The Great Banquet
Posted on November 22, 2013
When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed are those who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’ “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’
“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’ ”
The fragrant aroma of a feast and strains of Motown’s greatest hits filled the room at First Baptist Church of Tucker as their weekly “Great Banquet” got underway. While The Temptations sang of “sunshine on a cloudy day,” cries of delight radiated from the entryway as the honored guests began to arrive.
With their arms outstretched and wide grins on their faces, they searched for the volunteers that host this weekly event. Even though they were only being reunited after one week apart, there was a spirit of a family reunion in the air. I knew we were in for a treat when one PURE man asked, “Are we going to dance tonight Phil?” He was assured that there would be singing and dancing later, but that first we would be eating together.
When I asked how all of this got started, I was told that this church had transitioned their mid-week programming (involving a meal, classes and choir practice) to fill the need of the PURE community surrounding their church. One ministry servant remembered with regret, “There was always one table at our Wednesday evening meal with members of a local group home for adults with disabilities. They never interacted with us very much. And we pretty much left them alone. We didn’t know how to really welcome them – so we didn’t. That had to change. I’m so glad we changed everything. I don’t like to think about the way it was before.”
Learning that there was a network of group homes in the immediate area, this church did the unthinkable – they changed everything. Soon the mid-week meeting for adults was moved to a lunchtime session, and Wednesday evening was dedicated to a meal they call “The Great Banquet.” Working in coordination with both county agencies and Georgia DDM, this church identified group homes and invited them to a weekly celebration and feast.
Before you assume that this is the work of a mega-church with a generous budget and plenty of young people to assume the needs of such a vigorous ministry, allow me to dispel those myths. Almost all of the volunteers I met were of retirement age. Few if any of them have any specialized training to equip them for disability ministry. The budget of the church is not endless and neither are its physical resources. They are simply faithful with the monies and energies that they have and our God has multiplied both their energies and resources to meet the needs of their community.
I say their community because it is clear that each guest at The Great Banquet is anticipated for and cherished. Another ministry servant expressed wonder at the enthusiasm that they, the volunteers, are embraced with weekly. She tearfully reported, “These people come in, arms open, smiling, happy, hugging us, telling us they love us, so glad to see us. The gift they give in coming, the gift I receive from them…it is the love of Christ.”
I did not have to observe very long before realizing that the ministry volunteers who came to serve found themselves served by the PURE guests at The Great Banquet. They embrace these honored guests as friends, equals, and members of their community. The differences that disability might have forged are simply forgotten as they celebrate brotherhood and community together each week. Dietrich Bonhoeffer might have been writing about this weekly event specifically when we penned,
“Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us.”
As the meal continued, so did the music. Soon Marvin Gaye reminded us that “ain’t no mountain high enough…” as volunteers strolled and danced their way among the tables visiting with each group home in attendance that evening. I found myself in a full-fledged worship service as The Four Tops confirmed, “Reach out…I’ll be there to love and comfort you. And I’ll be there to cherish and care for you.” It became abundantly clear that at First Baptist Church of Tucker, any distinction between disabled and non-disabled simply does not exist. They are only members of a single body sharing a common life.
Soon the time of sharing through song began. PURE members of The Great Banquet came to the microphone to lead the group in songs they sing at almost every opportunity. We sang “Soon and Very Soon,” “Amen,” and “Amazing Grace.” While sharing in song is routine, this night I was in for a special treat.
Though an attendee at this meal for many years, for the first time on this very evening, a PURE man rose to his feet and shared in song at the microphone. All activity from volunteers stopped and I saw many brush away tears. For them, they were witnessing a miracle. “He has never sung! This has never happened!” Arm in arm with the minister, who murmured along quietly to offer support, this man affirmed the faith and hope of every person in attendance. The kitchen staff was alerted and stopped their work to come out and hear what might have been a maestro in concert. When he completed his song, shouts of joy rose up from every corner of the room. Then he jumped in delight as he received hugs and high-fives from every volunteer.
It was the grand finale of the evening. Soon tables began to gather their members and everyone packed to go home. Hugs were given freely as everyone promised they would see them next week, where it will all take place again. And in this small act of faithfulness – a meal with Motown and karoke hymn singing – a body will be strengthened. The ministry servants at First Baptist Church of Tucker would tell you that it is they who gain the most benefit from The Great Banquet. The house parents of each group home might say that the fellowship they encounter through the opportunity to talk with one another is the greatest benefit. Perhaps the honored PURE guests at each week’s banquet would articulate that this is all for them. In truth, each one is cherished. Each one is honored. And each experience a “common grace given to all by God, fellowshipping around a common table, embracing a common reliance on God and sharing a common life together as equals in the eyes of God.”
 The Holy Bible: Today’s New International Version. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), Lk 14:15–24.
 Zondervan, Life Together: the Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, 1St Edition ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 25.
 Amos Yong, Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2007), page 222-23.