Sunday, July 11, 2021

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 14

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. 2 There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. 3 Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” 4 But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.

5 Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child[a] or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” 6 And they had nothing to say.

7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8 “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

It seems unnatural to part with a book. A book is like an old friend. A book is like an engaging conversational partner. A book is like a member of the family. Alas, you can’t keep every book you read, or intend to read, or read then stop when some other book demands to be read. This week I thought long and hard about giving away Robert Putnam’s book. Not that Robert Putman, the other Robert Putnam, the one who wrote “Bowling Alone.”

So while I ponder the fate of my well-worn copy of Bowling Alone, maybe I’ll tell you about it as I try to decide. In a nutshell, it’s a book about social trends in the United States, and in particular the state of community or “social capital.” These things are measured and studied in depth, but Putnam has assembled all the studies and surveys into a single volume. Here are a few examples—apropos to our reading—on the topic of eating:

In the last two decades of the last century, the amount of entertaining at home dropped by 45 percent. The decline was so sharp, that if the trend holds, the entire practice of entertaining at home will cease. The evening meal? Down by a third in the same period. So, you wonder, if people are eating at home less, and entertaining at home less, perhaps there’s a shift to restaurants. Not based on statistics. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of “full-service” restaurants in America dropped by 25 percent, the number of bars and luncheonettes by 50 percent. People were not having picnics either: they are off by 60 percent (pp. 98-102).

After reading the first hundred pages or so, it all seems rather grim. The ties that bind people to each other are declining and ending, and I wish I could assure you that it is limited to south of the border, but I cannot. Still, it’s a book worth reading, because once you get past the bad news at the beginning, you get the part that he revealed in the sub-title of the book: “The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

Eating, of course, is at the centre of our experience of being human. We think about food all the time, at least three times a day. If we’re not actually eating a meal, we’re just as likely to be planning a meal, or thinking back to a meal we’ve enjoyed. Some of us have others to feed, while others feed only themselves. Alone or with others, we cannot avoid the need to eat.

Taking the long view, eating has always been a primary preoccupation of humans, and most agree that it is the very foundation of society. Years ago I read a very convincing article that suggested that the foundational impulse of agriculture was the production of beer. The discovery of beer was the push needed to get our forebears in the Nile Delta to get it together and cooperate on farming. Now, whether you can accept the “beer theory” of human development or not, it seems clear that at some point food production (and the eating that followed) became a key factor in the formation of human society.

Key enough, that the study of eating unlocks much of what we can know about societies in general. From a couple of anthropologists named Farb and Armelogos, we get this:

In all societies, both simple and complex, eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships…Once the anthropologists finds out where, when and with whom the food is eaten, just about everything else can be inferred about the relations among the society’s members (Crossan, p. 68).

Looking back at “Bowling Alone” for a minute, I wonder what future anthropologists will make of the fact that at the same moment family meals and conventional restaurants were in sharp decline, the number of fast food places doubled. Hold that thought.

Jesus, the first and best anthropologist, said this:

“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. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”

He was describing what future scholars would call food exchanges, “a series of obligations to give, receive and repay” (p. 69). As anyone who has ever planned a significant meal or event will tell you, there are layers and layers of thinking involved:

Should we invite them? We were invited to their party. Where should we seat them? Can we put the second and third cousins at the back? We can’t serve chicken; everyone serves chicken. Where should we seat the minister? Surely someone on the list must go to church…we’ll put him with them.

You get the picture. Jesus understood the politics of food and meal planning and knew that the primary motive for issuing invitations was quid pro quo. We become obligated. We seek to create obligation with certain people, and avoid it with others. We tend to share our table with people just like us. The United States was 125 years old before an African-American was invited to dine at the White House. 36 years after the end of slavery, Booker T. Washington, leader and former slave, was invited to dine with then-president Theodore Roosevelt. The house itself, built by slaves, was standing for over 100 years before an African-American was invited to dine there.

When we imagine the people with whom we want to share a meal, we naturally begin with family, and then neighbours (usually our economic equals). Jesus takes this further and adds the people better off, and more likely to repay in style. Call him cynical, but as first and best anthropologist, Jesus knew that our selfish impulses usually win out. This might go some way to explain his waning popularity as the Gospel progresses. Jesus knew that comfort and selfish desire win over generosity and selflessness every time.

But he was persistent. And maybe even a little rude. He is invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees (a social promotion for a humble Nazarene) and decides that this is the moment to share a couple of parables that would condemn most of the people at the party. “Thanks for the invite” he said, “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.”

Not only does he suggest we reject the principle of “inviting up,” he goes much further and suggests that we invite the least desirable people in society, the people that his hosts thought were rejected by God. Remember the question “who sinned, this man or his parents that he be born blind?” There is an entire theological worldview in this one simple question. God punishes sin, according to this view, and the secret to understanding any misfortune is simply determining the source of the sin. Jesus couldn’t disagree more.

God’s kingdom, and the table in that kingdom, is long and eclectic, populated by exactly the people Jesus describes. God doesn’t enumerate sinners and bar the door: God opens the table to everyone, casting aside both the idea of desirable and undesirable and severing the link between misfortune and sin. God’s blessing is extended to those who model their table after the divine table, making invitations precisely because the people invited are in no position to repay.

Way back in time, some 13 years ago, some very dedicated elders received a resume from a minister who listed “daycare cook” as the first item under work experience. I expect that gave me the edge, since I soon learned that my hard-earned skill from the daycare would be needed at Central. As an aside, there is no greater character building exercise than cooking for preschoolers. I still have no adequate response to the words “Ewwww, what’s that?”

Of course, Tuesday night dinner is just the beginning of the story of Central and food. Eventually WKNC added more meals, groceries, and takeaway meals, and then our dear friends from WAES appeared on the scene, taking food distribution to the next level. Even Shakespeare in Action has been helping distribute food during the pandemic, illustrating the size and scale of the heavenly banquet happening at 1 King Street. And that’s without looking south to Mount Dennis, where we created an entire community ministry dedicated to food security.

In every way we can, we have been reversing the trends that disconnect people from their food, and underling the ways in which sharing a meal is at the heart of being human. We have made the last first, and in doing so, we helped bring the Kingdom to this community. May this banquet persist, and may we always find ourselves among the people with needs greater than our own. Amen.


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