Scriptures for this Sunday are Here
I went this week to see the movie “The Butler”, about a man who was a butler in the White House for seven presidential administrations. The movie is fiction, loosely based on life of a man named Eugene Allen, who was a butler for presidents from Truman to Reagan.
In the movie, Cecil Gaines is an African-American man, born on a cotton plantation, who works his way up to the post of White House maître d’. His career takes place against the background of the Civil Rights movement. We see it unfold through Brown v. Board of Education, the integration of schools, the march from Selma to Montgomery, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and protests against the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa.
We see Cecil in the White House, serving with precision and elegance at sparkling, candlelit state dinners, at tables glittering with gold china, crystal, and silver, for presidents who agonize over what to do about integrating schools in Little Rock and whether they need to champion civil rights legislation. We watch the African-American butlers work to maintain a mask, pretending to see nothing, hear nothing, react to nothing, even when what they see and hear affects them and their families deeply and personally.
The movie’s major personal conflict unfolds between Cecil and his son, who becomes a Freedom Rider and protester for civil rights, when Cecil just wants his son to stay safe and get an education and a job and family. In one pivotal sequence, we see the camera flashing back and forth between two dinners. In one, Cecil is precisely aligning gold-plated china, serving at a state dinner for elegantly attired world leaders, carefully maintaining his mask of indifference. In the other, his son is sitting with a group of other young black and white people at a Woolworth’s counter, while townspeople berate them, hit them, spit in their faces, drag them onto the floor, beat them, and finally take them to jail. Back and forth the camera goes, between these two very different dinners.
And then, toward the end of the movie, we come to understand how beloved Cecil is in the White House when Nancy Reagan invites him and his wife to be guests, not servers, at a state dinner, and he experiences being served rather than serving.
In all of these scenes, we understand what doesn’t need to be explained: that who you eat with in many ways describes who you are in society; that our social roles are carefully organized, and you can tell who counts by where they are at a dinner – who they sit by, who they talk to, where they are allowed to be, whether they’re serving or being served, or in the kitchen, not even visible.
This is true from the most formal state dinner, to the lunch counter at Woolworth’s, to the stridently organized and separated social classes in a high school cafeteria, to the family dinner table. The dinner table is much more than a convenient place to get nourishment – it is a symbol of how we relate to each other, and who we are in society.
Jesus, of course, understood this, and it helps explain why so much of the action in all the gospels, especially in Luke, takes place at meals. In the gospels, we see Jesus eating with high-class leaders, like the Pharisees in today’s story, and with social outcasts, like Matthew the tax collector and a variety of prostitutes, sinners, and other outsiders. We see a supposedly sinful woman breaking into a dinner party and anointing Jesus before his death. We see dinners interrupted by arguments, teachings, and healings. we see Jesus and disciples breaking the law by picking grain on Sabbath to eat. We see other people who observe how much Jesus loves to go to banquets, and shockingly, calling Jesus a glutton and a drunkard.
We see a crowd of thousands of people sit down on a hillside, or a field, to eat what Jesus provides from a few loaves and fish, and miraculously there is enough for everyone with bushels of food to spare. And then, the night before he dies, we see Jesus eating with his friends, giving bread and wine to them as his own body and blood, and commanding them always to do this to remember him – a command we obey every Sunday, at this family dinner table, this state dinner for the kingdom of God.
In this story and many others of meals, we come to understand some basic truths: Everyone is welcome at Jesus’ table – at this altar and the world beyond it. The table of Christ is not only a place for eating, but a place for recognizing who we truly are: beloved friends of God, and more than friends: welcome and valued as family. The banquet table we share is not only a place of physical nourishment, but a symbol of the kingdom of God, where all are fed and all are welcomed and there is plenty to go around for everyone who shows up to eat.
And, because God is the host, those who do not welcome everyone are in danger of being left out themselves – not by choice of the host, but by their own choice–and missing what is important – the presence of Christ, the guest of honor. Like the most carefully calibrated state dinner, the banquet of the kingdom of God reveals who we are in relation to God and to each other.
So when Jesus begins to talk in today’s gospel, it may sound like an etiquette lesson or a list of tips for getting ahead – but Jesus is showing us what it means to live in the kingdom of God. And remember, the kingdom of God isn’t something far away on the other side of death, the kingdom of God begins here and now, it’s so close that you can reach out your hand and touch it.
Jesus starts by talking about how to be a guest at God’s banquet. Don’t exalt yourself, he says, don’t treat yourself as a guest of honor, but assume the lowest place, because all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. In the kingdom of God, everything is turned upside down and the ones that are least valued in our world are most valued by God.
This reversal of fortunes, like a butler invited as a guest at a state dinner, is a constant theme in Luke’s gospel. Jesus’ mother Mary recognizes this reversal when she sings a song glorifying God before Jesus is even born: in Jesus, she sings, God has brought down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
Christian life, it seems, should be a purposeful effort to align ourselves with those who are outcast, in need, unvalued. Because this is how we come close to Christ – in the lowly and suffering, that’s where he says we will find him.
Yet, like the high school student who decides to leave her safe table in the cafeteria where all her friends eat, and go sit with the outcast kid who sits alone in the corner, we might be taking a personal risk in aligning ourselves with those who are less fortunate. We might be beaten, like the protesters at Woolworths.
Or, something might happen like what happened in Raleigh, North Carolina this week, where a controversy erupted when a Christian ministry called Love Wins that had been feeding the homeless in a public park every Saturday for several years was told that if they fed anyone they’d be arrested. Apparently this was an effort by the town to move the homeless along to other places, more convenient and less visible. It points out the fact that loving our neighbor is often discouraged when that neighbor is un-presentable or low status. Yet Jesus said loving our neighbor is what we’re called to do.
And then in today’s story, Jesus changes gear – he has been talking about how to be guests at God’s table, now he starts talking about how to be hosts. If you’re the host, he says, don’t invite people who are going to invite you back, invite those who have nothing to give because it is God who will repay you for your kindness.
Since we are not talking about a simple dinner table here, but about the kingdom of God, it becomes clear that we who have enough are hosts in God’s kingdom, called to share with others. Where it might be our inclination to wonder how to use what we have to our own advantage, inviting others who can benefit us, Jesus invites us to change our thinking from wondering how we can be blessed, to how we can be a blessing; from how we can receive, to how give. Aligning ourselves with those who cannot do anything for us, Jesus says, is how to be a blessing.
Does this seem strange? It’s certainly not how we’re taught to act in 21st century America – if you go to Barnes & Noble, you will find the shelves full of self-help books telling you how to raise yourself up, not to bring yourself down. Yet things are reversed, in the kingdom of God.
And if ever that kind of reversal doesn’t make sense, I have to remind myself that this is what Jesus did in coming to us – he left his rightful place at the throne of God’s glory to come here and live as one of us – humble, lowly, suffering.
And I don’t know why, but our lectionary leaves off what I think is the punchline of this story: at the end of the story, the gospel says:
One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’
That’s us – we eat at this table, a symbol and pre-experience of the reality of God’s kingdom. We are Jesus’ guests, eating bread and drinking wine in the kingdom of God. We have been invited to Jesus’ banquet, though we don’t deserve it – in the upside-down kingdom, maybe we’re even the last and lowliest behind those who are poorer and humbler than we are.
But here we are anyway – blessed and loved, welcomed and fed. Fed with the very body and blood of the Son of God.
Like a butler in the White House, we should be serving the Lord of the feast. But we’ve been invited to sit, and be served, and eat, as one of the family.
We have been richly blessed. Now let us become a blessing to the world.