Open TablePosted: September 1, 2013
EATING WITH THE WRONG PEOPLE
We do not know if Jesus was the originator the Parable in our scripture this morning. Jesus ate with people as part of his ministry, and he was often accused of eating with the wrong people – sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors – people considered unclean by the more conservative Pharisees of the First Century. Those first Christians were disappointed that Jesus and the church’s message were rejected by the Jewish people. By the end of the First Century most of the people who responded to the message of Jesus were gentiles, and so Luke’s Parable in its present form was an attempt to explain why the church was fast becoming a gentile institution – “Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.”
EVERYONE WHO SHOWED UP WAS FED
In the Parable of the great banquet the householder sent his servants to bring the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame, to his table, and this practice of bringing anyone and everyone to the banquet was a central focus of the ministry of Jesus called “open commensality,” or everyone eating together. The gospels record several feedings of the multitude, where everyone who showed up was fed, and everyone ate together.
We read again and again in the gospels Jesus being criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, but we may not understand just how radical Jesus’ behavior was for the First Century. John Dominic Crossan writes about Jesus’ practice of open commensality.
Jesus broke the existing pattern of eating of his time. When you invite someone for dinner, he said do not think of the rich, not even your family and friends, not the socially respectable, but the poor, who cannot reciprocate the invitation. In the context where rigid rules of eating prevailed, this suggestion of Jesus was revolutionary. He was offering a powerful critique of the social system that was built on giving and receiving favors and patronage. Open commensality, common eating, cut the very root of the system of patronage, and projected the message of Radical Egalitarianism. For Jesus egalitarian order comes closer to the divine order, the Kingdom of God. All forms of inequalities, cultural, social or economic, were critiqued and rejected. Egalitarianism was never fully achieved, but that was the standard Jesus upheld. So the feedings of the multitude were miracles, not just the physical miracle of multiplying food, but the overcoming of social barriers that brought everyone together to eat regardless of race, sex, or class.
LORD’S SUPPER IS A MEMORY OF OPEN COMMENSALITY
Embedded in the very foundations of the Lord’s Supper is the memory of Jesus’ open commensality, with all its revolutionary implications, including the way in which it calls into radical question the gender presuppositions of patriarchal society. Men seeking to maintain ritual purity in Jesus’ culture did not break bread with women, who might be ritually tainted by their biological cycles, thus tainting men who sat at table with them. Nor did men in Jesus’ culture take on themselves the role of both servant and woman, by serving those seated at a table, as Jesus himself did by washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper, thus introducing the revolutionary symbol of servant leadership. In the early church both men and women gathered together for the breaking of the bread. People of high social status and low social status ate together at the common table of the Lord’s Supper. Women also assumed leadership positions in the life of the early Christian community of faith. The followers of Jesus were radical. The concept of people gathering together for a meal and fellowship as well as servant leadership is still radical today.
FOOD WE CAN ALL AGREE UPON
Last week when Zig jokingly commented that the only thing people in this congregation can agree on is food. He was closer to the mark than he knew. Our Fellowship Board providing food for our radical hospitality is important to our mission of trying to welcome everyone. Eating together regardless of distinctions was at the heart of the ministry of Jesus.
I want to thank Harlan Hurley for sending me this week a wonderful illustration of the importance of “open commensality,” eating together across racial, ethnic, and barriers of social class. The story was told by Coach Bear Bryant the legendary football coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Coach Bryant had just been named the new head coach at Alabama and was off in his old car driving down into South Alabama to recruit a prospect who was supposed to have been a pretty good player, but he was having trouble finding the place. Getting hungry, he spied an old cinderblock building with a small sign out front that simply said “Restaurant.”
So he pulled up, went in, and every head in the place turned to stare at him. Seems he was the only white fella’ in the place. But the food smelled good, so he went up and sat down at the counter.
A big ole man in a tee shirt and cap came over and asked, “What do you need?”
Coach Bryant told him, “I need lunch. What do you have today?
The owner said, “You probably won’t like it here. Today we’re having chittlin’s, collard greens and black-eyed peas with cornbread. I’ll bet you don’t even know what chittlin’s are, do you?”
Coach Bryant looked him square in the eye and said, “I’m from Arkansas, and I’ve probably eaten a mile of them. Sounds like I’m in the right place.”
Everyone in the place smiled as the owner left to serve him up a big plate. When he came back he said, “You ain’t from around here are ya?”
Coach Byrant explained he was the new football coach in Tuscaloosa at the University and he had come to find whatever the prospect’s name was.
The owner said, “Yeah I’ve heard of him, he’s supposed to be pretty good.” And he gave Bryant directions to the school so he could meet the boy and his coach.
As Coach Bryant was paying up to leave, the owner told him lunch was on him.
But Bear said for a lunch that good, he felt he should pay.
Then the owner asked Coach if he had a photograph or something he could hang up in the restaurant to show that the Crimson Tide Football Coach had eaten there.
THANKS FOR THE BEST LUNCH I’VE EVER HAD
Coach Bryant was so new at his job he didn’t have any pictures or souvenir stuff like that, but he took a napkin and wrote the owners name and address and told him he’d get him one.
When he got back to Tuscaloosa the next day he found a picture and wrote on it, “Thanks for the best lunch I’ve ever had,” and sent it to the owner of the restaurant.
Now about 20 years later, when Alabama had African America players Coach Bryant was back down in that part of Alabama scouting an offensive lineman he wanted. This big lineman had two friends who were going to Auburn, so he told Coach Bryant that had his heart set on going to Auburn too. Coach Bryant was disappointed, but you don’t get them all.
YOU STILL WANT ME AT ALABAMA?
Two days later, however, Bear Bryant was in his office in Tuscaloosa and the phone rang and it was that big lineman who had just turned down a chance to play at Alabama.
The kid asked, “Coach, do you still want me at Alabama?”
“Yes I sure do.” Bryant replied. By the way son, what changed your mind?”
And the boy replied, “When my grandpa found out that I had a chance to play for you, and I said, ‘no,’ he pitched a fit and told me I wasn’t going nowhere but Alabama, and I wasn’t playing for nobody but you. He thinks a lot of you and has ever since y’all met.”
“Who is your granddaddy,” Bryant asked?
“You probably don’t remember him, but you ate in his restaurant your first year at Alabama and you sent him a picture that he’s had hung in that place ever since. That picture’s his pride and joy and he still tells everybody about the day that Bear Bryant came in and had chittlin’s with him. My grandpa said that when you left there, he never expected you to remember him or to send him that picture, but you kept your word to him and to Grandpa, that’s everything. He said you could teach me more than football and I had to play for a man like you, so I guess I’m going to.”
COME AND JOIN US
Bear Bryant practiced open commensality sharing food across, racial, ethnic, social barriers, it was the right thing to do, the way of Jesus. And on Thursday evenings we have been trying an experiment in open commensality. Anyone who shows up is fed. Everyone who gathers at the table is prayed for, and at the end we break the bread and share the cup of the communion – remembering Jesus who calls us all to become servant leaders and followers of the way. I believe as we revision the church we need to re-emphasize the experience of communion, reclaim the call to servant leadership and practice the open table feeding everyone who comes. Come and join us.