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Who Would You Invite to Your Banquet?

Message of Dr. Lester Edwin J. Ruiz at the Christmas Alumni/ae gathering hosted by CPUAA of the Northeast, Calvary Baptist Church, Clifton, New Jersey, December 6, 2014

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Banquets are critical part of culture and the building of community

For many, if not most, of the cultures and peoples of the world, eating together—sharing meals—having banquets, are an important part of the creation and nurture of community, of “life-together.”

In the Philippine context, there are at least three practices that are a crucial part of “life together:” eating, singing, and storytelling; and, maybe dancing and praying—these activities are what make up Filipino “fiestas.” To my mind, your regular gatherings in this place are part of what “fiestas” are about.

So let me invite all of us to reflect briefly together about banquets and fiestas; and perhaps, afterwards we can talk about what banquets have to do with us Centralians and life together, especially of living together well, finally.

Images of Banquets in the Bible

There are many images of banquets or shared meals in the Bible. Today I would like to draw our attention to at least four.

The Banquet of King Xerxes

First, there is the banquet of King Xerxes (Ahasuerus) recorded in the Book of Esther. In that powerful, moving text, the author describes in the greatest of detail what kind of banquet King Xerxes held. While everyone was invited, it is very clear that this banquet was only for the important men of the empire.

The King even wanted the Queen to offer herself for the pleasure of these important men. And when she refused, he divorced her.

I suspect this story is strangely familiar to us. So familiar, that it deserves no further elaboration, except to say, How many times have we felt that only the most powerful, the most important, the most “beautiful people” deserve to sit at the “head table” of our banquets?

Or worst, how many of us are convinced, in our hearts, at least, that power and privilege—whether it comes from tradition, or wealth, or knowledge—are the primary criteria for honor and respect, instead, perhaps, of the simple reality that we are all human beings loved by God—this creator and ruler of the universe, who arrives among us in a dirty, stinky stable, of an unwed teenage girl, and whose first visitors were probably uneducated sheep herders?

The Banquet of Queen Vashti

Second, there is the banquet given by Queen Vashti. In contrast to the way King Xerxes’ banquet was described, the author of the Book of Esther has only one line for Queen Vashti’s banquet: “Meanwhile, Queen Vashti gave a drinking party for the women in the palace where King Artaxerxes was…”

I have often wondered why the storyteller had only one line for Queen Vashti’s banquet, while he had at least 25 lines for King Xerxes’ banquet. One interpretation with which I am familiar suggests that Queen Vashti invited all the women who were not invited to the party of King Xerxes—in other words, all the women who were excluded from the centers of the power and privilege of the military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces.

I have to tell this story. I am told that my mother and father had a “grand wedding;” that her veil trailed behind her at least thirty feet; and that at their reception, all the honored guests, many of whom were dressed in their Sunday best, including for the men, those black and white wing-tip patent leather shoes, were served on the lawn in front of my grandfather’s house—but, that all of my grandmother’s family and friends, many naka tsinelas lang, the men wearing T-shirts, the women naga mamâ, were gathered at the back of the house close to what today would be called a “dirty kitchen” and were practically invisible to the guests at the front.

Mea culpa. Mea culpa.

The story in the Book of Esther also has a very contemporary “ring” to it. How often does the work of wives, daughters, and sisters, gotten only a small acknowledgement, if at all, even though, we know that it was because of their work that made an event successful, for example, a church dinner, or an alumni/ae “potluck,” or, even, keeping the house clean, the meals cooked, the clothes ironed—in addition to taking care of the children… and taking care of the men in the public square? Some of my friends have called this the invisibility of the women of our time.

The Banquet on the Mountainside

Third, there is the banquet of the “feeding of the five thousand.” The story, with which we are all familiar that it does not need re-telling, is profound in its simplicity. In a world of scarcity, a world of selfishness, one boy, with a simple baon—not at all a banquet by most standards—in his willingness to share what he had, through the power of Jesus, was not only able to feed five thousand, but had plenty left over.

What is interesting to me is that nowhere in the story are we told that if we share, we should be rewarded with God’s blessing. No prosperity gospel here. The boy gave, without the expectation of any future reward. He gave because it was in his heart to share. Judging from what he had, he probably was not a boy from a wealthy family—but he opened his heart and his hands—and the world was blessed.

The Eucharistic Meal

Finally, there is the banquet we call the Lord’s Supper. And even though this is familiar to most of us, this one deserves re-telling. The author of the Gospel of John tells this story:

“… Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean…”

And the author of the Gospel of Matthew continues…

“…While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives…”

Three things touch my heart in this story.

First, Jesus knew beforehand that someone in his inner circle would betray him. Yet, that betrayal was not enough to exclude Judas from being invited to the table of the Lord. Jesus also knew that Peter would deny him; and yet, that denial was not enough to exclude him from being invited to the table of the Lord.

Second, the Eucharist was a simple meal of remembrance. The disciples gathered for the traditional Jewish Passover meal, which Jesus turned into a time of remembrance, not only of his life, death, and resurrection—his sacrifice—but also, of what God was going to do in the world.

And, third, and for me, the most moving, the meal was preceded by Jesus washing the feet of his disciples… an act of humility and service; a reminder for us of what true leadership and greatness involve.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Dondon Gonzaga Faldas

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What Kind of Banquet Will You Have? Who Will You Invite?

This is the continuation of Dr. Lester Edwin J. Ruiz’s message at the Christmas Alumni/ae gathering hosted by CPUAA of the Northeast, Calvary Baptist Church, Clifton, New Jersey, December 6, 2014

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Hapag ng Pag-asa (Table of Hope) by Joey Velasco

What kind of banquet will you have? Who will you invite?

These four images tell us something about life and about ourselves. Indeed, these banquets are metaphors for the creation and nurture of “life together”—this life together that always, at least in the biblical tradition, as in Acts, Romans, Corinthians, and the other Pauline epistles, combines worship with “fellowship meals.”

Every banquet poses for each of us a question, not only of whom we invite to our banquets, but also, what kind of banquet we must have—and therefore, whether our lives are worthy to be called worshipful. In this specific context, if life can be understood as a banquet of sorts, then, the question of whom we invite to our banquets is also a question of whom we invite to participate in this thing we call “the Central Spirit;” and, what this Central Spirit is about.

Will our banquets (our alumni/ae associations), be like the one which King Xerxes hosted—where everyone is invited, but only the important people are honored, and where others are sacrificed for the pleasure of those who are considered important?

Or will our banquets be like the one that Queen Vashti hosted, where there is no record of who was invited. But, extrapolating from the character of Queen Vashti, we might surmise that those who were invited were those who were not only excluded from the centers of power and privilege, but also were those who were courageous, like Queen Vashti herself, to stand up to these centers of power and privilege and who refuse to submit to the unjust and arbitrary exercise of power and privilege? What does it mean to invite these people into our midst?

Or will our banquets be like the one on the mountainside, made possible by the graciousness of a young boy, who was willing to freely and unconditionally share what he had, especially without the promise of reward for being generous or obedient? Will ours be a banquet of divine excess; of unconditional regard—sharing both with the deserving and the undeserving; the just and the unjust; sharing like the rain that falls on everyone; like the sun that rises and sets for the whole world; like Jesus giving his life for the whole of creation?

Or will our banquets be like the Lord’s Supper, where everyone is invited—even those who would betray or deny us? Those who would challenge tradition? Those who would ignore life itself? Can we invite into our potlucks those who are not like us, those who have hurt us? Those whom we have hurt? And if we do, how do we ensure that they are fed just as we feed our friends and family? Or, to put the matter more theologically, how do we ensure that justice does not surrender to compassion; and compassion is not overwhelmed by justice? In other words, that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven?

One more banquet

There is one other banquet that I want to mention this afternoon. And I mention it with some trepidation because it is not easy for me—or for many of us, to talk about it. I refer, here to the Florida Global Reunion as a banquet.

Please do not misunderstand. I do not mean that the Florida Global Reunion was not pleasant. Please do not construe my comments as a lament about CPU, its alumni/ae, and the Global Federation—flawed as it may be in its organizational and administrative leadership. Au contraire. The Florida Global Reunion, by all accounts was a wonderful celebration of our beloved Central—and its Spirit. Indeed, it was, as I understand it, a success. And I regret I was not able to attend it.

That being said, some of us have been somewhat pre-occupied with the events around the Florida Global Reunion, particularly the painful controversy around the “Global Queen Contest.” I suspect many more have been watching quietly from the sidelines of cyberspace—some taking sides, some quietly trying to figure things out, some just curious or amused. Others horrified and disgusted; still others apathetic even uncaring.

But as Koheleth (in Ecclesiastes) says, there is a time and purpose for everything under heaven. And if one takes a long view, as I do, what this GQ “debacle” has done is bring to the surface so many deep generational-, class-, gender-, religio-moral-based differences among alumni/ae regarding the meaning, purpose, and function of being alums of CPU; it has re-opened old wounds, and inflicted new ones; it has brought to the surface the flawed monetized strategies of institutional development and advancement adopted by the leadership of our beloved CPU; it has underscored the deep violations of trust, transparency, accountability that many rightly feel; it has revealed the many agendas—both hidden and not so hidden—of different alums, some for the good of CPU, or the alumni/ae organizations, some for personal, even self-serving gain.

Viewed from this vantage point, it is not a very pleasant or pretty banquet. Not a fellowship of which we can be proud. Still, it is our banquet.

At the same time, the events surrounding the GQ contest even to this day has also disclosed a deep yearning for connection and re-connection—in other words, a deep desire for genuine community around personal, professional, institutional, and spiritual commitments and passions; a dream for living together well finally.

Sadly, it may be too early to ask of the violated to forget and move on; or too late to ask the self-interested to give up on their self-centered aspirations. It may be humanly impossible, at this time to ask of all of us—in our differences, incommensurable as they might appear—to return to a time of shared innocence so that we can all begin again.

Maybe, we are living in a time like Lot’s Sodom and Gomorrah, or of Noah’s flood—those times that require that what we have built needs to be destroyed, or be allowed to die—in order for something genuinely new to come into being. Then, again, we may be living in a time when the old Central is dying, but the new Central cannot as yet be born. I don’t really know; sometimes, I wish I had a crystal ball.

But what I do know, in my heart of hearts, is that all of God’s people are called to be “born again” and yet again—not just in some spiritual or religious re-birth important as that may be; but be truly “born anew”—which means, we all must be prepared to die to ourselves, and be resurrected in the name of what is good, and true, and beautiful which we do not possess or control, but which, ought to possess us.

Whether we like it or not, in other words, we have got to eat—sometime. And the question is, do we have nourishing food to eat? Do we have good food to share with others? Or is our food stale, pan-os, even poison?

A banquet for everyone—unconditionally:

Living together well, finally

And so, I ask again: what kind of banquet will we have? Who are we prepared to invite to our banquets?

Brothers and sisters in Christ, those of you whom, I know in my heart stand at the frontlines of struggles for justice, for peace, for transformation whether big or small, whether related to CPU and its alumni/ae federation or to local chapters or churches or places of work and play—those of you who have mounted crosses, carried crosses, taken others off of crosses—what kind of banquet will you have? Who would you invite to your banquet?

In other words, whom would you invite to share in your inherent truth, goodness, and beauty; your blessings; your most cherished values?

Who would you welcome into your most intimate convictions; your deepest vulnerabilities; your darkest secrets?

To whom would you entrust your faith; your understanding of “the Central Spirit;” your exclusive idea of Central?

My prayer is that God will grant us the wisdom and the courage to invite to our banquets all those whom God has loved and created. And may all our banquets, our communities, our lives, be about the gathering of people together to share freely, joyfully, hopefully, unconditionally in order to transform our world—tempered by the recognition that we may not get there save through the cost of discipleship that may eventuate in “the cross” even as we look to the resurrection of God and of God’s creation, and of God’s ultimate judgment and excessive grace, who, even now, comes to us again in this season, not only through the defiant innocence of a baby in the midst of a painful, ugly, disappointing world, but also, a baby whose lineage is explicitly linked to both “the prophets of old, who demanded to be heard, who dared to speak of a child to come, unexpected liberator of the people, vulnerable incarnation of the Holiest of Holies, a new name for God,” and also “the prophets among us today, who bring to us surprising new visions of hope, who challenge us to think outside the box, who show us a future we never anticipated.”

When Louise Vail and I were exchanging emails about the topic for this celebration, she first suggested “How can we, as Centralians, make a difference in our society or country or the world?” to which I responded that it was a broad topic. “If the topic is too broad,” she wrote back, “since its Christmas time, how about “God with us or the meaning of Emmanuel”?

So let me conclude by noting that we are gathered here to celebrate the season of the coming of Emmanuel; tomorrow is the second Sunday of Advent, which in the Christian calendar is a time of “waiting” for the coming of our Lord and Savior—God with us.

So what has banquets got to do with the holiday season; with Advent; with waiting for the coming of “God with us”?

This season of preparation for the coming of “the fundamentally new that is also fundamentally better;” and which includes, if we follow church history and tradition, confession, seeking forgiveness, and being pronounced holy and forgiven; a remembering of who we are, from whence we came, what we hope for. Well, maybe nothing, maybe everything.

But if banquets are about sharing, about “being together,” about “living well together finally,” then Emmanuel, God with us, is about the gathering of God and God’s people. It is even more than that, for in the Incarnation, God joins permanently with humanity in order that humanity may find its fulfillment in divinity.

Perhaps, after we have meditated on the questions what kind of banquet do we want and need? And whom do we want or need at the banquet? After we have agreed that it is important to learn how to live well together finally, perhaps, then, and maybe only then, can we ask, what kind of banquet are we waiting for? And who are the people we are waiting for to join our banquets?

I believe in my heart of hearts, that if we get to these questions, then we can get to Louise’s very important question about how we can, as Centralians, make a difference in our society, our country, our the world.

But the answers to her important questions, sisters and brothers in Christ, can only come from each one of you–individually and collectively.
May God give us the hearts, minds, and spirits, to answer her questions.

Amen.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Image of ‘Hapag ng Pag-asa painting of Joey Velasco’ courtesy of Google Images; CPUAA Northeastern USA photos by Felix B. Colinco Jr.