"A foretaste of things to come"

June 6, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Luke 14:15-24

Growing up in the church, do you know what I remember the most from my childhood there? It wasn’t the sermons the pastor preached. To be honest, I can’t recall a single one of those, even though I had to sit through all of them. Nor can I bring to mind much of anything that happened in worship. And though Sunday School, especially when taught by my mentor Perry Ellsworth, a retired officer with a wry sense of humor whom we called the "corn colonel," helped me to grow, I can’t remember anything that was said or done there. As important as all these other activities were, something else sticks in my memory more vividly. Can you guess what? Church suppers.

I can well remember eating together in the fellowship hall. It’s not so much the food that has fixed itself in my brain. It’s the eating together. Sitting around the tables. Even cleaning up. I can still recall the dishwasher in the church kitchen, either because washing dishes became my job (though I can’t remember actually doing it), or because all the buttons and levers on such a machine make it tantalizing to a young boy... It was at another church, a "black" baptist church which paired up with our own, that one of my earliest spiritual awakenings took place - and it happened around a meal table. Across from me sat a huge woman who asked my name and then proceeded to tell me, as we ate, all about the disciple who also bore that name. To this day the biblical Peter influences my journey with Jesus. And it all began at a church supper.

Meals together are very important to the life of God’s people. A significant number of the events we remember about Jesus, as recorded in the gospels, were somehow connected with meals. He had a habit, which enraged certain people, of eating in the homes of disreputable characters - tax collectors and the like. Remember Zacchaeus? Jesus called that little guy down from the tree, and what do you suppose he did next? "We’re going to your place for lunch, Zack." In the process, someone outside the circle of God’s people was welcomed inside, and it happened around a meal table. We could take a tour of the gospels and pick out all the occasions when significant things happened as part of some meal, from a woman washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, to the miracle of water changing to wine. Furthermore, the meal table was a place for discussion as Jesus ate with those around him, including both those who agreed with him, and those who did not.

This morning’s scripture is unique in that it is a parable about a meal that Jesus told at a meal. Much of the chapter in Luke’s gospel which surrounds it is table talk. As Jesus ate, he spoke about eating, about where to sit at a wedding banquet or a luncheon, for instance, and how the seat of honor at such a meal is not necessarily the one closest to the host. Banquets, he challenged his fellow diners, are not just for inviting the "beautiful" people, those you most want to impress and get near to, or those you like the best and who like you, also. When you give a big meal, he said, invite the folks who might embarrass you by their presence - the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind - people who might not be able to repay you in kind.

Around the table Jesus told a parable about a fellow who planned a great dinner and sent out all sorts of invitations. When the time arrived and all was ready, he sent his servants out to bring the guests to his home for the meal. You heard the story. A wonderful banquet had been prepared, like the one which awaits us this afternoon following Bruce and Bonnie’s wedding. Like our upcoming feast, this biblical meal could be seen as a labor of love. Who would want to miss it? Meals are very important for God’s people.

And yet, in this story, all the invited guests beg off, one by one. "Regretably, I just bought some land. I’ve got to go check it out. Sorry." Check it out after the purchase? Aren’t you supposed to do that before you lay your money down? As with most excuses, this one sounded pretty lame. Like the fellow I saw in traffic court this week. He had been pulled over for speeding, then also sited for not having his license. He’d left it by accident in his wallet at home. The Judge let him off with a smaller fine, which the young man only then realized he couldn’t pay. You see, he had again left his wallet at home, which he admitted in front of several police officers in that courtroom. How he was planning on getting home to bring back his wallet?

In the parable, another similar excuse followed. "I just bought 5 teams of oxen, and I really need to check them out. Please accept my regrets." Isn’t that sort of like buying a used car and only then taking it to a mechanic to see if it’s any good? Furthermore, even if you did just purchase the best lawn tractor available, which would you rather do - go mow your lawn this afternoon, or enjoy a free banquet in an air-conditioned hall? The first choice sounds like a bunch of bull to me, which is how the host of that dinner felt.

Speaking of bull, there was still another excuse in the story. "I just got married and need to get home to my wife." Tell me, did that new bride have any voice in this decision? As delightful as a new groom might be, how many women would choose to stay home with her husband over going out to eat? That man better have some even better excuses when he gets home, or else he’ll be sleeping on the couch. Unless, of course, it was his wife’s idea.

What did the host do when his invited guests backed out at the last minute? The food had been prepared, the table had been set, everything was ready. Nobody to eat it, though. What should be done? He told his servants to go out and look for anyone who might be hungry, and bring them to his feast. It didn’t matter who they were or how they were dressed. There was room around the table, and if those who were invited could only send excuses, then that meal would be eaten by someone else. There are no doggie bags for those who don’t show up.

You know, meals together are very important for God’s people. Not only do they involve putting food in the stomach. When we eat together something else happens. It’s around a table that we become a family. It’s around a table that strangers become friends. It’s even around a table that enemies find common ground. I suppose that can be a threatening proposition if you really don’t want to be like family with someone else, if you don’t care to become friends with them, if you’d rather maintain conflict between you at it’s current level and not risk change. Of course, Jesus was a risk taker. His mission, after all, was to reconcile people to God.

Meals together are very important to the life of God’s people. In fact, for many Christian denominations worship is centered around a meal. In some churches, communion is celebrated every week, whether it is called the "mass" or the "eucharist." For all the high liturgy which has developed around it, communion is simply a meal. Growing up in the baptist church, I saw the bread and cup distributed the first Sunday of each month. Of course, that "meal" was merely a little itty-bitty square of white bread and what looked like a thimble full of grape juice. To be honest, such a "communion" in the sanctuary didn’t grasp my imagination as much as what happened at the pot lucks in the fellowship hall.

With the brethren, I discovered a Love Feast celebrated less often, but intended to get across a very simple point. Whenever God’s people gather around the table - these are sacred moments, whether it is in the context of worship or fellowship, whether it happens in Love Feast or at a covered dish meal, or even as families at home for dinner. In fact, brethren have believed that all of life is sacred, not just certain sacraments that sit upon an altar and then are ingested during a service of worship.

Meals together are vital to the life of God’s people. Why? Because they are a foretaste of things to come. If you have a problem sitting around the table now, then heaven is not going to be a picnic for you. Do you think that’s what Jesus was trying to convey to those around the dinner table with him when he told that parable of the great banquet? A comment was made by another guest: "Blessed are those who get to eat a meal in the kingdom of God." That’s what launched Jesus into the parable. One might think of this story as about a messianic banquet, and think of God as extending the invitation to this great feast, to which those first invited only come up with lame excuses. So God, as a host, keeps right on inviting until there are those willing to come to the feast, people willing to sit down together at the same table, and eat what God has prepared.

Meals together are important for God’s people because through them we begin to live as if God’s kingdom were already here. Of course, we know it’s not yet - but we have a foretaste. And it’s delicious. By the way, you know this meal this afternoon, this wedding banquet - as I see it, the best part is not so much the food (as good as that will be). No, the best part is the gratitude and love of those who have prepared it, and freely share it as a gift.

Let me end with a story of my own, one I’ve heard told in a number of versions. There was an older woman who decided to get her life in order, so she invited her pastor to come and talk through "arrangements." These "arrangements" were filed away until the day she died. When that time came her family found it helpful to know what her wishes were - things like scriptures to be read, hymns to be sung, blessings to be shared, along with other details.

Those who attended the viewing before the memorial service did find it odd what was in her right hand in the casket. There, as plain as day, was a fork. What on earth was that fork doing there many wondered. It wasn’t until the service that the minister shared her own words. You see, she had earlier told him,

"In all my years of attending church suppers, I always remember that when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘keep your fork.’ It was my favorite part because I knew that something better was coming, like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie. Something wonderful, and with substance! So, I just want people to see me there in that casket with a fork in my hand and I want them to wonder ‘What's with the fork?’ Then I want you to tell them: ‘Keep Your Fork .. The best is yet to come.’"

Yes. Eating together around the table. It’s a foretaste of things to come. Just remember: "Keep your fork."

1999Peter L. Haynes

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