As you have heard me say many times I always read Luke’s story about a host and his guests at weddings where I am the presider. I do this for rather predicable reasons, I want the couple to make room in their lives for others, that in a bond of love the openness to others is a profound and added blessing to any spirit-filled life. But there is another reason I share this text at all weddings, perhaps less obvious but no less important. Listen to the story now with open ears, hearts and minds and let’s see what pops out.
Luke 14 One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move…Jesus turned to the host and said, “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbours, the kind of people who will return the favour. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. The kind of people who cannot possibly return the favor. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing.
Food is food, no matter what time period or what the culture. But the sharing of a meal is unique to the place and customs of the community. In Jesus’ time the status of who sat where at the table was of utmost importance. Everyone, not least of which the host, was conscious of who was supposed to sit where. Those invited to the table would include one’s family, perhaps one’s friends and if opportunity presented itself, those who had invited you and those who might, down the road be in a position to do you a favor. So those around the table would include your relations, your friends, those you “owed” and those of power and privilege who might bless you with something. This was clear and understood.
Except Jesus turned the table invitation upside down, not unlike his treatment of the moneychangers. He did understand the culture and custom, but he added something “different”, if you are going to invite who others expect also invite those who others do not expect to be at the table. Why? Because they simply cannot return the favor. No reciprocity here, no tit for tat, no “charity begins at home” or “family comes first” or “whatever goes around comes around”. Those invited should include persons for whom the invite is an unconditional gift, grace-filled, you offering what God offered you in your birth, a free gift.
Diana Butler Bass’ book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks is the focus of our fall Faith Study for five Wednesday nights in October. Butler Bass came to write the book as the result of a dinner party she attended with friends where everyone around the table was asked to name one thing s/he was thankful for. The silence was deafening. The author realized neither she nor her guests knew the language of gratitude and there was a need to address it, especially from a spiritual dimension.
Butler Bass believes that we can still, eventually after some silence, get to a place of private gratitude. With time and reflection most of us can and do prize gratitude, experience gratitude, appreciate gratitude, and strongly feel gratitude when something happens to me, something we feel we deserve. (“Finally someone sees the creative genius I am!”) At the same time she feels that as a society, in community, we look around and see what others have and feel dissatisfaction, why do they have that when I don’t, after all I deserve it too. Thus we grow resentment, frustrated and confused. None of these feelings are helpful to a spirit of gratitude.
The great theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer says of gratitude: “In normal life one is not at all aware that we always receive infinitely more than we give, and that gratitude is what enriches life. One easily overestimates the importance of one’s own acts and deeds, compared with what we become only through other people.”
Returning to the story about the table and the invites think about who we invite into our circle of gratitude. Again it is usually those who are kin, friends, people who have been good to us and those who might potentially be good to us. Butler Bass calls this “duty-based gratitude.” Duty-based gratitude is emotionally empty and causes resentment. It is easy to suspect that benefits are given to exert control by, or forge loyalty to, an unscrupulous benefactor. Obligatory gratitude rarely has a heart.
I love how Butler Bass describes the gifts that make it so much easier to express genuine appreciation for: “Gifts exist before benefactors, the universe is a gift, life is a gift, air, light, soil, and water are gifts. Everything we need is here, with us, we freely respond to these gifts by choosing a life of mutual care.” I have highlighted the words, “freely respond to these gifts by choosing a life of mutual care.” I believe the reason we are given grace-filled gifts, the unconditional offering of life by our Creator, is to give birth to mutual care, a care formed in empathy, affection and deep love. Remember that in grace gifts are given without being earned and with no expectation of return. Because you can neither earn nor pay back the gift, your heart fills with gratitude.
“Life is the first gift,” said poet Marge Piercy, “love is the second, and understanding the third.” In other words we experience life as a free and unconditional gift, we feel love as a result and in the understanding of this divine relationship we are moved to mutual care, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
This is both Thanksgiving Sunday and Worldwide Communion Sunday. The connection to me is one of space at the table, room for all of God’s children and a giving thanks for the unconditional and free gifts of the Spirit. What are you grateful for today? When you sit at a table today or tomorrow, with others, and/or with the Holy Spirit what will you be thankful for? I am thankful for volunteers. Jim and Rhonda Musgrave planted this seed in me and all of the staff. Jim calls all of our potential volunteers with a prayer and a hope, that he will find the role, the relationship that someone in our faith community will find life-giving and transformative. He puts a lot of work into it. There is no reward for this work, nor for those who accept the challenge, the responsibility and the joy. Jim says he is touched with people tell him that the opportunity to serve is less a duty or an obligation but rather a spiritual need for “mutual care”, a sense that the volunteer has received the gift of life in love and now understands that living out this calling moves them to offer a free gift to others. Volunteers are the embodiment of grace-filled gifts, they come to us with no reciprocity, only genuine appreciation for all that has come to them and all that remains to be experienced.
So…on Friday, November 2 (All Souls Day) Jim, Rhonda and the staff are offering a free party which includes the food of Dave Reid and Tim Cormier, donated wine (hint) and a few speeches about the experience of grace-filled volunteering. Did I mention Louisa and I are offering a sketch about volunteering? Don’t miss it. Everyone is invited, whether you volunteer, used to volunteer or want to volunteer or if you simply want to come and offer your affirmation and thanksgiving for the volunteers at Bethany who have touched your life, in short EVERYBODY, EVERYBODY is invited. Just as Luke 14 says there is room for all. Just call the office and you are in, no cost, no expectation, no duty, no reciprocity, nothing but a free gift of thanksgiving for our volunteers at Bethany who are moved to “mutual care”. Don’t miss it!