Dining In the Dark
There are certain things you expect when you go out to dinner. A fork, a spoon, a kinfe. A napkin. A plate. A table to eat on. Someone to take your order. Someone to fill your cup. And depending on which restaurant you choose or whose house you’ve been invited to, the theme and fare can vary. There might be sombreros on the wall in a Mexican restaurant, while pictures of Ronald and Hamburgerler comprise the artwork at your local McDonald’s. Your neighbor down the street might pull out napkin rings and fine China for every meal, while your friend across town entertains with paper towels and Chinet.
And even with the variations, we typically know what to expect during a meal, and we typically know how to behave when we’re eating one together. On occasion, though, there are customs or traditions that creep into a family’s dining habits that can throw off a guest if he or she has not been properly initiated … customs that have become more “theme” than “variation.” For example, in my family, particularly when my father and his siblings are involved, it’s the “check war.”
Some of you know what I’m talking about … as the meal winds down and the server bearing the check approaches the table, the battle of “who’s going to pay for this meal” ensues. It can begin as subtly as who reaches for his wallet first, but the contest quickly becomes verbal, and the victor is determined only by physical possession of the check. Protests can continue after possession, but unless that person holding the check can be convinced to relinquish, which is very rare, the battle is over.
Not long ago my extended family and I made a trip to New York and had a unique dining experience that put this sacred custom to the test. It also tested just about every assumption one could make about how people share a meal together.
My father suggested we all dine at a creative, new restaurant in town. Instead of the usual variation on the restaurant theme, we did not see any culturally authentic artwork … no skyline photos or Yankees paraphernalia. In fact, we didn’t see anything at all. The restaurant is called Dining in the Dark, and that’s exactly what happens. When you arrive, you enter a dimly lit room and place your order. Then, you are led through a corridor that gets progressively darker, until you enter the dining room, which is pitch black. The wait staff, who themselves are blind or sight impaired, guide you to your seat and help you get oriented when they place the food in front of you. This Dining in the Dark experience seems to be a new dining trend sweeping through several countries. So far we have been spared this level of trendiness in Arkansas, but it could happen here, too. The creators of the restaurants describe the experience with these words:
“In this era of information overload, visual stimulation has reached an all time pinnacle. But imagine, just for an hour or two that you cannot see, that you are abandoning vision in exchange for a new, more stimulating experience that caters to the senses and a deeper consciousness – this is ‘Dining in the Dark.’”
These restaurants have sparked some controversy. There are those who praise the concept as a chance to experience the world as one who is blind and thus to better understand what that is like. There are others who see dining in the dark as nothing more than an over-priced gimmick. But no matter what the critics say, my family and I had an unforgettable time. We sat in the dark, completely devoid of all of the usual trappings of a family restaurant outing. There were no decorations to look at, no distracting music playing in the background. In fact, being plunged into such a strange environment stripped away something else as well. As we all fumbled around, concentrating on functioning in this foreign environment, we found that we began to relate to one another no longer as uncle to nephew, or overbearing brother to annoying in-law, but simply person to person. The usual family dynamics went out a darkened window somewhere, and there we sat, human to human. Maybe a little more honest. Maybe a little less guarded. And, believe it or not, there was no check war. How could there be when we couldn’t even see the check coming?
When the fundamental rules of the game are changed, people behave differently. What was once important may now become insignificant. What was once taken for granted may now be meaningless. It is ironic how turning off the lights enabled us to see dining, and one another, in a whole new way.
This is exactly what Jesus does in today’s gospel. He changes the rules of the game. He turns off the lights and invites people to truly see.
Jesus was going to a Sabbath meal at the home of a Pharisee. As was the custom, the guests naturally chose the places of honor at which to eat their meals. Jesus notices everyone behaving in this typical way and deems it an appropriate time to mix things up. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor,” he says. By the way, whenever Jesus talks about the “wedding banquet” he’s talking about the kind of party God would throw. And at God’s party, God’s rules apply. Not our rules. At God’s party one should allow others to sit at the places of honor. And at God’s party the guest list would be different too. “Do not invite your relatives or your brothers or your rich neighbors … invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
My guess is that after Jesus finished his speech to the room of distinguished guests, things probably felt a little awkward. But I wonder if that wasn’t his intention all along. That’s what happens when you turn off the lights; when you change the rules. Things get awkward. Jesus is asking people to stretch beyond their comfort zone, to leave the ways of the world behind and to be a guest at God’s party. In baptism we are washed clean of the old ways and initiated into a new life in Christ. We are reminded of that fundamental Christian action in this gospel passage today. Jesus did not come to give us a pat on the back for doing what we’ve been doing. He didn’t come to commend us for adhering to custom and preserving the status quo. Jesus came to turn the world on its head so that we might better see God’s intentions.
Two Sunday’s ago we heard the gospel passage in which Jesus says he did not come to bring peace to the earth, but rather division. Today we hear a clear example of what he means. Do not strive to be first, rather, be last. Do not invite those to dinner who can pay you back, rather, invite those who cannot. True hospitality is radical, challenging, and even divisive. But, when done faithfully, more rewarding than we can imagine.
There are certain things you expect when you go out to dinner. A fork, a spoon, a knife. A napkin. A plate. A table to eat on. Someone to take your order. Someone to fill your cup. And maybe even a “check war” at the end of the meal. But when you come into this place. And partake in this meal, the rules are different. You may leave feeling satisfied or fed, comforted or less burdened, or perhaps inspired to bring others next time. You might also leave feeling a little awkward … like the lights were turned off, or … like the lights were turned on.
Proper 17, Year C