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)

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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.

 

 

If By Miracle… (sermon 7/26/15)

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.  – John 6:1-21

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This story of Jesus feeding the multitude is the only one of his miracle accounts that appear in all four of the gospels. Here, in John’s gospel, it’s one of the miraculous signs that John sets forth as proof of Jesus’ divine identity; that he really is the eternal God of the cosmos in the flesh. This story of Jesus apparently creating bottomless baskets of bread and fish is the same kind of out-of-nothing creation that John’s original audience knew was the kind of thing that only God could do.

But there are other meanings layered into this story, too. On one level, it’s a recasting of the Exodus story where through Moses, God provides food for the people by sending them manna that they find on the ground every morning, and all the extra was to be collected up in baskets so nothing went to waste, just like in this story, where Jesus is seen as a new, improved kind of Moses. And there’s the Passover connection that John points us toward when he comments that the Passover was near when this event happened. This meal, then, becomes seen as a kind of Passover meal. One part of the Passover observation is the meal being seen as a forerunner to the Great Feast that the Hebrew prophets said the coming of the Lord would be like; God hosting a great banquet on a hilltop that all people would flock to – and now, here’s Jesus doing exactly what those prophets had described. And of course, we can see symbolism paralleling our sacrament of the Lord’s Supper here, too.

But I think that most times when we hear this story, we don’t think about those levels of symbolism. Instead, we focus on this idea of the miracle. We ask if it could be actual fact. Could this have physically happened the way the story tells it? Some people say that this was just the code of a pre-scientific culture; stories like this were the way they ascribed divinity to someone; but now, we understand that the laws of physics govern the universe in a kind of closed loop that makes these kinds of stories impossible. Some people read this story and say that once the people were seated, after hearing Jesus’ teaching, they pulled out whatever food they’d all brought with them, and Jesus’ actions simply set off a big, first-century version of Stone Soup – everyone sharing what they had and there ultimately being more than enough for everyone.

On the other hand, other people say that God does indeed intervene in the world at times in ways like this. That the God who created laws of physics is beyond them and can break them if so inclined; or if not break them, bend them a bit, or apply them in ways that they are somewhat different from the way things usually occur. They would say that for a God who created the entire universe out of sheer will and a few words, this kind of miracle would be child’s play.

So a lot of attention gets focused on the question of whether or not a miracle actually occurred here. But to think about that question, you first have to ask just what a miracle actually is.

There’s a story about a politician in the South during the days of Prohibition, who was running for election. A large number of the voters in his district were hard-core Fundamentalists and members of the Temperance movement, and they asked him where he stood on the question of whiskey and other alcoholic beverages. Of course, he knew what they wanted to hear, but he also knew that the woods all around them were full of stills cranking out moonshine for an awful lot of customers, and which was keeping food on the table for a lot of people, and they were just as big a voting block. So when they asked what he thought about whiskey, he said, “Well… if by “whiskey” you mean that wicked drink that numbs the senses and causes family strife and personal ruin; that leads men and women alike to all sorts of immorality and vice… I’m against it. However… if by “whiskey” you mean that golden elixir that brings people of good will together; that warms their hearts and lubricates their souls to instill joy and merriment and brotherhood and sisterhood; and which creates a thriving market for so many of our good, decent, hard-working, church-going farmers… I’m for it.”

When it comes to miracles, maybe we have to think about definition of terms, too. Do we say we believe in miracles, if by “miracles” we mean a big, supernatural intrusion into the laws of nature? On the other hand, do we say we believe in miracles if by “miracles” we mean something extraordinary, uncommon, and of God, occurring all the time, all around us, in the most ordinary and common of things and experiences? Or, just as with the politician’s answer, can they both be true at the same time?

Let’s look at this gospel story again. Regardless of what you might believe about the physical, literal aspect of the idea of Jesus producing food from nothing, let’s go past that for a moment and think about what else was happening. Something like 10,000 people, once you included men, women, and children, came together – all with different backgrounds, different problems, different reasons to want to see Jesus, different experiences and beliefs. And as they gathered on that hillside, they listened to Jesus teach about the Kingdom of God, and a new commandment for them and the world – that they love one another just as he and God loved them. That this new commandment has the power to change the world, and was already changing the world, forever. They listened to him as his disciples spread out in their midst, making sure that everyone, young and old, were having their needs met. And all these very different people, with all their different prejudices and motivations, passed and shared the baskets. They set aside their differences. They enjoyed the breeze blowing in off the lake and the coolness of the grass, and they laughed at each other’s children playing together and doing all the things children do. They all sat close in to each other so they could as close to Jesus as possible, and their guards dropped, and they didn’t mind the stranger bumping up against them as they listened and laughed and ate and learned about love and lived it out; and there, in that place, on that day, in that briefest or moments, the Kingdom of God kissed the earth.

Regardless of anything else, that’s a miracle. A miracle that you, and I, and our very divided, very un-peaceful, un-reconciled world, can find hope in.

And the good news for us is that we can share in that same miracle. We can recreate and relive it, every Sunday, every day, because as much as this story symbolizes anything else, it also symbolizes the very church itself. And the same Jesus calls us together to share in the same Kingdom; to encounter one another, to set aside our differences, to receive and to give, to love and be loved. In short, to experience the miracle of the Kingdom of God; to see God in all the common things of life all around us – bread, juice, water, each other, ourselves. This is what the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was talking about when she wrote:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.
And only he who sees takes off his shoes –
The rest sit around and pick blackberries.

Because Christ dwells within us, and because we dwell within him, we all have the ability, when we want, to see past the berries and experience the miracle of God in our midst, and in each other. And for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God.