Sermon Pentecost 14C 8-28-16 St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, St. Petersburg
A friend of mine was sitting at one of those large tables at a Starbucks several months ago, where several people can sit and enjoy their latte, their croissant, bagel, or a quick meal. A man who was probably homeless, shabbily dressed, very loud, and scarily annoying walked in and sat down right beside my friend. The loud man was going on and on to himself about the economy, politics, and Wall Street. My friend buried his head in his computer and thought, please don’t look at me, please don’t draw me into this discussion; and he said to himself, “this person has something obviously wrong with him.”
The loud fellow then tapped on my friend’s computer and asked him what he thought about the politicial scandals in the news. My friend reluctantly decided that he would listen to the man. After several minutes into the conversation, my friend discovered that the near homeless gentleman that he wanted to avoid, actually had recently been a very successful business executive who unexpectedly lost his job, his family, and his home, and was struggling just to survive. My friend’s prejudicial judgment about the value of one of God’s people, because of his outward appearance had been suddenly turned upside down.
My friend learned that unless we hear the story of another of God’s people, unless we see the dignity of every creature, and unless we meet people where they are, we encourage a bias that only some are worthy of God’s grace. Maybe the lesson my friend learned was that when we leave our circle of comfort, and enter into the lives of the least, lost and lonely, we soon discover that we are not that different from one another.. That is what Jesus did!
Gathering with friends or colleagues for a meal, can be a time of joy, celebration, or recognition. Many business deals have been planned and finalized over lunch or dinner. Celebrations, awards banquets, weddings, graduations, and anniversaries often take place around a shared meal with friends. In our society today communal meals establish and enhance relationships, but in first century Palestine, in the story we hear in today’s gospel, so much more is going on than just a friendly dinner party.
Luke tells us that Jesus attended a banquet hosted in the home of a Pharisee, or religious leaders of his time. Only a select few were ever invited. You see, back then some people literally lived each day not knowing from where their sustenance would come. Others, mostly the wealthy and “well to do,” threw big banquets that served as a symbol of social status where only certain folks were invited to the soirees. These banquets were part of an honor system based on reciprocity of invitation. In other words, status and honor were heaped on those invited to dine with the best of society.
At these soirees there was a further hierarchy of status based on where you sat at the table, which was a sign to all that were present, your social status among everyone else in attendance at the banquet and thus, in the neighborhood itself. This cultural system was designed to give people the opportunity to climb the social and economic ladder, but it resulted in some people being kept out of the system altogether. Injustice, inequality, and power held in the hands a mere few has not changed that much in 2000 years.
In today’s gospel, when Jesus entered the Pharisee’s house, he entered into a system of injustice and inequality and turned the system on its head. Rather than seeking the place of honor at the head table, Jesus said, “when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place.” In other words, when you see the injustice of a situation, rather than supporting it and participating in it, Jesus admonishes his followers to engage in Kingdom building with humility and grace, by coming alongside and identifying with the poor and the outcast, all with an approach fueled by humility.
Jesus challenges us to name, change, and undermine injustice, first in our own hearts, and then in the systems of our culture that perpetuate it. We must enter into the dark places of the plight of others, and bring light and love. God in Christ entered into this world, not as one of the powerful and influential, but as one of the outcasts of his day. Jesus served, loved, and advocated for the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Jesus’ mission of bringing about justice and dignity remains the mission of the church today.
Extreme poverty, educational and economic inequality, disparity in pay for women, religious intolerance, and yes, racism still permeates our culture today. This fact makes it clear that the church has so much work to do to bring about justice, right relationships, and the Kingdom of God. Despite the challenges, we must not be discouraged. We must be hopeful in this work. Remember, we Christians are a people who live in hope that there is new life beyond death, reconciliation beyond separation, and grace beyond sin. For those whom society devalues, those whom God loves, there is hope that new life emerges after the depth of brokenness into which we often travel.
Many of the dramatic moments of Jesus’ life—feeding multitudes, making wine, dining with “sinners,” these were dramatic divine self-disclosures of the need for compassion, love, and mercy and many occurred around the table at meals and feasts. In today’s narrative in which Jesus taught the diners to take the lower seat and invite the outcast to our banquets, he was teaching us that the societal norms of his day and today, are not of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was teaching his disciples then and now, that when we fully live into our status as sisters and brothers made possible by God’s grace, God’s Kingdom becomes real. In other words, as children of God we must all meet on a level place.
Jesus demands of his followers humility, but humbling oneself is not about self-abasement, it’s about recognizing the sisterhood/brotherhood of humankind as a result of God’s grace. Jesus taught, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The worth in God’s eyes of the man in Starbucks came no more from his occupation as a business executive, than it did in his circumstances as a near homeless man struggling to survive. His value in God’s eyes, and should be in our eyes is in the very fact, that he and we are children of God. When we embrace the fact that our value comes from God, we move from living in a system of honor-based hierarchy, to a system of equality and grace brought about by God himself.
One of the realities of the church gathered around God’s table to share in the Eucharistic meal is that Christians come together, and Christians show up where the unjust systems of society crumble. Jesus taught us that when we give a banquet; invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. That is who we are my friends. We are all broken in some way, and yet God values us, loves us, accepts us and invites us to share in his table with others.
Each week, we gather to celebrate, give thanks, and receive God’s grace, and then we are sent out to share in Jesus’ ministry of bringing about the Kingdom of God, and turning upside down the human devaluing systems of our times. This table is not a place of hierarchy, but it is a place of healing. This is a place where we come with our brokenness, our failures, and our pain. In this place we are filled with the love, compassion, mercy, and the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ and my friends, the banquet doesn’t stop here.
God calls us out from this table and into the world so that we may join in the mission of Jesus Christ, freeing others to receive God’s grace. When we remember our baptism and the promises we made through the baptismal covenant, we cone to reconnect with our mission as God’s church:
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? And we responded … I will, with God’s help.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? And we responded … I will, with God’s help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? And we responded … I will, with God’s help.
We Christians are sent out into the world to call out injustice and inequality, the systems, which would degrade, devalue, diminish, or lessen those whom God loves. We are called to meet on the level with our neighbor, to love our neighbor, so that all may come to know the mercy, the love, and the grace of God lived out in each of our lives, every single day, for every child of God with whom we encounter.