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Monday, August 30, 2010

There's always room for more...

The Rev. Bob Honeychurch
Proper 17 Year C
Luke 14:1, 7-14
August 29, 2010

As I think back to when I was a young boy, some of my fondest memories revolve around the dinner table. My parents loved to entertain, so my early years were filled with dinner parties, and holiday brunches, and symphony receptions, and any number of other gala events which might be held in a small town in southwest Montana – all of which took place in our dining room – and many of which spilled out into the other rooms of our house as well, with places set around card tables, and T.V. trays, and sometimes even on the hearth in front of the fireplace. And I was quite proud of myself that, at the age of six or seven, I was a regular Julia Child or Miss Manners. I could set a table with linen napkins, and crystal glassware, and china, and silver, and candles, and floral centerpieces – getting everything just where it was supposed to be. There were rules, I learned early on in my life, for entertaining. And from an early age, I considered myself a master of those rules.

Today’s gospel lesson is also about the rules for entertaining. If you remember the story I read just a minute ago, Jesus has been invited to a dinner party. And this being a dinner party hosted by the leader of the Pharisees, it also must have been one of the social events of the season. Like one of the Emmy Awards after-parties being held this evening, or the latest post-rehab bash thrown by Lindsay Lohan, this was an event where “everybody who was anybody” was sure to show up and be in attendance. And it would be the kind of event where everyone would spend as much time checking out – and gossiping about – the other dinner guests as they would eating their meal.

Why Jesus is there isn’t entirely clear. Strange though it may sound, maybe he was one of the “beautiful people” of his day. Or maybe he was a bit of a novelty – the hot new preacher in town. Or maybe the Post Office had messed up and sent him the invitation that was supposed to go to the president of the Young Republicans Club. In any case, here he was, nestled on his pillow on the floor, and watching the celebrity show which was swirling all about him.

Maybe his host asked him to say the blessing before the meal started. However it happened, Jesus got the attention of all the assembled guests, and turned the occasion into a sermonette – on, of all things, dinner parties. And this being one of Jesus’ typical sermons, he turned the world quite upside down, and left everyone with more questions than answers. To the assemblage of status seekers and social climbers, he told them not to fight for the seats at the head of the table, but rather to take the seat closest to the kitchen. And to the host – whose reputation hinged upon the number of celebrities and politicians and power brokers he could attract to his bash – he said to quit vying for his own segment on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and to fill his house instead with bums and derelicts and the handicapped.

This is one of those gospel lessons that we can feel pretty safe listening to – with Jesus sticking it to the rich people of his day – because, after all, it doesn’t apply to us. We’re not the types of folks who have one home in Beverly Hills, and a ski lodge up at Tahoe, and a get-away place on some island in the Caribbean. We’re just plain old, middle-class folks trying to make a living, trying to get by ‘til the next paycheck, or the next retirement check, or the next social security check – knowing that the next payment for the mortgage, or the rent, or the utilities, or the college tuition, or the car, or the credit card bill, or the taxes is always just a few days away.

But take another look, if you will, at today’s gospel. Jesus doesn’t simply criticize those party-goers for their lifestyle. He does what he does so often when he wants to make a point. He tells a story. And Jesus’ stories, as we have come to learn, apply as much to us today as they did to his original listeners so long ago. You see, we too are given a lesson about table manners this morning. Yet it doesn’t matter whether we’re rich or poor, young or old, whether we do lots of entertaining in our homes or hardly ever catch a glimpse of the occasional visitor. You see, we’re not talking about our kitchen or dining room table here. We’re talking about this table… the one we all gather around every Sunday morning.

Jesus’ word to his guests not to struggle for the places of honor is a reminder to each of us to approach this table with a sense of humility and gratitude. For this isn’t our table. It is God’s table. And God has called us, from whatever seat in which we find ourselves in life, to take a front row seat at the banquet table – a table which has only front row seats for everyone who hears to call to come forward and eat. And in doing so, God treats us all as honored guests.

And Jesus’ word to the host to invite only those who could never repay him is a reminder to us as well – a reminder that the meal we share is beyond value. We don’t earn our way to this table by our good works, or by the exemplary way we lead our lives. This meal is simply a gift, with no strings attached – and it is open to anyone, of any age, from any background, regardless of our personal history, regardless of whether or not we even consider ourselves worthy. You see, the bottom line is that God considers us worthy… and that’s all that really matters. Jesus commands the host in this morning’s gospel lesson to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind… because those are the very same people Jesus invites – and encourages us to invite – to his banquet table here every Sunday morning.

The trick, of course, is to truly invite people as they are… and not just as we want them to be. You see, some folks have that attitude that there’s always room here for more people… so long as they look like us, and dress at least marginally well, and don’t smell too bad, and can sit fairly still and pay attention for an hour, and read and speak English, and know when to take their kids out when they get too fussy, and can follow directions so that they’ll stand at the right time and sit and the right time and, for God’s sake, kneel at the right time as they try to keep up with us in our worship. But that’s not what Jesus told the host of the party to do. In fact, he said to seek out people who were the most unlike him and his other party guests as possible.

I don’t know if you caught it or not, but our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews this morning contained one of the most powerful and profound statements found anywhere in the scriptures. It said, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Isn’t that just one of the most wonderful images you have ever heard? Why do we show hospitality to strangers… especially to strangers who are most unlike us? Because we sometimes find within them the characteristics that make us more complete… we discover where our own gaps are – both personally and communally – and find that, by welcoming the stranger into our midst, our own holes are filled… we become more whole… we become more holy. We discover that “they” are a part of the “us” that has been missing in our lives.

Hospitality isn’t just something we “do” for others. At a deep level, hospitality is something we also do for ourselves, that we might grow ever more into the likeness of Christ. Let me tell you two things I think hospitality is not. First of all, hospitality is not charity. “Charity” is about opening up your wallet, and giving to people who have less than you. “Hospitality” is about opening up your heart, opening up your home, opening up your church, and welcoming in the presence of God. And secondly, hospitality is not fellowship. Fellowship… whether it happens in here in the church or whether it happens next door over in the kitchen/parish hall after the service is over… is about all of us sitting around a table or standing in a circle, in our close-knit (and closed-off) way enjoying one another’s company.

Using that same image of a circle, hospitality is about being gathered in that same way, but with all of us facing outward, believing and expecting that Jesus is about to come and join us. I’ve got to tell you… I’ve been coming to St. Mark’s for nearly two years now. And I have come to discover that we’re really good at charity. And we’re really good at fellowship. And we still have plenty of room for growth in the world of hospitality.

Just last Sunday I was with my mom up in Montana. As I said good bye to her, I was reminded that the next time that I’ll see her will be when we return there, as we do every year, for Thanksgiving. One of the best things about Thanksgiving at Mom’s house is that you never know for sure who’s going to show up for dinner. Among my mom’s seven grand-daughters, there’s always a boyfriend or roommate or college companion who had nowhere else to go. And any number of my mom’s friends in town have joins us over the years as well. And there’s usually this mad rush to pull out a few extra place settings for some last-minute unexpected guests. That’s Thanksgiving at my mom’s house each year.

You know, the word “thanksgiving” in Greek is eucharist. This morning we celebrate eucharist… We celebrate Thanksgiving… not knowing who exactly is going to show up. So, when you come to this altar rail in just a few minutes – and when you go off to coffee hour afterwards – be sure to save a little room on either side of you. You just never know who might be joining us for the feast.

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