Jeremiah 2:4-13 Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 Luke 14:1, 7-14
We’ve barely made it to labor day and the posturing of obsessed sports fans (yes that is technically redundant) condemning the actions of their opponents and all of their descendants has exploded accross the internet through the wonder of social media. I’m sure there have been banquets and festivals throughout the land as we begin the holy season of football worship. Call that sarcasm if you will, but I would argue that football as a sport is a center of value for our culture. It commands a tremendous portion of our resources by comparison to other sources of value or activities that offer hope and meaning.
Of course no one is claiming that the Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the NFL, is a god (although some may claim that he is an agent of the devil). No one is literally worshiping their team or quarterback (except maybe Bronco’s fans). Yet we build stadiums that large segmants of our population cannot even afford to walk into unless invited by someone who can afford it.
Such was the case when a homeless man arrived at a dinner party in a village outside of Jerusalem in First Century Palestine. Jesus was invited to a party he could only get into because of the invitation, and they were watching him like a chickenhawk. Now, before we go too much further, it is important to note that Luke does not give us the context of this meeting to condemn the Pharisees. They, and the lawyers with them, represent the old gaurd. They interpreted the relationship between God and the people. Although some were surely selfish and flawed, their purpose was to maintain a cultural and social identity that witnessed to the active presence of God. Sound like anyone else you know?
Our lectionary text jumps over a healing narrative as though Jesus is using it to say, “Now that I have your attention...” But we should note that once again, Jesus is basing his teaching on the action of caring for someone who cannot care for himself. He goes on to offer some practical party advice. Who could disagree with a little shrewd maneuvering? Don’t rush to the place of honor. Besides, there could be someone that your host thinks is more honorable. Wait to be called upon, and have your honor confirmed before others.
Imagine how this sparked their imagination. This rabbi was pretty smooth. But then he went from preachin’ to meddlin’ when he turned on the host. “When you give a banquet, don’t just invite the people who are going to make you look good or the ones who will invite you to their parties. Invite the poor and lame. Invite the friendless and the unloved.”
He said this at the Sabbath meal – a meal that required ritual purity. You can’t invite those people to that meal and still call it the Sabbath meal. Clearly, this was no longer about securing a position. Clearly, Jesus was calling them into account for more than matters of etiquette. Clearly, Jesus was setting down a model of hospitality that begins with seeing the needs of others and moves toward a celebration of our relationship with one another.
I read an article recently that spoke to the difficulty we face today in our relationships with the poor (or anyone with a perceived difference in power). The article was about the difference between volunteering and serving the needs of others. The author ran a non-proffit ministry that served the poor in an urban context. He was contacted by a friend that he had grown up with in church. The friend was leading a youth group and wanted a service project. Some dates were agreed on, and he suggested they take a time of study beforehand to prepare them for the experience. That way they would know why the needs existed, understand the humanity of the people in need, and be able to meet with them on common ground. He also suggested they take time afterward to reflect on the experience and the way it had impacted their lives. In the end, the project fell apart because the youth group just did not have time to do all of that.
Saddly, this describes the majority of our service projects and mission trips. Getting to know people is messy, and most of us do not really want to be transformed by relationships over and over again. It’s heartbreaking. Not only that, but not everyone has the means to be that hospitable. Some of us are in need ourselves of a kind word or a friendly visit.
Fortunately, there is more to the gospel than a disappointed and disaproving Jesus. Instead of condemning, Jesus is encouraging us to see the opportunities that we do not normally see. Jesus is turning the tables once more to help us see what defiles and what makes holy. Through Jesus, the sins of the past are turned into the lense for seeing the Kingdom of God that has come near.
There are some in our Presbytery that have gotten this message. Recently a team returned to University Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge from Cuba. They were trained and empowered by the Synod of the Sun and the Synod of the Living Waters, and they installed solar powered water treatment equipment. Another team from a variety of congregations will leave to do the same in October (I’ve gotten confirmation that they will cary letters for us if we want to re-establish our old conection with our long-lost-sister church in Sabanilla). Each team was trained for months, and the hope of each trip is to find common ground and to extend and receive hospitality that is real and true.
The thing is, for hospitality to be real and true it can not be convenient, and it has to be mutual. It has to cost you something, and it has to have the effect of creating commonality. That’s a little different than what we think of as Southern hospitality. Southern hospitality is all about making the guest feel special, and there is an unavoidable aspect of pride that slips in when the guest acknowledges what a good job you’ve done. In my family, we threw parties all the time for Dad’s office, the church, or whoever we just wanted to celebrate with. One of my favorite memories was the day that my dog got into a fight with the neighbor’s dog just as the cars were rolling up. My mother’s friend Carol got out, saw my mother’s embarassment and proclaimed in a deep southern drawl, “Why Beth, you always throw the best pah-ties. You even have a dawg fight!”
In some small way, Carol became the host for just a moment – empathizing with and blessing a moment of chaos. Jesus obviously calls for something more than that in our lives, but I think Mrs. Carol is an example of how hospitality is more of a life style than an action. It impacts everything we do, and every relationship we are a part of.
Likewise, our passage from Hebrews begins with encouragement to take care of our own – let mutual love continue – and moves imediately to care for strangers – even comparing them to the angels entertained by Abraham and Sarah at Mamre. This command is given as though loving the familiar and the strange have the same value. In fact, the Greek word we often translate as hospitality is “philoxenia,” which literally means, “love of the strange.”
Love of the strange commands both empathy for those who suffer and fidelity in the relationships we’ve been given. Love of the strange pushes us outside of our comfort zones. Love of the strange puts us in a place to see what God is doing not only through us but for us. Love of the strange is difficult and dangerous, but it is also beautiful and neccesary.
For in the end, we are not called to live in a peace that has no tension. It is in fact the tension of our relationships that provides the very space where a table might be spread and grace might be experienced.
We no longer live under a sacrificial system. We cannot earn God’s love and forgiveness. Jesus turned the tables once and for all so that we can know that God’s love is not about our worthiness. It is about God’s willingness to love us. And so our sacrificial living is a constant opportunity to live in response to God’s grace.
So, when we read, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” It does not mean “be nice and share when you can.” It means, “Don’t stop being nice. Don’t stop sharing what you have. Don’t just do it when it is convenient or when it feels good. Don’t act nice. BE nice.”
Fortunately for us, there is yet the table of grace where God meets our strangeness, smiles kindly, and says, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. I love you. I forgive you. I will never stop, and I have given you this day and this community for you to experience, explore, and express my love.”
The question that is still left open is one of how we will love the strange in response to God’s love for us. How will we love the strange in ourselves? How will we love the strange in our neighbor? Is our love of the strange strong enough to make us do more than just invite others? Is our hospitality radical enough that it pushes us out to find common ground with people we do not even know? Are we willing to see our love of the strange, the difficult, the one we really would rather not even talk to as our love of God? Yes. It is just that simple, and it is just that hard. And thanks be to God for the font of grace and the table of mercy that offer continued renewal as we move toward the Kingdom that is both present and yet to come. Amen.