Do you like my bright yellow shirt? Some others of us have on the bright yellow shirts today, with these words: GOD’S WORK, OUR HANDS. This is the motto adopted in 2013, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ELCA. This day of service was created to encourage Lutherans to get outside of their church buildings and into their communities, doing publicly visible projects.
We Lutherans in the ELCA aren’t typically the Christians who are standing on the street corners and preaching, and we generally don’t like to toot our own horn, and we don’t want to call attention to ourselves…but we are people who care deeply about our communities. And given the chance to serve, we jump at the opportunity.
We like for our actions to speak for us, serving others as a way to share God’s love, because God didn’t come to us with a list of instructions for righteousness, God didn’t come to threaten us or scare us to death. God came to heal the world—that’s what Jesus is about. Jesus is about healing, even when that means he is a terribly rude dinner guest.
Doesn’t today’s Gospel lesson make you glad you didn’t invite Jesus to your dinner party? First he calls out the social climbers looking for the best seats at the table. And it’s a Shabbat dinner, so there are assigned seats for people, but Jesus, did you have to say it out loud?!
And he doesn’t stop there. Next he has suggestions for his host. Apparently the guest list is all wrong. Stop inviting people who are expected to pay you back with a reciprocal invitation. Invite people who cannot pay you back in any way.
Do you ever get so mad because you understand exactly what Jesus is saying? Who here has ever thrown a banquet and invited only people who are poor or who otherwise can’t pay you back? If you’re raising your hand, I want to hear more about this later. (Take notes.) Or did you ever go to a fundraiser for a charity where the donors are seated alongside the clients of that charity?
In two thousand years of human history, we are still not evolved enough to be free of that need to separate ourselves from people from different backgrounds, even socioeconomic differences. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves or anyone else, so we stay where we’re comfortable.
But Jesus came to heal our brokenness. When he shows up at dinner, this isn’t relaxing time: this is a teaching moment. He knows people are watching him closely, but he is also watching them. Giving instructions about social situations isn’t a way for Jesus to dunk on his opponents or prove them wrong. He has to point out the broken relationships between people if there’s any chance they’ll ever heal. He also has to point out who’s not there. Who is missing?
Remember how Luke’s Gospel started. Even before Jesus was born, his mother Mary could tell that something new was happening, and not just for herself and her family but for the whole world. This Gospel lesson today echoes the Magnificat, the turning over of power. Not a force that evens-out power, not an equalizing of shared power, but a promise: you’re gonna know what it feels like to be hungry and empty and to be full and satisfied.
So yeah, this is not our favorite Gospel lesson to put into practice, as clear as it is. But take heart, dear friends—there are some prophets out there who are willing to try this out. Let me give you a couple of examples.
A friend of mine got married earlier this summer, and while I was sorry to miss the ceremony, it turns out Malcolm Gladwell, the journalist was there, so I’ll let him explain:
“I went to a wedding this weekend, back in my old hometown in Southern Ontario. It was a lovely service, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The reception was held on the lawn outside the church. The food was in large bowls along a long table, and all of us lined up and we were served our lunch, and then sat on the lawn for an afternoon picnic. This was a Mennonite wedding…Mennonites are a small evangelical community devoted to service, community, and reconciliation—which explains what I saw when I made my way to the top of the food line.
The people serving the meal were the wedding party. The bride’s father gave us our picnic basket. The bride’s sister made the pulled pork sandwiches. The groom did the cole slaw. And at the end of the line, the bride—who had put an apron on over her wedding dress—served the mac and cheese. The receiving line was turned into a service line.”
When I asked my friend, the groom, about this later, he wrote, “There were multiple interpretations of the idea: it was a receiving line, the humility thing, the parallel between us serving communion and then serving lunch…take your pick!”
And earlier this week I went to the LuMin house for burgers and s’mores with our friend Pastor Tina Reyes, campus pastor for young people at Washington University and St. Louis University. I went to this event last year, also at the start of the school year, and there were maybe 20 people, including my family. But I like to support campus ministry, so I went this year with my daughter, thinking we’d get a burger, chat with a student or two, and be on our way.
When I drove up to the last week, I discovered a long line had already formed in the driveway. The students showed up. There were 20 people in line and more who had already been served and were seated in the yard of the neighboring campus ministry.
Another ELCA pastor colleague, Pastor Steve Cauley, was flipping burgers over a tiny charcoal grill, as fast as he could, and I jumped in to help with replenishing the serving line as items ran out—more plates, more potato chips, tear up some lettuce, oh now we’re out of hamburger buns, so Pastor Steve said, “These are keto burgers.” Pastor Tina was opening a ginormous can of black beans and mashing them into veggie patties. I was looking all around the campus house for snacks to feed the people waiting patiently in the long line.
But no one else in line was annoyed or anxious or angry about waiting. They were calm and grateful for the meal. They got nametags and made friends while standing in line. I distributed some postcards about future events on campus—meals and worship on Sunday nights. I talked with a couple of young men who described themselves as secular Jews, and we discussed religion and agreed it doesn’t have to be so complicated. I said, Jesus didn’t demand a confession of faith before feeding people, so I don’t think I have to do that, either.
A young woman saw me and asked where to return her plastic plate, and then she said, “Oh yeah, who is the organization serving this meal, anyway?” I reported it’s a collaboration between the Lutheran campus ministry as well as the Methodist student ministry and the Episcopal student house as well—all these groups are working together. Oh, the young woman said, yeah—that’s the way it should be. And she went on her way.
By the time I left, over 100 students had been fed. I thought I was going there to eat but it turned out I went there to serve, and I’ll tell you: I was filled up in a different way. Is it foolish to feed people who can’t pay you back? Probably. But it’s also righteous and downright obedient.
That kind of hospitality and grace—that’s the stuff with the power to heal a broken world. It’s the free gift we receive in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. We are fed by Jesus Christ and strengthened and empowered to feed others, too, to welcome the stranger and also to notice “who’s not here?”
The blessing is promised by Jesus himself, and blessed are you when you notice that Jesus shows up in the meal.