United Presbyterian Church of West Orange


“The Open Banquet”

July 2, 2023

Dr. Daniel L. Migliore


On Sunday, March 20, 2011, I was the morning preacher here.  It was shortly after your pastor was diagnosed with Leukemia and hospitalized for many weeks.  Now here I am, twelve years later, standing again in her stead on what was expected to be the beginning of her much needed and well-deserved two-month sabbatical--a time to rest, to read, to meditate, and to write.  Instead, at the very beginning of her sabbatical, she received news that her physical exams showed evidence of cancer.  She is now awaiting the results of more recent tests.


To say that she, I, we are stunned by this turn of events would be an understatement.  Beyond our initial shock, however, the more immediate concern is: how do we, her friends, her congregation, respond?   Will it include confusion, anxiety, and lament, as it did for the Psalmist and for Jesus when God seemed so far away from them?  Yes, surely.    Will it involve fervent prayer to God to give Rebecca and us courage, stamina, and faith as she undertakes still another battle with serious illness?  Yes, absolutely.  Will it require our unflinching resolve that now as before, we will trust in God’s healing power and will stand by her to offer our comfort and support in whatever way we can?  Most assuredly.


Then there’s the more personal question that I have as your preacher of the morning.  What are the right words—or more precisely, what is the Word of God spoken through the scriptural witness—for us this morning?  As I struggled over this question this week, I was moved  (hopefully by the Spirit)--to choose a biblical text whose message would be familiar to you from the decades long ministry and preaching of Rebecca, your pastor and preacher extraordinaire. 


My sermon this morning is entitled, “The Open Banquet.”  Talk of a banquet commends itself in this holiday season when there will be countless banquets of all sorts, or in other words, a lot of eating and drinking.  Americans will celebrate the 4th of July, the day in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was adopted.  We can expect flashy fireworks and colorful parades in communities across the nation.  We can also expect millions of families and friends to gather for parties and picnics.  And at these gatherings, there will be lots of food: or more exactly, lots of grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, cold potato salad, and ice-cold drinks.  The 4th of July is a day when Americans do a heap of eating and drinking.


This morning, however, I want us to consider a very different experience of eating and drinking.  I have in mind the gospel portrayal of a kind of eating and drinking that goes against the grain of most of our events of eating and drinking.  I call it the open banquet of Jesus.      

My guess is that most folk assume that eating and drinking are just common,  ordinary routines of everyday life.  The idea is that these ordinary practices are, well, ordinary, lacking any deep meaning or faith dimension. However, when we take a closer look, our times of eating and drinking actually expose our human condition. They serve to remind us that we are needy and vulnerable creatures just like all the other creatures on planet earth.  The daily necessity of eating and drinking makes it disturbingly plain that if we do not eat and drink, we die.


But our times of eating and drinking reveal more than our neediness.  In the human realm at least, eating and drinking are personal and social rituals in which we experience friendship or seclusion, plenty or want, joy or sorrow.  Even if we are inclined to think that our table practices are of little significance for understanding who we are, or what is the meaning of life, or what is God’s will, in biblical perspective our eating and drinking are sometimes occasions of standing under the judgment of God and other times occasions in which we may catch a glimpse of what life might be like when lived in the presence and according to the promise of God.

Is it a mere coincidence that at every juncture of the biblical story, eating and drinking are involved?  In the Genesis story of the creation and fall of humanity, sin first appears in the self-assertive act of eating a forbidden fruit; in the New Testament drama of redemption, a shared meal called the Lord’s Supper is one of the central events; and when Jesus describes the fulfillment of life as intended by God, he asks us to imagine --a great banquet.  So yes, even if we seldom realize it, there is a hidden faith dimensions in our eating and drinking.


When we turn to the Gospels, we find that Jesus turns upside down our conventional and often exclusive ways of eating and drinking.  The story of Jesus at a wedding party, where he turns water into wine, is a reminder that God intends that our  times of eating and drinking be festive rather than dreary.  But most of the stories about Jesus and the practice of eating and drinking make a different point.  They emphasize that our tables are to be open to the poor.  Jesus had table-fellowship with sinners and tax-collectors, with people who were considered undesirable as table-partners, and he was criticized bitterly for doing this.  The story of Jesus feeding a hungry crowd of five thousand also tells us that Jesus wanted the event of eating and drinking to be a shared event, an event that is inclusive, and that especially includes the poor, the outcast, the supposedly worthless ones.   For Jesus, when the event of eating and drinking is open to all, it  is a sign of God’s grace.  It is a liberating event, an event of open friendship, of forgiveness, of shared life.  It is an anticipation, a foretaste of God’s coming reign.


This deep meaning which Jesus gives to the event of eating and drinking is evident not only in the events of his ministry but also in his parables.  This is certainly true of the parable we heard in the New Testament reading this morning.  The story is disarmingly simple.  A man plans a festive meal and invites his acquaintances to attend.  The first people invited, however, are too busy and decline the invitation.  So, the host reaches out to the poor, the lame, and the blind.  And still there is room for more.

Insisting on having his Banquet Hall full, he sends his servants to the dusty roads outside the city telling them to invite to the banquet everyone they happen to meet--the homeless, the vagrants, the utterly lost, the ones who are sometimes called the poorest of the poor.


Like every good story, this parable draws us into its plot.  It makes us ask the question: With whom do we identify in this story?  Many hearers might reply, with the host, of course. He’s the good guy, isn’t he.   But wait a moment.  Isn’t this host a rather strange person?  Yes, he strikes us as exceedingly generous, but we don’t know why.  What was his real motive?  Was he a show-off?  Did he want to outdo his neighbors by throwing the biggest party of the year?  And why does he become so angry when people in his own social circle refuse his invitation, and he decides to invite the poor and strangers?  Was he filled with resentment and wanted to have revenge?   We don’t have answers to these questions, and that makes us uneasy about viewing the host too quickly as a really virtuous person, as we might have first assumed.


And then there are those invited first, who refuse the invitation.  If we were too quick to think the best of the host, maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to think the worst of the first invited?  Who among us hasn’t on occasion refused a polite invitation and tried to excuse ourselves?  Actually, some excuses seem quite reasonable.  Hey, I just got married, and I’m on my honeymoon.  Other excuses are marginally convincing:  Look, I just bought a house and am still up my neck in moving in.  Still others are really pretty lame: like, I’m so sorry, we’ve been so busy recently, and we need to spend the day at the shore, just relaxing and soaking up the sun.  Whatever their excuse, the first refusers of the parable were obviously successful people who didn’t need an unexpected invitation to a time of eating and drinking at someone’s extravagant cocktail party.  Clearly these first invited folk could take care of care of themselves.  They were not hungry.  They had it made.  They didn’t need new friendships or new joyful experiences.  

And then, there are the last invited of the parable. They are the strangers, the poor, the disabled, people polite society judge as drags on the economy, or simply as utter failures. Notice that, unlike the host and the first invited, these last invited do not speak in the parable.  They have no voice, just as the poor have always been voiceless throughout recorded history.  They simply come when invited.  And their positive response to the invitation is silent testimony to their need and their gratitude.  The obvious reason they come, out of all the many invited, is because they were hungry—hungry for food, yes, but also for friendship, for acceptance, for joy.


In Jesus’ own ministry, this parable was no doubt told to vindicate the good news that he proclaimed in word and deed.  God is the benevolent host, and God’s grace and forgiveness reaches out to all.  It especially includes those long considered hopeless and worthless. 

And today—how is this parable to be faithfully retold and heard by us and by the world around us?  Do you hear the call to repentance in this parable?  The shattering of our everyday world of eating and drinking?  The great reversal of our genteel, exclusivist table protocol?  Christ the host of the great banquet is calling us to a transformation of our cherished practices, from the narrow family circle to the whole household of God, from concern only for ourselves to concern for an ever-expanding circle of concern for the common good, from the pursuit of possessions to the affirmation of people.


Are we sure we never make excuses for not attending God’s open banquet?  Are we sure that the extravagant goodness of God does not sometimes puzzle us and disturb us?  Are we sure we are not sometimes a little resentful of the poor, the stranger, and the disturbingly different who also get included in the invitation of the gracious host to the open banquet? 


Like the world of the parable, ours too is a world of stark contrasts.  Hunger and fear stalk many parts of the world and many parts of our own country in spite of the glittering abundance displayed at the tables of the wealthy.

Should we be surprised that now, as in the parable, the poor, the lame, the blind, the sick, the  outcast come silently and gladly to a banquet to which  everyone has  been invited? Not because they are better.  Not because they are more worthy.  Not because they are more pious.  No, they come simply because they are so hungry, they have been excluded for so long, and now they have been invited by a welcoming host to an inclusive and joyful celebration.


If we allow this parable of Jesus to give us clues about the identity of God, about what God is really like, we will hear three things.  We are told first and foremost that God is amazingly gracious.  God’s grace is free and extravagant.  We are also told that  God’s grace is extended not only to us, or to people like us, but to all, including and especially to the poor, the ill, the weak, the despised of the world.  And finally, the parable tells us that God is not a morose or vindictive God but a festive God, a God who wills joy and fullness of life for all God’s creatures.  Sin, my friends, is not only a refusal of grace, not only a repudiation of open friendship.  It is also, sadly, a refusal of the great joy and unbounded festivity of God’s new community open to all.


This parable of Jesus speaks directly to all of us here in this place this morning or listening online.  Look at who we are.  We have many differences.  We come from north and south and east and west.  Yes, we differ according to those surface categories called race and gender and sexual orientation.  As for age, we are young and middle aged and old.  But at the table of our Lord, we who have our real differences are one people.  Our differences turn out not to divide us but to be gifts that we give to one another.  We are all guests of a host who invites us all to share in an open banquet, where all are invited, where all are welcome, where there is enough for everyone, where friendship thrives, and where peace and justice and joy abound.  When we gather here each Sunday to eat and drink together, we not only proclaim, we demonstrate to a splintered and warring world that there is another,  far more joyous way, to be human.


A philosopher once said: We are what we eat.  My friends, this is true only in a trivial sense.  Much more profound is the truth that we are what company we keep in our eating and drinking.  Jesus opens the banquet of God to us all and frees us to eat and drink together.  In the presence of Jesus and in the power of his Spirit, the very ordinary event of eating and drinking becomes something quite extraordinary.  It becomes the beginning of an open community, the beginning of a community of peace and friendship, the beginning of solidarity with the poor and despised of the earth, the beginning of God’s reign of justice and peace.


I think Rebecca’s sermons over the years, her encouragement of the strong hunger ministry of this congregation, and her insistence on the celebration of the Lord’s Supper at every Sunday service are witness to her understanding of the gospel message as a call to the open banquet of Jesus. 


So let us hear once again the good news:  Jesus extends his invitation to the open banquet to us and to all people today.  Its message could not be simpler: “Come, all of you, to the open banquet of God, for the feast is now ready.”    Amen.