At our staff meeting this past week, our visitation pastor, Tom Bosserman, kindly requested that we remind the congregation that there is still time to sign-up to participate in one of the Epiphany Supper Clubs. This ministry of fellowship, which has been going on for several years now, for whatever reason has been attracting fewer and fewer participants in the last several go-rounds. The way the supper clubs work is relatively simple: Pastor Bosserman groups three or four couples or singles together and they arrange among themselves, via email, the dates that each couple or single will take turns hosting a meal for the others in the group. When Melinda and I first arrived at Epiphany about 4 ½ years ago, we signed up to be assigned to a Supper Club group and found it a wonderful way to get to know people in the congregation. I can still remember our first supper club group: we were with the Wakes, the Bridges, and the Cards. At first I worried whether we would fit in. We were the only family whose name wasn’t a common noun. But, of course, it turned out to be excellent.
The act of sitting around a table in someone else’s home, eating food that they have prepared from their own recipe books provides the opportunity to connect with people on a much deeper level than Sunday morning conversation does. You learn all kinds of interesting things—meaningful and funny family stories, shared interests and experiences—when you break bread with one another. They become, quite literally, your companions; in fact, that’s where the word companion comes from. “Companion” means, “break bread with,” and for ages that has been marker of one’s status and identity. To our knowledge, in Jesus’ day there were not individual place settings. To eat, people literally passed bread around the table and broke off a portion for themselves.
Who would you call a companion? Who will you let into your house and eat around your table? Who will you make time for in your busy schedule to clean the house and put a special pot roast in the oven? Only blood relatives? Close friends and neighbors? Maybe you could expand that to people with whom you worship who sit a few pews back from you?
Table companionship has always been a big deal. We can see that in the gospel stories about Jesus, including this story today which features him yet again as a guest in a prominent Pharisee’s house. Jesus raises a lot of eyebrows for his choice of table companions. Usually we think of Jesus as eating with the tax collectors and other riff-raff that no one wanted to be associated with, but in reality Jesus shared bread with everyone, and that also included the well-to-do.
You see, eating together in people’s homes was part of what bound the culture together in Jesus’ day. If Pastor Bosserman had been floating his idea of a supper club to them, he wouldn’t have had to send out any reminders for people to sign up because they were constantly hosting parties or dinners and coming up with guest lists. But they, however, were not necessarily looking for friendly conversation. Hosts were trying to accomplish something for themselves. In short, people displayed their social rank and perceived influence by having people over to their table for fellowship with the expectation that they would be invited back or repaid in some way. It was how people worked their way up in society, how they established social networks and kept undesirables at the bottom of things. Honor and dignity were traded back and forth through this system of table companionship and woe to the person whose invitation to dinner was not eventually reciprocated in some way!
In characteristic fashion, Jesus turns all this on its head. He sees the guests at the Pharisee’s table fully participating in another supper club of the self-important. And notice what he does: he tells the people who actually have power to use it by sitting down at the bottom seat. It will dismantle the whole system. His instructions echo the song that his mother sang at his conception, Jesus reminds his Pharisee host that God “has scattered the proud…and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:51-52). God’s kingdom does not operate by these rules of who is in and who is out, who gets to sit in positions of honor and who is down there by the kids’ table. Some scholars believe that the root word for Pharisee is “to separate,” and that is precisely what Pharisees were known for: separating the clean from the defiled, the places of honor from the places of disrepute, the true table companion from the outcast…the water fountains for this race, perchance, from the water fountains for that race.
We know, at heart, we still like to separate things and people—we still are apt to assign seats in our lives to people who eventually can do something for us, who can reflect onto our character something we might not be capable of generating for ourselves. I think that’s why Dr. Martin Luther King’s words from a half a century ago this week still captivate so many of us. While his dream does, like those of so many prophets, call us to a better vision of God’s creation, they also remind us of our own tendency to “Pharisee;” that is, to position ourselves among God’s other children according to honor and shame and to let our opinions of ourselves define us a little too much. A little self-esteem is OK, I suppose, but we are prone to take it a little too far in many cases.
In God’s kingdom, which begins in earnest at the foot of the cross, we receive our true esteem and the only sense of honor that will ever really matter. As he hangs there, we see the full extent of our pride and sinfulness—that our grab for the seats of honor, the seats at the front of the bus, the seats near those who can repay us in some way, only end up tearing all of us apart. But at the cross we also see that he is willing to use his power and stoop to the lowest position possible in order to share God’s bread with us. He is willing to suffer in order that we may be a companion at his table in his kingdom forever along with everyone else that somehow gets “Phariseed” out in this world because they really have no way of repaying us.
During the servant trip to West Virginia last month, the youth group was given the task one evening to host a free meal for anyone in the city who wanted to come. They made the food—grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, chicken and rice casserole, barbecue and various salads and side dishes—and, because the weather was so nice, spread it all out nicely on large tables under the early evening sunshine. The place where we were staying was on the side of a steep hill, an abandoned old school building whose property literally perched over the downtown of Logan. From the main courtyard where during the week we had played countless games of foursquare with the neighborhood children, and where we had set up this banquet, we could look down and see right into the streets of the town that the declining coal industries had left desolate years before. A patch of grass sloped off rather steeply from this courtyard area and stopped at a sharp drop-off that was bordered by a chained-link fence that had stopped a loose foursquare ball from bouncing all the way down to Main Street many times before.
When the youth had finally assembled all the items for the buffet line, I heard Rachel Bracken, one of our own youth, tell Matthew von Schmidt-Pauli to go down to that chain-link fence and shout out into the city “Free dinner for anyone who wants to come!” Matthew looked at her like she was crazy. I think we all just expected that people had already received the invitation. “Just go do it,” she ordered. I’ve learned that people listen to Rachel. Matthew obeyed.
I watched as he leaned over the fence and shouted out over the rooftops of the city. And then we watched as people began to “come up higher,” climbing the hill to form a line for the supper. They were the homeless of Logan. They were the neighborhood children of the Kids Club we had hosted all week. Some had brought their parents, but most were still alone. Many of the adults seemed alone and shy around us. They were in need of showers and cleaning up, an opportunity that was often offered to them on Thursday evenings, but was unavailable that particular time. Eventually there was some mixing and mingling and some integrated action on the foursquare court.
We were just there for one night on one week during one summer, but there is a congregation there who does that every Thursday evening throughout the year. They host a meal for the people who can’t pay for what they’re going to eat and who can’t really repay in any worldly way. But although those guests won’t repay us for what did that Thursday evening, don’t think we weren’t blessed. Don’t think it for a minute. We were blessed with companions who were kind and grateful and full of interesting stories and conversation. We were blessed with not having to feel we owed them anything or we were owed anything back. We were blessed the vision of a meal that Jesus promises, the meal at the end of all these meals we host and share in this life…the meal for which this bread and wine is a foretaste. We were blessed with the breaking down of Pharisee boundaries that constrict us so. And we were blessed with the persistence of Rachel and Matthew, who wanted to make sure that invitation got out, that the city knew there was a feast to be had.
I don’t know, maybe Pastor Bosserman could get Rachel and Matthew to advertise this next round of supper Club! Come to think of it, maybe the church and the Lord’s Table could use more Rachels who understand the value of what God has laid before us and will announce to a separated world that there is a feast to be had. No need to repay. It’s all taken care of: “This is my body. Given for you.” Outcasts—if you feel that term applies to you—may stand first in line. You’re companions now. There is a feast to be had.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.