February 24, 2019: The Problem with Dinner Parties by Rev. Beth Hayward (Luke 14: 7-14)

The problem with dinner parties is that once the invitations have been sent you’ve really lost all control over how things will unfold. The problem with dinner parties is that someone will inevitably open a cupboard or lift a pillow and see that your life is a dusty shadow of the pristine image you try to convey on Instagram. And being the guest is no easier. Do you take flowers and risk sending the host into that awkward frenzy of looking for a vase and the rice boils over? Do you bring wine? Are these the wine connoisseur or the baby duck friends? And how do you determine if the host, insisting you bring nothing but yourself, is being sincere or testing you?

I hosted my first dinner party in grade ten. That was the one year in high school when I had friends. I used my Girl Guide acquired expertise to set the table properly. Mixed the prettiest syrupy mocktails in brandy snifters complete with paper umbrellas. I served fondue, the kind where you heat the oil to boiling and dip your meat into, creating a meal of greasy flavorless tough meat. I’m glad that fad died out. The chocolate dessert fondue was a hit.

I don’t know what possessed me to want to host my six closest girl friends for a dinner party. Goodness knows the favour was never returned and the friendships eventually petered out with high school drama and disloyalty. But I don’t regret it. Oh my, did we feel grown up that night as my parents disappeared into the background and we sat around the table for hours taking on the adult persona of dinner conversation with all seriousness.

I think I learned it young, certainly my parents would host dinners, usually in our case people from church and sometimes these were adult only affairs. But no matter we lived in a modest split-level, I could sit just inside my closed bedroom door and listen to every word of their adult conversations well into the night. From the other side of my bedroom door, seated crossed legged for hours I learned that the real gold of a dinner party has little to do with the food. That’s where I learned that dinner parties are most importantly about the conversations, the connection, the people, and the vulnerability.

Jesus was the guest at plenty a dinner party. He was the host sometimes too, once in an upper room the night before he was tracked down and brought to the cross, once on a beach eating fried fish and his disciples. And he was the guest more times than you can count. Sometimes he was the guest at the home of dear friends like Martha and Mary but mostly he was at the table because he invited himself like he did with Zaccheus or as a curiosity to the hosts as in the story before us today. No matter the circumstances one thing is sure, Jesus knew that dinner parties are central to our lives of faith, core to shaping our identity as Kin-dom people.

In the story before us he was invited to the home of a Pharisee. These were the guys who knew the rules and enforced them. They’d been watching Jesus since he healed on the Sabbath and they were waiting for him to break another rule. There must have been tension in the air that night. One would expect Jesus to have been on his best behaviour but he never seemed to be limited by what others thought. He gets to the party and hasn’t even found his seat when he sees that people are vying for the places of most honour at the table.

You’ve got to appreciate that honor and shame had tremendous sway in society at that time. There really was nothing more important than your honour and it was tied in to your family, you didn’t just bring shame on yourself for a misstep you’d bring it on your whole family too. Jesus sees this competition rumbling at the party and starts into a parable.

He tells them, if you’re invited to a party don’t take the seats of honour take the worst seat possible and then you only have one way to go, up. Which sounds like a rather half-baked parable. Really, take the worst seat so as to not risk being shamed by the host?

I wonder if he had lost a bit of his usual nerve or if he couldn’t, at first, get beyond the cultural norms so embedded in him. Because it’s not until the parable is over that he opens the trap door. I’ve talked before about the trap doors inherent in every parable. They open just when you think you have the thing figured out and they reveal some unexpected truth, some challenge to you, something that shifts the meaning of the whole thing. But in this instance the trap door lays between the parable and the real world in this line Jesus speaks to the host of the party. He says “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This key verse sews together the parable with the directive he gives to the host.

He says it is not just about taking the seat of least honour, it’s also about who you invite to the table and by goodness don’t invite anyone who’s playing that power game. Fill your table with people who can’t repay you. When you host a luncheon don’t invite your friends, don’t invite those you know and like, in other words invite those who will bring you no honour, those who can not repay you

The mainline church gets critiqued some times for various reasons but one of them is that we are a social club, more than a faith community, not enough concerned about Jesus and his kingdom as we are about the friendships we develop here or the justice activities we engage in.

With all seriousness I propose that there is a particular Christian spiritual practice that has been long overlooked: the spiritual practice of the dinner party. When we sit at table together as people who seek to follow in the way of Jesus, we are participating in something much greater than filling bellies. We are placing ourselves in the very vulnerable position of being changed, of being seen. It is hard to hate someone with whom you’ve shared a meal. And though it’s been done it is hard to leave a table when you’ve been offended, leaving you in the awkward position of sitting face to face with difference. Hospitality is certainly disarming and it can also be downright painful for both host and guest.

This community has been eating together a lot lately. A few weeks back when we announced that we would host our third annual Dine Out event the congregation erupted in applause. Who would have thought there would be such an appeal to sign up dinner, not even knowing who the other guests will be or who your host is for that matter. And you folks love it! But that’s not all. We hosted a community potluck earlier this month where sixty people gathered round table. And a gala dinner last Sunday where eight people purchased tickets so others could attend.

And it’s pancakes after church next week and later in March we’ll eat pies as we explore the Affirm United invitation to be Public intentional and explicit in our inclusion of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

On Mondays Mary Lou opens up the doors to the Great Hall, puts on a pot of coffee and hosts several dozen men living close to the economic and line, under the pretense of offering them tickets to get a free meal. But I’ve seen what she does and the meal is as peripheral as the coffee and delicious lemon squares she serves up. The heart of the kingdom revealed on Mondays is in the community that arises from the conversations. You may want to consider putting yourself in the blessed and vulnerable place of showing up. And on Thursdays as dozens of parents and their little ones gather for parent and tot group we feed them too.

And of course for the past twenty years this community has been serving up meals once a month at First United. That’s twelve meals a year times about 150 people per meal, that’s 36000 meals! But ask the hundreds of people who faithfully volunteer to lovingly set tables, serve never ending pots of coffee at a sit down meal, ask them if they think they are the host and they’ll tell you these people who can’t return the favour return it a hundred fold every single week in their words and presence. They’ll tell you the food is just an avenue to the heart, to meeting the other, the stranger and when the stranger becomes a person you can’t help but look at the world and your place in it a little bit differently.

And later today after we gather for a service of remembrance to lift up the life of Blake Schaeferle, who was baptized here in this church, who no doubt played a few games of hide and seek amidst these pews and later would sit down at this piano any chance he got. After that service we will gather for lunch, around table, because we know that the conversations that happen as we fill our bellies are an extension of what happens here as we fill our souls. Because tables are places where we learn that our tears are not so different, our politics don’t need to be so entrenched, our joys are remarkably similar and one’s heartbreak has a way of seeping into the heart of another, so that we can bear it just a little bit easier.

I don’t know exactly what Jesus was trying to say that day but I do know that every parable points to the Kingdom and with so very many stories about tables he must have wanted us to know that the kingdom, the place where Love wins, is very much present in the things that happen around table. Maybe parables are filled with trap doors. Maybe there’s a trap door, an opening to powerful truth, a call to faithful discipleship for us that may be different from the trap door of previous generations or contexts. I’m not sure we actually need to have this all figured out but maybe there is something to be learned by practicing and laying out the spread and inviting any and all to every table we can, maybe there is always something to learn about the kindom.

Dinner parties are risky business, people may see you for who you really are, and the conversation may veer into places that leave you feeling uncomfortable but these are opportunities to be fed as much as the lavish abundance of dinner parties. What if every dinner party, ever meal shared, every time there’s a table present we saw it as invitation to practice being a kingdom people.

The problem with dinner parties really is that they are rife with trap doors, trap doors that we can fall into and find what we once knew for sure to be shaken up, trap doors that reveal we’ve been putting too many restrictions on our table welcome, trap doors that show ironically that the person society has the least to give is actually not their poverty or their illness, but a beautiful child of God. Being Christian is not about removing ourselves from the world but relishing in it and opening to the places and people and food that just may open our hearts and lead us to a more faithful risky life. Where’s the party? [1]


[1] This is some of what I read as I found inspiration for this sermon:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/25/magazine/food-issue-art-of-dinner-party.html
https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3354
https://www.openhorizons.org/h-is-for-hospitality-patricia-adams-farmer.html