Come to the table – What to wear

Isaiah 55:8-9

Matthew 22:1-15

Almost everything we do in life has a “dress code” of sorts.  As we head off to work it can include hard hats and steel toed shoes, scrubs, hair nets and white coats or aprons, business suits or business casual, blue jeans and work shirts, and the list goes on.

The dress codes are often based on safety concerns: first responder volunteers and professionals need special gear to protect them from the environment in which they work; work crews on our roadways need bright colors so motorists can see them, medical professionals wear gloves and masks to protect themselves as well as patients, law enforcement officers wear bullet proof vests for obvious reasons.

The dress code can also be based on requirements of the job.  Teachers sitting on the floor with kindergarten students or supervising on a playground need different clothes than a lawyer representing a client in a courtroom.  A professional athlete needs different clothing than the sports caster.

Differences in dress come from cultural and religious expectations as well.  The surgeon caring for our daughter earlier this year is of a faith that requires women to wear full covering of their head and face, and the medical clothing companies can provide an operating room version to meet this specific need.  There are Yamakas, Amish hats and bonnets, turbans, veils, and numerous head coverings which reflect beliefs of a variety of communities of faith.

As members of organizations, there are garments we are expected to wear when participating in their activities.  Musical groups often wear white tops and black bottoms, robes, or matching uniforms.  Triangle girls wear gowns with colors representing certain positions in the organization.  Scouts wear uniforms reflecting their level in scouting.  Military personnel have specific uniforms based on branch of the service, as well as rank.

We even have dress codes in our homes and our churches, setting guidelines and holding one another accountable, as to what we think is appropriate in particular circumstances.

Scripture calls us to a wedding banquet this morning where a dress code seems to have significant consequences.

We hear in this morning’s passage from Matthew that Jesus compares this wedding banquet to the Kingdom of God, of which we are part, making this dress code applicable to all of us.

An invitation to this banquet has been extended to those who one would expect to be invited by the culture of the day, and likely by us.  As was the custom of the time, there was an initial invitation to those who would seem to have a reason to come, a connection to the King who has issued the invitation.  They needed to respond well in advance of the event and a reminder invitation was customary, to which they should be prepared to respond pretty much immediately, because it came when all the preparations were complete.

The “A” list had notice they were invited to this important celebration, but they didn’t prepare or weren’t interested in accepting the invitation and had every excuse imaginable to not come when called to the party.  Some went as far as killing the messengers who called them to the banquet.  Backing out at the last minute was an insult to the King, and mistreating and killing the messengers significantly worse than an insult.

We now find ourselves in a similar setting as the one we explored a couple of weeks ago, when we looked at God’s guest list.   Those who no one would expect to be welcome at the King’s table are invited in.   The servants are instructed to go into the main streets, to invite everyone they find to this amazing meal.  They gather in both good and bad; so the wedding hall is filled with guests.

Then dress code surfaces and one guest is ejected from the party for not wearing a wedding garment.  At first it can seem this open invitation from the King becomes narrow minded.  It is hard to believe any of the guests came in appropriate dress.  They were called in off of the street with no notice.  They didn’t begin their day expecting to be guests at the King’s celebration.  The King said call them all, no criteria set on how they were to be dressed to receive the invitation.

That is because there was no expectation of how the guests would be dressed upon arrival.  It was the custom of the time that no one needed to be concerned about proper dress for the wedding banquet.  The host provided wedding garments for all the guests.  This guest then, was invited to the celebration, accepted and came, but then failed to, or refused to accept the wedding garment provided.  Not wearing the robe provided by the host was a sign of disrespect to the King and to the groom.  The guest did not honor the gift, and the result of the guest’s action or lack of action, depending on how we look at it, is difficult to hear.  The consequences are significant, as the guest is cast out of the party and into the darkness.

I think we all are represented somewhere in this parable.

We may be the first ones invited.  We are in church on a regular basis, do good things for other people, pray, bring our offerings.  We identify as followers of Christ.  Yet there may be things God is calling us to do which we are ignoring or purposely setting aside because we have too many things to do to take on one more, or we don’t think it is as important as what we are doing now, or we think we don’t have the resources necessary.

We may be in the group called in from the streets.  Something about God’s invitation stirred us, the good and the bad in us, to come to the table, to accept God’s grace available to us all, regardless of our spiritual location or how we were dressed when called.  We put on the clothing required, accepted the gift, and fully committed to the celebration.

We may be the one who accepted the invitation, but hasn’t put on the wedding garment provided at the door, thinking just saying “yes” was all that was necessary.

As we gain understanding of this “wedding garment” we are better prepared to see what it has to do with our day to day lives and our faith journey.

As a gift at the door of the feast, the wedding garment is put on by each guest as they enter.  Early Christian theology frequently uses the metaphor of putting on clothing to illustrate a new life in Christ that followers are expected to embrace.

 

Galatians 3:27

27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Colossians 3:12

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Ephesians 6:11

11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.

 

John Wesley, in his sermon “On the Wedding Garment” identifies holiness as the true “wedding garment,” as he reflects in this passage.   Holiness that comes from “the energy of God, working love to God and all mankind, and by this love, every holy and heavenly temper – in particular, lowliness, meekness, gentleness, temperance, and longsuffering.”  For Wesley it wasn’t about ritual, following a set of human rules, but about “keeping the commandments of God; particularly:“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself.” In a word, holiness is having “the mind that was in Christ,” and “walking as Christ walked.”

The holiness without which no man shall see the Lord” as recorded in (Hebrews 12:14)[1]

Methodism is a movement equally intent on inviting people to experience God’s justifying grace and on creating the contexts in which they can more reliably grow in God’s sanctifying grace, into “entire holiness,” toward “Christian perfection.”

Last week I was asked to talk to some young women in the band to which Ken and I belong.  Our male band “disciplinarian” was concerned over the length of skirts the girls were wearing on stage and the lack of respect for the organization and for themselves it suggested.  They regularly participated in practices and concerts.  Played well, contributing to the musicality of the group, but their clothing was not appropriate for the role they have as members of the organization.  They had not fully committed to the band’s image.  As it turns out, they didn’t understand what was required of them, and by the next week they had acquired appropriate clothing for someone sitting on an elevated stage.

The quick reaction to the guest without the proper garment indicates that guest knew what was expected and chose to delay or to refused to do what was required.

God invites us all to the banquet, to sit at the table with the bridegroom.  We aren’t entitled because of how much we know, how religious we are, if we have done many great things, or if our community looks to us for leadership.  We aren’t entitled because someone else refused or is unworthy of a place at the table.

Our worthiness is based on God’s invitation, on Christ’s blood poured out so that All might be saved, on the wedding garment God provides us when we accept the invitation by showing up.  We don’t earn any of this, our worthiness is a gift from God, whose thoughts and ways, as we were reminded this morning with the Isaiah passage, are not our thoughts and ways.

All sorts of people accept the King’s invitation, good and bad, yet only one remains without the garment on which the king supplied.  Everyone else is wearing it.  That makes me wonder if sometimes I am evaluating whether someone else is wearing the appropriate “wedding garment” and not looking at whether I am all in on the celebration, clothed in the robe prepared for me by my savior, or if I only have my arm in one sleeve, not ready to commit fully to the things I need to do to have “the mind that was in Christ,” and “walk as Christ walked.”  To hang on to things that aren’t in line with holy living.  To work on me and just love others as Christ has loved me.

As we invite others to the banquet, which I believe all of us here want to do,  it doesn’t matter what “culturally appropriate,” “fashion minded,” “safety focused” earthly clothing we put on.  It matters if we are fully committed to putting on Christ and living and loving one another in ways that reflect we have put on the “wedding garment” of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience and are celebrating our place at the King’s table and are filled with the Light of the World.

This is an amazing feast God doesn’t want anyone to miss it.  Let’s put on the clothes that reflect our commitment to and appreciation of the celebration.

[1] The Sermons of John Wesley – Sermon 120 On The Wedding Garment.”  Copyright 1999 by the Wesley Center for Applied Theology.  Text may be freely used for personal or scholarly purposes or mirrored on other websites, provided this notice is left intact.  Any use of this material for commercial purposes of any kind is strictly forbidden without the express permission of the Wesley Center at Northwest Nazarene University, Nampa, ID 83686.

Come to the table – The Menu

I suspect that we all have a favorite menu or at least a favorite food.

Three things must be on the menu every time our extended family gathers: Macaroni and cheese, Baked beans, and black olives.   The rest of the menu can reflect the season and/or the occasion, but if we want to make sure everyone at the table is happy with the meal, those items need to be present.  The black olives are so popular it is difficult to keep the serving dish full, and they can be used to persuade the children to finish some of the other foods on their plates, in order to have more olives.

For some families, pasta is important at every meal, for others the meal centers around chicken, or beef, or fish.  Potatoes prepared in a variety of ways are also critical in some households, and the smell of fresh baked bread or rolls often makes the meal.  The list of menus is as diverse as the homes from which we came and those homes which we formed with others we now call family.

In both passages read this morning, food is either named, or implied.  The Amos passage talks about a bowl of fresh fruit.  Commentators indicate that it was probably referring to figs harvested at the end of summer.  In the Luke passage, while not clearly stated, it seems there is a gathering at the home of Mary and Martha, which likely included a special meal for those traveling with and coming to see Jesus.

At the time, the most common menu might include lettuces, cucumbers, garlic and leeks, apricots, figs, melons, and olives, which were also a source of oil

There may have been a variety of nuts, herbs and spices, as well as cheese and yogurt.

Evidence in scripture indicates Martha had financial resources, so she may have included goat, lamb, small fowl such as pigeon, on the menu, although only the wealthy regularly had those items on the table, and they were reserved for very special occasions by much of the population.

Many were very poor, having lost their land and needing to move from place to place to harvest for other people in order to feed their families, and having access to fewer of the foods available at the time.

They all ate bread.  For the wealthier families the bread was made from wheat flours.  Poorer families often used ground legumes along with grains.

When famine came, bread was the last food source for the poor, and when it was gone, everything was gone.  We saw a glimpse of that reality while talking about Elijah and the widow a few weeks ago.[1]

Bread is more than an item on the menu.  It is a means and symbol of sustainable life.

As we join Jesus, he is at the home of his best friends, welcomed and comfortable, away from some of the hostility of those challenging his teaching and his authority, and we find ourselves at the table.  Here Jesus clearly declares the critical food that needs to be on the menu.  It isn’t any of the food items we know might be on hand, it is the presence of Jesus himself

In John 6:35-40 (NRSV)  we read:  35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

In the Amos 8:1-12 passage we heard “I’ll send a famine through the whole country.  It won’t be food or water that’s lacking, but my Word.  People will drift from one end of the country to the other,   roam to the north, wander to the east.  They’ll go anywhere, listen to anyone,  hoping to hear God’s Word—but they won’t hear it.”

It isn’t the basket of fruit they will not have, it is God’s word.

It isn’t the fruit, meat, nuts, or bread we won’t have if we choose unwisely, it is God’s word shared by and in Jesus, the bread of life.

I don’t think Jesus is telling Martha that what she is doing isn’t important.  I don’t think Jesus is telling Mary she should never help out with what needs to be done to serve others.  Throughout scripture, people who follow God are called to be in relationship with God and others, to listen to God’s word and then to take action based on what is heard, to serve others.

In the Amos passage the people are fulfilling the law, they are observing Sabbath but can’t wait for it to be over so they can go out and have some fun.  They are observing the laws, but missing the importance of serving others.  They are “religious”, but not faithfully living in the way God calls them to.  They give little and take much as “The Message” paraphrase titles this passage.

Martha is giving much.  Putting together a large meal can be exhausting.  You have so much to think about, so many preparations that go beyond the food.  Martha is not wasting her time, she is using it to make sure all are welcome and feed, and doing it the only way she knows how – wholeheartedly with excellence – but for some reason on this occasion she is not serving with joy, but is looking at what her sister isn’t doing.

Those following the rules but not living out God’s love in the Amos passage, as well as Martha who is living out God’s love with exuberance to the exclusion of everything else, are missing the point.  God delights in their presence and they need to set aside time to delight in God’s presence.  It doesn’t matter what is on the menu, how the table is set, how perfect or not perfect they are, if they are following all the rules of etiquette, what anyone else is doing.  It is about having a “heaping helping” of sitting with Jesus, of being in God’s presence.

A peanut butter sandwich and good conversation with someone we love is quantitatively better than the finest gourmet dinner of all our favorite foods when we are sitting at an empty table with no one to talk to.

We can get so caught up in the tradition of what we should serve, the way things should be prepared, the perfect presentation, that we can’t enjoy the meal.  We can’t hear the Word that calls us to God’s grace for our lives.  We can’t hear the Word that calls us to love each other as God loves us.

There is a disconnect between the worship of the Israelites and how they lived their lives.  They were singing God’s praises but mistreating the powerless and vulnerable.  The fruit in the vision is the end of the harvest, not the promise of the beginning.  It signifies accountability that comes from going through the motions and not living out the call to be in a grace-filled relationship with God and others.

When we are developing the perfect menu: selecting the finest foods our budget will allow, digging through recipes that delight all of our senses, spending hours in the kitchen so everything will be just right, it can be an important way of living out our faith as we seek to serve others, to help them feel cared for and loved.

It can also become a distraction that keeps us from experiencing the presence of Jesus, as the “way it should be done,” prevents us from experiencing the joy of serving and becomes a burden which then prompts us to evaluate others, what they are or aren’t doing.  Why we serve, why we want to put on the best banquet we can, is what is important.  When we come to the table together we are experiencing the Kingdom of God in our midst if we create a space where every person knows they are loved and of value.  Care and love is what needs to be on the menu.  What follows doesn’t matter when we connect with God through our relationships with one another.

When we lose sight of what is important; When the distractions of making everything up to standards that are arbitrary and not critical to the health and well-being of anyone; we miss out on the condiments that make the meal extraordinary, the feeling of belonging, of being loved and accepted, of all being family in God’s kingdom.

Guests at our table know the difference.  They can see when we are following the “Joy of Cooking,” recipes and rules for meals down to the letter, but don’t really want to be here.  They can see when we are pointing out what the other person should be doing.  They can see when we are happy just to be present with God and each other.

Hospitality is part of who we are as members of the Kingdom of God.  Marthas and Marys important to living out our mission to share Gods love wherever we are.  Menus and preparation are tools to help us live out that part of our faith journey.  As one commentator notes: “there is a time for us to sit at the feet of Jesus, and a time for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.  We need to know what it is Christ wants us to do and why we should do it.  Service is not an end in and of itself and neither is instruction in the word.  We need both together; for they only make sense together.”[2]

A common comment in the surveys you have completed is a hope that our congregation can reach out in meaningful ways with God’s love, and as a result our faith community can grow.

If that is a goal we ultimately set together, we will want to recall and reflect on these passages as we set a menu that focuses on offering the Bread of Life in all we say and do.

It may mean we add some things to the menu and set aside some family favorites.  It may mean we get to experience new dishes and find out we wish that had been on the menu long ago.

It all means that each menu needs to include a heaping portion of the presence of Jesus and that we set aside the distractions that keep us from offering Jesus a heaping portion of our presence.  In doing so, our menu will be just what it needs to be, our service will be directed by the One who calls Us, and we will serve one another with joy.

 

 

[1] “The Food and Feasts of Jesus: Inside the World of First-Century Fare, with Menus and Recipes,” Neel and Pugh

[2] Allan R. Bevere, Mary vs Martha or chicken Kiev vs. Chili.

The Guest List

MESSAGE          July 10, 2016 The UMC of the Abundant Harvest

Pastor Marilyn Kasperek

 

God, here we are: tired from too many things of this world weighing heavy on our hearts and minds.  Grieving the loss of people we love and things we hold dear.  We ask for a word from you that we may capture your vision for our personal and congregational lives in new and refreshing ways.  Amen.

Spring and summer is often filled with parties.  We celebrate graduations, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, the Fourth of July and Labor Day.  Some of us plan parties just because good weather deserves a celebration with family and friends.

I don’t know about you, but when Ken and I plan a party I have a number of lists: what chairs, tables, plates, silverware, crockpots and grills we need, a menu, a list of groceries to buy, and a guest list, upon which all of the other lists are developed according to the invited guests’ likes and dislikes, as well as their particular needs.   If I misplace a list, another has to be created to replace it, and if circumstances change, all of them need reworking.  You can offer Ken your sympathy later

Guest lists are featured in this morning’s scripture.

Jesus was among those on the first list mentioned.

He accepted an invitation from a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath.  The book of Luke tells us that all those invited are watching Jesus closely.  This is guest list of people who are the “Who’s Who” of the religious community.  It is not likely that Jesus was on the list because they thought he should be honored, more likely he was on the list so they could show off who they were and what they knew.  It is probable as well that they were a bit curious as to what he had to say or wanted to discredit him.

Jesus is in a position to observe how the other guests are selecting their seats.  To see how they are trying to get the seats of honor.

Social ranking was common at meals to which guests were invited in this time period.  Such meals were settings which highlighted social disparities in the first-century world.  Where you sat, and by whom you sat spoke volumes about your importance and offered networking opportunities which could help you move up the preverbial ladder.  Not much has changed today, as many attending social functions hope to sit at the head table, with the host, or among special guests.

While at table with these influential leaders of the Jewish faith community, Jesus offers a lesson of humility.  He discourages his listeners from seeking the seat reserved for the most honored person at the table.  He offers the practical rationale that by taking the lowest seat you won’t be embarrassed by being asked to move lower than you are, and you might be invited to move up.  On the surface he offers them a way to “save face.”

On another level he suggests intentionally and with thought, choosing to live beneath one’s presumed status in order to receive greater honor at a later time.  Some scholars speculate that this teaching would particularly apply to Luke and his first readers as they were higher status Gentiles, and the mixed-status Christian communities would require them to live beneath their comfort zone.[1]

I think it shares a glimpse into the way things work in the Kingdom of God.  It is God who develops the guest list and God is the only one who determines where everyone sits.  In reality, when accepting God’s invitation, all are equal at the table, the only place of honor is that of Jesus who sits at the head of the table as well as beside each guest.  Humility was rarely considered a virtue in Greco-Roman moral discourse.  Yet, over and over in New Testament witness, humility is part of the character of followers of Jesus.

Jesus goes beyond advising the other guests how they should select their seats.  He begins advising the host on who should be invited to the table.  As we talked about a little last week, Jesus was someone who liked to eat good food with people who didn’t have it all together.

His suggested guest list includes the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind: people who had no way to improve the host’s social status and no way to repay the host’s hospitality.  It calls for those revered in their culture to extend higher class privileges to those found lacking by society, to respect their gifts and contributions.  His list went against all of the social norms of his day, and highlights how in God’s kingdom there is no system of social payment and repayment.

It should not surprise the religious leaders of the day, or us, that this is the list Jesus suggests.  In declaring his ministry as recorded in Luke 4:18 he says:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Nowhere does he say, I came to make those who culture recognizes as important and powerful, more important and powerful.  He doesn’t set those with more financial wealth or political power at the head of the table.  He came to bring good news to all.  In many ways we are all poor, unable to see in the ways that God calls us to see, oppressed by a myriad of demands from our culture, and longing to experience God’s grace.

In the weeks ahead we will develop some guest lists together.

Guest lists of persons called into leadership: those serving now, as well as considering others who would like to serve.

Guest lists of persons we love seeing in worship every Sunday

Guest lists of persons we haven’t seen in awhile

Guest lists of those in our community who may be looking for a faith community into which they would feel welcomed.

Guest lists of those who may need our help in some way, but who probably will never join us in our sanctuaries.

Guest lists of people who our community has forgotten or set aside.

And probably some guest lists we haven’t imagined yet

As we work together to develop those lists and to prepare invitations to join us at God’s banquet, I encourage us to reflect on the teachings we received from Jesus this morning.

We need to walk humbly with one another, looking for ways to honor what each of us brings to the table.

2 Corinthians 5:14-16 reminds us 14 For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15 And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

We need to be open to all the possible guests for our lists, realizing that the best choices may be the ones counter to what our culture would suggest.

As we pray, sing, study, and eat together I hope we can hear the invitation of Jesus to live differently because of our relationship with him, continuing to build a faith community founded on grace rather than status and upon what God has already done for us and not on what we can do for each other.

As we live into that hope, others will be drawn to Christ through us and more and more will join us at the table we share.

Please join me in prayer

God, we come to you today confessing our love of the first chair

The seeds of “healthy competition” sown in childhood have borne misshapen fruit in adulthood.

We love the best seats, bask in recognition, and covet the “edge” that brings us honor.

Forgive us, God, when our competitiveness yields more pride than excellence.

Forgive us, God, when we forget that we work for you, and not for ourselves.

Forgive us, God, when we forget that humility and hospitality are close relatives, and that those who would be your disciples are called to hold hands with the stranger.

Make us less eager to fight for power and position and more willing to make room for those who have neither name nor strength.  Amen.[2]

 

[1] David Ewart, www.holtextures.com

[2] The Abingdon Worship Annual 2016