Sunday, September 1, 2013

Humble Hospitality

Humble Hospitality
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 1, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 14: 1, 7-14 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

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.
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “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; 9 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. 10 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. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 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. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

We live in a controlled world of place cards and wedding planners, where it is part of good hospitality towards your guests to make sure that everyone is welcome and knows their place, so that the awkwardness of, where do I sit? where do I rank? doesn't really apply today. At least not at weddings.
But this teaching like so many of Jesus' parables, is meant to be understood in a deeper context, I think, or at least the deeper context is there. This is actually the first of the great run of parables included in Luke's Gospel. He uses teachable moment after teachable moment really pushing his hearers beyond their assumptions, so in that tradition, I want to push a little bit this morning beyond the obvious literal lesson to a more broad applicable understanding.
Though it's called a parable, this isn't like his other ones. There is no story with other characters, no Good Samaritan, No Prodigal Son, instead he uses the 2nd person, "you" as the protagonist, speaking directly to his audience the chief Pharisee and his guests. There obviously is parallel meaning, because though he is talking about weddings, Jesus is not at a wedding when he says this, at least not at a literal wedding,  he has not just turned water into wine, this is not the wedding at Cana, instead we are at a home, at a dinner party, but it is possible to have in our minds the concept of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, I think it is good to have that there as we continue, so keep that image of eternity somewhere within our thoughts, though keeping it safely just in the background of our connected thinking. But here real time,  Jesus has gone to the house of the head of the Pharisees. Yes the head of the Pharisees, and it is on a Sabbath. . . if you think about the context there, you could probably cut the awkwardness with a knife. All around this text, we see Jesus pushing the Pharisees on their application of the law. Last week we looked at one such example, where Jesus heals on the sabbath, in the text that we skipped in today's reading, from the mention of the Pharisee's house being the setting, to the discussion of where people were sitting, he does so again, Jesus heals a man with dropsy, yes again on the Sabbath. So though a guest here, Jesus is not the submissive supplicant dinner guest, but is pushing his hosts. . . and it says they were watching him, and he must have known. Luke's Gospel follows Jesus' journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, he is certainly on his way to the cross here, there is both a physical journey taking place, and also a constantly building battle of tension between Jesus and the Pharisees that is leading him steadily towards the cross.
So what is Jesus saying to the Pharisees through this parable? What does he want them to recognize about this situation and about themselves? What does Jesus want them, and us to see? I don't think it is about place cards and wedding invitations, not just a seating chart, but instead our picture of how we see ourselves, our perceived status in contrast to our actual status. Jesus seems to be challenging these Pharisees to look at themselves, and just what their status is, and therefore, where these perceptions come from, and what this perceived status is based on.
We talked a little last week about what a Pharisee was, and how their mission was to foster a unique Jewish identity within the constant pressure of marginalization from Greek and Roman forces. They had done so by becoming the keepers of the law, but with any noble pursuit there is the danger of falling into the trap of conceptions of self importance, having it become about you, and not the original mission. Jesus is calling them to task on this issue. They have become leaders in the community. They have done great things, but their motivation comes into question, and when motivation comes into question, the overall mission can become short changed and misdirected, and watered down. Jesus calls out to them, what makes you so great that you would choose for yourselves the places of honor? What makes you so great? What do you feel like because I have come to your house for dinner? Do you feel vindicated? Do you feel like it was expected that I do so? Are you glad that now I have finally gotten on board, and am eating with you and not all the publicans and sinners? Do you think you are winning? College football started yesterday, so I'll quote Lee Corso from ESPN's College Gameday, and say, "Not so fast my friend." I'm not here to tell you how great you are. I'm here to challenge you on your perceptions of what makes you so great?
Look at what Jesus does, he makes it relative. He makes their status relative. You may be great, but you should humble yourselves, because how do you know who else is invited? If you place yourself at the bottom there is nowhere else to go but up. Now at first when I was looking at this, I was wondering to myself, why is Jesus so wrapped up in things like, Honor, and perceived status, being exalted. Why is Jesus explaining to them in the terms of if you do this you shall be exalted, when his overall message is humility. I've come to the conclusion that Jesus is speaking the language of the Pharisees. He is trying to get them to see that exaltation and honor as they see it falls far short of what is real. Think about it this way, their exaltation comes from them being respected by people as good teachers and as good law abiding people, but what are they teaching? They are teaching the law, and the law comes from God, and isn't about looking good for others, setting apart for apart's sake, but instead, being set apart as a child of God, following God's will. Is this where the Pharisees are? Do they wish to be exalted by God, or by the people, and not just the people, but by the Romans? Yes the Romans, the very people they are supposed to be in opposition to. But how much do the Romans benefit by the Pharisees action in quelling the people, creating law abiding citizens. Remember the Roman's conquered the world by being above all things practical. They want the Jewish people peaceful, by any means necessary, including using and propping up these religious leaders and giving them, yes, status.  See how fast motivation goes awry, when self service and self importance come into the equation?
What is it that gives you status, pharisees? Why do you think you are so important? These are the questions this parable shouts. The other thing the parable shouts is in the line, verse 9,  "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." Now, isn't this exactly the message Jesus is sending to the Pharisees. As the son of God coequal, coeternal, he is the host, the originator of their law keeping, the source of their status, and he is saying to them, "Why do you think you are so great?" Is then "disgrace" what they feel? Certainly it wouldn't be the first time they had felt such disgrace at the expense of Jesus' words. So many times, which is why they are watching him. Jesus isn't a threat to the law and their traditions, maybe he is to some extent, but what the real problem is that he is a threat to their status.
In the same way I think this parable challenges us. Not necessarily in a critique of what we as Christians and Churches do but why? Motivation again comes into question. So many churches across the U.S. are looking around them at a world that they don't understand. It is a world that is rapidly changing, and the traditions of the church are very much running against the mainstream of popular culture. Now as they do, as churches try to fight against the culture, holding on to certain things, holding up tradition, fearful of loss, the big challenge is having compromised motivation like the Pharisee's, not having the glory of God in mind, but the glory of the status quo, and the old remembered place of status. Let's look at some of the more tame issues that the church deals with. Mainline churches, like Presbyterians are, are losing members. People have other avenues to do things. Families have conflicts over what their busy schedules allow them to do. Soccer games are being held more and more on Sunday. How do we deal with that and why? These are the issues. Obviously we feel as churches we have something positive to offer people in today's world, but how often are we skewed in that mission to the bottom line of numbers in church and getting the budget balanced? How often are we concerned with our place in the society and not with the glory of God? How would our action be different if our motivation was building up the body of Christ in the world, and not filling up our buildings and budgets? I'm not sure. How often do we determine our success as Christians and fishers of men as to whether or not we get people into these doors on Sunday morning at 11:00 each week. Another battle we face, it seems, is what we say around Christmas time in greetings to one another. Is Christ's mission in saving the world really hampered each time a business owner says, "happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas?" But yet we fight that battle and leave so many others untouched, why? Are they more challenging? Do they force us to risk? Risk what? Our status? Maybe. There are so many others, more hot button culture war type issues, and some of those battles should be fought, but in order to do so we need to constantly remember what our call is, who calls us to it, and why, lest we fall into the trap of self importance.
Like Jesus in his parable I'm not challenging the action, but the motivation. I do think there is a role the church must play in this world, something that Christians can do, an important mission of discipleship that we are called to for a world in need, but I think we have to constantly be questioning why we do things. It is the way of the humble. It's the way of love and it is this humility and love that can really transform our world in God's way.
Look at the second part of the parable. He looks at his host and says, “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. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you." This Pharisee has given a luncheon, this is not a parable, but a real rebuke. Jesus says look around, why did  you invite these people? Why do you want me here? Who is it about, is it about you, or me? Because if it's about me, I don't need it, invite the poor and the lame, those who can't repay you, those who can't give you any status, because then you will be rewarded at the resurrection of the righteous, that marriage supper of the lamb, that we've kept in our mind, the only status that eternally matters. Another way of saying that is, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and it's righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, Alleluia and Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 14:7-14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.