August 28, 2022
12th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
<screen picture of dinner at Alburgue, St. Jean pied de port>
This was the first dinner on the night before I started a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It was in a lovely albergue in France, in St. Jean Pied de Port, literally St. John’s at the foot of the pass. The experience was carefully curated by the owner of the little hostel with seven bunkbeds. We were assigned beds simply by the order of our arrival. I was in a room with two Australian women and my friend Anna, who was walking with me for the first week. We were lucky to speak the same language in our room, although there were times I did not understand “Australian.” However, throughout the rest of the albergue that first overnight began teaching us the dance of communicating when English wasn’t shared, or negotiating one’s morning or nightly rituals taking into account the shared bathroom or bedtime. This particular albergue had a shared meal where the host invited us to say our names, where we were from, and a short description of why we were walking the Camino—or, at least, the reason we thought we were walking the Camino. This was before we started. The only status around the table was that we were about to share an experience together. No one said what kind of job they had. Or any titles, or even last names. We worked together to translate for one another. Before we climbed into our bunkbeds, we were being formed into Camino culture.
Interestingly, after a few days, I never saw most of these people again. We walked at different speeds. Some dropped out for health reasons. Some only did a portion of the walk.
Screen picture of Darin, me, and three women in Santiago in front of the cathedral
The only two people I saw in Santiago where the two Australian women, who now seem like best friends even though we never really walked together. They were several days behind me, only arriving in Santiago after I was finished and traveling with Darin. That first night at the table, or sharing a room, bonded us.
In her book, “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters,” Priya Parker writes about how to turn gatherings from unengaged, often boring, status-quo affirming events into something that allows us to connect, build relationships and create a different kind of community. It’s really important book for after the pandemic.
She notices how people recently are creating new rules for gatherings. For example, one destination birthday party in New Orleans contained the following instructions on the invitation: limit your time in bed; don’t stray from the herd; be a strong follower; take tremendous photos but post nothing; commit to a conversation with a local: make up more rules as we go; don’t’ miss the flight home.”She calls this “creating a temporary alternative world.”
The irony is that by creating a temporary, alternative world we begin to shape the permanent, settled world. These new rules serve to challenge hidden norms, surface unexamined assumptions, and build new patterns, and they equalize community.
This is exactly what Jesus does when he shows up to the dinner party. He sets forth a new set of rules: take the lower seat; practice humility, invite the people who can’t pay you back; decide that no one is a shameful dinner companion; eat; laugh; and thereby practice for heaven.
What I love is that Jesus brings the reign of God to the real world, to both interpersonal relationships and social arrangements. He invites us to think about how we embody the principles of love, compassion, beauty, worth, generosity, and justice to the worlds we live in. How do we do it at school? Or in the grocery? Or at the park, or the bank, or in the office? And, of course, at our own dining room tables.
One of the members of a church I once served, an African American man, who faithfully, lovingly, and sometimes angrily, pointed out the embedded whiteness of the Lutheran church. When we began to pontificate too proudly about racial justice or inclusivity or tout our own progress, he would often say, “So who is at your dinner table?” pointing us from rhetoric to practice.
Today’s parable should probably do the same thing, point us forward into commitments of welcome, inclusivity, economic justice, challenging embedded rituals that shame some and give higher place to others. Our world is not materially different than Jesus’ world. AND the parable should also make us look practically at our actual dinner tables. Who’s there. What’s on the table. Who helped get it there? Who picked it? Who packed it and priced it? What are the global production patterns that supply our tables with food that many in the world don’t have access to. And maybe even Mother Earth would also have us as, “What gets thrown away? What is too much? How far did it travel? How much water did it use? How are the bees?
How do we, all of us, probably in different, even create ways make temporary, alternative worlds in our actual, everyday worlds?
This week’s student loan forgiveness order has certainly peeled back a layer of our nation’s self-understanding. Who deserves what? Who is worthy? Who gets to give and take? What kind of payout gets counted as necessary and which is wasteful? Frankly, it was a rough week for me. I admit that I thought about how I paid off my student loans after a lot of years. But I realized I was starting to feel like the older brother at the Prodigal son’s party. Why should he get something free that I didn’t? I decided that is not the part of myself that I want to feed at the table. So then I was all on board reading the social memes about Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Luke wasn’t being metaphorical. Then I realized how self-righteous I was becoming. Had I truly worked on this issue of debt reduction, student or medical, or payday lending with my time or wealth before the government did something about it? I certainly talked about it, but I rarely have showed up at the party with those who are already at work bailing people out.
The parables should always be a little annoying because they reveal what we don’t like to see but they should also convince us that a new world is not only possible but that it has already claimed us and welcomed us in. The answer to the question, “Who is at your dinner table?” Jesus. Jesus is host and guest; priest and prophet, lord and servant, humbled and exalted.
He makes himself at home with us, winking, patting the seat next to him “Come, and by me.” Who knows where we’re going to get moved when we’re next to him. Be careful singing, “Let us go now to the banquet,” unless you’re really ready to have all the chairs rearranged.
Screen picture of Guatemala painting
Thor, our new communications and technology coordinator, suggested that the picture I showed at the beginning of the service looks a lot like the Guatemalan painting that we have in the Fellowship Hall downstairs, that view from above the table, the table on the Camino not at all different than the table in Guatemala, or the table with the Pharisees, or the altar table, or the kitchen table, or any table for that matter.
Come Lord Jesus be our guest and let this food to us be blest. Amen.
 Priya Parker, “The Art of Gathering: How we Meet and Why it Matters,” pg. 113.