The foundation of our modern lifestyle is scarcity. Or rather, the perception of scarcity.
Retailers, marketers, governments, movie makers, even ministers have been telling us for years and years that there is not enough to go around; that unless we claim our share, mark our territory, hoard what we have, the wellbeing and livelihood of our loved ones are on the line.
And so wars are waged over dwindling resources.
And doomsayers stock up on secret stores of food and fuel in underground bunkers in preparation for the end of days.
And politicians who promise to make everything better if they are elected into office become as corrupt and self-serving as the ones they replace.
And parents barely have any time or energy for their children as they work themselves to death to ensure that they will have the best opportunities for their future.
And people place themselves into crippling debt to afford that which they have been convinced they cannot live without, only to find that it doesn’t live up to its promise or is soon discarded to the garage or the back of a cupboard with all of our other useless stuff.
And churches turn away Muslims or crossdressers or unmarried mothers or people who don’t pay their pledges as if there isn’t enough love in God’s heart to let them in ….
Scarcity. Or rather, the perception of scarcity, sets brother against brother; defines our interrelationships as competitive; draws a line between the insider and the outsider, the have’s and the have not’s, the seen and those from whom we choose to look away.
Scarcity, or rather the perception of scarcity, tells us that the world’s population is too big, that we can’t afford to feed them, that we need to limit space at the table, even if it means that 1 billion people are going hungry to the point of death.
What we’re not told; what we have to question and research and find out for ourselves is that while one billion people are starving because they can’t afford a seat at the banquet, 1,5 billion of us are so overweight that we probably need reclining chairs to relax into as we feast and feast and feast.
What we’re not told; what we have to question and research and find out for ourselves is that while one billion people are so desperate to put something into their stomachs that they would eat anything, do anything, they could all be fed by just 1/4 of the food wasted in the US, UK and Europe alone: cucumbers thrown away because they’re too curly, tomatoes too red, fish too small or too big to be considered restaurant quality, lamb cutlets and fillet steak because the portion size was unmanageable.
Scarcity. Or rather, the perception of scarcity has become our point of reference and is the prime hindrance to building community today because how on earth do we go out into the world and invite others to feast at our table when we’re barely managing to keep the lights on?
Scarcity. Or rather, the perception of scarcity changes who we are; reduces the significance of God’s church from ministry and mission to the nations to merely maintaining what we have here and now.
And so, our theme for this morning as we end off our “Created for community” season, is “Making space at the table” as we are reminded not of the scarcity in our lives, but of the tremendous gift of community.
In Luke 14:7-24, Jesus finds himself at a rather uncomfortable feast in the house of one of the top leaders of the Pharisees where all eyes are upon him and he barely has time to get down a mouthful of mashed potato in between the religious and ethical questions with which he is bombarded; questions which reflect that maybe the perception of scarcity is not such a modern thing but a mindset dating back to the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve became so fixated on the one tree that they could not eat from that they neglected the gift of the thousands of trees from which they could.
Yet, instead of being drawn into an argument or debate, Jesus offers three stories about a table etiquette that can transform our mindset and our manners.
In the first, Jesus speaks about the embarrassment of sitting in the wrong place. If you’ve recently been to a wedding, or worse, been involved with planning one, you will know the tremendous drama that goes with making the perfect seating arrangements. Try as you may to make all of your guests feel comfortable, there will always be that handful of misfits and weirdos who you just don’t know where to put. Or great Aunt Bertha who will phone your mom in tears the next day and tell her just how heartbroken and offended she was to be seated all the way at the back where she could hardly hear a thing because she once babysat you for an evening when you were three and she thought she meant more to you. Can you even imagine how awkward it would be if you were to turn to right to whisper something in your best man’s ear only to find an absolute stranger sitting there because he thinks he deserves a place of honour?
Scarcity, or rather, the perception of scarcity puts us into a mindset and a way of being where we weigh up our self-worth based on a seating plan, where we take offence if a stranger suddenly seats himself on my chair, where no one wants to be the servant washing feet at the door but is secretly hoping for a place at the top table where the decisions are made.
At God’s table there should be no need to observe all protocol, or dress up, or compete over privilege or position – for we are all children of God, sons and daughters of the Most High, heirs of the Kingdom, brothers and sisters in Christ, sinners redeemed and forgiven.
In the first story, Jesus gives us an antidote to scarcity and the first key to building God’s kingdom-community: authenticity. Contentment with who we are. The ability to be ourselves rather than working to be someone else. The capacity to place ourselves in God’s hands and say,
‘I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.’
The beginning of authentic community is, obviously, individuals being their authentic selves with one another. The promise is that as we come to God as we are, God makes something so much more significant of our lives and our gifts and even our struggles.
The second story, Jesus directs to the host. In its telling, he speaks to our tendency to surround ourselves with like-minded people, with our peers and equals.
Think, for a moment, about who you would invite over for dinner, for a braai. Who would you take with you to your favourite restaurant, the rugby, the spa? Who would you single out to share a birthday with you? Who would you invite to come with you to church?
The scarcity of our time and the scarcity of our finances probably dictate that only our closest friends and family get invited to share in the most important moments of our lives. And there is probably an unspoken expectation that sometime soon they will reciprocate the favour, invite you back.
Isn’t that how friendships form and are maintained?
But God’s kingdom-community doesn’t work like that: it is built on a generosity that reaches into the depths of God’s grace and good gifts, that reaches beyond the familiar faces, that reaches out to people who might not have anything to return.
It’s a phrase that we return to again and again as the Calvary Methodist Church community: we are blessed to be a blessing. But perhaps we need to add a little more deliberately the notion that we are not just blessed to be a blessing to those we know and love. As a people rooted in God’s abundance and provision, we are blessed to bless the people who never get invited out – or, when it comes to our Sunday worship – who never get invited in.
The final story that Jesus tells is about people’s attitudes to an important invitation.
In those times, it was customary for two invitations to go out: one well in advance of the event so that people could put it into their diary, and the next, when the food was almost ready and those who had committed to attending could make their way to the event.
In the story, a great dinner party was going to take place and many people had been invited and many people promised that they would be there. But when the second invitation went out, suddenly they started making excuses. The master of the house was mad but didn’t want anything to go to waste and so those not normally invited – the homeless, the wretched, the misfits – were all brought in to enjoy that which was suddenly unwanted.
I have to laugh a little at this story in light of what we experience day in and day out at Calvary: people sign up for a course on a Sunday as the Spirit and the Word moves them, but a week later don’t show up because something better or more pressing has come along. Or you print material and prepare for the 8 people who signed up for something, only to have 40 people show up and complain that you were not organised enough or there wasn’t enough to eat.
It is, once again, a reflection of the scarcity of this day and age that we are hesitant about committing our time for fear of what we might miss out on and that, at the end of the day, our commitments mean nothing; they are easily changed and others are simply expected to understand that “something came up.”
God’s kingdom-community can not be built on such half-heartedness. We who rely on the God who is yesterday, today and tomorrow the same , in turn need to be reliable. We need to show up at the table. We need our “yes” to mean “yes” and our “no” to mean “no.” We need to be consistent in our kindness, and our compassion, in our morals and our mission. We need to stand firm in love and firm for God.
When these three characteristics – authenticity, generosity, and reliability – become the pattern of our community life, they will, in fact, become a blueprint for a different way of thinking and relating: a way not based on the perception of scarcity but on the reality of a love which says, “There is always more space at my table. Pull up a chair. Stay for a while. Feast on what you need to get through this day, this week, this year. Everyone is welcome Everyone one belongs. Everyone is beloved.”