This week Jesus gets invited to a dinner party. This prompts him to give some advice on where to sit and how to manage social expectations by avoiding the shame of being sent down from the positions of honour and instead looking to be moved up by the host by starting in the position of humility.
I am sure for many of us, the idea of a dinner party evokes different feelings within us than it did in 2019. Not to say that there isn’t something nostalgic and appealing about the idea of a big family dinner at the holidays. But that is not what Jesus is talking about. Think more of a wedding banquet where you only know a handful of folks. Maybe a work convention banquet where you might get seated with a table of strangers from BC or Ontario. Or even hanging around for coffee fellowship at a congregation you are visiting while on vacation.
Let alone the COVID awareness that this brings up, I am sure there are many different and varied feelings that we might have about attending such an event.
For some, schmoozing and meeting new people is exciting and energizing. For others, making new acquaintances and keeping up small talk is an anxiety-inducing experience.
For my wife, she loves to work a room. Whenever we are in a situation like that, she cannot help herself from floating from table to table, group to group, conversation to conversation, making sure that she checks in with as many folks as possible, chit-chatting up a storm.
For me on the other hand, the idea of a dinner party isn’t necessarily my idea of a fun time, but it is also not something I would avoid at all costs. I am much more likely to stick with the first interesting conversation I find than to flit around checking in on everyone.
And if I am honest, small talk just isn’t my gift (trust me, I try my very best!) and I think that makes me come across as an introvert at times, which can be a bit of an occupational hazard as a pastor. Believe it not, I am basically an extrovert and I am energized by spending time with people. One of the hardest parts of this pandemic for me has been the isolation from community.
Being a quiet extrovert stems from my childhood. The first 12 or so years of my life were punctuated by a lot of ear infections. Twice I had tubes in my ears during that time. When I was sick – which was often – it felt like my voice was reverberating in my skull. I learned to be quiet and economical with my words, to listen and take things in before blurting out whatever was on my mind. I tended to wait for silence, or for the lowest level of painful noise, before adding my voice to the sounds around me. My teachers often described me as shy and quiet. At the same time, I desperately wanted to be part of the group and in with the action. I always preferred being with others then being alone.
For good or for ill, this experience is baked into who I am. I know that it makes me a bit of a contradiction as a pastor. There are all kinds of pastors in the church, introverts and extroverts, though the median or average pastor seems to be someone comfortable filling the silence in conversation and carrying the dialogue. At the same time I would say that a median or average pastor is also still somewhat uncomfortable in front of a crowd and still nervous preaching, even if they are quite practiced at it.
But for me, when I know my words have a clear purpose, they flow easily and readily. I like to hope that means that my comfort in preaching and leading worship comes across easily. I know that I can teach confirmation or an adult study relatively easily compared to many colleagues. Giving a speech or telling a campfire story or speaking to a reporter for a news interview doesn’t make me feel nervous at all.
I can entertain a crowd if I need to, but just don’t ask me to schmooze a room. I know this makes me a bit of an oddity among clergy colleagues. Even as a 20 year old working at camp. I knew that people would wonder, “What is up with that guy?” when they would see me tell an engaging, laughter-filled campfire story in front of 150 family campers, only to then stumble my way through small talk afterwards. I have tried my best over the years to work on those schmoozing skills, and I think I have gotten much better from that stumbling 20 year old. But it still isn’t a gift of mine.
So what do my confessions about my social ineptitudes and/or gifts have to do with Jesus’ telling the story about a dinner party?
As followers of Jesus’ hearing his advice about dinner party etiquette this week, we cannot reserve his advice just for those times when we find ourselves at a wedding or graduation banquet or work convention. Through us, God hosts a dinner party for the community around us week after week.
And I suspect that as guests to that banquet at the Lord’s table, we all arrive with our particular comforts and discomforts. That we all have our own stories and experiences that make us who we are. And as we gather week after week, our varied gifts and talents, our ineptitudes and failings are intermixed by God into a wonderful table of grace, mercy, community and belonging. Some might be most comfortable serving the food or reading out the specials. Others might be in the back washing dishes or working behind the scenes, with still others welcoming and seating honoured guests. Some might schmooze the room, while others hang back. Some might provide the background music while others offer affirmation and encouragement. Some might be adept at making and fostering connections, while others long to connect but aren’t quite sure how.
My comfort zone is as the emcee or guest speaker. You know what yours might be.
So does God.
And with all the parts of ourselves and stories that we bring to the Lord’s table week after week, God turns us into the most wonderful expression of the Kingdom of God. Where there is always a place at the table and role to play no matter who we are