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Lunch with Mrs. Darbyshire

September 16, 2013

“Lunch with Mrs. Darbyshire” Luke 15:1-32 © 9.15.13 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

My brother-in-law Jeff is a trainer and field rep for Caterpillar. From time to time, in that capacity, he attends meetings at the corporate headquarters in Peoria, IL. On one of those trips, he and others like him from across the country went out to eat at a certain restaurant. As they considered the menu, their server announced that the vegetable of the day was peas. “What kind of peas?” Jeff asked. “You know, peas,” the young woman said, meaning English peas. “What other kind is there?” she wanted to know. At that, Jeff and a guy from Texas started rattling off the varieties, presumably known only in the South: Crowder, black-eyed, field, purple hull, butter, and on and on. The rest of the people in the group, along with the server, were amazed.

In the mid-1970’s, I was a seminary intern at a church in Moultrie, a small town in south Georgia. One day I was invited to lunch in the home of Mrs. Darbyshire, the church matriarch. I was terrified at the prospect. Why? Because I knew Mrs. Darbyshire and her family were rich, had been everywhere, knew everybody, and were rather sophisticated. Though I was almost in my mid-twenties and had gone to college and two years of seminary, none of those terms described me. I had only rudimentary people skills; anything more advanced would have to wait until sometime later when I worked with a law firm. What would I say? What kinds of stories could I tell that wouldn’t be boring or else reveal what a yokel I was? Of course, I hadn’t learned at the time that the best thing to do was shut up and listen to their stories.

But if I thought making conversation and finding things in common were to be the major challenges of the hour, I was wrong. Chatting was child’s play next to figuring out what to do once we sat down for the meal. There were finger bowls on the table. Fine china and crystal. More forks than I had ever seen, with different numbers of tines. A spoon above my plate. What was that for? The menu included tomato aspic, which I had never even heard of, much less tasted. And we were served by an African-American maid with whom Mrs. Darbyshire was quite brusque and rude. Whatever my views on race at the time, I was still lower middle-class, and I was not used to having anyone wait on me hand and foot. I felt very uncomfortable.

My lunch with Mrs. Darbyshire and Jeff’s “give peas a chance” experience were case studies in the way meals can separate classes, peg people as having a certain level of experience or education or identify someone as hailing from a particular part of the country. A meal is more than merely shoving food into our mouths and getting physical sustenance. Eating is one of the fundamental social experiences of human beings, whether in families, communities or churches. How and with whom we eat is very important to humans the world over.

At its most basic level, the hospitality of the table, welcoming and dining with others, is an affirmation of our common need. Sharon Daloz Parks comments: “It has been said that the table is a place where you know there will be a place for you, where what is on the table will be shared, and where you will be placed under obligation…. In the practice of the table we learn to share, to wait, to accommodate, to be grateful. The table is emblematic of economic, political, and spiritual realities” (Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: 156). When we eat with someone, we say that whatever our differences, we must be sustained by taking nourishment. Thus we affirm our meal partners as human, just as we are. Elitists of various sorts understand this very well; that’s why they seek to keep people apart at the table, little “t”; and the Table, capital “t.”

If eating and its attendant issues are important in our day, they were even more critical in the ancient world. Then there was a common saying: “I saw them eating, and I knew who they were.” Table customs in Jesus’ day might be specific to your religious sect or your philosophical school. To eat with a group of people was to become one of them, to identify with their concerns, to treat them with respect, to affirm their humanity and intrinsic worth.

No wonder, then, that the Pharisees and scribes were so upset with Jesus for opening his home to the tax collectors and sinners and spreading a meal before them. This One who claimed to be from God was associating with the worst sort of folk, and you know what they say: “Birds of a feather flock together.” “You’re known by the company you keep.” “Takes one to know one.” How could Jesus possibly be from God if he were sitting at table with those who were regarded by the self-designated good people as responsible for the sorry state of the nation and its morals? I’m talking about the traitorous tax collectors who collaborated with oppressive Rome for their own profit; and the so-called “sinners,” who were not scrupulous about keeping God’s law.

Jesus’ response to the concerns of the religious leaders was a typical one for him. He told some stories which we call “parables.” These are the sorts of tales that trust the listener to be a responsible moral agent; they assume he or she is a worthy partner in any discussion of serious issues about life. Parables draw us in, invite us to respond. We may come away mad from having heard one. Or confused. Enlightened. Inspired. Gladdened. Challenged. But never unchanged.

There are three such stories in this portion of Luke. The first two are typically described as being about something lost, whether a sheep or a coin. But really they tell of finding, and the feeling anyone in any century would have on discovering what was believed irretrievable.

Both stories insist that what is lost is extremely valuable. In the one, the lost sheep is worth the risk of leaving the other 99. There is diligence in the shepherd’s seeking, a determination to keep on until the one sheep is found. In the other story, the woman’s coin is a day’s wage for a laborer, so ten silver coins represented months of saving. Which of us would not turn the house upside down to find that kind of money? That’s not just a couple of nickels under the couch cushions. The woman’s seeking is hard work, like that of the shepherd. She has to sweep a house with a dirt floor and no windows, using only the light of a tiny lamp.

Our Lord’s invitation in these stories is to trust in a God who will not give up seeking those who have lost their way, those who have strayed from the divine Shepherd’s care. God keeps on looking because every person is supremely valuable, even more precious than a sheep or a coin. If listeners then and now want to model their actions after what God does, then they too will invest their lives in seeking the lost, counting each person as valuable, risking, working, never giving up. That was the call to first century scribes and Pharisees; it was the promise to tax collectors and sinners. It is call and promise as well to twenty-first century Presbyterians.

Our Lord invites all who hear to rejoice in the recovery of the lost ones. Such joy may be experienced in the privacy of our thoughts and behind the doors of our homes. But as Presbyterian minister Eugenia Gamble once observed, joy is best felt in community. It’s known in being together with friends and neighbors, old and new, the 99 and the one. The flock is diminished fundamentally if only one is lost, so there must be a celebration when the one is found. The whole community is enriched and enhanced when someone’s life is turned around, when a new perspective is discovered and given, when there is a rich experience of grace and faith. The parables invite all who hear them to welcome and rejoice with those who are lost and found, to celebrate with God and the whole company of heaven in the enlargement of the community by the seeking grace of a persistent Savior.

Surely no one would or could refuse such an invitation. But the Pharisees and scribes did. There are people today who do. Why? Because God’s love is thought of as a pie that can only be cut into so many slices, and when it’s finished, there’s no more. So we compete to receive our share of the grace of God the same way we do for customers or money, food or power or mates. If I’m going to be loved by God, then you cannot be, or at least, not as much. If God is to welcome you and me, then he must shut out our neighbor whose life is not quite up to our standards. It becomes necessary to vilify and exclude folk so there’s enough grace to go around. The terms of disdain and hatred and their objects have changed, but the modern day Pharisees still complain when Jesus eats with those they wish to exclude.

Keeping others away from the table and the Table is a sign of insecurity. It shows someone or a group of someones is unsure of God’s love and bounty for him/her/them. For these folk, Jesus tells a third parable. Despite the common name, it’s not the parable of the prodigal son. Or even the parable of the elder brother. It’s the parable of the loving parent, in this case, a father.

The story is so familiar we may miss the point. Yes, the father welcomed back with honor and a party the son who was greedy for his inheritance now, and when he had it, went and wasted it. But the father also went out to the angry elder sibling who stood out in the field, intent on being a major party pooper. He assured the elder son of the parent’s constant love, the availability and abundance of resources in the family home. There was room for both younger and older in the house. But both needed repentance, a change of heart. The younger son’s turnaround had come at high cost of want and loneliness. The elder was estranged because he regarded the relationship with his father as one of duty and slavery, not grace and love.

Why would the elder sibling hurt himself, act in a way so costly to his own well-being in order to punish his runaway brother? He was missing out on something wonderful, something transformative! Let him come in and enjoy; he was also welcome!

Through the story Jesus wanted one and all to know there is room at God’s party. Let Pharisee and sinner come in and enjoy the feasting and celebration! Let all rejoice! Let the family be one! Let grace abound!

As we leave this text today, it might be an interesting exercise to engage in a little fantasy. Suppose Jesus has come to town, and to honor his presence, we decide to give a big dinner. He agrees, but he wants some say over the guest list. Of course, everyone from the congregation is to come, along with our friends and everybody who agrees with us. But he insists that each of us also invite certain other people. We are to start with those who irritate us greatly. Then Jesus would want us to move on and add those whom we blame for the failure of our hopes and dreams, who steered us in the wrong direction all those years ago. Then finally, our Lord would insist we complete the list with folks whom we identify with everything that is wrong with our society today, those whose lifestyles we abhor, whose actions in our view have gotten our world in the mess it’s in and who continue to cause trouble. Politicians and their supporters with whom we vehemently disagree. The Tea Party and People for the American Way, Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell, Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow. Then we all sit down at the table, your guests and mine. Jesus would no doubt make me invite Mrs. Darbyshire, after he raised her from the dead.

This little fantasy might scare the dickens out of us or we may become angry. Alternatively, it might make us giddy with delight and joy. Either way, we have begun to catch Jesus’ meaning in the parables we have heard. And on that day when all can rejoice in the scenario of table fellowship with each other, and no one any longer feels threatened or excluded, we will have begun to grasp and experience the incredible, unlimited abundance of God’s grace that welcomes sinner and saint, Pharisee and tax collector, the lost and the found.

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