(a sermon for August 28, 2016, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 14:1, 7-14)
Early on in my days as a student pastor a very wise colleague of mine offered me the following advice: the kingdom of God, he said, is all about celebration. So whenever your church has the chance to have a party, do it!
Over the years I’ve come to see just what good advice that’s been: because, folks, I’ve found that there are no more faithless, uninspired and outright boring congregations out there than those that do not celebrate! Likewise, churches that are vital and alive know that the source of their strength, their peace and their joy is the Lord, and regardless of the situation or challenge before them are always ready to offer up thanks and praise, and to celebrate in any way that they can! Moreover, celebration builds up the Body of Christ, both spiritually and physically: in fact, it is no exaggeration to suggest the amount of celebration that goes on in a given congregation often serves as a pretty good indicator as to its overall health and the level of its faith (and by no coincidence at all, let me just say that over the next few months of our 175th anniversary year, we’re going to be doing a whole lot of celebrating at East Church!).
But… let me add here that just as important as the sheer abundance of celebration in the church is the way that we celebrate; and for us as people of faith, true celebration is all about hospitality; and by hospitality, I’m referring to much more than good food and hot coffee in the fellowship hall after worship!
Christine Pohl, in her book “Making Room – Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition,” makes the case that hospitality, properly understood, is in fact a dynamic expression of vibrant Christianity; but moreover, it is a spiritual obligation that has its roots in scripture and in the very tradition of our faith. The very word “hospitality,” in the original Greek, is philoxenos, which means, literally, “to love the stranger.” Historically, Hebrew tradition has always held that one of the highest virtues and most sacred duties is to take responsibility for the stranger in your midst, the nomad or sojourner who comes your way, to give them food and shelter and welcome; the early church considered one’s hospitality to people of different backgrounds to be no less than a proof of the truth of the Christian faith. So you see, from the very beginning, a spirit of welcome and true hospitality – that is, loving the stranger – was always a part of what it meant to be the people of God.
And that continues to be true today, friends: while in these more cautious times we might not hold on as closely to that ancient understanding of hospitality, nonetheless I think we still have an inherent understanding that how we welcome the stranger into our midst, how we recognize the value of those who walk in our door and how we honor them by responding to their needs – well, it ends up saying a great deal about who we are as Christian people and as the church. And if you don’t believe this, consider that almost every study that’s done on why people join with the congregation they’re a part of reveals that they joined because they were made to feel welcome when they got there; maybe that’s one big reason you’re here this morning.
Hospitality matters. In a great many ways I could name here today, it is the catalyst of our belonging; it is at the very heart of our celebration as God’s people; and it is the mandate of our Christian outreach. And, as always is the case, our model for that mission is Jesus himself.
In our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus is a guest at the house of one of the top leaders of the Pharisees “to eat a meal on the Sabbath.” Now, even to have been invited to such a gathering as this was to be considered a great honor, but in truth this particular invitation served as an opportunity for the skeptical Pharisees to keep their eyes on Jesus. But in the end it also served as the setting for one of Jesus’ parables quite literally come to life!
You see, this was one dinner party where the unspoken yet very real intent was for these “Pharisee Wannabes” to “see and be seen;” a place where to “schmoozing” the crowd and jostling for the best seating at the table could quite possible be very good for one’s career. Remember this was the Sabbath meal (!), which was supposed to be a time of sacred hospitality and sharing; but here it had become little more than an exercise in self-aggrandizement on the part of the hosts and among the guests! And so, noticing “how the guests chose the places of honor,” Jesus tells them a parable that advises them not to seek out places of honor, “in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited” and you end up being asked to take a seat in the back of the room (“Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way back to the very last table, the only place left.” [The Message]) Better to sit way in the back and hope that your host notices you’re there and then invite you up front to the head table!
And then, as if that weren’t enough, Jesus then turns to the Pharisee who invited him and says, “the next time you put on a dinner,” don’t go with the usual guest list – you know, the rich and famous, your relatives and your boss, the very people you’ve invited because you expect to get an invite to their party next week – rather, “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” And if you do that, says Jesus, “you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you,” but make no mistake, you will be paid “at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Do you see what Jesus has done here? Not only has he put these social climbing party-goers on notice as to their utter lack of humility, he’s also put that matter of humility hand in hand with hospitality; because the truth is you can’t have one without the other. There’s no way you can be wholly focused on your own place at the table and simultaneously be about showing hospitality to the stranger; in fact, Jesus seems to be suggesting here that if you are only inviting your friends and family to the celebration you’re probably not showing true hospitality at all! Remember, hospitality means welcoming the stranger, and that means that the very people who need to be invited and welcomed and accepted at the celebration are the very ones who are on the outside; who are unknown; who are broken or damaged or forgotten; or worse, rejected and discarded. The next time you have a party, you need to welcome those who nobody else would ever give the time of day; you need to seek to invite the kind of people you might otherwise seek to avoid!
And that’s… well, if we’re being honest, a difficult concept for most of us to embrace.
Actually, there’s a Canadian pastor by the name of Robert Kitchen who for many years wrote an on-line column that was titled, appropriately, “Under The Kitchen Sink,” and I love what he says about this. He writes that the whole idea that Jesus proposes here seems more than a little silly and ludicrous, even shocking. “To think,” he says, “that important people would not sit up front where they belong, and that people off the street could sit right next to the host is funny! What kind of place does Jesus think this is, where social protocol is disregarded [and the humble are exalted] – a church?”
What Jesus is saying to us here is that to be the kind of followers he would have us become means showing both humility and hospitality in our life together, and that begins with an attitude of openness and welcome and acceptance toward others; all others. As I said before, this is what brought us into this circle of love and faith; and it’s how we reach out to others for the same purpose. Truly, as Henri Nouwen once wrote, one of the greatest gifts we bring to the world as Christians is “making our lives available to others.” When you and I embrace this kind of ministry, we are following the way of Jesus Christ. And I will tell you something else: I believe that this kind of genuine hospitality is absolutely essential to the health and vitality of any Christian community, including our own. It not only serves to make that church grow, friends; it makes that church great. For as Jesus himself said, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Once again this week I’ve been obsessing over a song and haven’t been able to get it out of my head (I’ve heard this referred to as an “ear worm,” which is gross (!), but there is actually a scientific name for this: “stuck song syndrome.”). Well, in my case, I hope to infect you because it happens to be the final hymn for this morning:
I’m gonna sit at the welcome table,
I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days, hallelujah.
I’m gonna sit at the welcome table,
I’m gone sit at the welcome table one of these days.
Now, as you probably know this is an old hymn of the African American tradition; and it is a rich evocation of all the abundance that God has promised to provide, from the “milk and honey” found in the Promised Land to the Sacramental table where Christ meets us in the bread and the wine. “The Welcome Table” is meant to represent that place where all God’s children – including the lonely and the outcast – are welcomed by God to sit, and to feast, and to rejoice now and forever. It’s no wonder that this song figured so prominently in the civil rights movement during the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, and still speaks so powerfully to us today in these racially conflicted times.
And, trust me here, there are countless verses to this song! In fact, while looking for this song online this week, I found one verse that’s sadly not included in our hymn this morning, but which has its roots in the civil rights movement and for me, at least, says it all about our calling as Christians and our mandate to welcome others to the table:
I’m gonna tell God how you treat me,
I’m gonna tell God how you treat me one of these days, hallelujah.
I’m gonna tell God how you treat me,
I’m gonna tell God how you treat me one of these days.
Out of great and redeeming grace made manifest in Jesus Christ, each one of us here has been invited to sit at the welcome table; you and I will find our welcome in the presence of an infinitely loving God. But we must neither take that invitation for granted, nor should ever neglect our Lord’s mandate to welcome others as we have been welcomed; we must never forget that each one of “them” – whoever “they” are for you (and I suspect you already know who “they” are for you) – also have a place at the table and have also been welcomed by God and also get to stand in the midst of God’s loving presence; and it does make every bit of difference how you have treated them, and the ways that you welcomed them… or not.
The truth is that it’s no easy thing, this matter of hospitality; for it requires of us true humility and a attitude of sacrificial service as well. But it’s not impossible; and the good news is that a little humility will go a long way toward great exaltation.
And that’s my prayer for us today; that each one of us here may find ourselves sitting humbly with our Maker at the Welcome Table, right where we ought to be.
And as we are, let our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry