest the closer he sat to the host, who was always at the center.
Then along comes Jesus and he rewrites the seating arrangements to the horror of those giving the banquet. It would be like putting that awkward relative that nobody wants to sit with at the Bridal party table!
This past June I attended my first Poor People’s Campaign Moral Congress in Washington DC. I was invited to attend by one of their organizers on behalf of the Deaconess Community. This grass roots group is committed to lifting up and developing the leadership of those most affected by systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and ecological devastation and to building unity across lines of division in a non-partisan way.
Being word and service, this group appealed to me. As a rostered leader I thought I could lead the charge into helping to change oppressive laws. I could be at the forefront. Until I learned that those who are given the most voice are the persons who suffer the most oppression; those who usually had no voice when it came to these issues. While I had a seat at this table, I wasn’t at the head. I had to take my lead from those who lived in poverty, those who suffered the effects of racism, those who knew first hand the cost of war. I was basically invited to be the chaplain of the group from Lancaster. A chaplain! To be available to provide pastoral care to those fighting on the front lines. I want to be on the front lines, this is what I am called to do! I am already involved in advocacy at the state and national level. I went to college and seminary, I am getting my doctorate -it should be me!
But in this fight, it is about lifting up those on the margins, giving them the voice to speak out against the injustice that they face. All of my education or degrees doesn’t make me an expert on what it means to live in poverty, face racism or live as a homeless veteran. My place at the table is not at the head, but offering support and helping to provide a stable foundation for this table. Sometimes we offer the best support by giving up our seats in the front (except for church pews – we want all of you to be in the front!)
Jesus is rejecting social status and us to a life of humility. Jesus calls us to reach out to those on the margins with no regard for any type of repayment. Jesus calls us to treat everyone at our table equally and out of love not out of duty or repayment. We only need to look at our community meal ministry, who provides high quality meals, treating those who come through the doors with dignity and respect. Our quilting ministr who creates beautiful quilts to go to those in need locally and globally – each quilt done with loving care. Lydia’s closet which provides a shopping experience in order to get clothing for our kids – making sure all of the donated clothing are clean and in good condition. Our Tanzania Mission committee who has fundraised thousands of dollars to orphans and a church from Africa – people for whom they have never met. We open our doors and our ministries to all –reaching out without expecting anything in return – no money, no thanks and no expectation of joining our church.
Unfortunately, many times, people and groups fall into the trap of quid pro quo- expecting a favor or some type of repayment for what we give to another. We don’t have to look any farther than our own political system and lobbyists. Our law makers tend to be swayed by the amount of money donated by corporations or individuals. Laws are repealed or created that will enhance profits of these special interest groups, regardless of any potential harm to humans or the created world. It seems that in our political system the persons with the most money to donate are in control and it pushes those on the margins of our society even farther down the table. The pleas and cries of our sister and brothers become a faint whisper. Those in power stay in power and maintain the seats at the head of the table.
Sin keeps us wanting to be at the head of the table – we want more than our share – we tend to view others as less than or not as worthy as ourselves. We don’t want to give up our seats to the young unwed mother – she has to suffer the consequences of her actions. We don’t want to give up our seats to those on public assistance – there are plenty of jobs out there, after all I work 2 jobs; if you want my seat, you will have to work harder.
We don’t want to give up our seat to immigrants who speak another language because in America, we speak English. Democrats don’t want to give up their seats to Republicans, progressive Christians don’t want to give up their seats to conservative evangelicals. We don’t want to give up our seats to those who live differently, think differently, speak differently, vote differently, worship differently or look different from us.
But that is exactly what we are called to do -and it hard! Because this is what God’s kingdom is all about!
Jesus is telling us to give up our seats…our judgment seats, our egocentric seats of honor–and give up our presumption of the privilege of place which is not ours for the taking, but always given by God.
Jesus invites us down to the cheap seats, to the place where he so often puts himself: in the margins, where he can always be found. We are to lift up those on the margins of our society – those who suffer from racism, poverty, addictions, regardless of who they are or where they come from –
That code of etiquette begins with the firmly held belief that no one, no one, has a right to a place at God’s table. The only way anyone–any one of us–gets on that guest list is by grace–the unearned, unmerited, lovingkindness of God, given in spite of ourselves. Because God sees every one of us, as we truly are and invites us to the table anyway. This is our good news.
Last year I had a seminary class called ‘Theological Improv” where we were given the following sentence “At God’s Kitchen table” and told to write a one-page sermon. So, I thought it would be fitting to close with a few lines from one of my sermons:
At God’s kitchen table there is no beginning and no ending; no center, no margins
Everyone has equal access to the bounty of God’s creation.
Everyone is welcome; saints and sinners.
All feast on the same manna, all share in God’s unmerited grace
At God’s kitchen table, hate and division melt away and love abounds.
Just remember – there is no kids table in God’s kingdom – no seats for VIPS – No special seats for religious elites or even for the most devout followers of Jesus – because at God’s kitchen table – we are all equal in the sight of God. Amen.