For many Americans, Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday. Gathering with family and friends, cooking together, telling family stories, sharing reminiscences, playing games (whether touch football or board games), relaxing around a table of abundance and taking time for gratitude - all these help us remember what life is all about, they help us press the re-set button.
In quite a number of ways the Jewish Sabbath – Shabbat – does the same thing as Thanksgiving does. Far more than just being a day of prayer and worship on which work is prohibited, Shabbat is the weekly remembrance and observance of God’s good and abundant blessings in the gift of Creation (“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth... Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” Genesis 1:1, 2:1-3). It is a time for leisurely feasting and enjoyment of family, friends, and guests. It is a time to let go of the troubles of the world, and rest secure in the knowledge that the world does not revolve around us and our efforts but is in God’s loving and powerful hands.
And this Shabbat celebration happens every week – not just once a year. In the ancient world this weekly day of rest and refreshment was quite radical. The Greeks even considered Jews to be lazy because in the pagan world work went on all the time, punctuated only every so often by a public festival; unless, of course, you were wealthy and didn’t need to work every day.
This picture of the Sabbath is what we need to have in mind as we consider today’s passage about Jesus attending a Sabbath meal at the home of an important religious leader. Jesus is the guest at this meal, but he very quickly takes on the role of the host, the one in charge. As he observes the other guests and their behavior and takes notice of who has been invited to this Sabbath meal, he has some pretty sharp things to say to them. He tells the guests not to jockey for places of honor, not to assume that they should get the best seats at the table just because they are impressed with their own importance. And he tells the owner of the house not to invite his friends, brothers, relatives, or rich neighbors, who will just repay him with an invitation in return. But he is to invite those who are poor, crippled, lame, blind – all considered markers in Jesus’ day of somehow not measuring up, not living according to God’s Law, getting what you deserve.
Jesus is speaking here on several levels at once – as he so often does. To begin with, Shabbat is not a time for human distinctions and divisions, but a recognition that all we have and all we are is a gift from God. Some may have more, some may have less, but fundamentally life and all its blessings are given by God’s gracious loving-kindness; full stop. In the face of God’s generosity, humility is called for, not jockeying for position. And since God has treated us with such goodness, we ought to act in like manner, sharing God’s blessings with others who cannot repay us any more than we can ever repay God.
By the time Luke was writing and circulating his two-volume Good News concerning Jesus – the Gospel and the Book of Acts – about fifty years after the Resurrection, the Christian imagery around festive, holy meals had taken on a new meaning. The change began with Jesus’ teaching and language in passages such as the one we are considering this morning when he began to speak of wedding banquets and resurrection, and started to point to images of God’s Kingdom as being like a wedding feast to which all were invited to join in. The idea of the feast, with its celebration and joy, was to reach its fulfillment at the time of God’s Kingdom coming on earth in the same way it already exists in God’s realm that we call heaven. But even now, Jesus’ disciples could participate in that heavenly banquet through the celebration of the Eucharist – a foretaste of what God will do in God’s own good time.
Many of the qualities of the Christian Eucharist are drawn from Shabbat, as well including some that are new and distinctively Christian – thanksgiving, gratitude, recognition of God’s sovereignty and power, abundance, blessing, resting in God’s gift of life, and God’s gift of New Life and New Creation in Christ’s Resurrection.
And so, Jesus’ words in this passage look both forward and backward: forward to the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom as much and backward to God’s original act of Creation and rest. If our goal is God’s Kingdom which is akin to a banquet of joy and celebration, inclusive of all God’s people, then it would behoove us to start acting as if the banquet were underway now, whenever we have the opportunity. Practicing traits, markers of God’s Kingdom such as humility and generosity, are ways that we grow more into Christ-likeness and help to make Jesus’ presence felt and known in life here and now.
Humility and generosity fly in the face of much that the world wants us to believe. We are told that if we are to succeed, we need to start by assuming that we are the best, the most deserving, that anything good we have is because we have earned it. And that then makes it hard to be generous, because we are never sure if another person has earned or deserves what we might give them. Or perhaps we are afraid that if we share something, or give something away it will diminish us, that we won’t have enough for ourselves.
But as Jesus’ followers, as those who already know the abundance and loving-kindness and goodness of God, we know a deeper truth than what the world knows. We know that we are both made in God’s image and always in need of grace and forgiveness. We know that God’s goodness is greater than our fear, and that God is the Giver from whom all blessings flow.
So we need to practice these traits of humility and generosity, so they become even deeper than second-nature to us. We live in a world of overlapping realities, of “already” and “not yet”, of knowing that Jesus is present with us always, and also looking for the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom. This is not easy. It can be disorienting at times. None of us ever gets it perfectly, and yet we are called by Christ and gifted and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do this very thing, to be the heralds and guests and celebrants of God’s great feast.
Humility, and generosity; generosity and humility – twin attitudes and practices that express the truth of God’s goodness to us and to all whom God has made, and the joyful feast to which we are invited.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
~ A General Thanksgiving, Book of Common Prayer, p. 101
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
September 1, 2019