April 23, 2017 / Chosen: Anyone & Everyone / Sara Wolbrecht / Luke 14: 12-24
It’s true, that Christians were first known as people who ate together. In those early years after Jesus left, at the beginning of each week they gathered at the table – rich and poor, slaves and free, Jews and Gentiles, women and men – to celebrate the day the whole world changed, to toast to resurrection. While each community – in different towns and regions – worshipped a bit differently, it appears most practiced communion by enjoying a full meal together, with special prayers of Thanksgiving, for the bread and wine. They remembered Jesus with food, stories, laughter, tears, debate, discussion, and clean up. They thanked God not only for the bread that came from the earth, but also for the Bread that came from heaven to nourish the whole world.
Two thousand years have passed, and though the form of the practice has changed throughout the centuries, we, as Jesus’ people, are still people who eat together.
Here at Salt House, we say it over and over again: that good and sacred things happen when we eat together. Both eating here, at Jesus’ table (Holy Communion) and every time we sit down with pancakes, or a cup of coffee, a plate of pasta, or a beer – with someone else across the table, good and sacred things. It is a practice that has defined Jesus followers because it is a practice that defined Jesus – who he ate with, how he used the time at the table – it echoes through the centuries since then as vitally central to the life of God.
Which is why for the next four weeks we are on this road together. Or really, at this table, together. We will explore how at the table – something happens.
To shape these four Sundays, we have four words to guide us, mentioned in the video, one for each week – which are familiar words for us as folks who gather around Holy Communion. We use these words because of the brilliant way in which Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest – one of my favorite writers – in his book, Life of the Beloved, uses them. He says this: P. 48-49.
And mic drop. Right? Such rich language for us that captures this dynamic of our lives. How what happens at the table, carries into every part of how we live.
Chosen Blessed Broken Given
So for today, we begin with word #1, how Jesus “took” or “chose” the bread – and how this is a word to define our lives. Today – we dive in to what it means that we are chosen.
To get there, I want to tell you about someone, and then turn to scripture. First, the someone. I want to tell you about Sara Miles. When Sara was 46 she wandered into an unfamiliar church, ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine. Until that moment she’d had no interest in religion. Traveled, liberal, and lesbian, she was raised in a secular home and remained deeply skeptical of what she’d seen of church, particularly its more fundamentalist branches. She’d never been baptized, never read much of the Bible, never prayed the Lord’s Prayer. But she wandered into St. Gregory’s of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, and someone invited Sara to the table.
I’ve been to St. Gregory’s – (Pic of St G Church) and it is a lovely space, with high ceilings that are decorated with paintings of the saints throughout history – and they are all dancing together. And the saints include a wide breadth of people (and animals) like those we’d expect like the apostles and church revolutionaries throughout time – but also folks like Albert Einstein, Anne Frank, Ghandi, Ella Fitzgerald, Emily Dickinson. And folks who attend on any given Sunday actually dance, (Dancing Pic) from where they are seated into a connected part of the sanctuary, they dance their way around to gather at the Communion table.
In her book, Take This Bread, after taking that piece of bread and sip of wine, Sara Miles says of her first Communion: “Then something outrageous and terrifying happened – Jesus happened to me.” Sara felt dizzy, overwhelmed, charged with life, filled. Suddenly, she believed.
She says: “I couldn’t’ reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told. But neither could I go away: For some inexplicable reason, I wanted that bread again. I wanted it all the next day after my first communion, and the next week, and the next. It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger, pulling me back to the table.”
Not only did Sara then, with the bewildered support of her partner and daughter, come back the next Sunday and the next and the next. Not only did she convert to Christianity, she also partnered with St Gregory’s to create a massive food pantry, (Pic of food pantry) where the poor, elderly, sick, homeless and marginalized from the community are served each week from the very table where Sara took first communion – like Sara they get food with no strings attached, no questions asked. With the saints painted on the church walls dancing and looking on, hundreds gather around the communion table to fill their bags with fruit, vegetables, rice, beans, cereal, bread, canned goods, peanut butter, and whatever happens to be in the five-to-six-ton bounty of food that particular Friday. Many become volunteers themselves, joining church staff for a meal together at noon.
Now. Hold on to Sara’s story as we turn the bible. Sara’s food pantry recalls a conversation Jesus once had. It was a conversation with a group of religious leaders at the home of a prominent Pharisee (Pharisees were religious experts – who I picture as perpetually grumpy and self-righteous). The story is told in Luke’s gospel – we’re jumping in mid-conversation as they are gathered in the house, and our piece begins with Jesus offering literal instructions to how to have a dinner party (pay attention to that!), then he shifts into a parable, a story that captures the essence of what he means.
Luke 14:12-24 (The Message)
12-14 Then Jesus turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”
15 That triggered a response from one of the guests: “How fortunate the one who gets to eat dinner in God’s kingdom!”
16-17 Jesus followed up. “Yes. For there was once a man who threw a great dinner party and invited many. When it was time for dinner, he sent out his servant to the invited guests, saying, ‘Come on in; the food’s on the table.’
18 “Then they all began to beg off, one after another making excuses. The first said, ‘I bought a piece of property and need to look it over. Send my regrets.’
19 “Another said, ‘I just bought five teams of oxen, and I really need to check them out. Send my regrets.’
20 “And yet another said, ‘I just got married and need to get home to my wife.’
21 “The servant went back and told the master what had happened. He was outraged and told the servant, ‘Quickly, get out into the city streets and alleys. Collect all who look like they need a square meal, all the misfits and homeless and wretched you can lay your hands on, and bring them here.’
22 “The servant reported back, ‘Master, I did what you commanded—and there’s still room.’
23-24 “The master said, ‘Then go to the country roads. Whoever you find, drag them in. I want my house full! Let me tell you, not one of those originally invited is going to get so much as a bite at my dinner party.’”
Sara Miles’ story, and this parable from Jesus begin to point us toward what it means to be chosen. Before hearing this, I wonder, what associations you have for the word chosen? For me it brings up words like “elite.” Or making the team, the Varsity squad. Is it that way for you? Chosen for a team, a job, an award – and in every scenario, there is always someone – usually lots of someones – who is left out. Someone else is NOT chosen. Competition and comparison is always there. In our world, to be chosen simply means to be set apart in contrast to others. I’m chosen, and you’re not.
But Jesus flips that all upside down. To speak of being chosen (as I think Jesus intends it), is be chosen by God – and here, the image used in our text is that of a dinner party. A little heads up that a banquet, feast, dinner party – this is a recurring image in scripture of God’s kingdom – and in these metaphors God is the host of this feast, and so that’s a little wink to how Jesus is using this – to speak metaphorically about who God is and how God is.
And a dinner party is a fabulous way to capture our chosenness. Jesus is saying: If you’re invited to the party? You’re chosen by God. And so this parable becomes a commentary about the kinds of people God chooses.
We see WHO is invited (and therefore chosen), yes? Who is it? The misfits and wretched – oh, they’re in. And I love the progression of how that circle is expanded. It’s the usual folks, then the misfits you can find in town, and when there’s still room? Oh, let’s go outside the bounds of our city and drag in everyone from the country.
There are two crazy things defined here about chosenness – first, is the WHO. And as we see that circle getting wider and wider it’s a statement about WHO is chosen by God – and it’s clear: There is no such thing as the bottom of the barrel. Or someone too weird or awful or too far away. ANYONE is chosen. The first crazy piece – it’s anyone.
Sara Miles felt this at Jesus’ table, yes? As a lesbian non-church-going, liberal woman who had only heard stories of what happens in churches (most of them not great) – something compelled her to walk through that door – she felt that invitation to come, even in her own mis-fit-ness. And her invitation in, became an overwhelming experience at the table of receiving her chosenness. Yes? Who is chosen? Anyone.
And second craziness happening in this parable, is that even when the search to recruit more folks for the banquet reaches outside the city? The servant says – but master, there is still more room! And the master’s response? I want my house full! And we see it here that there is always more room. So in God’s Kingdom, those who are chosen, it is anyone, AND it’s EVERYONE.
To be chosen by God – it breaks the rules we know about chosenness – because no one if left out. No one doesn’t make the team, no one doesn’t get the award. And you know what? This is so hard for us to digest. If there is any one area in which we all subconsciously bristle at Christianity, I wonder if this is it: it is so hard to believe that I am chosen, and that y’all would be chosen too. Right?
I think we struggle with God’s inclusion of everyone. Because it goes against everything our competitive culture teaches us. But Jesus is clear: the Kingdom of God is for anyone and everyone. Which means THIS is what the kingdom of God is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more. (Now don’t you want to be at that party?)
For us, today, I want to suggest two aspects of this to carry with us this week. As we move through this, I invite you to actively hold the two question that we try to ask here at Salt House, the two questions that are central to the life of Jesus (which we haven’t explicitly asked in recent months, and so it’s time to name them again). Here they are:
God, what are you saying?
What am I going to do about it?
Don’t worry yet about the second, but begin with asking what God is saying to you as we move through these two things. The first is the incredible good news that we are included in the anyone and everyone. That you and me and all of us are chosen by God. Which isn’t an elite status exactly, it’s more accurately our beloved status. As the chosen of God, you are beloved of God – that is what defines your chosenness, defines you. Beloved. Beloved who gets to eat all the good things at the feast. We glimpse this chosenness/belovedness in moments when we feel seen as we are, as unique, special, precious. We can experience it from another person in moments when they have noticed our uniqueness and they express a desire to know us, to come closer to us, to even love us. We can glimpse our chosenness in so many ways – like at Holy Communion, like Sara.
That is the first good news we hear, that even when we feel like we are one of the misfits who get invited late, or even, so far away that it’s like we’re not even in the same town where God is hosting the party – there is always room for us at the table. Chosen. You are the beloved of God. We believe that God looks at you and me says: Wow. I love how I made you. Just the way you are. Now, come and eat. ….Do you need to hear this deep in your bones today? Then hear it. You’re chosen.
The second piece I’d offer up for us today is that it isn’t enough to say that we ourselves are the people dragged in from the country lanes, to our surprise, to enjoy God’s party. That is absolutely true, we’re in, we’re chosen. But party guests are then expected to become party hosts in their turn. That’s what Sara did, yes? Once she was at the party, she wanted to make room for others – and not just anybody, but the everybody. To make room for those who were hungry and willing to say yes. We each individually and absolutely as a community, must work out here in our church, as well as in our families, what it means to celebrate God’s kingdom so that people at the bottom of the pile, at the end of the line, would find it to be good news.
On a community level, there are so many opportunities already available to us for how to become hosts of God’s party – ways that we may not even recognize as those kinds of opportunities. Let me offer just a few questions that can point us toward them, they may be opportunities you already embrace, or that may be good to choose moving forward.
First is the incredible access we have to building relationships with families who experiencing homelessness. 25-50 folks are in our lower level, at the NBDC Sunday – Friday, 2pm - 8pm. How are you engaging in the work of the day center? Or in our efforts as our land becomes the site of a permanent shelter for families and women? What might you do? Or here on Sundays, how are you showing up to serve on our Welcome team, to extend hospitality and shape the experience for those who are brave enough to walk through our doors? Or how are you volunteering with our kid’s ministry to make a fun, loving environment to show them their chosenness? How are you helping to set up and clean up our meals, to make our parties that kind of experience of God’s kingdom at the table? How are you engaging online with the public conversation that happens about Salt House and issues of justice and inclusion? These areas are open for folks to sign up and dive in and help. The question we ask: how might you dive in to invite others to God’s party here at Salt House?
Now as our final, final word for all of us is this – a practice that I offer for us to take on for this four week series ahead of us. We have named it before, and it is printed in our weekly bulletin, that we like to encourage each other to take on The Three Meal Challenge. It’s simply means each week, three meals at the table with other folks. The finer print is that: it is with folks other than those you live with. And I think it can be not just a meal but grabbing a coffee or glass of wine together. Pro tip: it ain’t gonna happen unless you intentionally plan it. Put it on your calendar.
Are you willing to take on this Three Meal Challenge? (Then write it down).
Christians were first known as people who ate together. And man, do we want to be known for that now – the Three Meal Challenge is part of how we change that story – so is making room here in our community, in all the ways that we step up as party hosts. And it is absolutely rooted in our willingness to receive again and again our identity as chosen, as the beloved of God.
With that in mind, let’s close our time with an experience of our chosenness for a moment. I invite you to close your eyes, to get comfortable. And to bring your awareness into your body, follow your breath into your lungs, then out again. I heard Tony Campolo speak a few years ago about a practice he does every morning before getting out of bed. And I think it is absolutely a practice of knowing we are chosen. Let’s try it now. It is simply this. I invite you to imagine that you are lying down in the giant palm of God’s hand. You are held there. Safely, tenderly. Resting. I don’t know what this week was like for you, or how you are doing now – but whatever it is you carry, whatever weight – know that God is holding that, too. You are held, embraced, loved. Stay there, and let’s pray.