St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
Collect: Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
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, 7-14
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.
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."
If you ever watched the sitcom Seinfeld, one episode had George Costanza do the exact opposite of what he would normally do. If he normally would look out for himself, he put himself last. If he normally turned right, he would turn left. At the end of the episode, he learned that to be successful in life he needed to be the Anti-George. When he did things against his nature, he found that he actually got what he wanted and the success he craved. Do not hear me saying that Jesus is like George, and God forbid, that George is like Jesus. What I am saying is that for us to be who we desire to be in Christ, maybe we can rethink what we do and how we do it, and listen to our Master and Lord. Jesus wants us to go against what may come naturally, and approach life how he did, humbling himself and loving all.
Jesus comes along in today’s lectionary reading and tells us to do things exactly opposite from how we seem to be about them. The world teaches us “Do unto others before they can do unto you.” And, “Look out for Number One.” Jesus calls us to a different place and a different standard of interaction. Jesus calls us to do the exact opposite of what we are taught, or what might be our natural inclination.
To set the stage, Jesus is at a banquet and sees people jockeying for positions of honor at the head table and nearby. Then he breaks into a story, that is a mirror for the very situation he is in. People scrambling, looking out for numero uno. Because, hey, if you do not toot your own horn, who will? (That’s what the world teaches us anyway.) And Jesus gives a suggestion. Be happy that you are at the banquet. Head over to the corner at the back, and find that last seat in the room. Be content. And, if the host wants you to be honored, they will come and find you and you will be moved up to the head of the hall and placed in the seat of honor. But if you do it the other way around, put yourself amongst the elites, and someone more elite than you comes in you will find yourself humiliated and moved to the back of the class.
When Stephanie and I were moving away from the faith tradition we had both grown up in, we went to a conference in Seattle. When I walked into the room I was blown away. The words, “I have found my tribe!” actually came out of my mouth. There were people there trying to wrestle with their faith and with their culture. They wanted to engage and impact the time we find ourselves in with the eternal Gospel.
Throughout the conference there was an older man wandering around, who was friendly and engaged, but obviously not the intended audience, being about 25 years older. He was smiling and open, I noticed him because he was so enthusiastic in his observing. On the final day of the conference I found out who this little man in the brown sweatshirt hoodie was, Father Richard Rohr. I mentioned him in last week’s sermon because he is the author of our book, Falling Upward, that we are reading for Shrine Mont. I had no idea who he was other than the funny older man in the hoodie. I knew who Richard Rohr was, I just did not know who this man was. I will say more on the retreat, but it was fascinating to see and get to know him as a person as opposed to his minor celebrity status as an author of religious books.
But what his anonymity afforded me at the conference was EXACTLY what Jeus is asking us to do. Treat everyone the same. Ignore differences. This seems simple, but it is oh so hard to do. We live in a society where people are famous for BEING FAMOUS. They have done nothing, they have accomplished nothing, they are celebrated for being celebrated. It is the embodiment of titillation. God help us. Our media is filled with the distracting and mollifying. I saw an article the other day purporting to inform the reader “How to Become a Cultural Influencer.” And I have heard it discussed as the Cultural Influencer Industry. An INDUSTRY supposedly on how to make money by being not doing, creating, making, or leading. I can only picture Jesus shaking his head. We need to hear these stories today more than ever.
If you ever wondered what Hollywood was worried about, look at their biggest night of their year. The Academy Awards, the Oscars, is all about the glamour and the glitz, forget about the awards. There is a pre-award show show just about people showing up for the big show. Grown adults are commenting on who is wearing who, and who is showing up with whom. If you ever thought about what the show is really about, know this: there are people whose job it is to fill seats. When a star gets up to give or receive an award, go to the restroom, whatever, a professional seat filler comes in and looks the part. They wear a tux or a fancy ball gown and take up space. It is all about appearances. Jesus says to fill the seats, but not with wanna-be celebrities. Jesus’ message is very different.
The message of the Gospel is a simple one, so simple that it takes most of our lives to try and live out. When I was asked during the ordination process by the Committee on Priesthood to sum up my understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, instead of my normal, long-winded responses, I said a word, a single word.
Then I waited. They looked surprised at the brevity of my answer for a moment, and then I was asked if I would like to unpack that at all. My response was, “If I say anything more than Grace or I take anything away from that I have cheapened and lessened the Gospel.” That gift of God’s unfailing, unquestioning, all-accepting love of us how we are and where we are is the good news that the world is hungry to hear. And in today’s reading, Jesus is showing us how to live lives of Grace, living out his radical, world-changing Gospel in how we treat others and how we treat ourselves. Put others before us, and allow others to put us before themselves. Grace is a two-way street. We both give and receive. However, it is not transactional, like this world teaches, do this for me and I’ll do that for you. Quid pro quo. Tit for tat. Jesus teaches us to break the cycle of transactional relationships, just like he did for us. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The teaching on going to and holding a banquet begins with the inner work, the intentions. That is where the real struggle is. Inside each and every one of us.
He ends his first story here in Luke’s Gospel with a line that is echoed in another parable in Matthew. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Matthew uses this when he has Jesus tell story of the flashy Pharisee praying in the Temple, and the wretched sinner who cannot even look up to heaven. Here we are given the same lesson, but it is not theoretical in the third person. It is directed to us. He is telling us, his disciples to behave this way. And the Great Reversal continues, the humble will be exalted, the last will be first.
My favorite novel’s central theme is learning to live by and with Grace. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for stealing bread for his starving family. He receives judgment and scorn, but then in a moment of Grace he is transformed, and the novel follows him the rest of his days as he learns to give and eventually receive Grace. So often those of us to preach and share Grace are far too often the least willing to receive it. That is that two-way street. We all need Grace. We all need to learn to give it.
Jesus did not want us to EXPECT it, or DEMAND it. It is no longer Grace then. Sit at the bottom, and if you get moved up, good for you! But he did not stop at those that merely attended the party, but he included those of us who throw the parties, too. He taught us to invite those who would not have been on anyone’s guest list. He invited us to be, well, like him. He reached out to us when we were yet sinners, and died for us, Paul reminds us in Romans. He wants us at his party, he wants us to celebrate with him forever.
When we come to his table today, that is one of the things I personally celebrate and applaud. Every time I come to his table I rejoice that even one such as I am invited, welcomed and loved by the host. I chose to become Episcopalian for that very reason, Christ says WHOSOEVER WILL come. Now we puts disclaimers, caveats and exceptions on that sometimes. God forgive us. But Christ does not put any ifs, ands, or buts on his invitation, and encourages us to go, and do likewise. “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.”
In our choice of seating, and in our choice of guests, we have a decision, will we be like this world arguing and fighting over who is the best and who is a little better in the pecking order, or will we be like the one who took on himself the humble form of a servant so that we might see what Grace looks like in action.
In closing today, please know that I wrestle with what I have asked of all of us. I get petty at times. I look out for number one at times. And daily Jesus calls and I try to answer. And hopefully, prayerfully, this ol’ heart of mine will become more and more like Christ’s one choice, one decision, one day at a time. Even the early church, many of whom saw Jesus in the flesh wrestled with this. In our Hebrews reading, the Preacher there discusses our common call and how hard it is.
“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.”
As true today as it was then. God help us in our following of you. Amen.