This sermon was preached 9 years ago, when I was pretty new still at this church. I hope it's not a mistake to post it: I'll be preaching on a similar text this weekend! I remember that I was really trying to figure out how to pull everything together, and on Thursday we were at a large meeting of pastors. We sang before we ate lunch together, and that's the spark that got me going.
"Be Present At Our Table, Lord"
My first week in South Daokta I learned something about being a Host... and about being a Guest. And both at the same occasion! It was my first funeral at the little country church, and the community had turned out to pay their last respects, and also, to check out the new minister (me). Things were going pretty smoothly, I thought, as we progressed through the serivce, as we journeyed to the cemetery and back, and as i prepared to lead them through the traditional table prayer: "Be present at our Table, Lord." The tables were set, the ladies were ready with their sandwiches and their hot dishes, the family was seated, and we began with the song all Lutherans know so well:
Be Present At Our Table, Lord,
Be Here and Everywhere Adore d
These Mercies Bless and Grant that We
May Strengthened for Thy Service Be. A-MEN
...except that they weren't singing "strengthened for thy service be." They were all singing "feast in paradise with Thee." I was leading, but they weren't followoing -- or at least, they were following, but only up to a point. And although I thought they were singing the "wrong" words at first (that is not the ones I knew and grew up with), I learned to appreciate them, and also to ALWAYS announce which ending we were using on each occasion.
This is part of being a good host, to make sure everyone knows what's going on, what the expectations are. And also, don't expect that your guests are exactly like you. ... But lately I have been wondering if there wasn't one anohter thing I learned from that Funeral Banquet and from that Song. The version I grew up with: "Strengthened for Thy Service Be" is, after all, a prayer for Hosts. It is a prayer for the ladies in their white aprons, for all those who cook and clean and paint and scrub and sweep and make things nice for other people. It is a prayer for those who organize and strive to get things right, and to make things right. Hosts pray that they will be strengthened for their service, that neither the food nor their feet will give out, that THEY will last as long as the party, and that everyone will go away pleased.
On the other hand, "Feast in Paradise with Thee" is a prayer for guests. It is a prayer for those who are sitting at the table with hot steaming dishes in front of them. It is the prayer of those who have been invited, who are hungry, who are imagining with anticipation the delicacies of fine wine, food and conversation. Most of all, it's a prayer for those who need a feast -- who are hungry and thirsty -- and maybe for many things, for food of course, but for companionship, for justice, for hope.
So -- which prayer do you prefer? The prayer for hosts? Or the prayer for guets? Do you prayer to be strengthened for service? Or do you pray to feast in paradise?
Guests and hosts, and their dealings with one another... that is what Jesus is observing in the Gospel today. He has a keen eye for details not jsut of etiquette, but of human relations. He sees guets not just concerned about what they will be served, but where they will sit, and what that will mean. He sees guets not just worried that they won't know which is their salad fork and which is their dessert fork. But he sees guests worried about their honor, and what a certian seat may mean. What if they are asked to sit next to someone who might be of lower rank than them? What would that mean? And what would it mean to not get a seat at all? If you think these sorts of concerns are dated, just go into any junior or senior high school lunchroom, where it can be very important who you sit with. There are higher and lower places in lunchrooms, and there are seats of honor and seats of less honor. There are cues that tell you that you belong or that you don't belong, that you are "cool" or you are not. And school luncherooms are not the onl place where there are assigned seats and places of honor. At picnics and potlucks, at restaurants and family dinners, and even in church pews, there are seats that signal "you belong" and places that let you know "you're a stranger."
It is this behavior and this desire of guests that Jesus observes -- and critiques. He lets people know that in the Kingdom "status" is not ranked in the same way, or belonging either. In the Kingdom a gracious guets isn't concerned about the best seat in the house, or about sitting with the "cool" people. In the Kingdom a gracious guests rejoices in the seat given, whether high or low. In the Kingdom you might end up sitting next to people who eat with chopsticks or their hands, who dress in gowns or rags, who are friends or enemies. Are you a guest who feasts in God's kingdom? Delight in the seating arrangement, then, as well as the food and the conversation.
Guests are not the only people in Jesus' field of vision, though. Jeuss observes Hosts, too, and has advice for them. He notices that they control the guests lists, making sure the right people get in, and the wrong people stay out. After all, they want to make sure the party is a success, that enemies don'tsit next to one another and make everyone uncomfortable. And they'd also like to get invited to a few good parties of their own. So they choose their guest list carefully ,just as carefully as the menu and the decorations. Any good host will tell you that the guest list is as important as the menu and decorations, too. And Jesus even agrees. His guests list just looks different than most people's. So -- are you a Host who longs to be strengthened for service in the kingdom? Keep you mind and your guest list open as you set the table...
Jesus observes that there are table manners in this world -- and that there are table manners in the Kingdom of God, too. And Jesus wants to let us know -- both guests and hosts -- that the manners acceptable in the kingdom look much different than those encountered at banquets here. Even the word "banquet" becomes transformed by Jesus. When I think of a banquet, I think of a party to which my friends, neighbors, relatives are of course invited. I don't define "banquet" as a hall full of strangers -- and of poor, blind, crippled or lame ones, at that. As a host, I of course make my guest list to include people I know and like, or people I would like to know. But for Jesus the word banquet does not mean a party for friends. For him a banquet is a celebration for strangers, a feast for the needy, a meal so abundant that no one can pay it back. Call all those other celebrations what you will -- a banquet is where the poor come to celebrate.
In watertown, South Dakota, there is a meal site called "The Banquet." They serve every Monday night at the Salvation Army, and different groups -- not just churches -- take turns preparing the food and serving whoever shows up. At the Banquet, they don't ask any questions and they don't turn anyone away. They believe that there are different kinds of hunger, and so they never ask anyone to prove that they are poor enough or needy enough to attend. When my parish prepared to serve, there were whisperings that some of the attendees were actually rather rich. We had mixed feelings about whether we were really serving needy people. But we got a team together and we made meatballs and potatoes and gravy one Monday night in February. One of the very few rules of the Banquet is that the servers must eat with those they have served. ... As I sat down to converse with an older man and a middle-aged woman, I was reminded of the time I helped served at another place called "Loaves and Fishes." I felt comfortable lading hot soup. And I felt good about pouring coffee and milk. But then the supervisor said to me -- well, actually, ordered me: "Go and sit and eat with them."
Nothing made me more uncomfortable, to sit down with people in their shabby clothes and hopelesseyes, and eat with them as if I were needy too. But it was necessary.... because I was needy too. I wasn't just a Host thatday -- I was also a Guest poor and needy and hungry too, although I hated to admit it. And I caught a glimpse of the Kingdom of God too -- the Kingdom we pray to come to us each time we pray the Lord's prayer. The best Hosts are those who know what it means to be needy, to be poor, to be hungry -- to be guests. And the best Gusts are those who have also poured coffee until their arms hurt, and cooked until their feet hurt -- and are grateful for the feast. They know how much it cost.
In this place, we are both Hosts and Guests -- and this is fitting for our Savior in whom we live and to whom we belong is also Guest and Host. Daily we pray: "Come Lord Jesus, be our Guest." Weekly we Pray: "Grace our table with your presence." Daily we serve him, invite him in to eat with us. We invite him, but we don't often recognize him as we serve him through all the guests that walk through our lives, the Salvation Army bum, the grieving widow, the young man with his hard luck story, the family struggling to make ends meet. He comes to us as a guest, just as we prayed for. But then we sit down to eat together, and we discover something else.
We pray to be strengthened for service, and we end up Feasting in Paradise. We ask him to be present at our Tables, and we even sit the table for him, but when he comes, it is His table, and He is the Host. He is the host, and he has never turned down a beggar yet.
As we gather here to feast with him, that is the best invitaiton we will ever hear, and it is the best invitation that we have to share.
Let us stand and sing together as we prepare for the "Lord's supper" -- that old table prayer, "Be present at our Table, Lord," ... and you may either sing "Feast in Paradise" or be "strengthened for service." AMEN