Perhaps it is because it is such a remarkable image of the Reign of God which is depicted in the last part of our reading from Luke today that I am hard pressed to come up with anything in my life or experience which even comes close. Indeed, it seems to be built into us that we often prefer the company of those who look like us, whose life experiences are similar, whose backgrounds are comparable. Oh, even if it is not the reciprocity of the meal we are looking for, the fact is that sharing a table with the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind: the stranger, is not part of our day to day experience and for many, if not most of us, is not an experience we would normally seek out. More than this, what Jesus urges us to now is to share our gifts — exemplified by a meal — with those who need those gifts the most — and to do so not at arms’ length, but in the comfort of our own homes. Indeed, the words from Hebrews admonish us to do the same as we hear the writer’s call to extend hospitality to strangers. And oh, in a world where we are constantly reminded that the ‘stranger’ is to be feared, one hardly knows how to begin to be and do what is encouraged, what is expected here. Indeed, this all assumes a world view so very different from what most of us hold.
So it is as I reflect on these words with those who gather next Sunday, I am likely to offer only partial glimpses into the meaning and promise before us now. Partial glimpses which, if lived into, may one day bring us to that amazing day when strangers will feast at the same table with all of our differences, with discomfort and fear cast aside, with no expectation whatsoever that any will be obligated to return the favor, for it is all understood and experienced as gift — shared gift — in the first place.
So for now, these are the things I am thinking about:
I am thinking about a group of folks from my congregation who, every Sunday during the academic year, assemble 100 sack lunches complete with sandwich and fruit, chips and dessert. And how a smaller group gathers on a street corner at our local university on Monday morning and simply gives them away. It is not a meal at a shared table and no, it is not in any one of our homes. But we are certain that at least a third of the young people walk by are genuinely hungry — the poor, if you will. And those who encounter them know that they have met ‘angels’ among them as they witness their surprise and their gratitude to learn that nothing is expected in return. Indeed, I would venture to say that those who give are more blessed than those who receive as they experience what it is to live into the Reign of God where all that matters is the hungry are fed.
And yes, I am thinking of our recent project of sending Bibles to prison and of how some of us are starting to correspond with some of the women who have received these gifts. And I think of one in particular who sent a thank you along with a check cut from her prison account that the work might continue. And how moved we were to open that envelope and to hear gratitude at being remembered ‘behind these walls.’ And I know that I am just a tiny piece in this whole undertaking. Others have provided the resources to make it happen, I just plug the names and prisoner id numbers into the orders. I am just a small part of something larger, but every time a letter comes I experience it as a wondrous gift from an ‘angel’ I never expected to encounter as I am offered insight and understanding and deepening hope at what God is doing in an unexpected place as faith and hope is taking root among those who need these gifts of God most of all.
And, oh my, yes, I think of our new members from a group home down the road who found their way to us and who gather at the ‘table’ with us week after week. They are among our most faithful attenders. They sign up for everything we have to offer. One is a regular helper in our Sunday School and another comes by once a week to help with the vacuuming. They are surely ‘giving back’ — reciprocating if you will, but more than that for all we seek to give them, their presence gives us so much more. Strangers once, yes, but recognizable ‘angels’ now. And yes, we do share a ‘meal together’ — bread and wine — every single week.
And yes, I think of the steady stream of people who make their way to us — coming to the door or picking up the phone to call. One needs help with rent. Another needs phone service restored on so he can look for work. Another is desperately needing a place to do community service and quickly, please, as her court date is coming up. And yet another walks in off the street not knowing what he needs. And of how we try to do the best we can by them. Not sharing a table in our homes, no, but trying to treat them with respect and helping out how we can. Indeed, too often we hear that neighboring congregations have grown weary of such as this (and understandably so) and cynical, both of which can be true for us as well. And we are told that they have been turned away time and again or that people promise to call them back and never do and yes, I can understand why this would be so. But from time to time we get glimmers of the ‘angels’ Hebrews speaks of now, and now and then we catch sight of God doing something amazing and we try to keep before us the urging of Jesus now to invite the ‘poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’ to our shared banquet. On our best days we are able to live remembering it is all gift anyway and what a wonder it is, if but for a moment, to live like this is so, and to share that gift with those who do need it most.
I don’t know for sure, of course, but part of me thinks that the image of the banquet Jesus offers now is something for us to fully experience in a future which only God holds. At the same time? Every time we have the chance even in a small way to genuinely extend kindness to one of these on God’s invitation list, perhaps we get a little bit closer to that day when those invitations will be engraved and sent, when the table will be set, and where we will all sit down together celebrating the gifts of God which feed us and bring us all together. What do you think?
- As you can see, I am having a hard time coming up with living examples of the vision Jesus offers now. Perhaps you have one to offer?
- When have you seen a ‘hospitality extended to a stranger’ only to discover it was an angel? What did that encounter mean to you? How did it change you?
- My conclusion, for now, is that the banquet described in our Gospel lies in a future only God holds. I could be wrong, though. Indeed, I hope I am wrong. What do you think?