Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Ordinary 22C; Proper 17
There is a whole lot of watching going on at the Pharisee’s house.
The leaders at the dinner party are watching Jesus. Jesus is noticing the guests’ behavior. Even though everyone is at the same event, the observations vary widely. The Pharisees are watching Jesus closely. They are observing his actions. Will he heal on the Sabbath? Will he wash before he eats? Will he follow the rules around what to eat and with whom? The Pharisees are watching, observing, waiting to catch Jesus in the act of religious law breaking. Their close watching is a form of surveillance, a means of collecting evidence in order to convict.
Jesus’ watching is different. He is noticing. Jesus is paying attention not to the religious rules but to God’s people. As is his custom. Jesus notices God’s people everywhere he goes, no matter the chaos around him. In pushing crowds, he feels the woman touch his garment. At the temple, he sees the widow put in her offering of all she has. He calls over to him the woman bent over for 18 years. He sees his soon-to-be-disciples hauling in nets and he sees Zacchaeus up in the tree. Jesus’ watching is about noticing people in order to heal, teach, save and enlist into kingdom work. His close watching is about awareness – like a parent at a crowded park, not a security guard behind a monitor.
The Pharisees are watching Jesus closely. Jesus is noticing the guests. The party is just getting started and people are taking their seats. Perhaps they are sitting where they normally sit, not thinking too much about it. These religious leaders likely get together with regularity. They have shared responsibilities. They know who the most important members of the group are. There is probably an established, if unspoken, pecking order. Haven’t we experienced these sort of gatherings? Session members sit in the same spot around the table month after month. Business meetings have a certain protocol. Family dinners follow a familiar pattern. The guests may be mindlessly going to their place, but Jesus is new to the gathering and he is noticing what they are not.
Jesus notices God’s people. Jesus pays attention to where we sit and with whom. Jesus notices who serves and who is served. Jesus notices who is missing and who is given honor. Jesus is looking to see if we are following the law, too. Are we showing hospitality to strangers? Are we sharing what we have? Are we noticing who and what Jesus notices or are we thoughtlessly taking a seat of honor, unaware of our privilege, oblivious to who isn’t even in the room, let alone around the table?
The key questions to ask in light of this text are: What are we watching closely? Who are we noticing? To what are we paying attention? And then, of course, what are we doing in light of what we see?
These are not trivial questions. Those of us who are privileged are often oblivious to much. I have a long list of things that I failed to even consider until I was forced notice. I knew nothing of the injustices of the prison system and the impact of the policies passed in the war of drugs campaign until I read “The New Jim Crow” by Michele Alexander. I was ignorant about the impact of voting laws, such as identification requirements and early voting, until I heard a reporter discuss the case in North Carolina recently. The impact of “welfare to work” policies? I had no clue why they mattered until my husband shared with me the story of a family of five who were about to be evicted from public housing because the mother was now working and, as a result, their other benefits were cut. The critical need for good public transportation? I didn’t ride the bus, so what did I know? Nothing, until I met family after family rendered homeless because a car broke down and they no longer had the ability to get to work. The crippling nature of student debt? I didn’t know how it was haunting a whole generation, until I talked with a young woman who, due to her fear of student loans, is choosing not to go to college. The lifelong impact of policies about needle exchange on people hooked on heroine? Not on my radar, until I met not one, but two, people in their early twenties, now clean, but positive for hep C. The list could go on for pages.
Jesus is watching us closely. He is noticing where we sit, with whom we eat, who serves and who is served, and he pays attention to who isn’t even in the room, let alone around the table. Are we noticing, too? Or are we watching Jesus for all the wrong reasons when we are supposed to be his witnesses?
In his book “Union with Christ,” J. Todd Billings writes about the “Eucharistic gospel” and “Eucharistic table manners.” He details the history of communion policies in the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (DRC). It is a revelatory history and one with which I was mostly unfamiliar. The policy for many years was, “for the Lord’s Supper to be administered ‘without distinction of colour.’” However, due to the request of a group of white members, in 1857 an exception was made in order to accommodate “the weakness of some.” The weaker ones being the white members requesting separate communion between whites and blacks. This “pastoral exception” became common practice. Then, according to Billings, the common practice “eventually developed into an elaborate theology that sought to ground the separation of the races in creation.” This elaborate theology led to the DRC supporting apartheid. This is a scary trajectory that grew from who was and who wasn’t at the table.
Jesus notices who is at the banquet and who is missing. Do we?
Billings continues the story of Eucharistic table manners in South Africa through the story of the “koinonia” ministry started by a South African DRC pastor, Nico Smith. People of different races from different parts of the city gathered together in one another’s homes and shared a meal. Nico Smith noticed who wasn’t in the room and he invited everyone to come to the table together. Billings describes the impact, “In a quite profound way, this sharing of bread and of lives became a force in anti-apartheid movement, helping to break down the cultural stereotypes and barriers that divided.”
There are profound and powerful implications to watching closely, noticing who is in the room, around the table, who is served and who is serving, who is eating and who is hungry, who is missing and who has the power to control the guest list. What we notice, or not, impacts our witness to the One who always sees those most in need of compassion.
Are we minding our Eucharistic table manners? Are we watching closely our own behavior, the actions and inactions that can cripple or empower those out in the streets and lanes? Are we surveying the room for bad behavior or are we attentively watching to see who needs to be invited to dinner? Are we watching in order to bear witness to the One who notices those in need? Are we extending hospitality to strangers to the end that they become our brothers and sisters? Are we sharing what we have because we recognize that nothing really belongs to us and our deepest desire is only to be at the table with Jesus, yesterday, today and forever?
- When have you shared a meal with people other than those you know well? Who was there? Why were you gathered? What was it like?
- How can we have “Eucharistic table manners” at every table? What are those manners?
- Make a point to watch closely things you may ordinarily not notice. Who isn’t around your table, the Communion table? Who is waiting at the bus stop? Who is missing from the places you normally go?
- Imagine that Jesus is noticing where you sit, how you interact with people, what you say. What do you think Jesus sees? What word might he share with you?
- Practice Examen this week and write down what insights you gain from the practice.
- How have surveillance and cell phone cameras forced us to pay attention to much of what we’ve been oblivious to for years?
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