Hospitality—A Way of Life
Preached Oct. 20, 2013
Heather Harriss, preaching
Audio - MP3
The scripture tells us that it is the Sabbath and Jesus is going to have dinner in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees. We quickly learn that this is not a small affair, but instead a lavish banquet and a whole lot of other Pharisees are there as well. Jesus enters the home and feels all eyes on him. The Pharisees are watching him closely, studying his every move. Is he a reckless lawbreaker? Could he be the Messiah?
A man makes a beeline for a seat at the main table, another is close behind him. Jesus sees another man sigh as he realizes he is not going to get one of the prime seats, dejected he heads to the table by the door. When everyone is seated, those in seats of honor, looking pleased with themselves, those who are not looking a bit abashed, Jesus says, “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host. The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
Talk about a conversation stopper! After a bit of stunned silence, perhaps someone mentioned the weather. But Jesus is not ready to let this group off the hook; he’s addressed how guests should behave; now he has a few pointers for how to be a good host. First of all he says, “Don’t invite the people who will just invite you back over to their house for an even fancier dinner, oh no, if you are going to host a dinner, you know who you need to invite? The people you would never dream of inviting! That’s who needs to be on your list. I wonder if Jesus stayed and finished his dinner? These Pharisees who have been watching his every move, do they have their answer? Could he be the Messiah?
Truthfully, I find this scene at the Pharisees house to be kind of a drag. It reminds me too much of my own clamoring to get the best seat and my own reluctance to welcome the stranger into my home.
Have you seen the show, Undercover Boss? If you haven’t here’s the premise, the CEO of a large company disguises her or himself and works in different areas of the company. Mostly areas that pay minimum wage and require much more skill and effort than the boss is aware of, As the boss is trained to do these jobs, (which he is always surprised to discover are way more complicated, difficult and at times back breaking than he or she ever imagined). The boss encounters people who are doing an incredible job, but whose dedication and hard work go unnoticed, he also meets people who are all big talk and no results. The show ends in a very satisfactory way, the hardworking noble people are finally recognized for the generous ways they share their gifts and talents and the louts are put in their place. Isn’t it nice when things work out this way? From our scripture this morning, this is sort of an example of Jesus’ first admonition to the Pharisees, “All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
But this is all so counter to our culture; this way of thinking so novel that it is fodder for summer television programming. Because really it is the loudest, the boldest, the outrageous, the smartest, the richest, the winners, the powerful, the savviest, the successful who get the seats at the table. We enter a room and scan it, “who’s here? Who should connect with, who do I need to be sure and speak to, who do I need to impress?” And there’s Jesus watching us jockey to secure our place, he sees our desperation and he sees the futility of it all, he offers an alternative to this empty grasping for status: Invite the lowly, you’ll know exactly what to do, be kind, gratitude will permeate the room and you will be blessed. Befriend the person you fear, engage the one you usually ignore. “Do this,” Jesus tells us and we will be builders of the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
Last week I was invited to attend a fundraiser for Thistle Farms. Some of you may be familiar with this ministry that is the vision of the Reverend Becca Stevens. She heard Jesus’ instructions on how to host a banquet and they caught fire in her heart. She invited women who were addicted to drugs, in prison, those who were poor and crippled and beaten down by sexism, racism and misogyny. She found these women and invited them to a banquet. This banquet grew to include housing, intensive rehabilitation and therapy, job training, and because it is very difficult for people with a prison record to get a job, they started their own business. That banquet has now become a nation wide model for helping women break the cycles of addiction and abuse.
As you can imagine, this was a very inspiring fundraiser. Together on the stage of the Ryman were women participating in the program, graduates, and women of wealth and privilege and they were united by the love, friendship and admiration they have for one another. It was a glimpse of the kind of banquet Jesus invites us to host.
Luckily, as a minister here at Belmont, I get to see some of the banquets that you all throw. I get to see first hand, the shocking hospitality Jesus was urging on those Pharisees all those years ago, lived out right here.
In an art club that welcomes all artists, in gatherings in homes, in our Community Center where people with homes and those without share a meal and conversation and often a bit of surprise when they discover something they have in common, in a school for English learners who come from around the world and find new friends as they study the language of their new country. In Sunday school classes that carry one another’s burdens, in members who greet newcomers and make sure they know they are welcome here. In the laughter and spiritual formation of our children and youth, In soccer teams, sewing circles and massive tutoring programs, in music that invites us to sacred places, in worship that unites us and reminds us that we are indeed the children of God. In meetings where grace abounds, in a word of kindness spoken at just the right time, in friends gathering around the bedside of a beloved friend. In the person who sees a ministry that needs to happen and starts it, in the people who pray daily, in these things and so many more we are guests and hosts, receiving and giving shocking hospitality.
The poet Mary Oliver writes, “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” As Jesus sat down to dinner with the Pharisees this is what he was urging them to do. We don’t know the name of Jesus’ host, but can you see Jesus leaning over to him and saying, “let’s imagine something different, what if you weren’t hosting this banquet because last month you attended an astounding Sabbath meal at your neighbor’s house and not only are you now in his debt, you want to make your dinner even more lavish, and the money you have spent is keeping you up at night, let’s imagine something different.”
If Jesus stood behind the man who had just sunk into a place of honor with palpable relief on his face, thinking, “maybe now I’ll feel like I belong,” and Jesus whispers in his ear, “Let’s imagine something different,” If Jesus went to the woman serving the meal and said, “Let’s imagine something different.” Might they not all sigh with relief and say, “Yes, for goodness sake, yes! Get me out of this crazy cycle of reciprocity with the ante going up with each round, free me from this anxiety that somehow I’m not good enough, smart enough, rich enough, pious enough to belong here, free me from the constraints of stereotypes, gender roles, class and prejudice.”
Jesus looks around and says, “Imagine this, give a banquet and invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.” They look blankly at Jesus, they can’t imagine it yet, but perhaps in their hearts there is now a space, be it ever so small, for the unimaginable.
Each year our confirmands participate in a retreat at Lake Junaluska. One of the things the leaders teach is the word, Theotokos. The confirmands learn that Theotokos means God bearer and that it was first used to describe Mary the mother of Jesus, then they go on to say that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are now all image bearers, each of us bearing the image of Christ out into the world. In her book, A Million Little Ways, Emily Freeman writes, “Every moment is packed with artistic possibility because, as an image bearer with a job to do, there is potential to reveal the glory of God in every circumstance, no matter how I feel, who I’m with, what my hands hold, or what’s gone wrong, God with us lives within us. And God will come out through us in a million little ways,” Keep a little room in your heart for the unimaginable; after all, we are image bearers with a job to do.
We live in a world that frightens and overwhelms us, that pressures us with so many demands we can forget that we are image bearers and it is our job to help our fellow travelers feel a little more at home in this world, to remind each other that we are so loved by God that we are compelled to lover one another, even when it is hard to love one another. When we remember this, when we shock ourselves with our hospitality, we bear the image of Christ out into our world and Jesus continually says to each of us, “Imagine that!”