Sunday, September 1, 2013

Divine Dinner Parties

I quite enjoy cooking and baking.  For a variety of reasons.

Mostly, cooking and baking acts of self-care for me.  It makes sense in circumstances that often feel senseless.  It has a scientific certainty to it when so much in life seems to lack any certainty at all.

There are rules to cooking and baking.  Lots of beautiful rules.

I wasn't among you last week.  I was over at Salem talking to them about my love of rules.  And my day job.  Which involves highly logic, perfectly rational, stringently consistent rules.  And I talked to them about how much I love that aspect of my job -- the rules.

It just so happens that there are times in my life when it feels like nothing makes sense, where there are no rules, or no one is following the rules, or the rules constantly change from one moment to the next.  During these times, it is not unusual for me to retire to the kitchen and cook or bake.

As luck would have it, I also happen to know a number of people who like to eat.

It started in seminary.  I would be in the kitchen, making dinner, relaxing at the end of the day.  I would be making something fragrant, adjusting the temperature or cooking time to compensate for changes in weather or humidity.

A neighbor would walk past the kitchen and remark on the delicious aromas wafting through the halls.  "It'll be ready in 1/2 an hour," I'd tell them.  "Why don't you make a salad and join me?"

Not long after, another neighbor would walk by.  "MaryBeth, what is that amazing smell?" they would ask.  "Oh, I"m just throwing together a little of this or that for dinner.  Our neighbor is bringing a salad.  It'll be ready in about 20 minutes.  Why don't you bring a bottle of wine and join us?"

And not long after, another neighbor would walk by.  "That smells absolutely heavenly," they would say.  "Well, it'll be ready in about 10 minutes.  Our neighbors are bringing a salad and some wine.  Why don't you grab your fiancee and join us for dinner?"

These impromptu dinner parties would take place 2-3 times a month.

Now, this kind of thing is much easier to pull off when you live in a dormitory and share a common kitchen and living room with 30 other people.

Currently, I do not have the space or ability to host dinner parties.  This is sad.

It has not, however, stopped me from feeding people.

Whenever I have the time and the resources, I like to head to the kitchen, whip up something fun, and send care packages to friends near and far.

Back in April, I went to Kansas for a week to celebrate my birthday.  I visited a very dear friend of mine, and spent my afternoons in his kitchen, preparing meals for us, and insisting that he invite over any stray friends who might not have alternate plans that night.

Over the course of the week, I made a Chicken and 40 Cloves, bbq ribs, chipotle lime pork roast, roast chicken, homemade pizza, and on the day of my birthday:  Puff pastry cups with blue cheese and truffle honey, Bacon wrapped dates with blue cheese, Baked brie en croute, Risotto with bacon,  blue cheese, and caramelized onions, and a Dark Chocolate Cheesecake with Hazelnut Ganache and Sea Salt for dessert.

We invited a few people and had a wonderful time.

In our scripture today, Jesus is at a dinner party.

Now, when I would throw dinner parties, there was no favoritism shown to anyone.  People came and sat and talked and ate and drank and laughed and we all had a wonderful time.  We all came to the table as equals.  None was more highly valued than any other.

This is not the case in Jesus's day.  Jesus notices people choosing places of honor, seating themselves more closely to the host, the choicest spot at the table.

It would be like everyone in church making a concerted effort to sit in the front pew.  At some point, an usher would simply have to come forward, and ask that the "less prominent" members of the church take a pew farther toward the back of the sanctuary.

This illustration, of course, is completely foreign to one and all here today.  You guys are so humble, not a single one of you wants to assume the place of greatest honor!  And aren't you fortunate that the ushers have not approached you and invited you to "move up to a better place" in church this morning?

Jesus, it seems, is not striving to get the best seat for himself at this dinner party.  Much as he is being watched by those present -- the Pharisees who are the moral authorities of the day -- Jesus is watching those present as well.  When he sees them scrambling to get the best place, he tells them a parable.

Not the traditional story type parable we are used to, but rather, he lays out a basic rule for behaving at dinner parties:  Do not seek the best seat and risk being asked to move down to make room for someone more prominent.  Rather, choose the lowest seat, that you might be invited to move up to a better place.

"Choose humility," Jesus said, "that you will not be humiliated."

This was not a lesson in social etiquette, as one might assume at first blush.  Rather, it is a lesson in how things work in God's kingdom, what it's going to be like at the Divine Dinner Party.  "Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

This is something Jesus tells us repeatedly:  the first shall be last; the last shall be first.  Those who seek to lift themselves shall be humbled; those who humble themselves shall be esteemed.

One of the ways people today often seek to lift themselves, seek to be esteemed by others, is to surround themselves with those who are their social equals or "better."  Those who have more social capital, in the ever-present struggle to make it.  The notion of "Keeping up with the Joneses," leads many to choose their companions with care: friends, relatives, wealthier neighbors who can advance their position at work, in life, in the neighborhood.

It's not about what you know, they will say.  It's all about who you know.

Tit-for-tat.  You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.  Trading favors so that we both get ahead.

And this is appealing!  It's how the world works.  It's what earns us respect and esteem and perhaps the envy of those around us....

Yet this is not what we, as Christians, are called to.

We are called to give sacrificially of ourselves, with no expectation of a return.  We are called to love, serve, and bless those who cannot repay us.

We are not to invite our friends, relatives, or rich neighbors to our banquets.  If we invite them, they may repay us.  They may seek to balance their account, to repay the debt of our kindness -- and they have the ability to do so.

"Do not do this!" says Jesus.  "When you host a dinner party, invite the poor who cannot repay you in kind.  Invite the crippled who cannot serve you.  Invite the lame, who cannot prepare a meal.  Invite the blind, who in Jesus's time had no ability to provide for themselves let alone anyone else.  Do this, and you will be blessed."

It is better to give than to receive, we are told.  For the greater blessing is in the giving.

This isn't always easy to remember or even believe.  Who among hasn't spent him or herself on behalf of another, perhaps repeatedly, with no reward?

Who among us hasn't sought to love someone others find unlovable, only to be rejected time and again?

What of Paul's charge to show hospitality to strangers?

This is more than showing hospitality to those whom we have not met.  It goes deeper than that.  This speaks to the notion of showing hospitality, gracious regards, radical welcome to those who are different, who are not just strangers but strange to us; different; not just unknown, but seemingly unknowable.

Maundy Thursday this year, Pope Francis showed this kind of hospitality in washing the feet of Muslim woman.

Many of you were here for Maundy Thursday services.  Many of you had your feet washed by Bob, your head anointed by me.  Would we have shown such gracious hospitality to a Muslim had one entered our worship that night?  I'd like to believe so.

Love those who cannot love you; show hospitality to strangers; store up for yourself treasures in heaven.  Invite to your dinner party those who cannot reciprocate.

Do this, and you will be repaid.  Your reward will be waiting.  Certainly, as Jesus said, "You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."  But you will also be repaid here, now, in this time.  Repaid by a present, active, infinite and loving God who declares, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you."

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  The one who leads us out of bondage, who cares for us through times wilderness, through deserts and ravines, through times of spiritual drought and darkness, is met in the stranger, the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.

If he has done so much for us, let us do as much for him.  Let us seek him in the face of the oppressed.  Let us love him by loving others.  Let us serve him by others.

God has radically welcomed us, we who cannot repay the kindness and generosity of such a powerful and glorious God.  Let us radically welcome the image of God that we find in those who cannot repay us.  In doing so, we will be rewarded.  And what an amazing dinner party that's going to be.

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