Dinner Reservations (sermon 8/28/16)

place cards

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” – Luke 14:1, 7-14 (NRSV)

=====

Josiah – Joe, for short – was a man with a keen intellect, an ornery sense of humor, and a big heart. At various times in his life, he was a family man, an accomplished attorney, beloved law professor, university president, and a good Presbyterian elder who’d always wanted to go to seminary but never managed to make it. He was a good and gentle man, and for a time, I was blessed to be able to call him friend. He wrote the first letter of recommendation for me when I applied to seminary, and I always valued his thoughts and insights. I got to know Joe later in his life, after he’d retired from the halls of academia, and he and his wonderful wife Joyce began yet another chapter of life as alpaca ranchers.

I remember visiting with Joe and Joyce one evening. The alpacas had been herded up and gotten into the barn, and we were all sitting in the living room. Their dog, Lorna, had found what she at least felt was a comfortable place to rest, flopped on top of my feet while we sat talking. At one point, the conversation turned to a mutual friend, who’d been very successful in the business world. At the time of this conversation, Hummers – those big, boxy SUVs modeled on the military vehicle – had just come out on the market, and they were all the buzz, the new hot thing; it was something unusual and special to see one on the road – and our mutual friend had just bought one. I told Joe that I’d gone out riding around with the friend in his new Hummer just a few days earlier. And I said that I knew that the vehicle was too big, too expensive, an environmentally unfriendly gas-guzzling symbol of conspicuous consumption that no one should ever own, and a sign of basically everything that’s wrong with our wealth-worshiping society. But then, I chuckled and had to admit – it was actually pretty fun. It felt really good sitting up high in that tricked out fancy leather interior, driving around town and having everyone stopping gawking and looking up at you as you went by. It felt good to be what everyone was looking at. Joe  just nodded as I said that, then he smiled and looked at me and said, “Yes, but what were they *thinking* while they were looking?”

And in those few words, Joe had brought me back down to earth. I recognized that I’d allowed myself to get caught up in that same kind of status-through-money mindset that I hated so much when I saw it in others.

It’s easy to do, and I suppose if we’re honest with ourselves, at one point or another we all get sucked into it. And when we hear this passage from Luke’s gospel, we can see that it isn’t anything new, because that’s exactly what’s at play in this story about Jesus having dinner in the Pharisee’s home. The social situation back then was basically the same as it is today. If you were considered someone important, you got one of the best seats in the house at a dinner. If you weren’t quite on the “A” list, you got seated further away from the host, and you probably didn’t get to see the impressive view out the windows. And if you’d just barely made it onto the guest list, you ended up at the cramped little table near the kitchen door, with all the noise and where you’d keep getting bumped by the servers as they went back and forth. There’s really nothing new under the sun; that just was, and is, the way of the world.

But here, Jesus was telling people about a different way – some would consider it an odd way, but it’s certainly a revolutionary way of understanding things. He was making it clear that in the Kingdom of God, none of the rules that we typically use to assign status and importance applied. We’ve come up with all these categories and labels to divide us into groups – and usually, with the purpose of whoever’s coming up with the labels being to identify their own group as superior to the people in the other categories. We’ve done it on the base of wealth or income; skin color and physical characteristics or physical ability; education level or intelligence; gender and sexual orientation; religious profession, and on and on. Here, Jesus is saying that God isn’t particularly impressed with those kinds of distinctions. In a sense, Jesus is saying that God doesn’t really care whether you drive a shiny new Hummer or a rusty old Hyundai, and if you’ve seen what I’m driving at the moment, you know I’m particularly grateful for that. In fact, Jesus’ point here seems to be that God’s love and grace is big enough and broad enough for all of us, regardless of any of those labels.

There’s a special significance to so many of Jesus’ teachings occurring around a dinner table or another meal, because at different places in the scriptures, the Kingdom of God is compared to a great banquet, a feast, featuring the best and richest of foods, and the finest of wines. The scriptures don’t make any particular mention of bourbon, but I’m sure that’s part of it, too. In this story, Jesus is saying that the guest list to this eternal, cosmic banquet is based on God’s standards, not ours, regarding who would be invited to the table and who, if anyone, shouldn’t. The guest list is based on the nature of God’s grace, which is broad and inclusive enough for all of us.

There’s a fairly well-known short story by Flannery O’Connor titled “Revelation.” The story’s main character is Ruby Turpin, who considers herself a proper, upstanding Christian woman, a moral pillar of all good society, and who’s obviously superior to all sorts of other social undesirables. Keeping this story short, Ruby ends up getting pounced on, physically attacked by one of those undesirables. After her attacker is subdued, Ruby is sure that this person would see the error of their ways for attacking someone of her stature and apologize, but when the attacker doesn’t show any remorse at all, it causes Ruby to be shocked, and to ponder the meaning of it all. As she was thinking about it, Ruby had an epiphany of sorts, a vision – a revelation; hence the name of the story. In her vision, she sees a big, broad highway, a ramp, moving upward and leading directly to the very gates of heaven. And she sees a whole long line of all the lesser-than, all those people she considers social undesirables, laughing and dancing and joking as they all joyfully walk onward and upward into heaven – and the really shocking thing was that all of them doing so ahead of her and her like-minded friends, who still in the line, but who are bringing up the rear; all headed soberly, reservedly, maybe decently and in order, but as they did, they were all shocked and confused that all the supposed trashy people were getting in ahead of them – that apparently, God’s way of seeing things was so different, so much broader, than they’d ever dreamt. I think there’s a lot of that kind of subtext going on in today’s gospel lesson.

From the place of social and economic privilege that all of us here this morning enjoy, it’s easy to hear these words of Jesus that Luke shares with us, and to maybe feel a bit of sting in his words. It’s easy to feel like he’s shaking a finger at his Pharisee host, and that it extends across the years all the way to us, too. And undoubtedly, some of that sting is justified. Of course, we really do need to consider that message well, and recognize that we need to work harder, with God’s help, to be more broad in our acceptance of others, regardless of their labels, in both church and society. We need to recognize that that’s a key, fundamental part of what it means to live out the truth of the gospel. So yes, there’s a bit of sting there.

But I don’t think that’s where Jesus’ message ends. The reality is that while in one sense, in the sense of our own definitions, yes, we are privileged. But in another sense, we really aren’t. In God’s eyes, we’re really no better than the ones we consider less-than. But God’s grace – God’s love and mercy and acceptance, welcomes us to the banquet, too. In truth, we’re really just as unlikely to have dinner reservations to God’s great eternal banquet as they are – and yet, somehow, we do.  We are invited. And the gratitude, and thankfulness, and joy that should bubble up within us if we truly grasp that great truth, is what should enable us to be more welcoming to the table toward everyone else, and being welcome on equal terms, not treating those others as second- or third-class attendees sluffed off to the table by the kitchen.

Jesus was using the real banquet, the real table in front of him, to teach something important about the Kingdom of God – the great eternal banquet. This morning, as I think about that great banquet, I imagine myself sitting at the table, laughing and smiling. And I have a big platter of some delicious food in my hands, and after I spoon out a helping of it for myself, I turn, and smile, and offer it to Joe, the university president; who will take some, and smile, and pass it on to Tina, the crystal meth addict; who will pass it on to Roger, the police chief; who will pass it on to Jamal, who was kicked out of his parents’ home because he was transgender; who will pass it on to Stephanie, the homeless working-poor single mother of three; who will pass it on Antwan, who grew up in the ghetto and who knew racial prejudice and discrimination his entire short life; who will pass it to Ruby Turpin herself, who will be sitting there looking very shocked and confused by it all, but finally, very happy; and she’ll pass it on… and on… and on.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

Bifocal Lents (sermon 2/22/15)

bifocals

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” – Genesis 9:8-17

=====

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” – Mark 1:9-15

=====

 We’ve been talking about Lent any number of ways lately. We’ve written newsletter articles about it, and blog posts, and Facebook updates and newspaper articles, and we’ve designed a new series of Wednesday worship services for it. Now we’re in the midst of it, beginning this past week with Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes, and now this, the first Sunday in Lent. These forty days of reflection, solitude, and penitence are symbolically connected to the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism, which itself is symbolically connected to the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after they left Egypt, which also symbolically connected to the forty days of rain during the story of Noah and the flood. Each of these things has embedded within it a sense of being separated out; affording, maybe even demanding, a time of self-reflection, and especially causing an amplified focus and reliance on God.

The idea of observing Lent can be a hard sell for us today, for a number of reasons. To turn away from the distractions of our daily lives is a hard thing to do. It’s hard for us to stay focused on something for forty minutes, let alone forty days. Our lives move so much more quickly today than when people first thought about setting aside forty days for introspection and refocus. One of the things that was nice when I first went to Honduras about twelve years ago was that where we were going, there was no internet connection available. There was no cellphone coverage. To go to that orphanage meant that you were going to have to give up all the instant technology that you’d gotten so dependent upon, and I know that a number of us felt a kind of withdrawal for the first couple of days that we were there. But after getting through that, we began to really focus on what was really in front of us, and all around us. Getting to know and love the kids, the natural beauty, the very different culture. Coming to see the reality of corruption and civil unrest, and of poverty on a level never seen before. Letting these experiences speak to our hearts, and to change our hearts. We got to be in that experience, that “zone,” for less than a week, before heading back to the States, and our phones came back to life, and we were resubmerged in our own constantly on, constantly live, ultimately dispersed lives. Finding one’s self in that zone of intense focus, without the normal distractions, has been truly life-changing for hundreds of people who have gone through it, and that was just to experience it for less than a week. Imagine how a life could be transformed by truly experiencing it for forty days.

It is hard to consider sticking with a regimen of introspection and humbly turning ourselves over to God even more deeply for the whole period of Lent. But there’s another aspect of it that I think is even more significant.

When I was first studying preaching, we were supposed to prepare a sermon on a particular passage, and the most obvious message to draw out of the words, at least for most of us in the class, was that we need to be more giving of ourselves – we need to be less selfish and more emptying of ourselves to serve others, just as Christ emptied himself for us. That was all well and good, the instructor said, and maybe it’s a very relevant and important message that a lot of people need to hear. But if the person hearing your message is someone whose issue wasn’t too strong a sense of self, but rather, was too *weak* a one; if your message is heard by someone who’s given of themselves to others so much that there doesn’t seem to be any of her or him self actually surviving, then it’s a wrong and even dangerous message to encourage even more self-emptying and self-destruction in the name of serving others.

The instructor made a valid point. And Lent can face a similar problem. What Lent should mean to each of us can be very different, based on where we’re approaching it from. Yes, it’s probably true that for many, if not most of us, the struggle we need to deal with as we come into Lent is that of humbling ourselves in order to come into God’s presence and to hear God’s word for us, and to recommit our lives to God. We Americans don’t generally do “humble” well; in fact, humility is often held up as a sign of weakness or even moral failing. Whether we look at what our society tells us about what our personal lives, or our national and international posture should look like, being humble and not pressing ourselves onto others rarely rates very high on the charts. So if we find ourselves in that location, it’s good and important to see Lent through the lens of needing to humble ourselves in order to find God in this time.

But there are a lot of people in the world, in the country, in this city, in this congregation, who likely have another frame of reference. There are many people who don’t have any shortage of humility; who don’t think too highly of themselves. In fact, they think too little of themselves. Our communities and our families are full of people whose self-image, whose sense of self-worth has been completely battered to the point that it can be almost non-existent. That’s the point where humility becomes humiliation. They’re told in countless ways that they aren’t smart enough, or successful enough, or good-looking enough, or enough like the way society says they should be, and they live lives filled with the quiet despair of feeling they don’t measure up, feeling worthless, or at least worth little, and certainly less than God would ever want to love.

And if that’s the place you’re standing in, then the worst possible thing you can hear, especially from a pulpit, is that you need to humble yourself even further. To be told that you’ve got to humble and debase yourself even further is a distorted, fatiguing, and even harmful message to get out of Lent. If that’s your vantage point, then you need to see Lent through a different lens. Understand that the humility that’s called for during Lent isn’t an end to itself, but rather, it’s meant to help you truly come into God’s presence and to feel God’s love. And it’s hard to hear God speaking into your heart if you believe that God wouldn’t speak to you at all.

We aren’t going through this season in some sort of masochistic love of beating ourselves up and wallowing in suffering for its own sake, as if suffering itself reconciles us with God. The main purpose of Lent is to feel and experience God’s love for us – especially as we see it illustrated through Jesus’ life and his journey to the cross and beyond. In order to be able to reflect on that love more deeply, some of us need to humble ourselves. But some of us will need to actually lift ourselves up. Some of us will need to allow ourselves to accept that we are good, and lovable, and worthy of God’s embrace, before we can hear God’s voice this season. All of us need to recognize that what’s important about Lent isn’t the details of how we get to the end point, but rather, that we actually get to it. And the end point is this: Just as we heard in our first reading, in the story of the flood, God loves us so much as to establish an everlasting covenant of love with us – one that completely overarches us and covers over us, just like the rainbow in the story that God said is a symbol of that covenant. And for the record: if, by chance, you find yourself in a place where you think you’re so worthless, you’re such flawed, damaged goods that your failings and shortcomings are too great to stay covered over by that covenant of love; that you’re going to poke through that protective rainbow, as it were – know that if you break through that one, that just like in our window, there’s another one just beyond it ready to cover over you and keep you within God’s love and care. And beyond that one is another one. And another one. And another one. You can’t ever exceed or escape God’s love and compassion for you. That’s the ultimate message behind meditating on Jesus and the cross during Lent, regardless of where you start your journey, regardless of your vantage point, regardless of what lens you need to see it through.

Thanks be to God.