“God’s Guest List” – Meals with Jesus Sermon Series
“God’s Guest List”
Isaiah 55:1-3; Luke 14:12-24
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
February 6, 2022
Alan Graham is the founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves and Fishes in Austin and also the lead visionary behind the Mobile Loaves and Fishes Community First(!) Village – a 51-acre development with affordable, permanent housing for folks coming out of chronic homelessness.
And Graham details how that whole ministry began in his book Welcome Homeless: One Man’s Journey to Discovering the Meaning of Home. The officers and trustees of this church read chapter two of this book as part of their leader retreat in early January, and it’s a chapter that tells the story of Houston Flake – a homeless man walking the middle of an empty highway in California trying to find some kind of respite, shelter, food.
And in the distance, he begins to see something. There is this massive billboard on the side of the highway advertising for a church. It has a white background, huge black letters: GOD WELCOMES YOU.
So, Houston follows the road not too far from the sign and it takes him to this massive church – empty, but doors are open. He is walking through this maze of hallways filled with children’s art and all the rest and keeps asking, “Hello? Anyone here?”
Finally, he comes upon the kitchen area, opens the fully stocked kitchen and made himself a baloney and Kraft American Singles sandwich on Wonder Bread.
Within moments of finishing the sandwich creation, the police arrive. As Houston Flake ducked his head into the police cruiser he remarked in all sincerity, “The sign said ‘God Welcomes You’…so God must not be home right now.”
“The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”
How did Mark Twain once put it? “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts I do understand.”
We hear stories like these can and do wonder about and discuss trespassing issues and security issues and safety issues – all important. But we also can never have those aspects so fill the discussion and planning and all the rest that we accidentally bury the very plain and continua thing Jesus is saying:
Invite the people who never get invited. For whatever reason. Money or politics or history or record or….
There is no getting around how profoundly uncomfortable these words are for many – then and now. Because everybody can think of somebody or somebodies that this might mean are… invited.
Just look at the life of Jesus, particular his life at table:
- He ate with tax collectors and sinners which greatly upset religious leaders.
- He also dined with religious leaders and lawyers which scandalized those who could see some of their obvious hypocrisy.
- He ate with lepers and disturbed the many who knew it right and good to remain clean and clear of such disease.
- He ate with women even of poor reputation at times – and was that suggestive?
Table fellowship is one of the most central and scandalous ways our Lord reconciles humanity to God and another.
Tame though it sometimes appears – there is a radical reason we place a table at the center of our spaces of worship. And if we stop to think about it from time to time… in these times where the lines often get drawn thick – the table situated front and center is a declaration, a manifesto of something radially, boundary-breaking.
Howard Thurman observes, “hated often begins in a situation where this contact without fellowship, contact that is devoid of any of the primary overtures of warmth and fellow-feeling and genuineness.”
The seedbed for hatred: There’s contact – we see one another, pass one another, shop in the same spaces…but devoid of fellowship. Devoid of the table. The mutuality and vulnerability and engagement are known there.
The Greek word for hospitality literally means “love of a stranger.” Someone whose life or way or convictions or past is strange to us.
Who needs to know the table extends to them? What if some of us here could use that reminder?
Jesus moves from these clear words about who to invite to our tables and then tells a parable that seems to muddy the waters a bit because now we have invites going out first to people with means enough for a field, for five yokes of oxen. Another who is just married and so they obviously have companionship. Only after all of them say they can’t come to the banquet does the invite go out to the alleys – the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame. Which again, just seems a bit contradictory to what Jesus just said.
There’s a lot we consider about this parable, but one to the ears of a first century listener of this parable, one of the most notable things they would have heard are the excuses folks made for not attending the banquet.
• The economic realities accompanying the purchase of a new field or the procurement of five oxen – those were significant.
• Marriage in that society excused one even from requite military duty.
So, saying no to a banquet – these were among the best and most legitimate reasons in that society one would have for saying “no.”
As theologian Fred Craddock observes regarding this parable, “The forces against with God’s offer contends are reasonable and well argued, but God’s offer has priority not simply over our worst but also over our best agendas.”
The invitation really is to all – it’s just that some have so many good things to be about, reasonable things to be about, needful things to be about…and they have forgotten how central the feast. How good the feast. How needful the feast.
A few years ago, I came across this ministry that began in Spokane, WA nearly 15 years ago. A guy named Kevin Finch had been in the restaurant industry, and so he knew one of the great ironies of that industry: though it is the industry that offers hospitality time and again, the people who actually work in the industry are some of the most overlooked people: wait staff, dishwashers, hotel maids, janitors, line chefs.
It is an industry where drug and alcohol use is high, living at or close to the poverty line is normal, and juggling ever-changing schedules and covering down on ever-rotating employees is the norm.
Obviously, this is not everywhere and every restaurant…but on the whole, it’s an industry that Kevin himself calls “the #1 catch basin for the most vulnerable.”
And so Kevin – who had left that industry and became a pastor – eventually leaves the pastorate in 2009 and founds this ministry called “Big Table.” Since then, every few
weeks, Big Tables hosts a huge, multi-course dinner at – you guessed it – a really big, elegantly set table that seats 48 people. Those invited?
Hotel maids and restaurant servers and line chefs and dishwashers. The cook? Kevin invites a different top chef in the area in Big Table gathering to serve up their absolute finest.
At one point in the meal, Kevin gets up to speak to share a bit about the vision of Big Table and invites folks to take a piece of paper at their table and write down the name of someone with whom they work and they know are in need or crisis. Those pieces of paper are left at the center of the table, collected, and the ministry of Big Table between that meal and the next one is the coordinate follow up care.
- Delivery diapers to the single dad mentioned on a piece of paper.
- Groceries to the 19 year old teenager cover three shifts.
- Occasionally a car to the single mom trying to make it to work on time while shuttling three kids to and from school and extra-curriculars.
But it all starts with a meal among those who get overlooked or go uninvited – ironically, someone the people who are closest to all the meals.
What a thought for a church located within 1/4 mile of no fewer than three dozen of the area’s most popular and busiest eating establishments.
“The next time you put on a dinner… Invite some people who never get invited out, those who cannot repay.”
But you know one of the other things that happens at these Big Table meals?
Those who attend are given a renewed taste of just how good a thing they are part of. Hospitality industry people themselves rediscover how beautiful, how good the banquet is.
What would it look like to let our hands drop the many good excuses and responsibilities, look upon Jesus and say, “I forgot how it tastes. I forgot about the joy. About how big a thing we are part of. How good a thing. How needful a thing. Can I taste and see that You are good once again.”
There is a reason that we are doing a congregation-wide meal on Sunday, February 27 – and one where those who are worshipping at 11am will be worshipping at tables
throughout the service together. We need to remember the meal. The gift of the unlikely people God draws together.
There is a reason that when we hit into the season of Lent in March we will offer five-week small groups that you’ll be able to sign up for beginning just over a week from now. Because so many of us need to share one another’s porches and living rooms and taste the feast again.
And then generally…let’s acknowledge that ours is a time where the hunger runs deep – in here and out there. And so, it’s a great and opportune time if you are a people who put tables at the center of what you are about.
God Welcome All.
May we find ourselves with renewed joy that we ourselves are invited…and with renewed surprise at the others on our left and right who are also at the table. Amen.