Jesus is Watching Us Closely – August 28, 2016
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
It was always very dangerous to invite Jesus for dinner. Make no mistake about it. His hosts did not extend the invitation out of friendship or admiration. Their intention was to discredit him in the midst of other influential people who would be able to sabotage his ministry. Luke puts it this way: “They were watching him closely.”
I sometimes wonder if God ever wishes that the church was under new management. I don’t mean just a change in bishop or clergy or lay leaders but a complete reversal if how a church is doing business, a radical change to the way Jesus expects the church to operate. The blueprint for this is laid out in the scriptures we read today. Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews, and Jesus in the Gospel have some important things to say about the core of the church’s mission: radical hospitality.
In the first reading we are told that Abraham once entertained strangers who, unbeknownst to him, were actually emissaries from God. Then “Sit down at the table,” Jesus says, “with those whom you regard as outside of God’s favor. Invite those who cannot repay you.”
Stories like the one Luke relates are meant to tell us that shared meals are symbolic of the anticipated coming of God’s Kingdom. Palestinian feasts were arranged so that guests reclined in groups of three. The position in the middle was the most coveted place and reserved for the one with the most wealth, power, or social status. If a more eminent guest arrived late, the one who occupied the middle place would be asked to move to a lesser place. The people in the parable are vying for the best seats in the house, engaging in an endless game of musical chairs. And the hosts of the affair limit their guests to the elite, the cream of the crop, all “A” list invitees.
That’s not the kind of dinner party God would throw nor is it the way God wants the church to conduct its business. Jesus included some of the most unlikely people in his invitation list, especially those who were deemed undeserving by the religious leaders and incapable of payback for God’s limitless generosity. His passion for inclusivity stemmed from the truth that pure and utter generosity is the nature of God and it is that godly nature that he asks his church to embody. He reverses the expectations of social convention. True hospitality means taking care of those in need and expecting nothing in return.
I imagine that we all have at least one story that demonstrates how we or someone we know has been told they are not welcome at God’s Table or, while allowed in the door, not deemed to have the right pedigree to be fully included in the church community. Jesus wants to set the record straight for us: that is not the kind of church that reflects the Kingdom of God. The parable we read today is much more than a lesson about seating charts and guest lists. It is about humility borne out of the experience of God’s generosity and of God’s unconditional love for us.
Humility is acting in ways that are authentic to our unique experience—to the person we are—not in ways that reflect our wealth or the advantages we may have by birth or any other determinant, but an authenticity to what is true about ourselves rather than an expression of what or who we wish we were or the status we think is due to us. So, with great humility, we strive as a community to be authentic about our welcome of all God’s people and to sit down at the table with those whom society and some religious leaders may regard as outside of God’s favor even inviting to that table those who may not be able to repay us for the invitation.
There is an early Christian treatise call the Dasdacalia that says if a stranger enters your worship, and the Eucharist had been spread out before the congregation, and there is nowhere for the stranger to sit, the Bishop presiding at the Eucharist is to sit on the floor so that the stranger may be welcomed in the name of Christ. The power of today’s Gospel text is the image of Jesus sitting here with us right now and challenging us to stretch our own limits about who gets invited to this community’s weekly dinner party. It begs some honest and difficult self-examination. Who challenges us? Who is missing? Jesus built his ministry on invitation. His followers did likewise. How good are we at inviting?
Author and progressive thinking Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, says that hospitality means we take people into the space that is our lives and our minds and our hearts and our work and our efforts. Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves.
When we think we’re just being nice to people who show up at our door, when we go out of our way to welcome them and include them in our common life, when we approach the first or second timer at coffee hour, we may just be entertaining angels or even greeting God in a well concealed disguise. That’s why we should take this parable so seriously. That’s why we must listen carefully to Paul’s words about radical hospitality. That’s why we talk so much about our “doctrine” of radical welcome.” Because Jesus is watching us closely.