September 1, 2019

Pentecost 12   September 1, 2019   Psalm 81, Micah 6:6-8, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1,7-14  

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Jesus first tells us something we already know: it’s a lot better to humble our self –  preemptively – than to be full-of-ourself –  and be humbled – involuntarily. Parents and teachers told us when we were very young – don’t hurry to be first in line, don’t cut in line. Don’t rush to take a seat on a crowded bus if there are others older than you looking tired or carrying heavy bags. Offer the seat to someone who needs it more, first – only then look for a seat for yourself.

What Jesus says first is common knowledge. Yet St Luke tells us he’s telling a parable – a comparison of something familiar with something deeper, less obvious. And for context it helps to know:

In Jesus’ day, eating out was never about just having a meal. It was mostly about being seen with the right people in the right places – and not being seen in the wrong places, with the wrong people. (Which sounds a lot like high school back in my dark ages.) Though in Jesus’ day the honor code was practically etched in stone. Seats of honor at banquets were assigned closer and closest to the host of the party according to the relative status of each guest.

Which still happens, in different ways, different contexts. At wedding banquets in first-century-Mediterranean-culture people would be seated according to their relative prestige, wealth and influence. Today, at wedding banquets, seating’s usually arranged with closest family members and best friends sitting closest to the bride and groom. In less formal situations, where seats are not assigned, we’re  usually expected to not sit in a more prominent place than we should. Even before Jesus, Proverbs (25:6-7) says “do not put yourself forward…  – for it is better to be told “come up here” than to be put lower.” Jesus starts talking by telling us things we probably already know.

But Luke the gospel writer tells us this is a parable. Which becomes clearer as we consider the alternative table manners of Jesus – as he, the guest, tells his host – who to invite, and not invite to the next party. Saying –  don’t invite those who can help you climb the social ladder or help you land a better job. Invite the poor and others who can’t repay you. And you’ll be repaid in God’s kingdom.

Which reminds me of our reading from Hebrews, where we’re told ‘remember to show hospitality to strangers – for some have thereby entertained angels unawares.’ (Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, Gideon and the mother of Samson in Judges come to mind as biblical examples of entertaining angels unknowingly.)

Hebrews then says to remember those in prison as though in prison with them… Early Christians were sometimes sent to prison, accused of subverting the Empire. Prison food was only occasionally provided by the state. Prisoners relied on family and friends for survival. The whole letter to the Hebrews is a tutorial for the church in Christian community living …

And I’m familiar with these precedents and the history… but…

I’m still pondering Jesus’ guest list – his instruction to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, whenever we have a get-together. Wondering – how practical is this today? Even how compassionate is this today? Don’t we need to give Emily Post, CEO of  Manners, Incorporated her due? Along with all the bad reasons for not inviting the poor– like – “that would be messy” – “some of them might be dangerous” –  “we don’t want to be seen with the wrong crowd” – and “that would not help our church grow” – along with these poor reasons – is there not also perhaps a more reasonable reason for not inviting? Scholars say according to cultural rules of the day, every gift comes with obligation-attached. Every invitation must be repaid. It was considered a disgrace to not invite back those who invite you. So the poor would feel they were being shamed if invited – because they cannot repay. So on a practical and compassionate level – can we invite the poor without embarrassing them?

But of course Jesus tells us – invite the poor anyway. The fact they can’t repay is (in fact) why Jesus says to invite them. Feeding the poor is good. But at least as important for Jesus is demolishing the honor and shame customs that separate and divide people according to wealth, power, race, ethnicity, nationality, and status. Only as we change the world’s rules, Jesus says – and stop expecting to be repaid for doing the right thing – only then are we living by kingdom rules, according to God’s holy law of love.

And the early church believed Jesus – and quickly figured out many ways to invite the poor, the lame, the blind – including those, like me, who are good at making lame excuses – and the spiritually near-sighted like me – who so often can’t see how to do the obvious – even when it’s right in front of my eyes.

‘Open the book, dude,’ I’ve heard the Spirit say. Read on in the book of Acts – remember all the examples there – of the church doing what Jesus says to do. Those who have sharing with those with less. Making community meals for those in need. Taking up offerings for the poor of the church, locally and globally. Counting every opportunity to love and serve a blessing…

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And this week I’ve been remembering… A group of us church folks, watching the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon about the life of St Francis, in our fellowship hall on a stormy night in the upstate New York town of Dannemora where I served at the time. St Francis was notorious for his deep love for the poor… his love of music… and for leading a ragtag band of monastics who begged for alms to support themselves. And that night, from out of the rain pouring down in torrents, a woman entered, raincoat dripping wet, asking “am I too late for the movie?”

We welcomed her rather warmly, as I recall… Partly, I’m sure, because we’d just been watching St Francis and friends singing and begging in the rain… Some of us may have come close to greeting her as if she might be an angel. Just in case.

And well, awhile later, she did ask if she could sleep in the church. (She’d been sleeping in her car.) She was in town to visit a prisoner in the maximum security prison just a block away from the church.

Later she told me – he was in for life for murder. She didn’t know him, had never met him. But as a Native American Christian, she felt herself called to visit  Indian prisoners. (“Remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them…”)

Longer story much abbreviated – some of our parishioners who worked inside the prison were pretty sure they would face disciplinary action if we let her stay in the church in Dannemora. So we offered her a cot in our sister church over in Ellenburg, a dozen miles away, which she accepted. When she learned we had no keyboard player in our smaller Ellenburg church, and were resorting to using CDs for our worship music, she offered to play organ on Sunday. Turned out she was a professional organist in a Catholic church on the other end of the state. She played and sang beautifully… And again on other trips over the next year…

“Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers… for by doing this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The word angel means literally messenger… We entertained an angel messenger… without realizing it at first.

Which has me remembering now one of our parish families – welcoming another parishioner, who needed a place to stay – graciously offering hospitality, for what turned out to be several months. Later giving thanks for the opportunity… to practice hospitality. Which, they said was a very real blessing for them…

Doing what Jesus says always brings blessings. But because what Jesus tells us is usually very different from what we hear elsewhere – (probably we’ve noticed) – doing what Jesus says – even when we know it’s right – takes practice…

And I can tell –

Some of you have practiced a lot. I see you cooking, washing dishes, serving, inviting, offering hospitality, without calling attention to yourselves. Doing table-manners-according-to-Jesus.

Getting up from the good seats you sit in – to meet, greet, and talk with newcomers and others. Sitting after church with someone who needs someone to talk with. Inviting others to church… Driving others to church, the store, the doctor, wherever, even when you’re busy… Working in our Thrift Shop, where all the pay is deferred til kingdom-come…

I notice you often, serving in dozens of  ways…

Illustrating what Jesus says –

As you get up from some very good seats –

Hearing the invitation from Jesus –

to the best seats of all.

Close to Jesus – best seats in the house.

Room there for all of us… and more…

Thanks be to God.  Amen.