Sermon: “Table Dancing”

August 28, 2016: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Table dancing. I can just imagine the table dancing. Can’t you? Do you see the banquet guests jockeying for position, moving back and forth, up and down, closer to and further from the host, looking at each other without catching anyone’s eye, trying to see whether the host’s frown means come higher or go lower, avoiding that furthest corner if at all possible. Table dancing. A dance of position, and privilege, and power, and pride.

You didn’t think I meant dancing on the table, did you?

Jesus must have watched this table dance with some amusement. He would see people greeting each other and at the same time looking sideways at their host to see which one should move into the more favored place. Some eyes would sparkle with delight as they moved up, and others would direct their eyes to the floor as they moved down, hoping that nobody would meet their gaze.

I wonder what position the host gave to Jesus…

Jesus knew his Scripture and he knew his Proverbs. He knew the verse in the 25th chapter of Proverbs which gives the same advice he repeated: Move down so that you may be called higher, and avoid being the one sent away from an honored place.

Jesus didn’t stop there, however, which is very typical of him when he quotes Scripture. He quotes it to establish a starting point, some kind of foundation, and then builds on it to make it more demanding, more challenging, and more loving. So he had other things to say about these table dances. As in Proverbs, he said, don’t puff yourself up – as a guest. He continued with advice for the host as well: Don’t invite the powerful to your banquets, he told him, because they can invite you back in turn. Invite the poor, and the disabled, because they can’t do that.

That sounds pretty radical, and it is. It sounds like Jesus said that we should not enjoy the company of our friends, and should instead invite strangers into our homes. To some degree, he did. More, however, he was talking about the dance of dinner invitations of his day, one that resembled the table dance he’d just observed. You’d invite someone of power to dine with you in order to cultivate a relationship, one which would mean that you’d get invited back and, who knows, perhaps get a place a little closer to the host for each new invitation. Banquets were a means of climbing the social and cultural ladder, and getting access to power.

Dinners still function that way, sometimes, don’t they? In business, in politics – though in politics they’re also usually raising money so there’s a hefty price for the meal – and even in the world of helping organizations and the church. We get plenty of dinner invitations to support the work of various charities, and it’s a good thing – but from Jesus’ point of view, the question is always, why did you invite who you did? Was it to benefit yourself?

Who got left out so that you would do better?

The Rev. Sharron Riessenger Blezard puts it this way: “Serving God and neighbor is more like a community potluck than a gourmet meal in the finest restaurant. It’s less about perfection and more about improvisation. It’s less about form and more about function. It’s less about looks and much, much more about love.”

Jesus did not prohibit meals of celebration with your friends. After all, he had them himself: The Passover meal we call the Last Supper was certainly not the First Supper he enjoyed with them. Hospitality to one’s business associates and relationships with one’s professional peers are important, and there is nothing like table fellowship to deepen and expand those relationships.

Part of the hazard of dining only with one’s friends, however, is that we do not build or strengthen relationships with people outside our circle of business, family, or acquaintance. We might not even get to know our neighbors. Imagine if I, a newly arrived resident of Hilo just a few months ago, had only been willing to have meals with people I already knew. I’d have been a pretty lonely person.

I learned some time ago (when my kids went off to college) that if I’m out for dinner someplace alone and it has a bar or a counter, that’s the place to sit. That’s where I can meet people, and have some company. I’ll admit it, I pray that the people I meet have at least somewhat similar social and political opinions to mine. But even when they don’t, that’s a chance to expand my personal world.

Patrick Clark writes: “The real tragedy of the human obsession over honor is that it ultimately alienates us from one another, and so takes us ever farther from the interpersonal communion in which our fulfillment rests.”

I’d say that’s the tragedy of social comfort as well. It takes us ever farther from the interpersonal communion in which our fulfillment rests.

I do have to take issue with Jesus on one thing, though. He tells his host to invite people who cannot pay him back: because of their poverty or disability. And it’s true that those people cannot repay the host in the way that he expects, in social favor, in political connections, in business opportunities.

But these folks are bringing gifts to the table. They’re just not what you might expect.

A short time ago, this video began running around the Internet. It’s a server at a Starbucks in Toronto named Sam. Sam is autistic, and one of the things that means for him is that his body constantly moves. He literally can’t stand still.

So his manager, Chris, suggested that he turn that movement into dance. And the result is a coffee experience that delights.

I offer this with some hesitation, because these stories often become inspiring in an unhelpful way. In fact, activist for the disabled Stelle Young came up with the name “inspiration pornography” for them. It’s when people with disabilities are called “inspirational” just because of their disability. My daughter Rebekah Anderson, who is legally blind, wrote this this past week:

“Inspiration porn tells us that people like me succeed because we are smart, courageous, and never give up on our dreams. This may be true, but we also usually have other support systems, or other social advantages, like whiteness or money.

“When we leave these details out, we are able to assume that the disabled people who don’t succeed in this way are not smart enough, brave enough, and give up too easily, and are therefore not worthy of our attention.

“This is a lie.”

Everyone has something to bring to the table: the wealthy and the poor, the disabled and the temporarily able-bodied, the good test-takers and the ones whose memory strains, the highly educated and the poorly educated, the thoughtful and the rude, those who can produce grand drawings and those (like me) who struggle to make a straight line with a ruler, those who speak up and those who listen, those who pray to Jesus and those who pray to Buddha – or for that matter to anyone else. Everyone has something to bring to the table.

I would see us actually be inspired by Sam the dancing barista from Toronto: not inspired by his disability, or even by the work he did to learn to make a cappuccino. I would be inspired by his joy, and his passion to do his work well.

I would see our table dancing for power and position become table dancing of joy and fellowship. I would have us dance around the table to greet one another and to celebrate each other’s gifts. I would have us dance because we are embraced, each one, in the love of God.

This is the table dance that is celebrated in the houses of heaven. This is the table dance of the kindom of God.


Photo credit: Opening Dance by Kris Arnold. Used by permission under Creative Commons license.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on August 28, 2016

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