Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 1, 2013
We often talk about the spiritual life as a journey – an ongoing walk up mountains and through valleys that eventually takes us from one place to another. Our history as people of God is full of journeying – beginning with Abraham and his journey to the Promised Land – right up to Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem.
That’s where we’ve been this summer in the stories we’ve been reading from the Gospel of Luke. We have been on the road, heading toward Jerusalem with Jesus as he has made every effort to teach his followers about God’s kingdom and to help them understand what it means to be citizens and builders of it.
And while the metaphor of journey is helpful and appropriate for the spiritual life, the actual substance – the stories in Luke’s Gospel suggest another image: the spiritual life as dinner party. There are more mealtime scenes in this gospel than in all the other gospels combined.
The connection made by the author between spirituality and the physical world cannot be overlooked; the connection between spirituality and the breaking of bread is undeniable. Christian life as a dinner party – let’s unpack that by thinking about what all goes into such an event.
First there’s the decision to have a party. There’s usually some kind of reason for having a party in the first place – maybe it’s a holiday or a celebration of a life event – a birthday, a marriage, a new job, a coming-home, or a going away. Sometimes parties are planned simply because there hasn’t been a party in a while.
Next there’s the question of who will be invited. Will it be a small, intimate gathering or will it be a big bash – an event where not everyone knows everyone else?
The menu is created – perhaps dictated by a particular theme. Invitations are sent out, replies mailed back. The day arrives and guests are welcomed. Some bring hostess gifts; some just can’t keep from bringing a side dish. Some come empty-handed. The dinner party takes place and, if Emily Post’s advice is taken, thank you notes are sent the very next day!
In today’s story, the decision to have a dinner party is likely dictated by tradition. It is the Sabbath, a day of rest and feasting. A prominent member of the Jewish community – an unnamed Pharisee, is throwing the party.
Who does he invite? Commentators assume that it was a large gathering, given this man’s position. And Jesus was invited.
Usually, we assume that there was always bad blood between Jesus and members of this religious order, and we know that he was often cornered and questioned by the religious authorities. But it could very well have been a big bash where it could just be kind of fun to include the new Rabbi, the controversial one.
Now, as far as a theme and menu are concerned, we are not told what all was included. Sometimes, at similar events, we know that Jesus himself was on the menu – there were often people who were looking, watching closely for him to make a costly mistake, and in today’s story, we read that he is being watched closely. But he’s got his eyes open too – and we get a glimpse of what took place at the party from his perspective: people were jostling for the best seats.
Jesus can’t keep still. This kind of thing always makes him kind of crazy.
Don’t try to get ahead, friends. It just doesn’t work. There will always be someone more important than you who rightfully deserves to sit where you’re headed. And when you’re asked to move back to the end of the line, it’s not going to feel very good.
This advice doesn’t sound like some kind of moral indictment to me. It sounds more like something a parent would say to an eager-beaver six-year-old. A teaching on humility, a teaching on kindness, a teaching on how best to be a part of community, a teaching on how to save face – maybe your own.
But then Jesus pulls the host aside with more words of wisdom: next time you throw a party, try inviting people you wouldn’t normally invite. See about including those who can’t possibly return the favor – see what it would be like to welcome those who are poor, those who struggle with disabilities, addictions, mental health issues. Throw a wide net, brothers and sisters, and see what happens!
Again, it doesn’t seem that Jesus is reprimanding the host as much as he is letting him in on a little secret that will enhance his life now and even bring special blessings far into the future.
Having heard Jesus’ advice to both the guests and host at this banquet, we are given an opportunity to think about our own lives – to try these ideas on to see how they do or don’t fit with the way we normally run our own lives as guests and hosts.
On what occasions and for what purposes do we offer hospitality? Who do we invite and where do we seat them?
These questions can be asked on several different levels. As a church, we need to be asking them all the time – and we try to do that here at St. Paul’s. We haven’t always gotten it right and it’s still really hard to get from one place to another in this building if you happen to be in a wheelchair. That’s a problem and hopefully one day we will be able to fix that.
But we must keep asking ourselves the question: how can we best put into practice the kind of hospitality Jesus suggests? That question is behind our understanding of the Eucharist and the answer we keep hearing means that we invite everyone, no matter what, to God’s Table – every week, year in and year out. There’s enough for everyone, because it is God that provides the food and drink – the bread and the wine – and there is always enough.
We can ask these questions on a personal level too. Our hospitality doesn’t end when the worship service does. It continues as we speak with others at Coffee Hour or run into them at the supermarket. Our hospitality continues in the classroom and on the train. It continues as we literally and figuratively open our homes and hearts to new people, new ideas, new, and perhaps very different perspectives.
You can’t have a dinner party without a host and guests. As God’s children, we are both. We are the recipients of hospitality and the providers of it – day in and day out.
As we come to God’s Table this morning, let’s remember that the invitation is for all – it’s a “Big bash” kind of party. The purpose of this party is to help us remember that we are one in Christ, beloved children of God – every one of us. No one is better or lesser than the next.
The menu is simple: bread and wine. We will receive the invitation: “this is my body given for you, this is my blood shed for you.”
We may come with empty hands today or we may have brought a little side dish – a gift for the host. Both are acceptable.
We will eat together and then we will give thanks together. And then we will be sent out to serve – to serve sometimes as humble guests and sometimes as generous hosts – in this spectacular spiritual party God has invited us to.