Tabletalk in Luke 14: 7-14


imagesI am realizing more and more how lucky I am to have been raised at the time when families still had a regular pattern of eating together at the kitchen table. Growing up we ate together in the evenings and in my earlier childhood my mother still kept to the custom of Sunday lunch together, although this was something that began to fall by the wayside as my sisters and I grew older. Yet, the template of experience of common meals forms a significant experience in my socialization.

Common to families like mine, at least one parent usually mother, was always anxious to ensure that her children had good table manners and knew how to use a knife and fork properly so that we would neither shame her or ourselves in public. To this day I still cast my eye around restaurants to note how oddly some people manipulate their eating utensils. Traveling this summer with our extended family both Al and I continued to fulfill our grandfatherly role of remonstrating with our 11-year-old granddaughter about the poor quality of her table manners. A common exhortation from us was: Claire, remember spoon to the mouth not mouth to the spoon!

 Table fellowship- Pharisees and Jesus

These are the strange associations that come to mind as I hear Luke’s account of Jesus’ behavior at the dinner party of a wealthy and important Pharisee. Jesus seems to have spent a good deal of time attending dinner parties. So much so that it led to the accusation of his being a drunkard. He was much criticized by his Pharisee friends for eating in some unsavory company in the homes of tax collectors, and in the company of prostitutes and other sinners of the like.

Luke is the writer who gives us the clearest picture of the importance of dinner parties, or to use the proper term, table fellowship in Jesus’ ministry. Yet, as well as eating with the socially outcast Jesus also shares table fellowship in the best Pharisee company.

He knew important Pharisees and was welcome in their homes. It seems likely that his own religious formation owed much to the network of Pharisee scribes responsible for much of the education of village boys. It comes as a surprise for us to learn that Jesus and the Pharisees were natural allies. Among the contentious factions of Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Herodians that contended for power under the Roman occupation the Pharisees and Jesus shared the same religious and political outlook.

The reality was that the Pharisees and Jesus, both represented a progressive approach to the interpretation of scripture. Both Jesus and the Pharisees believed that under the inspiration of the God’s spirit, the scriptures could be interpreted to speak to new situations unforeseen in the original time the text was written down. Both believed that the primary duty was owed towards God.  God remained the primary focus of ultimate allegiance. So long as the legal responsibilities imposed by the foreign occupation, keep the peace and pay your taxes did not directly interfere with the primary allegiance to God, then the maxim render to Caesar etc expressed a tolerable level of practical accommodation. It was among the Pharisees that Jesus may well have encountered the concept of in the world but not of it.

Family disagreements are often the fiercest. Those differences between Jesus and the Pharisees lay in a divergence of interpretation. As the Talmud saying goes: two Jews, three opinions. What lay between Jesus and the Pharisee who had invited him to dinner was a legitimate difference of interpretive vision. This difference in vision led each to different conclusions. For the Pharisees, table fellowship maintained ritual- spiritual purity. In a tainted world of secular and political accommodation and compromise, the purity of table fellowship was a necessary expression of the hope for the coming of God’s kingdom. Pharisees took very seriously their preparedness for the coming of the Messiah. Table fellowship was where they disputed with one another about Torah interpretation, and Jesus seems to have entered into this process with gusto.

For Jesus, table fellowship was an expression of the open-ended inclusiveness that lay at the heart of God’s reign. For Jesus, God’s kingdom was not something to prepare for by remaining careful to guard one’s spiritual identity as a member of a pure Israel. It was rather an invitation to participation. God’s kingdom while still to come was also already here. The realization of the kingdom demanded embracing the prophetic dream of God’s inclusion of all in sundry within the scope of the salvation of Israel. Both Pharisee and Jesus’ interpretations flowed from the richness of Israel’s prophetic tradition. From a common root, different shoots leaf.

We who receive the Gospel in the early decades of the 21st-century need to know that the disputations between Jesus and the Pharisees, in this instance argued out around the dinner table, were during Jesus’ lifetime legitimate interpretive differences within the larger shared and religiously progressive approach that sought to apply Scripture to the needs of everyday life. It is crucial that we also recognize that by Luke’s time such disputations had evolved and escalated into bitter arguments between competing Rabbinic and Christian communities. Paul Hanson notes that:

this transformation of learned disputation into bitter invective and finally unspeakable violence represents one of the most horrific tragedies of human history.[1]

Jesus’ message to his fellow diners is that humility rather than certainty of election is the core attribute required in relationship with God. For Jesus, table fellowship was a place where connection is made, brokenness is healed, and all invited to participate in God’s rich blessings, regardless of the state of their table manners. Je we take our seat at the bottom of the table, here we will find ourselves sitting beside persons who are not like us and whose table manners may well not come up to our standards.

The Contemporary Challenge

In my anecdotal experience, for many today, eating together around the common table with family or friends is no longer a common routine experience. In a world of food quickly prepared and instantly consumed – on the run as it were – eating becomes an individual activity performed while attending to the endless distractions of TV and social networking. The state of one’s table manners ceases to have any social relevance when eating is no longer a shared experience.

One of the most important spiritual disciplines for us to recover in the kind of world in which we live is the discipline of table fellowship. … We need a recovery of the spiritual significance of what we eat, where we eat, and with whom we eat.[2] 

The real takeaway for me from our recent family holiday is not the memory of Claire’s sketchy table manners but the experience of our enjoying table fellowship together on a daily basis. After three Sunday’s away it is good for me this morning to be present again within the St Martin’s community of family and friends to participate in our Eucharistic table fellowship together. Eucharist is a continual reminder that table fellowship lies at the heart of our Christian life.

In the story from Luke about Jesus at the dinner party of a notable Pharisee the message for me is this: that although it matters how we eat, the really important emphasis is upon with whom we eat.

An issue for our future centers on whether we become a community where to invite others: friends, neighbors, and colleagues to share Eucharist with us – becomes second nature? For many of us this is a tall ask. Perhaps one way to work towards this is to do what many of us still know how to do best. Before inviting others to Jesus, we should invite them to dinner first. 

[1] The Political History of the Bible in America 505-06 Kindle Reader edition
[2] Barry D. Jones The Dinner table as a Place of Connection, Brokenness, and Blessing

Woman, You Are Set Free

14 Pentecost (Proper 16 Year C)​21 August 2016 on Luke 13: 10-17 from Linda Mackie Griggs

 “And just then there appeared a woman…” Nameless and bent almost double, she must have been there all along. Crippled women don’t just appear out of nowhere. But regardless, Luke wants us to know that she was suddenly a person of interest, though we don’t know how she attracted Jesus’ attention. She didn’t speak up and ask for healing. No one spoke up for her. As a matter of fact, this woman’s spine may have been so deformed that she couldn’t even see Jesus. Imagine. Eighteen years of seeing nothing much more than the dust at your feet; maybe twisting to see from side to side, but unable to look ahead or up. Because of the restriction of the spine, the woman’s view of her world was completely truncated, distorted, incomplete. Eighteen years, in effect, bound and with blinders.

 Luke tells us that the woman has been bound by Satan. Medical science has since taught us that the primary origins of physical illness are biological, not due to evil spirits. But there is still plenty to ponder here in terms of language and metaphor.

 The language of freedom and bondage is significant throughout this passage. This is seen at the very outset, with the nature of the ailment and the healing itself.

Unlike many of Jesus’ healings, this falls into the category of an exorcism—granted, a quiet and relatively undramatic one compared to some of Jesus’ others, which included sending the offending demons into pigs and off of a cliff. This exorcism is accomplished with simply a touch and a word: “Woman, you are set free.” Set free from a spirit that had come between her and wholeness—fullness of life, for eighteen years.

 Also at issue here is the nature of the Sabbath. According to Hebrew Scriptures there are two reasons for Sabbath. One is that God sanctified it as the final act of creation. God’s people observe Sabbath because they are grateful to God for having been created–loved into being at the beginning of time. God sanctified a day of rest for God’s self, and invited—no, commanded the same for his beloved people. Sabbath is Creation’s yes to God, in response to God’s yes to Creation.

 Second, and the main issue in the context of this story, is that God’s people observe Sabbath because God freed them from bondage in Egypt and led them into the Promised Land. Sabbath is not just about creation; it’s about freedom.

 When the leader of the synagogue reprimanded not only Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, but also the people who sought to be cured, he had completely missed the point. He saw the Sabbath as a method of social control, not an invitation into deeper relationship with God and one another. In other words, he had turned Sabbath into another form of bondage. Jesus’ stinging rebuke to him, as usual, showed his command of the finer points of the law, pointing out that there is compassionate exception for watering thirsty animals; if they can be unbound to be refreshed, how much more then should a woman fettered by a crippling spirit be set free to stand upright and praise God?

 But the freedom at issue here isn’t just social and political freedom—it’s not just about the shoulds and should-nots of temple behavior. The freedom Jesus returns to the woman in the synagogue is an unbinding of her soul; a soul that had forgotten its beloved identity as a child of God.

 As I said, this is one of Jesus’ quieter exorcisms. No demon calls out to him, “What have you to do with me, Jesus son of the most high God???” Nor does the spirit throw the woman to the ground in seizures. The damage done by this spirit is something more insidious. It is a deformation of the spine that has taken place bit-by-bit and piece-by-piece. Luke’s portrayal of this bent and bound woman could in fact be an metaphor for any of us—for anyone who has suffered silently as loss and trauma of some kind or another took hold, and slowly, slowly ossified their outlook on the world until even the possibility of hope and wholeness was barely a shadow on the edge of vision.

 The trauma and chaos that are part of life– I call them speed bumps, but that’s just a glib way of articulating what is often better likened to a brick wall or a tidal wave—this is what rocks our world, chaotically and unpredictably. And when that happens, as we desperately seek to recover and respond, we often encounter a fork in the road. One side leads to humility, healing, and wholeness; this is formation. The other leads to de-formation—surrendering to a flood of bitterness and disillusionment. This kind of deformation binds us—binds us into a straitjacket of grief. Yes, grief. It’s not just for physical death. Many of our hard losses– loss of job, loss of relationship, loss of health, loss of faith—these are actually forms of death, in which we can experience the various phases that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross observed; denial, anger, bargaining, depression. These can restrict our vision of hope and healing so that we see only our feet among the ashes of what might have been.

 The hard part is that we almost never know that we are standing at that fork in the road unless by the grace of God someone points it out to us. Harder still is the fact that the way of healing is nearly always the rockier, curvier, and scarier path. It may involve trusting the hand of a guide; a spiritual director, therapist, mentor or friend. It probably involves frightening leaps of faith. It almost always involves making your way in the dark for a while. The way of healing and wholeness involves learning to accept our vulnerability and weakness; it involves accepting the fact that we are not, as popular culture would have us think, self-invented or self-sufficient. We wear this veneer of invincibility (or at least we try to), and when (yes, when) it cracks, it is the grace of God that helps us to see that our true strength is built around our scars.

 It is counterintuitive to our needy ego to seek that way of humility and vulnerability, but in that direction lies true freedom; a Sabbath perspective of being unbound from the demons of disillusionment and bitterness that constrain our vision of a God that loves us unconditionally and of a kingdom that doesn’t reject, but lovingly embraces the wounded and the grieving, and sets us free.




Tough Love

Linda Mackie-Grigg’s sermon for 13 Pentecost Year C (Proper 15)   14 August 2016  

Isaiah 5:1-7; Luke 12: 49-56

“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard…”

It has been said that when a preacher first approaches a Scripture passage, she should “look for trouble.” Well, today it looks like trouble found the preacher. We have been gifted with an array of images that, even if it weren’t the middle of August, it would have us sweating in our seats. And it should. Sometimes trouble is the best path to growth.

Isaiah wrote his “love song” in the 8th century B.C. from the ashes of the Syro-Ephraimite war, during which the southern kingdom of Judah (where Jerusalem was located) was invaded by the kingdoms of Israel and Syria. Isaiah was Prophet to King Ahaz of Judah, and believed, as prophets tended to do, that the disaster that was befalling the kingdom was God’s punishment for society’s sins. This passage is a very clever amalgam of rhetorical styles—a love-song, woven with a legal complaint, which morphs into a parable, which concludes as a blistering indictment of the Kingdom of Judah. It’s rhetorically brilliant, and it’s painful. As we listen to the transformation from love-song to declaration of guilt we hear the voice of the prophet change, from that of lover (“Let me sing for my beloved”), to grief-stricken disillusioned vineyard-owner (“and now…judge between me and my vineyard), to God’s self (“I will command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it”), to God’s silence; only the lonely voice of the prophet himself articulates God’s anger in the end: “He expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

Has Isaiah cleverly, surgically, offered us a portrait of a God who has given up on his people? We can’t help but wonder; what happened to God’s steadfast and unfailing love?The only way God can be seen as giving up is if this is the end of the story. And of course it’s not, but for now we are called to rest uncomfortably in this place—in this place of God’s grief and judgment.

“What more was there to do for my vineyard?”, the Grower asks. I planted it, I tended it, I protected it. I loved it. And all I got was a field of sour, seedy, rotten grapes. The Grower’s painstaking care is the freely offered grace of God, and the prophet here declares that God the Grower desires, no, expects a response—expects the sweet harvest of righteousness and justice, not the bitter fruit of cries and bloodshed.

The image of grapes is particularly appropriate here: This isn’t an ornamental crop—it’s a staple, whose purpose is to nourish and refresh. And when the peoples’ response to God’s gracious love was to reject it by showing contempt for the outsider, the poor, the sick, the marginalized—that was rotten fruit indeed. And God’s love song turned into a bitter lament.

God’s judgment, then, is to take down the wall and let the chips fall where they may with his wayward beloved ones. Destruction shall come as a consequence of their own actions—they have made their choice. If that is how they want it, so be it.

This is a hard place of God’s lament and judgment, and it is tempting to take from this a simplistic worldview that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. Perhaps this is a fair criticism of Isaiah and most of the prophets—a point magnificently argued in the book of Job, in which we wrestle with theodicy–why bad things happen to good people. And it is absolutely worthwhile to wrestle with this issue. But not now. Because if we’re not careful we will let this distract us from Isaiah’s clarion call to repentance and renewal–A call to justice, righteousness, peace, and compassion in a world where all of these were in painfully short supply. And they still are.

Jesus was definitely channeling his inner prophet in his anguished declaration to his followers in our gospel from Luke. As we have said in recent weeks this discourse takes place after Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross—which is the ‘baptism’ of which he speaks. He is invoking fire, but not the violent destruction that we heard of with Elijah and the prophets of Baal; rather Jesus is talking about the fire of judgment. Even so, it’s difficult to hear—God’s judgment isn’t the topic most people flock to when pondering their spiritual well-being. However, it helps to see God’s judgment as cleansing, not destructive; to have everything that keeps us from our ultimate union with the Divine burned away as if by a metal refiner—that–the cleansing fire of judgment– is what Jesus yearns to ignite in this passage.

Because you see, Jesus sees something. He sees the cracks. He sees the Kingdom breaking in. He knows that God is still tending and painfully pruning his vineyard and that those who accept the invitation to be part of that work are taking the risk of running afoul of the principalities and powers—challenging the social, political and economic structures that heretofore had undergirded an unjust society.

In the first century world, the fundamental social unit was the family; that was the basic building block—a household governed by firm social rules under an authoritative paterfamilias. So what Jesus alludes to here is a radical institutional redefinition– father against son, mother against daughter. Things are changing, he says. There are cracks in the system, and the kingdom is breaking in—right now. And the work of the vineyard, just as in Isaiah’s time, continues to be justice, righteousness, and compassion.

Jesus’ passionate discourse, like Isaiah’s, is a call to open our eyes and see the signs, and to be willing to take the risk of speaking truth—to ourselves and others–regarding entrenched and oppressive social and economic structures; to hear and respond to the cries of the refugees, the victims of discrimination, the poor, the lost and hurting—all of God’s beloved for whom we pray every week. God’s vineyard is expansive and inclusive, and God has never, never, given up—has never stopped singing a love song and yearning for a bountiful harvest. Jesus plays a demanding and compelling refrain, and it’s to us to write the next verse.


Do Not Be Afraid, Little Flock

A sermon From Linda Mackie-Griggs for 12 Pentecost, Year C (Proper 14)     7 August 2016

Luke 12: 32-40

“Do not be afraid…”

Have you ever noticed that whenever we hear this phrase it actually means, “fasten your seatbelts”? This is no exception.

This lesson is part of a longer discourse in which Jesus is speaking to a huge crowd, described as “…gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another…”—He’s talking to this chaotic mass of people about discipleship; about prayer, possessions, and even about the endtimes—the coming of the Son of Man. In short, he’s talking about the Kingdom mindset; what it is to take on the mantle of a follower of Jesus.

Today we are given three images on two topics; one is treasure—specifically “unfailing treasure”, and the other is attentiveness—but what kind of attentiveness? We move through a world filled with a vast array of priorities competing for our attention. How to divide the finite pie of our energy and awareness among the seemingly infinite number of material, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs (and wants) that confront us on a daily basis? Jesus begins by telling us not to be afraid; this means that whatever priorities we currently have, we are about to be invited to re-order them.

Jesus uses two parabolic images for attentiveness; the slaves awaiting the Master’s return home from the wedding banquet, and the owner of a house vigilant for thievery. And each offers a different perspective, two different kinds of energy.

Think about what it is to be alert. Attentive. Ready. Girded. On the watch. It’s exhausting to be hyper-focused on one thing for a long time—and virtually impossible in perpetuity. Look at the Secret Service agents protecting the president and high level officials—can you imagine being on that kind of hyper-alert all the time? What an exhausting and soul-sucking prospect! Is this muscle-clenching vigilance really what is desired from the One who has been telling his disciples not to worry about anything because God the Father will provide all they need? How is it possible to be alert and watchful and not worry, especially in the context of being told at the same time not to be afraid? There’s a disconnect there; a little like what happens when someone says, don’t think about chocolate.

So, how to ponder what it is to be attentive?

Have you ever seen a meteor shower? There is one occuring now—the Perseids, peaking next week. It’s an annual astronomical event; every August, like clockwork, and well worth your time (and a few bug bites.)

The way to get the most out of looking at a meteor shower is not by focusing closely on a single point in the sky. Don’t even think of binoculars or a telescope. If you do that you’ll miss everything and your eyes will get tired; and since the best time to see meteor showers is often late at night, you’ll probably fall asleep. Rather, you want to soften your gaze and let your peripheral vision take over—just aim your eyes at the part of the sky from which most of the meteors are coming, usually out of a certain constellation (Perseus, in this case), and then be aware of what is happening on the edge of your vision. That way you’ll pick up the movements of shooting stars from a broad area and be able to respond and focus as needed. Soften the gaze, widen the space of awareness, and prepare to see the heavens dancing; as though God has decided to serve you your own private banquet of beauty. That is the reward of watching in anticipation.

Watching in fear or worry, though, like the owner of the house, is more like holding tightly to something you are afraid of losing. Holding tightly requires unsustainable amounts of energy, whether we’re physically, or emotionally, holding something. It drains us, and is often counterproductive. Think of holding so tightly to something that it becomes bruised or broken. Think of holding too tightly to an opinion and losing the ability to listen constructively. Think of holding too tightly to a relationship, potentially suffocating it. Hyper-watchfulness is only effective in the short term; in the long term it is unsustainable. This isn’t what Jesus asks of us—to exhaust ourselves in fear of what is coming, or of what we might lose. Hold lightly, and position yourself—your vision– to be surprised.*

And surprising things do happen to those who watch in anticipation. The master comes home from the wedding banquet and, finding his slaves alert and anticipating his arrival, amazingly sits them down to serve them—a reversal of the order of things in a way that only Jesus can express: Do not be afraid, little flock. But fasten your seatbelts; the world is turning upside down. Jesus invites us to envision and participate in a Kingdom—a Dream of God—where all are alert and aware of the periphery. What are the possibilities and opportunities awaiting us at the margin of our vision? Let go of the need to hold tightly and to control the outcome.  Hold lightly: “Sell your possessions, and give alms….For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The difference between the slaves in the one parable and the master of the house in the other lies in what they were watching for, and that influenced how they watched for it. Which was it to be? Eagerly watching for the wedding guest or worrying about the thief coming to steal ? What does our attentiveness look like? Holding lightly, creatively, or holding tightly, fearfully? Are we waiting for the wedding guest or the thief?

What is “unfailing treasure” in the Kingdom of God? It is tempting to think that Jesus was talking exclusively about heavenly treasure of the afterlife. That’s a cop-out. It’s a cop-out because when Jesus tells us not to be afraid he’s telling us that our Kingdom mindset needs to begin right now, not later. And that means asking ourselves, what kind of transformation are we being invited into? And how does disciplined awareness—holding attentively, yet lightly, to our lives—fit into it?

A couple of years ago writer/preacher/scholar Jamal Andrew Calloway wrote the following reflection. The questions he raises elicit a vision of Kingdom watchfulness; softening our gaze and attending to our peripheral vision:

What would happen if we altered and rearranged our whole entire lives to fit each other, to make room for one another? Is it possible? Is there a different route we could take that would allow us to accomplish our goals, to achieve  our dreams and have each other? …What if we thought of one another as  goals, as dreams, too? What if we thought about what we could have together as a kind of goal in our lives? What if our joy was as important as our resumes and careers? What if our collective happiness, together, became our dreams too? What if the us we could become was a priority? Are we worth the sacrifice and changes that would take?

Do not be afraid, little flock…

Are we ready to be surprised?

*Professor/Preacher Eugene Lowry is credited for the phrase, “…position yourself to be surprised”

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