Sermon transcript for October 20, 2013
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!”
Sermon transcript for October 6, 2013
Nurture. . . A Way of Life
Belmont UMC—October 6, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
As you learned earlier we are in a period of pledging for our 2014 budget to support the ministries of the church. We are using this time to focus on the 4 core values identified during the strategic planning process. We understand these 4 core values, diversity, nurture, hospitality and mission are not programs of the church but they are a way of life. They describe who we as Belmonters are called to be as Christ followers. (Next Sunday we will take a break from these 4 values because some of us will be worshipping here and some of us will be worshipping at the All Church Retreat.)
Today, we are thinking about nurture, spiritual nurture, and you’ve heard two wonderful witnesses today of how their lives and their family members’ lives have nurtured spiritually in this faith community. I think Lucy Cramer is spot on and I like all the things she likes: All Church Retreat, spending time with family and friends, and learning about our faith and how we treat each other with love and care.
And I have to say a rousing “amen” to the words of my friend, Virginia Kessen, because my family has been enriched by this church, too, especially the life of our youngest son, Aren. He is a wonderful young man with strong values and much of who is today has to do with the youth program, music program and a host of adult volunteers and youth friends who have loved him and supported him. Let me say thank-you for that. I always say that you can put a price tag on some things in church, like the cost of study manual or an overnight for a retreat, but the relationships our son has had with so many of you are priceless. (Sounds like an American Express commercial, but it’s true.)
For today’s sermon I found myself gleaning the scriptures for images and metaphors that relate to the theme of spiritual nurture.
The word “longing” came up a lot in the strategic planning sessions when people talked about spiritual nurture. People expressed a deep longing for spiritual practice, for worship, for prayer ministry, for small groups, for retreats and Sabbath times. The idea of longing is found in the words of scripture, especially in the Psalms. One of my favorite passages is Psalm 42:1-2, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” Hear the deep longing of the Psalmist.
I have often considered the possibility that we have been created with this sense of deep longing so that we will always be looking and seeking to fill an inner void, an empty place inside of us. This empty space can only be filled by God.
There are other metaphors that relate to this deep longing as well. The scriptures speak of spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled.” (Matthew 5) This passage from the Beatitudes draws our mind’s eye to a well in Samaria. It is there that Jesus meets a woman who has come to get water to quench her physical thirst, but Jesus offers her spiritual water, water that can bring up into everlasting life. Jesus sees beyond the empty vessel she carries and into the deep spiritual thirst of her soul. (John 4)
Do you have a deep longing, a hunger or thirst for God? I sat in my office one day listening to a friend’s faith story. He said, “For a long time I was like the man who wakes up in the night with a craving, a hunger. He opens the refrigerator and stares until all the cold escapes. Then he goes to the pantry and stares again. But nothing that he sees is right. For the life of him, he cannot identify what it is he craves. All I knew is that I felt empty inside. But one day I walked into this church and knew immediately what I was hungry for. God has been so gracious to me.”
There is another image that is found in one of the lectionary passages for today. It is found in 2 Timothy and the Apostle Paul is writing to his young friend and disciple Timothy and encouraging him. The image here is fire. Timothy’s faith is waning and Paul urges him, “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands, for God did give you the spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and love, and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:6)
Do you remember the movie, Castaway, in which Tom Hanks plays a Fed-X worker who goes down in a plane crash. He manages to grab hold of a life raft as the plane goes down and winds up on a deserted island. After several days of eating coconuts and trying to eat raw crabs, he realizes that he needs fire, fire with which to cook fish, fire to keep warm, fire to signal for help and fire to keep him company on those long lonely nights.
Some of the most dramatic scenes occur while Hanks’ character is trying to rub sticks together to make fire. His hands become raw and bloody and he keeps giving up. One day the hollow stick he is using splits in two and the split allows air to come into play with heat and the small clump of dried brush he’s using for fuel ignites. He has success and does a little happy fire dance.
When getting fire is this difficult, what will you do? You’ll try to keep it lit so you don’t have start from scratch. The spiritual fire within us does not require us to rub sticks together until our hands are raw; it is a gift from God, but we will need spiritual practices and worship to keep the fire going.
The acolytes bring the light of Christ into the sanctuary and light the candles on the altar and paschal candle on the stand. At the end of the service, they do not merely extinguish the candles but they relight their wick to symbolically take the light of Christ out into the world. Our acolytes are well trained and conscientious. We’d had a few missteps in worship one day and I thought the sermon was rather flat and disappointing. Unfortunately, I was the preacher. I was standing down at the chancel during the last hymn when the acolyte came around the side and his wick was not lit and he rather apologetically said, “My fire went out.” I responded, “So did mine, son. So did mine.” Do you ever feel like your spiritual fire has gone out?
Until I was nine we lived in a house that was heated by two coal burning fireplaces in the front rooms and cast iron stove in the kitchen. I used to watch my Dad bank the fire before we went to bed. He would take the scuttle and scoop ashes from the hearth on top of the fire. This caused the fire to die down a bit and hold the heat, but not go out. It also meant that we’d need an extra quilt about 2 AM because the house would grow colder. In the morning we’d run downstairs in our pajamas and wait for Dad to stoke those glowing coals back to life. Then we’d warm ourselves by the fire.
Spiritual nurture is about rekindling the fire with us that is gift from God. It’s about worship, study, prayer, fasting, Sabbath keeping, retreating, small groups; it’s about making space for God in our lives. It is good for us to gather around this table, to share in this sacred meal that reminds us of the gift of God within us.
As we come to the table today, may our prayer be something like this, “Rekindling fire, bread from heaven, water that springs up into eternal life, come within and draw us closer to our God. Renew us, nourish us, strengthen us, to be your people. Amen.”