Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 29, 2010
May the sun remind us of the warmth of God’s love, the wind carry within it the life gifts of the Spirit, and the moon bring us the gentleness of the Christ. Amen.
A church in our city displays the topic of the Sunday sermon in a sign that sits out front on its lawn. This week the title caught my eye. It reads: “Under new management.” My guess is that they have a new minister on the scene but that title got me to thinking. I wonder, does God ever wish that the church was under new management? I don’t mean just a change in pastor or leadership but a complete reversal from how a church is doing business to the way Jesus expects it to operate—how Jesus intends for us to be a church.
The blueprint for our doing business is laid out in the scriptures we read today. Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews, and Jesus in the Gospel has some important things to say about the core of what church is all about: radical hospitality. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us of how Abraham once entertained strangers who were actually emissaries from God. Sometimes, when we think we’re just being nice to people who just show up at our door and practice hospitality, sometimes we receive God in disguise.
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 important. Meals are symbolic of the anticipated coming of God’s Kingdom—a preview of the Messianic banquet. In the time of Jesus, 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 party God would throw nor is it the way God wants us to party here on Sundays. In all four Gospels we find that Jesus included some of the most unlikely people in his earthly life, 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.
It all seems so clear yet we know that the Gospel of radical welcome is not preached in every church nor is it championed by every denomination. We all have a story or two to relate that cites a sad example of how someone—perhaps even ourselves—has been told they are not welcome at the dinner table or deemed unworthy to be a vital part of the church community.
My suspicion is that those who practice such an exclusive brand of pseudo-religion are intoxicated by their sense of power and importance—of possessing the true religion—convinced that they are on God’s “A” list, the righteous ones who are in God’s good graces and absolutely certain about those who are not. This is, of course, sheer arrogance and Jesus takes on this erroneous way of thinking in the parable we read today as well. So, you see, the story is 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.
This business about taking the least place at the banquet table so that one can be elevated by their host is a lesson about the hierarchy in God’s kingdom. It is a teaching about humility, a word that is not very popular in our modern society. We tend to confuse humility with humiliation. Humiliation is the result of some one making us feel of lesser value or not worthy because of our gender, race, sexual orientation, marital status, physical ability, economic status, or education. It devastates our self-esteem. Bullies—be they children or adults—specialize in the art of humiliation.
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. Jesus wants us to know that we are all God’s guests—no matter what or whose list we may be on—in both this life and the next.
So, with great humility—that is with a faithfulness to what is good and true about each of us as God’s beloved ones—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.
This is not a new idea. It’s embedded in the Gospels and 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. Radical welcome—something we think is pretty important to our life and to the way we do church here.
But what we do here on Sunday is meant to set an example for how each of us lives out in the world and how we receive and welcome the stranger in our homes, our schools, our workplace, our neighborhoods.
Sister Joan Chittister, a contemporary writer whom I greatly admire, 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.
Though we may never know whom we might have “entertained” –mortal or angel —or who might have miraculously helped us in ways we could never expect—perhaps the mystery of it all is a lesson in itself. Sometimes, when we think we’re just being nice to people who just show up at our door and practice hospitality, sometimes we receive God in disguise.