Sabbath as Community
If you’ve been gathering with us since we started worshipping regularly two weeks ago, you know we are talking about Sabbath. That God-blessed, God-ordained day or hour or moment of rest. Sabbath is that time of stopping set aside by God, declared not just good, but blessed in the creation story. And in the past two weeks we have talked about practices and the tangible benefits of living into this blessed space of Sabbath, of resting, of unplugging, of reconnecting, of simply being. And you may get the impression that practicing Sabbath is all about being alone, being quiet, and being serious. Today, we will consider how God invites us to experience Sabbath rest with others, not in somber solitude, but in joyful community, around dinner tables and kitchen counters, on front porches and picnic benches. Please join me in prayer
Our second scripture reading comes from Luke 14:1–24. Listen now for God’s word.
1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 2 Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. 3 And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” 4 But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. 5 Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” 6 And they could not reply to this.
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
14:15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20 Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ 22 And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ 23 Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
If you were with us last week, the passage that we just read should sound familiar.
Jesus once again faces a conflict with the religious leaders about how to properly live into Sabbath. The leaders are watching Jesus closely, concerned that his behavior will undermine the blessed rest protected by Sabbath. They are waiting to see if Jesus will save his therapeutic work for another day, for another place.
And Jesus heals. Like other stories in the Gospels, Jesus’s touch provides healing and restoration for a man suffering from dropsy, or what doctors today call edema, the painful swelling of the soft tissue caused by excess water.
And Jesus teaches. Noticing how guests at the table jockey for the place of honor, Jesus instructs them on humility and hospitality. His teaching challenges the taken-for-granted practice of recognizing social and political status at social gatherings; he calls into question systems of reciprocity that benefit a few by excluding many.
And Jesus tells a story about preparations for a great banquet, of invitations refused, and of the unlikely guests who finally gather around the table.
Jesus heals. And he teaches. And he tells a story. On the Sabbath. At a meal.
Important things happen at meals in Luke’s Gospel. Meals in Luke teach us about Jesus and the different responses to Jesus and the kingdom he announces. Maybe you remember the story of Jesus’s meal in Luke 5 with Levi, the tax collector, and the religious leaders’ exasperated response that Jesus actually eats with sinners and tax collectors. Or the story of the meal in Luke 7: an unnamed woman who Luke tells us had a reputation in the city for being a sinner. She suddenly enters the scene with an alabaster jar. Wordless, she washes Jesus’s feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. She then bathes his feet in kisses before putting ointment on them. It is an image of intimate devotion if there has ever been one. But this earns the ire of Jesus’s Pharisee host, not admiration. He is put off by the woman’s reputation and Jesus’s willingness to associate, no, even be touched, by such a person. Instead of shooing her away, Jesus forgives her of her sins and sends her off, saying “Your faith has saved you.” For this unnamed, uninvited guest, a meal with Jesus becomes the source of her forgiveness and salvation. Then, there’s the meal in Luke 11. Once again, Jesus is being hosted by a Pharisee. This time, though, there are no words of forgiveness and salvation. Just words of rebuke, as Jesus calls out the religious leaders for deceiving themselves and others by trying to put forward a certain image of themselves. Of course you remember the Passover meal that Jesus shares with his disciples in the upper room. The disciples eat bread and drink wine with Jesus, hours before they all abandon him. Toward the end of that meal, Jesus says to his disciples that they will eat and drink at his table in his kingdom (Luke 22:30). And finally, there’s the meal on the way to Emmaus when Jesus’s disciples, blinded by grief and dashed expectations, are not able to recognize the wandering Jesus, until he again breaks bread with them.
Like I said, meals are important in Luke’s Gospel. Meals are a place of healing and forgiveness and living into salvation. Meals are the space where sinners are welcomed, where disciples are taught, and where others are forced to face their true selves, despite their best efforts at image preservation. Meals are a place where hungry, broken, distraught, downtrodden, tossed-aside sinners come to see and recognize Jesus and experience his redeeming love. Meals are transformative. Meals offer a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.
Meals are inherently communal as well. The practice of sharing meals together in community remains an important aspect of Sabbath observance for many of our Jewish brothers and sisters. Celebrating a meal together is one way that contemporary Jews unplug and set aside time for rest. It is not a burden or a work. It is a celebration. For many, the Sabbath dinner on Friday night is a lavish affair. Bright white table clothes don the table. The “special” dishes come out of the cabinets. Candles are lit. Rich food is prepared. Splurging and indulging in fine wine and good meat is a virtue, a mitzvah—a gift—on Sabbath. And as the challah bread is broken and the gilfete fish is passed around, table guests engage in conversation and reflection, storytelling and prayer. And all of this eating and drinking and talking and laughing is part of practicing Sabbath. As Jenelle and I discovered while living in an Orthodox Jewish community in North Druid Hills, these meals can go on for quite some time. Kids miss their bedtimes as they play together. Plates and serving dishes are left on the table as conversation and fellowship last late into the evening.
I have a feeling that many of us do not imagine indulging in fine wine and rich food around a table of laughter and conversation to be a spiritual thing, let alone a Sabbath practice. Instead, our notions of spiritual practices are often shaped, not by indulgence, but by wilful abstinence; if it’s spiritual, it better hurt or at least be uncomfortable. Likewise, there is very little room for thinking that laughter and conversation and storytelling can be spiritual practices; if we’re going to be spiritual, we have to be all alone, in a quiet place. And to be fair, many of the Sabbath practices we have been discussing over the past couple of weeks are forms of abstinence—abstaining from our devices, our calendars, our to-do lists, and our constant need to perform. And many of the practices are oriented to the individual, as well. As any of you who have small children can attest, sometimes taking a nap as a type of Sabbath rest is best done alone, if you actually want to sleep.
So this week, I want to invite us to consider that what we do around the dinner table or on a picnic blanket or on a front porch with a glass of wine can also be restorative. Indulging in satisfying food and vibrant conversation is itself a way to practice Sabbath, a way to experience God’s blessed rest, and a way to create space for God’s transforming work in our own lives.
One of my favorite short stories is “Babette’s Feast” by Isak Dinesen. The story takes place in a small village on the coast of Denmark. It tells the story of two sisters, daughters of a rigorous and almost fanatical pastor whose religious convictions demand a lifestyle of denying worldly pleasures. The sisters welcome Babette, a refugee fleeing the revolutionary war in Paris, into their home as a housekeeper. Several years later, Babette learns that she has won 10,000 francs in the French lottery. Rather than use the money on herself or to secure her return to France, Babette insists on using the money to cook the sisters and their father’s congregation a real “French dinner” of indulgent, succulent foods, including turtle soup.
The story reaches its climax as the sisters and the villagers enjoy this French dinner together. First, they do so reluctantly because of their religious convictions. They have vowed not to enjoy the food or the drink. But by the end of the night, the meal has transformed them. They share food and drink. They tell stories and make speeches. And they taste in this Sabbath meal, even if only for a moment, the kingdom of God. One guest at the dinner, the General Low-en-hee-lm, captures the significance of the meal. Intoxicated as much by the wine as by the company, the General gives a speech about grace toward the end of the meal:
“We have all been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite.… But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace … makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty.”
The general’s personification of grace reminds me of the master in our passage from Luke 14. There is a limitless quality to the master’s invitation, an incessant urge to fill the house, to gather more from outside and welcome them in. The invitation is just that—an invitation, not an obligation. An invitation to those who will receive it and welcome it with gratitude.
Meals are important in the Gospel of Luke. The whole story from Luke 14 is bracketed by the man’s remark in verse 15, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God.” Meals somehow anticipate and provide a glimpse, a taste, of the kingdom of God, that place and space where God’s rule goes unchallenged. We may tend to think of the Kingdom of God through images we associate we heaven: fluffy white clouds and pearly gates; the gate keeper Peter and the questions he might ask; maybe even a mysterious throne or a book that contains all the deeds of our lives. Many, if not all, of these images of heaven are individualistic in nature. But in our passage today, the kingdom of God is not imagined as the procession of solitary individuals waiting to see if they’ll pass a test and be granted entrance through the pearly gates. No, the image we get from the passage today is that of a meal, a great banquet. A table and a room that seems almost limitless. A persistent, though peeved, master who relentlessly seeks to fill the room, to fill up the seats around the table. “Go out to the highways and the alleys, the open places and the hidden places, and bring back whomever you can find to my table, to my banquet.”
Wherever you may find yourself in Jesus’s story about the great banquet—whether as the characters who are too busy to respond to the master’s invitation, the hurt and broken who are grateful for a friendly meal, or as the characters lying in the street who have to be dragged to the meal, please know that you are invited. You are invited to this table to experience transformation. And I invite you to the blessed Sabbath practice of sharing food and drink in community. May conversation and laughter fill your households, as grace and joy and salvation transform you through Sabbath rest. Amen.