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Luke 14.15-24; 15.1-7

Margin Call

(The Gospel of Luke)

Third Sunday in Lent

I’m reading a novel right now called We Begin at the End, by Chris Whittaker.  I haven’t finished it yet; its combination of crime novel, mystery, and coming-of-age, liberally peppered with humor, love, tragic loss with more than a couple unexpected twists is still keeping me guessing three-quarters of the way through.  So since I haven’t finished it yet, the only thing I’m able to away for this morning’s sermon is its title, We Begin at the End.  You remember the last two weeks we saw the ways that the beginning of Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels framed and shaped the way they told their stories of Jesus.  And Luke does the same thing, but I’m going to begin at the end this morning, Luke, chapter 24, the final chapter of the book.  The story may be familiar:  the resurrected Jesus was walking along the road to Emmaus with two disciples who did not recognize him.  They told him about their recently crucified leader, and they seemed aimless, at a loss for purpose, since he died.  But in an act of hospitality they invited the stranger Jesus to dinner.  While they were at the table, in a kind of repeat of the Last Supper, Jesus took bread and broke it and gave it to them.  In that moment their eyes were opened, they realized it was Jesus all along, and he disappeared.  And then Luke writes, “They told [the others] what had happened on the road [to Emmaus], and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  How he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  Let’s hold that thought for a minute.

Back to the beginning.  These are the opening verses of Luke’s gospel: 

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

We don’t know who Theophilus was; we don’t even know if he existed.  The name means lover of God, so it could simply be a generic salutation addressed to anyone and everyone who loves God.  Luke could be writing to you; he could be writing to me.  In fact, he is very likely writing to both.  Theophilus actually has little to do with the story Luke is about to tell, but the name is significant in a different way; it links Luke’s two stories together.  Luke’s first story, his gospel, is about the life of Jesus; his second story is about the history of the early church in the book of Acts which immediately follows the four gospels.  Here is the way that Luke begins Acts:  “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven.”  Luke began his gospel by indicating it would be the first part of a two-part story:  the first is about the life and ministry of Jesus, the second is about the birth and growth of the church.

And, like Matthew, Luke also includes a genealogy that is going to shape the story of Jesus’ life.  Those of you who were here last week, do you remember how far back the Jewish Matthew traced Jesus’ genealogy, to what ancestor who began the whole thing?  Right, to Abraham, furthest ancestor of the Hebrew people, as well as the Christian and Muslim peoples.  It told us Matthew would be emphasizing the Jewish faith of Jesus.  Luke goes Matthew one better.  Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy all the way back, beyond Abraham, to Adam.  The first human being.  The one who came before everyone else, and, according to Luke anyway, twenty generations before Abraham.  So if Matthew’s Jesus’ family history went back to Abraham the ancestor of the Jews, Luke’s Jesus’ family history went back to Adam, the ancestor – of everyone!  Luke’s story of Jesus is a story of gathering everyone – everyone – into the circle of faith.  You might say Luke’s Jesus’ church was the very first open and affirming congregation ever.

We had some old friends – as in long-tenured if not in age – high school friends over for dinner last weekend.  It was wonderful to see them:  one was my best friend all through high school and beyond, and has found his anonymous way into a few of my sermons as a result.  Another was the best man at our wedding, and a third was a sister violinist in my high school orchestra.  It was great to see them and their partners, it had been too long since the last time, and we were really glad they could all make it.  But imagine what would happen if you gave a dinner party – we had prepared coq au vin, freshly baked bread, some yummy apps and not a few bottles of wine – imagine what would happen if you gave a dinner party and everything was already prepared – and everyone you invited texted you at the last minute to say they could not come.  This is the setting of Jesus’ parable of the great banquet we heard from Luke 14.  The landowner declined:  “I have bought some property and I have to go see it.”  The farmer declined:  “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out.”  The newlywed declined:  “I’ve just been married, I cannot come.”  Understandably, the host was pretty peeved.  So he decided, the heck with all these supposedly respectable people, let’s invite those who really want a place at the table.  So the call went out indiscriminately, and the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame filled the table, and still there was room for more.  And so he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

I chose this passage from Luke because I think it encapsulates the two ideas that shape Luke’s story of Jesus.  The first is that Jesus seems to always be eating and drinking with people, it’s a recurring part of his ministry.  In fact, one writer says about the Jesus in Luke, “Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.”  You know, my mental image of Jesus never saw him as portly, but after  reading Luke’s gospel I could be persuaded.  The table is both the physical and the spiritual place where Jesus is met.  The second idea in Luke 14, this parable combines the table fellowship where Christ is made known with calling the lost and needy, of reaching out to those who are rejected or neglected by the rest of the world.  And it is not just the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame; Jesus also make a habit of eating, as Luke puts it, “with sinners and tax-collectors.”  Luke uses the word “sinners” more than any other writer, and by this he means the people Jesus seeks out.  All of those people on the margins of society, regardless of their lot in life, are called to the table to eat and drink with Jesus.  It is why Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry back to Adam, because he came to minister, not just to the Jews, not just to the disciples, not just to his followers, not just to the church, but to everybody. 

Even to women!  Even and especially to women!  Women play a prominent role in Jesus’ life and ministry in Luke, far more than any other gospel.  The story of Jesus’ birth centers not just on Mary, but also on her cousin Elizabeth and the prophetess Anna.  In the course of the story we meet Mary and Martha, who both practice and exemplify the radical hospitality and the deep spirituality of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus permits a woman to touch his feet in public, women sit with the disciples as he teaches them, he defends an anonymous woman from the rebuke of the Pharisee.  And while much of this may seem like weak tea to the 21st century ear, Jesus specifically and intentionally includes women in the coming kingdom of God and the building of the sacred community in a way that had never been understood before.  In Luke’s story, old divisions between male and female are broken down.  In one respect, this is just part of Luke’s experience, because Luke was also a member of a marginalized group in the early church – Luke was a gentile, one of the very few non-Jews in Jesus’ inner circle.  Luke knew what it meant to be excluded; but in the Christian community, Luke knew what it meant to be included.  Luke was also notably a companion of the apostle Paul, who wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

You and I know the story of the prodigal son; it is one of three related parables in Luke 15 about something that was lost but is later found.  When the prodigal’s older brother complained about all the fuss that was made at his return, the father replied, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”  It is the same with the story Barbara Jan read this morning about the lost sheep.  There may be ninety-nine sheep in the pen, but the shepherd still goes out and looks for that lost one.  This is the crux of Jesus’ ministry in Luke, seeking out the lost.  There may be ninety-nine contented souls in this room this morning – figuratively, anyway -  but if there is one soul out there that is lost and searching for home, for food, for shelter, for safety, for affirmation, for support, for reassurance, for love, for comfort, for peace, this is the soul that Jesus is looking for.  This is the soul we want to be looking for in the name of Jesus, to set a place for them at the table of grace, and to welcome them into the shelter of God’s warm embrace.  They are the sinners and the tax-collectors, they are the idolators and adulterers, they are the profligate and the philanderer.  They are the people polite society will not invite to the table, but whom Jesus welcomes.  They are a group of strangers who come around the banqueting table, and in that moment they are family because it is Jesus their brother who sets the table.  The Pharisees and the scribes complain, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  You bet he does, again and again, because he is made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 

I wonder if you saw the story this weekend in the New York Times about the radical act of eating with strangers.  Last May, as folks were beginning to emerge from their pandemic-induced cocoons, 24 year old New Yorker Anita Michaud had an idea to invite a half dozen people who did not know each other to a dinner party.  At a time when casual relationships had broken down and people’s social circles shrank because of a reluctance to mix with too many people, Michaud found a way of bringing folks back together, a few at a time, to introduce them to people they never met before.  And it was around the dinner table that new friendships were formed, bonds were established, and people found the courage and confidence to begin creating community once again.  It was so successful it has become a recurring event, each time with a new group of people who don’t know each other.  This may not be precisely analogous to the dinner party we read about from Luke this morning, but in both instances community was created  and relationships grew.  We might paraphrase that Jesus was made known in the breaking of the bread to say that friendship was made known to them around that dinner table, in the radical act of eating with strangers.  Hospitality and fellowship make us welcome.  All of us.

When the family of God comes together around the table, there is the opportunity to create a fellowship of strangers, the children of God who sit down and break bread with all those people Jesus called out from the margins, the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame, the sinner and the tax collector, the idolator and the adulterer, the profligate and the philanderer, and you and me and the Christ who is present in the breaking of the bread.

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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697

 

From the North: Take CT Route 9 South to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn left; we are 1 mile on the right.

 

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