Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Sermon from Sunday, Sept. 2

From Luke 14:1, 12-14 (read it here: http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=55917784 )
Around this part of the world, this weekend, Labor Day weekend, marks an unofficial end to the summer. After Labor Day comes the unassailable reality that summer is coming to a close: rental rates at the Jersey Shore drop dramatically; school begins for everybody (although it has already started for some of you); and next week, the Philadelphia Eagles begin the football season against the Green Bay Packers, and we shall hope they cushion the blow that will come when the Phillies fail yet again.

But all that is for after Labor Day weekend. Right now, it is Labor Day weekend, and so people are doing all sorts of summery things while they have their chance. Kids are staying up late and doing whatever kids do these days in the last days of summer, before school begins. Shore rental rates might drop next weekend, but not this weekend, as everyone is down at the beach for one last fling before the cool reality of fall starts in. Movie theaters are packed to catch one more summer flick; and everyone is determined to squeeze every last drop out of summer that they can before the leaves turn brilliant oranges, yellows, and reds.

One thing that many families and friends do during this weekend is an end-of-the-summer barbecue. Of course, around here you can grill almost year-round, but there is just something about grilling outside that’s quintessentially summertime fun and just is not the same the rest of the year. And so I imagine many of you may have already celebrated a Labor Day party; some of you may this afternoon or tomorrow.

As you celebrate with your friends and family, I wonder what it would look like if you took Jesus’ words in this teaching literally: “When you give a luncheon, 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.” If you were to take Jesus literally, you would have to call up your family that was planning to come over for the barbecue and tell them not to bother coming; you would have to call up your friends that were planning to come over and tell them not to come; if you live in a neighborhood where people make a good amount of money, you’d have to uninvite your neighbors too.

And then, you would go out into the worst parts of town. You would have to go to the wrong side of the tracks. You would have to go to cities and places that we don’t like to talk about, places that we don’t feel safe, places where poor people live. You would have to go into the heart of the inner-city, into neighborhoods we don’t want our friends living in; and you would have to go out into the middle of nowhere, into areas where rural poverty has its unique stranglehold. And once you got there, you would have to get the poorest of the poor. You would rustle awake the homeless beggar who has no legs and put him into your van; you would scrape out of the gutter the man who has to fight both alcoholism and schizophrenia; you would embrace the man whose teeth rotted away years ago, leaving only rank holes in his gums; all these and more you would load back into your car, drive to your nice neighborhood, and there you would throw your reputation down the toilet as you threw a party for these highly undesirable people. Your former friends would probably call the police and at the very least you would be highly suspicious for bringing all of these people into a heretofore quiet, safe, neighborhood.

Well, to say the least, I think taking Jesus’ teaching literally would be kind of scary, and I don’t plan to do it. My family and I are having a Labor Day party together this afternoon, and it’s pretty much a family gathering; no one else is really invited, much less are we driving to find poor and disabled people and inviting them. And I don’t suppose preaching this sermon this morning is going to change any of that.

But of course Jesus’ teaching is about far more than just an individual dinner party. Remember, Jesus is giving this teaching at a dinner party; so the banquet is a metaphor he happens to use because it is handy. But it is about much more than that. It is about the way we practice hospitality; it is about the way we welcome people; at its root, it is about who we make room for in our hearts.

To use the language of the parable, in our lives, we all have banquets to give. What do I mean by this? I mean that we all have potential ways of offering ourselves to the world. I read this past week a quote from 1937; the author wrote it to a four-month-old baby as a blessing: “...One day you, too, will become aware of the world’s seething cauldron of hate...And then you, too, will begin to wonder, and you will do one of two things...You will either putter around in life, content with building a wall and a web around your little plans and small hopes and creeping ambitions–or you will, if you believe in God, make your heart a chalice for a few drops of the world’s blood and tears.” I love this image, that we have a choice to make: we can either putter around and desperately seek to tend to our own little dreams, our own ambitions, or we can make our hearts a chalice for a few drops of the world’s blood and tears. We Christians have the capability to bless the world in a unique way, each of us given a unique way to touch the world. This is what I think Jesus means by giving a banquet. We each have our own ways of touching the world, of blessing the world, because of the gifts God gives us.

Maybe in your life it is the way you sing, or the way you build houses, or the way you bake bread or cakes, or the way you listen, or the patience you have with the very young, or the patience you have with the very old, or the way you preach, or the vision you have for peace and justice, or the way you open your home, or the way you throw a party. This is the way that you are a chalice for the world’s suffering, these are the banquets you give; this is the way that you touch the world with the love of Christ.

And so the message of the parable is a little bit different when we think of it this way. The message is not so much about a dinner. Instead it is saying, “You have these amazing talents God gave you, a way of touching the world with his love. But you have two ways of using these talents; one way is like when you throw a dinner party and invite guests for political reasons. You invite rich neighbors, family, friends, all of whom then will feel obliged to throw you a party. If we use our talents in this way, we might look generous, but in the end we are only looking after ourselves. It would be like a person volunteering to be on a church worship committee not because they genuinely cared about the worship life of the church but because they wanted to make sure their songs got sung and they got their way in everything. Or it might be like a young person serving at a soup kitchen because it looked impressive on their college application. Or it might be like a person deciding to become a pastor because they want the respect and the dignity of the office. It always is tempting to use those gifts that God gives us in political ways; it is tempting to use those gifts on people close to us so that they’ll keep on liking us and giving us what we need.

But the other way of using your talents is to go out and spend them in ways which will not possibly bring about repayment. Sometimes this means doing something radically different, like changing careers; sometimes this means quitting your job and going to work as a missionary with a world that needs the skills you have. But sometimes, it is just a matter of doing the same thing with a different mindset. You might still volunteer to serve on the church worship committee, but with a humble spirit, anxious to contribute your own voice but respecting the voice of others. Or you might still work at the soup kitchen, but instead of looking at your watch for how many hours are left, you look into the eyes of the people you are serving and take time to talk with each of them.

This is threatening for two reasons. One, it is threatening because if you’re really going to do this, you’re going to have to come face-to-face with broken people. There’s no way to invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind to a banquet without bumping up against the cruel reality of brokenness. And in the same way, there’s no way to use your talents for people who really need it without bumping up against people in need. And that feels very threatening to us, that’s very hard for us. Think of how hard it is to see beggars in the streets of Philadelphia. The reason it’s so hard is because they are broken people. It makes us squirm because we realize how close to broken we all are. It makes us squirm because deep down, we want to think we’ve earned the nice lives we have; we want to think that their brokenness is their own fault; but we can’t. It’s hard to be around needy people. And so it is tempting for us to stay locked up in our upper-middle-class lives and avoid the hard feelings that come with being with a needy person.

The other reason that this idea is threatening to us is our “upward mobility.” “Upward mobility” is the idea that you can improve on your lot in life, that you can make life better for yourself. A person is upwardly mobile if they have the right degree from the right school or technical skills that the marketplace puts a lot of value in. Many of us spend our lives getting into just the right upwardly mobile position, getting into just the right position to advance. And this parable throws it all into disarray because it says forget about your status, forget about your reputation, forget about getting what you deserve, that stuff is all dangerous. Instead, become a believer in “downward mobility.” Don’t fawn over those who are ahead of you, thinking they’ll help you advance. Instead, if you’re going to fawn over anyone, fawn over those who are below you. Take care of them, do them special favors, care for them uniquely. And of course this is a very threatening message in a culture where people love to advance, love to get ahead. Serving the needy, caring more about those ‘beneath’ us than those ‘above’ us, threatens to lower the way others think of us, threatens maybe even to lower the way we think of ourselves.

And yet, as Jesus demonstrates throughout his life, God has a special concern for the needy. In fact, Jesus’ life is the ultimate example of “downward mobility,” as he left the comfort of heaven for a manger of straw, the hard wood and hard nails of the cross, the cold stone of the tomb. When we wonder why we would choose to be downwardly mobile, when we wonder why we would choose to encounter needy and broken people, we only must remember that the one we claim to follow did those things and does those things each day now. Because Jesus used his gifts on behalf of us when we were in need, we who would follow Jesus have to use our gifts not to move up, but to move down in the eyes of the world, to choose to honor those who the world says are not worthy of honor.

So how will you practice your gifts? I pray that you will not use them simply to advance or to get ahead, to make yourself more popular or more indispensable. Use them to give hope and life to those who need it the most.

This message is for each of us individually to think about, but it also bears thinking about as a church. After all, one of the reasons that we are gathered here this morning is a banquet, isn’t it, and not simply a banquet of friendship or a banquet of mutual love, but a literal banquet our Lord instituted on the night before he died. “Do this,” he said, “in remembrance of me;” and so we do, each month in our church, each week in other churches, we gather to eat the bread which is the body of Christ and drink the cup which is the blood of Christ. When we gather around this banquet table together, we are reminded that we are stewards of a very great mystery; we are reminded that we are guardians of a very deep and beautiful truth. We are the keepers of a very strange and mystical feast, a banquet which has the power to touch and transform lives when Christ is present and remembered during it.

This teaching of Jesus stands out in sharp relief when we gather at this banquet table: “When you give a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you may be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

Who are we here for? Who do we throw our banquets for? This banquet, this feast of life, who is it for? Why do we give it? The other banquets we throw, the promise of this new life, who is it for? Is it merely for those of us who are here this morning? Is it for those who are good enough, or sophisticated enough, or upwardly mobile enough to belong? Or is it for the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind? Do our hearts burn to invite them to be here too? Do we long to know the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind–all the needy of our society–as much as Christ longed to know them? Do we long to give ourselves away to them as Christ gave himself away for us?

As you are fed at this banquet table, I pray that it will not be only a time of remembering Christ. I pray it will be a time of pledging yourself to him as well. I pray that it is a time that you say, “Just as your body was broken for the sake of the world, I give myself to be broken open and used as you wish for the sake of the world you love. Just as your blood was spilled out for the sake of many, I spill out all of what I used to be and invite you in, for the sake of the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”