14th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 22C)
Sunday, August 29, 2010
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen
St. Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you ever noticed how much time the New Testament spends talking about eating? From Mark through Revelation, topics of food and meal etiquette abound. Today’s Gospel is only one of many places where meals played a large part in Jesus’ preaching or teaching, either as the place of instruction, the subject of instruction, or both. Paul, also, spends large chunks of his letters discussing the eating habits of his congregations. Some of these New Testament references to eating are tied to the celebration of communion. Some are tied to behavior in the Kingdom of God. Some are tied to every day behavior, and the way we as children of God are supposed to treat people. Yet even as we separate these table talks into different categories, we find that they all connect with one another.
It seems weird, to me, this focus on food. Think about it: have you ever heard a sermon preached on the proper way to hold a potluck? How about a Bible study on the types of food acceptable for a youth fundraising dinner? I haven’t, and I’d bet you haven’t either. If people today were going to make a top ten list of things Jesus should talk about, or things Christians should be worried about, world hunger would probably make the list … but meal etiquette wouldn’t. So why do Jesus, Paul, and the writers of the New Testament make such a big deal about it?
In Jesus’ day, sharing a meal was important. Who you ate with—and how you ate with them—said a lot about who you were, who your friends were, and what was important to you. It was a public way of showing who was in, and who was out. Who was invited, and who was rejected. Who was up, and who was down. Not only that, but many meals had special ritual significance, either religious or social. Eating is one of the basic needs all humans share, and in this case Jesus uses it to show what another basic human need—community—should look like.
When you think about it, meals today have the same kinds of meaning that they did in Jesus’ day. We’re just not as aware of it as people in Jesus’ day were. Anyone who’s ever been in a high school cafeteria can tell you just how much hierarchy there can be in a meal, but it’s present more subtly in other places, too. Jesus and Paul talked about food and meals because they’re places where our attitudes and connections are the easiest to read, particularly the unspoken ones that drive the way we treat one another. When you have a party, who do you invite into your home to eat? How about after church on Sunday? Christmas and Easter? Weddings? Funerals? Superbowl Sunday?
What about here in church? We gather every Sunday around a meal, the meal of our Lord, which we call Communion. Although these days we only serve bread and wine, in Paul’s day it was a full, sit-down dinner. And spiritually, it is a descendent of the very kind of Sabbath meal that Jesus was at in today’s Gospel lesson. After all, the Last Supper in which Jesus instituted communion was itself a Sabbath meal. And all baptized are welcome at the Lord’s Table, here. But what about other church meals?
Like most Lutheran churches, St. Luke’s likes to feed people. I’ve only been here a few weeks, and already we’ve had a Peach Festival and a pig roast in addition to the Welcome the Vicar dinner. And when hungry people come looking for help, we provide it through our Do Unto Others fund. Helping them with groceries is right and good. But do we invite them to eat with us? We help them, but do we make them feel welcome in the community of the faithful that is the body of Christ? Do we affirm that they are beloved children of God just as we are? It’s very easy to welcome people who look like us, think like us, and live the same kinds of lives we do. It’s a lot harder to welcome people who aren’t like us, especially those who’ve lived hard lives, who are on the outside of society looking in.
And yet, Jesus spent most of his ministry tending to the outsiders. Jesus tended to the lost, the broken, the sinner, the outcast, the ill, the disabled, the ones that polite society in every age tends to pass by and overlook. The ones that are most likely to be abused and exploited, even by people who believe they’re doing the right thing. Today’s Gospel isn’t just about food: it’s about breaking down the idea that some people are worth more than others. This story is a reminder that climbing the social and economic ladder is not what the Kingdom of God is all about.
One of the first things they told us in seminary, about both reading the Bible and preaching, is to consider the audience. Who’s being spoken to? Who’s doing the speaking? In today’s Gospel, Jesus is talking to the pillars of the community, the important people, the powerful. He’s warning them about the consequences of pride, of playing the political game. For most people, the importance of humility a hard message to hear, but it’s even worse for community leaders. Important, affluent people don’t get that way by hanging back. Society tends to reward self-promotion, pride, a touch of arrogance, even, as long as it’s directed at the right places. Climb that ladder, letting everyone know how good you are at it, looking for every angle you can play. Network with those who can help you reach your goals—if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Now, that kind of dedication can be good. It can help us accomplish great things. But sometimes, people take it too far. It’s easy to get swept up in to that mindset and make getting ahead the center of your life. And if getting ahead is all you look for, then you can’t see what is happening to the people around you. If some people get squashed in the system, if they fail out, well, they probably did something wrong. It’s nothing personal. It’s just the way the system works. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, out there, particularly in today’s economy.
But Jesus says that’s not the way Christians should live. In this simple explanation of how you should behave at meals, Jesus turns society’s expectations upside down. It’s hard to hear, because it threatens the way we look at the world. For Jesus, the community—the whole community—should be welcomed and celebrated, not because of what they can do for us, or to impress people with our generosity, but because we are all children of God, even the last, and the lost, and the least. What matters most isn’t getting the good seat at the head of the table, or climbing the ladder to success. What matters are our relationships: our relationship with God, of course, but also our relationships with one another. What matters is the community—the whole community, all of God’s children, not just the ones we like or who can do things for us.
Unfortunately, this attitude so different from the way the world around us operates that it can be a difficult lesson to hear. And when people find lessons difficult, they tend to turn them around and target them on other people. Teachings about humility are all too easy to twist. It should be obvious, but Jesus isn’t talking to the outcasts, the powerless ones. They don’t need to learn humility; all too often, they’ve had it ground into them all their lives. And yet, how often do powerful people lecture those around them about humility, while justifying their own pride? How often do people try to shut up those below them on the social ladder by accusing them of being pushy or proud?
A few years ago, I spent a summer as a volunteer student chaplain at a hospital. One of my fellow students was a middle-aged woman, and we became friends. She was a quiet woman, but part of the learning method was regular examination of our interactions with patients, to try and find any of our own personal issues that were getting in the way. In the process, we learned about ourselves and one another. What I learned from and about her wasn’t anything I had ever expected.
She came from a Christian home, but her parents were more interested in themselves and their own fun than in caring for their daughter. They were neglectful, and sometimes emotionally abusive, and their most important criteria for their daughter’s behavior was that she not bother them. So they taught her humility as a way of keeping her quiet. They taught her that she wasn’t worth listening to, that it was proud and arrogant to stand up for herself or defend herself. And the people at her church reinforced that lesson without even knowing it, by preaching the evils of pride and the importance of humility. It was a good lesson, but aimed at exactly the wrong person.
So my friend grew up believing she was worth less than other people, and got married young to a man who treated her as she believed she deserved to be treated. As her children grew, they didn’t respect her because they couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t stand up for herself, why she let her husband treat her as he did. It wasn’t until middle age that she began to break through this early conditioning, and see herself as someone worthy of love and respect. It was a long, painful process. She began to realize that there is a difference between humility and humiliation. She began to realize that God didn’t want her to suffer. She began to realize that she, too, had a place at the table.
I wish I could say that her experience was a rare one, but it happens more often than we’d like to think. People take Jesus’ words and use them to tear others down, rather than build up the body of Christ. They use the Bible as a weapon to beat people over the head with, to exclude people they don’t like or don’t agree with. Messages, like today’s, meant to break down barriers and bring people together for the most basic of human needs are used to further the separation between people. God wants us to live lives in a community where the outcast, the stranger, the lowly are accepted and welcomed. And yet, sometimes without even realizing it, we use Jesus’ word against the very ones he came to minister to.
In Jesus’ day, the physically infirm, those who collected the Roman taxes, and those who broke religious laws were the ones excluded from the community table. It’s easy to look back at them and see why this was wrong, but it’s a lot harder to look at our own society with the same clarity. Who do we consider outside the bounds of fellowship? Who do we consider “beneath” us and how do we treat them? Do we share with them the same love and grace we have been given, helping them toward lives of wholeness within the community of faith?
Jesus calls us to fellowship with one another. Our reading from Hebrews tells us more about what a Christian community should look like, and how we should treat one another: with abundant mutual love. We should practice compassion and hospitality, especially for those in greatest need, the ones who can’t pay us back. Truth, honor, and right relationships should be the basis of our dealings with all people. These come through Christ Jesus our Lord, who is with us today in this meal we share just as he shared that meal two thousand years ago in Palestine.
At the table of God, there are no outsiders and no insiders. There are no important people and unimportant people, for all are members of the body of Christ.