Proper 17, Year C, 2016

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The Liturgical Reading: From “Listening to your Life,” by Frederick Buechner

If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world say, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully—the life you save may be your own—and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love. The world says, Get and Jesus says, Give. In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.

The Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14

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. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, 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. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Anticipating that it would reach 91 degrees again today,
I aimed for a sermon under ten minutes (but don’t time me).

Let’s be honest,
there are some people we like better than others.
In fact, there are some ‘kinds’ of people
we like better than other ‘kinds.’
And as a matter of fact,
churches are mostly congregations of the like-minded –
they are self-selected havens of
and race.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. observed so long ago,
Sunday morning is one of the most
segregated hours in America.
The segregation does stop with race
it forms around socio-economic status as well.

But churches aren’t alone.

There are social clubs
and bowling clubs
and poker groups
and quilting circles
and golf clubs
and same-sex interest groups
and Gay bars and biker bars and college bars.

We congregate with other people
who are similar to us because, well,
because that is what makes us comfortable.
But even more particularly,
and apropos of today’s Gospel,
we especially self-select as we congregate around food.

A meal
is the most pervasive element of our social structure,
thoroughly commonplace
but taken for granted.
Eating together is the way we express
the kind of relationship we have with one another
as well as the way we build and nurture
relationships with one another.
We hardly give a thought to who we eat with
and who we don’t –
but seldom consider who we would never
share a meal with.

A breakfast meeting,
mid-morning coffee,
power lunch,
romantic dinner,
late night pizza date…
these are all ways of being in relationship
and they are even metaphors for the kind of relationship
we have with a business associate,
or lover.
We normally do not analyze these occasions and instead,
we just do them.
But they are deeply significant and meaningful.

So with our own behavior in mind
it is interesting to note who Jesus was
most comfortable with.
It wasn’t religious leaders –
definitely not clergy.
It wasn’t the power brokers.
It wasn’t even the gaggle of students and groupies
who followed him everywhere
and who we call his disciples.

Luke gives the people Jesus seemed to be most comfortable with a special moniker:
“The poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

He actually uses that descriptor
over and over and over again
as a metaphor for a whole class of people
we might call “the marginalized.”

In fact, there seems to have been something about
people who lived out on the margins of society
that Jesus felt particularly comfortable with;
more comfortable with, in fact,
than he would have been with you and me.

That doesn’t mean Jesus wouldn’t have liked us –
what’s not to like?
It just means that we are not necessarily
his kind of people.

If that were true
it would be kind of ironic, wouldn’t it?

So much of Christianity
as it is described and defined
by all flavors and pedigrees of churches,
would have us think that Jesus was our homeboy –
that he would like us in particular precisely because we are Christian –
and therefore his kind of people.
But if we think about it,
that notion is pretty ridiculous
given that Jesus was not a Christian,
never knew a Christian,
and lived three hundred and fifty years
before there was anything that would even remotely
resemble something we call a church.

So when we hear a story like this one from Luke,
we have to think about all of the ironic,
swept under the carpet,
and hidden between the lines
kind of stuff going on.

At a first century dinner party,
as I have mentioned before,
guests reclined on pillows in groups of three.
No chairs.
We need to disabuse ourselves
of Last Supper scenes we have seared into our brains
by Renaissance images of a long narrow table
with Jesus and the twelve
all sitting on one side of the table
while posing for the camera.

In reality, they would have been reclining in groups
on pillows
and scattered around the room.
Furniture, like tables and chairs,
was hard to come by in the first century
even for the few relatively privileged folks,
or the business and religious classes.

The guest of honor
sat with the host at a central location in the room.
Eminent guests often came late,
so if you took a seat closer to the center
than your position in the pecking order allowed,
when someone more important came along –
like a Hollywood star, NFL quarterback,
or the biggest pledger in the congregation –
you would have to pick up and move.

That’s all in the background of this story, and
when we hear Jesus giving advice
to the guests at a nice dinner party,
we need to ask ourselves:
would Jesus really care
if someone lost face
because of a social faux pas related to a caste system
he was trying to subvert anyway?

In fact, I think we should be suspicious
when we hear this story from Luke.
It seems unlikely that Jesus would have told this story
to the Pharisee
in order to save him from embarrassment
from some future faux pas –
as if Jesus were a rabbinical Cotillion coach.

Rather, what this parable does
is to call into question
the very values that under-gird that social system.

Jesus’ point was this:
wealth, fame, power,
degree and pedigree,
are not supposed to matter
in the community of faith.

This thing we do here,
around this table,
and around this symbolic meal,
is supposed to be absolutely egalitarian.
What that means is that at this meal
and for this little bit of time,
there are not supposed to be any margins
among us.

We are supposed to host, at this table,
and at this meal,
a community
where we do not congregate
by class
or around any kind of status
that otherwise creates margins.

Instead, we are supposed to host a table
and a meal
in a community with people
that may make us terribly uncomfortable
as well as with those we actually like a lot.

That is probably not big news to anyone here.
We know we are not Jesus’ kind of people,
and we know we are supposed to host
a community without margins.
The hard part
is acknowledging how we really feel about that.

Anyone who has been going to Trinity Church Geneva
all of their life
is going to expect to be treated differently
than someone who just walked in the door.
That is perfectly natural.
But it is not what Jesus was talking about.
Anyone who gives sacrificially
to support Trinity Church Geneva,
or even just gives a big number
even it if is not a big stretch,
is going to expect to be treated differently
than someone who throws a buck in the plate
now and again.
That is perfectly natural.
But it is not what Jesus was talking about.

Rank has its privileges after all,
and pride of place ought to be given
to those who have given most
and given best
and given most often.
That is how it should be –
it is only natural.
But it is not what Jesus was talking about.

I do not expect any special deference
because I am the priest
and I would ask you not to expect any special deference
because you have been coming to Trinity Church Geneva
since Bossy was a calf –
by which I mean, a really long time.
Instead, I would ask
that we work really hard
to have a community without margins.

I would ask that when you see me or someone else
doing something
or saying something
that creates a margin for others
that you tell us.
And by margin,
I do not mean that our feelings are hurt
or we got angry because someone said something
we did not like or disagreed with –
in fact, I expect that to happen
if we are being open and authentic with one another.

By creating margins,
I mean taking power or decisions away from one another,
or only giving influence and authority
to certain people but not others,
or granting special status to some people
so that their opinions matter more than everyone else’s.

By creating margins,
I mean practicing worship and programs
that only embrace and utilize
what WE happen to like
and throwing everything else out.

By creating margins,
I mean closing our minds
and folding our arms against
efforts to welcome in
and attract
those who are not here yet.

By creating margins,
I mean refusing to think about
who we do not want to eat with
and who we would rather not have to worship with
and who we are uncomfortable around.

As Frederick Buechner wrote,
“In terms of the world’s sanity,
Jesus is crazy as a coot,
and anybody who thinks he or she can follow Jesus without being a little crazy too
is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.”

Let’s try really hard to be crazy like Jesus
and build a community with fewer and fewer margins.