September 1, 2013 – Pentecost 15

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”       “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever….   Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.       When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

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Pentecost 15    9/1/13     (Micah 6:1-8, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16) Luke 14:1-14

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Would you invite this guy Jesus to your party? Really? 

I’d be concerned, frankly, about the example he sets. Telling everyone where to sit – at somebody else’s party? Telling you, the host – who to invite and not invite to your next party?

Telling all your invited guests to take the humblest places in the seating arrangement – and, instead of family, friends and those who might advance our careers – invite the poor who can’t repay us. Instead of sitting near the guests of honor – sit with the cook in the kitchen. If this wasn’t Jesus we’re talking about –  I’d say this guy’s flat-out rude. (And yes, well –)

Jesus’ guest list and suggestions about table manners aren’t exactly the same as Emily Post’s. And to be honest, I’m not entirely sure he doesn’t enjoy embarrassing hosts of parties…

And I’m kind of surprised to see him invited to a dinner party of a leading Pharisee – the ones usually most concerned with proper religious etiquette. The Pharisees, remember, are the ones we see quarreling with Jesus, most often in the gospels. The most zealous religious leaders of the day – often seen taking offense at Jesus for hanging out with sinners and allegedly breaking Sabbath rules.

But here’s Jesus, at the home of a leader of the Pharisees, on the Sabbath. Go and figure…

Just last week we saw Jesus drawing flak from religious leaders for three separate Sabbath incidents involving controversial healing and harvesting. Now Jesus sees a bloated man, sick with dropsy, asks, ‘Anybody got a problem with healing on the Sabbath?’ – and hearing no response – (maybe these religious leaders are at least learning to keep quiet?) – now here’s Jesus, healing again on the Sabbath… Starting the party off by sending a seriously ill guest home, healed and on the way to recovery…

Which is probably why Jesus does keep getting invitations – even from those who might be a little concerned about his table manners…

I should hasten to say – on one level, most of what Jesus says today is not very different from what our parents taught us. Think about others before you think of yourself. Give up your seat on a bus when you see someone looking like they need to sit down more than you do. Give just as good a valentine to the kids in school who are not so popular as you give to ones who are. Probably we all know how to  do this, even if we forget sometimes. The principle isn’t hard to understand.

The best seats at a wedding reception are close to the bride and groom; at a social function, closest to the most famous guests. We know not to seat ourselves higher up than we should. The biblical book of Proverbs, written centuries before Jesus, says “do not put yourself forward… or stand in the place of the great – for it is better to be told “Come up here” than to be put lower…” Everyone in Jesus’ day probably knew this. Like us, sometimes they just needed some reminding.

Grab the best seat for yourself without waiting to be seated – better expect to be humiliated in return. Claim the best spot for ourselves when we’re fishing, expect the same. (‘Even Jesus had some fish stories’ – so our church signboard at Cataumet proclaimed for several weeks recently – and that same church sign was the lead item in the fishing column in the Enterprise a week ago – which counts as evangelism in my book  – so – ) 

I’ve been remembering once, fishing in Maine, a small, narrow river I hadn’t fished before – and when I got to the falls where I’d been advised to fish, there was a woman already fishing there. I asked her if it was ok to fish the side of the pool she didn’t appear to be fishing. She said “Sure, go ahead. Thanks for asking. ” She was fly-fishing, had a good cast, and obviously knew the water, so I asked about other places to fish on the river… And we talked, and after awhile she said, “Glad you asked about sharing the pool. Not everyone asks. There was a guy once who waded right in, without asking, trying to cross over and fish the far side of the pool….He took two or three steps, right in front of you – and dropped in over his head. He came up, waders all full of water, sputtering – saying ‘why didn’t you tell me about that drop-off!?’

            “I told him,” she said – 

            “You didn’t ask.”

Sit, stand or fish in the humblest spot you can find – get invited to move up a little higher. Spiritual law and natural law go together. Water flows humbly down, seeking the lowest place. Sunshine draws water back up into the clouds. If we want to get up into the heavens with Jesus – better get on down with Jesus first.

And it may take a little practice to get used to this…

Ancient Greco-Roman culture was organized around the values of honor and shame. Eating out was never about just having a meal – it was always about being seen with the right people in the right places – and not being seen in the wrong places, with the wrong people. (Which, come to think of it, sounds just like high school back in my ancient times.)

Ancient Greece is considered the birthplace of democracy, but (just like high school) – some people always seem to end up more equal than others. We usually know whose status is high, whose low. Social barometers measure every little rise or drop in status, almost immediately. And guess what?

We’re still the ancient world. I remember guest preaching once in Brockton, while in seminary, and making several references to “the early church.” Afterwards one of the elders of the church, a large and large-spirited lady, told me, “I liked your sermon – but – when you kept talking about the early church – honey, I’ve got news for you. We’re still the early church.”

And she was right of course. We’re still the early church, still living in ancient times. And the more we understand the context of honor and shame as the values that shape and drive our culture – the more we appreciate how much Jesus turns the world upside down.

Even our healing episode today’s really about turning values upside-down. Dropsy is a medical condition that causes those afflicted to swell-up with retained fluids. We call it edema now and it can be readily treated with medicines. But at the time of Jesus those suffering this disease experienced great thirst – that, paradoxically, would get worse the more they drink. Those afflicted could actually die from drinking too much water, yet they craved water all the more. Dropsy was a serious disease – and it was also used as a metaphor – a slang term in Jesus’ day applied to those craving money, power, and status. St Luke, the gospel writer, often portrays Pharisees as greedy for wealth, prestige, and influence. Yet always Jesus offers healing and grace for all afflicted with values that cause swelling-up with pride and greed.

What Jesus says about humbly taking the lowest place really isn’t new – it’s more-or-less what the prophet Micah said 700 years before Christ  what does the Lord require of you – but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God – which sounds again like what our parents often taught us… 

But I’m still not quite so sure about Jesus’ guest list. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, whenever we have a get-together? And maybe we need to give Emily Post her due. Along with some very bad reasons for not inviting the poor– like our honor might suffer from being seen with the wrong crowd – and we can’t advance careers by helping folks who can’t repay us – there’s maybe also an almost-reasonable-reason for not inviting. Bible commentaries say the poor could feel shamed if invited – because according to community rules of the day, every gift comes with obligations attached. Every gift or invitation’s supposed to be repaid. It was considered a disgrace to not invite back those who have invited you. So we may think, on a practical level – how are we to invite the poor without embarrassing them?

Of course Jesus has told us to invite the poor anyway. Knowing they can’t repay is, in fact, part of Jesus’ reason for inviting them. Feeding the poor is a good thing in it’s own right. But just as important for Jesus is breaking down the honor and shame barriers that separate and divide people. When we change human rules, and stop expecting to be able to repay or be repaid, Jesus says – now walls of separation crumble – now we can begin to understand God’s law of grace….

And of course the church quickly figured out many, many good ways of inviting (without disgracing) the poor, the lame, the blind – including those, like me, good at making lame excuses – and the spiritually near-sighted, again like me – who often can’t see how to do the obvious – even when it’s in front of my eyes. 

Open the book, dude, I’ve heard the Holy Spirit saying – reminding me – the book of Acts is full of examples of the church doing what Jesus said to do – sharing what they had with members who had less – providing meals for any in the church in need – taking up offerings for the poor of the church, locally and globally. Making the poor not feel poor. Letting everyone know we’re all poor, in the sense that we are all depending on God for all our needs, all the time.  And we, like the church in Acts, know how to do this, even if we too need a little reminding sometimes – how to be not throwing money at problems, yet giving generously of time, talents, and treasure. Most of all being part of God’s beloved community of mutual giving and receiving… 

Probably we’ve noticed – doing what Jesus says usually doesn’t come entirely naturally (except maybe for children).  Biblical hospitality – doing table-manners-according-to-Jesus – takes practice – for the un-natural to become second nature.

Some of you must have practiced a lot. I see you, so often – cooking, washing dishes, serving (even without being asked)  – in church and in our communities – serving without calling attention to yourselves. Doing table-manners-according-to-Jesus.

I see you getting up from your seats to meet, greet, and talk with newcomers and others. I’ve noticed you sitting with someone who needs someone to talk with. Noticed you driving others to church, the store, the doctor, wherever, even when you’re busy… Noticed you working in our Thrift Shop, where all the pay and nearly all the glory is deferred til kingdom-come… I notice you often, serving in dozens of  ways…

Showing us, through the peace of Christ that lives in you –

That though you’ve maybe given up very good seats, you’ve got yourselves the best seats of all… 

Close to Jesus is always the best seat in the house.  And as we celebrate Jesus with us in holy communion… I hope we’ll stay for holy coffee hour…  Where every seat’s still the best seat – because Jesus is sitting at every table with us… Blessing us with his presence.

Thanks be to God.  

Amen.