15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, Proper 17
September 1, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“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.”
The kingdom of God looks like a dinner party. Over and over again, this is a metaphor we see in St. Luke’s gospel. To this day, our principle form of worship of God in Christ is the same, a dinner party around a common table. But this is tricky, for while a dinner party can be a glimpse of the Kingdom, time and time again we encounter what seems to be good and desirable, what we are told is right, what is pleasurable and acceptable in our society but turns out to not be what the kingdom of God looks like at all; it is not how it is supposed to be.
So here is the scene. It is a Sabbath meal, probably a bigger than average one, a banquet. A banquet like this, any formal meal really, was a male only event, women might have been allowed to serve. So there is a clue that this is not a vision of the kingdom of God; Jesus was surrounded by women, that is how church has always worked. In any case, the men would have been arrayed, reclining, on a series of low couches radiating out from the center couch, the seat of honor. (The bridegoom, the host and the most honored guests would have been in these seats).
This was an honor society. Lots of energy went into social status, worse than junior high, really. The more important you were in the system, the better the seat you got. Or in Prosperity Gospel logic, the more honored you were in society the more obvious it was that God was blessing you, and society followed suit. So if you are seated in a good place and someone more senior, someone superior to your standing arrives, you will be asked to give up your seat and move to a less desirable place, of course displacing the person below you on the social food chain, who then displaces the person below them until that last guy who was just happy to be invited is booted out and has to, God forbid, eat with the women out back! (But you know they kept the best food for themselves… oppressed: yes, stupid: no, just like the farmers in Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai with all their beautiful food squirreled away safely). Jesus’ first take home lesson is: don’t assume your place in the order, or at least assume it is low. Therefore sit in a lowly place so that if offered, you may receive the blessing of an invitation to the head table, or metaphysically, be called into a place to receive the blessing of God’s favor. Very solid, practical, even actionable advice for a 1st century Palestinian social climber.
For us, this is a lesson about grace. We cannot do anything to invoke, call down, or instigate the blessing of God. We cannot call down God with our good works, attitudes or lives of prayer. We can make ourselves more prepared to experience God, more receptive, certainly, we can maneuver ourselves into the path of God’s all-blessing hand sweeping across the creation. That’s what the adult ed on contemplative prayer starting on Wednesday is all about, but we certainly can’t make God do anything. This is straight up Aristotle, the unmoved mover, right? It might help if you come to church every week, but don’t quote me on that. This is just like jockeying for position at the wedding banquet. Jesus is warning us that we can’t game the system, we can’t impress our way into God’s favor. That only works with those blinded by the hubris of mammon and power like the men in this story are. A former moral theology professor of mine writes, (moral theology is ethics in catholic), “Jesus wants us to understand that our all-too-human drive to seek the best seat in the house… will not mark genuine participation in God’s mercy or love.” You can’t fake or earn your way to God’s favor. It is grace and grace alone, so when you have a choice, take the lowly seat, don’t assume that you know best, or have a say, or have rights or privileges over others. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
That is a some solid, practical, even actionable advice for us moderns, and Jesus is not done. As I said before, His was an honor society. The seating chart was a big deal, but the invitation list was even more so. Livelihoods, futures were made or broken on invitation lists. If the in crowd came to your feast, then, in that society, the in crowd would be obliged to invite you to there. If you honor me with an invitation I will honor you with one in return. Quid pro quo. Something for something. And that is the nature of society isn’t it? It is all about deserving. You deserve to live well if you try hard enough, if you are successful, if you do what society expects of you… perform well in school, follow the instructions of your superiors, don’t rock the boat. A lot of folks have been rocking the boat recently over living wages at McDonald’s. It will be hard for them in the short term. Jesus Christ isn’t in it for the short term.
Our Lord says, don’t invite the rich, the ones who will benefit you in the short term, people of power and wealth, but indebt yourself to the “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…” If you participate in the holy economy in a wholly non- quid pro quo way, you’ll get your reward. “… you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” This is not just a postponement of reward until heaven… no, it is a metaphor for the holy reward offered all righteous souls. The reward might not smell like a Michelin three-star dinner, but those simple, course, organic whole grains grown by someone you love go down physically and metaphysically a whole lot smoother than luxury, they are a whole lot more satisfying. As the prophet Guy Clark sings, “There are only two things that money can’t buy and that true love and home grown tomatoes.”
A dinner party as a metaphor for the kingdom of God… We put on quite a good dinner party here, if I do say so myself. And it is not the liturgy, though we put on quite feast up here, including of course up there in the choir loft. It takes a whole lot of people doing a whole lot of work to make this happen at least five times a week in one form or another. We do liturgy well here, and that is important, but even more important (and is probably why it works so well) is that truly, “All are welcome here.” Everyone was welcome around Jesus Christ, and we really are trying to be that kind of place of radical welcome. We’ve still got a lifetime of work to do, but the amount of time and effort you all here have given to Home Starter Kits, 2nd Sunday Breakfasts, the parking lot program, to Opportunity Village, inviting folks off the street into our church home, and authentically, not in some guilt ridden sense of obligation. No. There is a real sense of actual, genuine, even radical welcome here like I have only so very, very rarely seen, and only ever once in a church; the Cathedral in Boston is setting the table for everyone, too. We put on the kind of dinner party that I want to go to, that I think we are called to put on, and I am proud of you all, and on the cusp of becoming your rector, I am enormously grateful.
I will not be speaking to you all from up here until after the installation next Thursday. I am taking a little time to breathe next week. I just want to take the time to say thank you. Windy and I came here two years ago and we were running on fumes. We arrived here after leaving one of the most stressful times in our lives; we went through the whole spectrum of fallout the follows an unexpected layoff, with the culmination of a decade long ordination process right in the middle of it thrown in for color. And what did we do? We pick up and move across country on a wing and quite a few prayers, and what do we find on the other side? You. You all. Resurrection. This place, Eugene and now the ranch out in Jasper. You all have made such a tremendous effort to make us feel welcome, and, through your financial support to get me to full time in short order. You have been willing to hear and even listen to the crazy stuff you hear me say up here on Sundays. You all are turning out to be quite fantastic partners in ministry, something I was not sure I would be able to find. Thank you. Thank you for being good partners. Thank you for the trust and faith you have offered me. Thank you for your kindness to my family. We are not far from home, we are just far from where we are from. This is our home, and that is because of you all. Thank you for your willingness to stretch, to take risks: calling me two years ago was a risk. To be sure, I will be thanking you for stretching repeatedly over the next two dozen or so years, and while I’m at it, thank you in advance for your pledges, stewardship is just around the corner. Thank you for calling me to be your rector. Thank you for inviting me to this banquet. And even more so, thank you for accepting the invitation to come to this banquet yourself. AMEN