Luke 14:1,7-14 | Fifthteenth Sunday After Pentecost | August 28, 2016 | Dennis Sanders, preaching
It seems like every church has one. Over the years I’ve learned that if your church is located in a neighborhood, there is some neighbor in the area that doesn’t like having a church nearby. I can remember when I was an intern at Lake Harriet Christian in Minneapolis and they had a neighbor who decided that 10am on Sunday morning was the perfect time to mow the law. Of course, 10am was the same time the church had its worship service, so one could always hear the sound of the lawn mower buzzing just as people were in prayer or trying to listen to the sermon.
I’ve heard of churches that have the neighborhood coming down on them for loud worship. Of course, there are those who get upset when a church wants to house a soup kitchen or homeless shelter in a neighborhood. They fear lowered property values and crime. Churches have never had it easy in trying to be in the neighborhood. Their neighbors for some reason see the church, THE CHURCH, as a nuisance.
That leads to our own congregation. As many of you know, we have our own person who seems to not want us around. I’ve still not met this person, which I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But this person is always trying to find someway to get us in trouble with the authorities who are also a bit tired of this person’s antics.
What has surprised me is when someone explained why this person is such a thorn in our side that the person was supposed to have said that our building gets the wrong kind of people.
The wrong kind of people. I don’t know who this is. This person sees us as potential threats or something that is an embarrassment to the neighborhood and would not like to be associated with this church. Instead of being a good neighbor, this person has made life hard for us. Instead of open arms, this person turns their backs.
I have to admit that whenever I’ve heard talk about hospitality as a biblical theme, I would at times roll my eyes. Mostly because I thought of it as good manners. But welcoming someone is about more than good manners and it is about more than being nice. It is about welcoming and loving those that God loves and that is not so easy to do.
In our passage today, we see Jesus at a party. He has been invited to the house of a Pharisee and he uses this experience for a teaching lesson. The table that the guests would recline at was shaped like a three sided square and instead of chairs, there were pillows or couches. Jesus noticed that the guests were choosing the best places to sit. Not being one to keep things to himself, Jesus decides to tell a story. He tells them that if someone is invited to a wedding, don’t immediately go to the best seat. Instead choose the lowest seat. Now the guests gathered at this party might have thought this was cunning. Feign humility and you will be rewarded. But Jesus wasn’t about cunning. Jesus wasn’t saying to take the lowest seat so that you get the grandest one. This wasn’t about quid pro quo, but about showing humility. Jesus saw the guests at this party choose places because they saw themselves as important people. Jesus tells them that in God’s kingdom, social status is no more.
Jesus then hammers the point by telling yet another story. He tells the Pharisees that when they hold a party, don’t invite the people you already know. It would only be another case of quid pro quo, where you get something for doing something for someone. Jesus then gives the kicker. True hospitality is welcoming those who can’t pay you back, which in this case tends to be the poor and lame. We can imagine the Pharisees being shocked at this saying. There was no benefit to inviting the poor. Jesus is going beyond just feeding the poor and sitting with the lonely, Jesus is asking us to welcome them into our lives and that’s something that scares us because it means that we don’t get to control the guest list.
This is a hard passage if we are honest about it. It’s easy to talk about the poor, it is much harder to meet the poor and even invite into our church. We say Democrats and Republicans are welcome at our church, but we tend to be more welcoming of one ideology over another. We want to welcome African Americans into the life of the church, so long as they don’t change things, like the music. I’ve talked about Ernie, a man at First Christian Minneapolis who is intellectually disabled. He is a kind soul, but you have to have patience with him because it is not unusual for him to talk to someone during worship in his outside voice. I credit First for welcoming Ernie into the community and even learning to deal with his outbursts during worship. But you and I know there are other churches that would find it hard to welcome him into their midst because of his antics.
God calls us out to welcome all kinds of people, because God wants to welcome these people. Which reminds us, that the table we welcome these people to- the communion table- isn’t our table, it’s God’s. So when we are called to invite all sorts of people, we aren’t to invite the people we want to see at church, but the people God wants and that’s not easy to do because we like I said, we want to control the guest list.
In the most recent issue of the Christian Century, author Peter Marty talks about the fact that every day in America ten churches close their doors. There are many reasons that churches decide to close, but he wonders if some of those closures needn’t have happened if the congregation had been aware of opportunities that were presenting themselves. He notes:
Often, however, churches close simply because someone missed a window of opportunity years before. Past leadership lacked the will or the nimbleness to flex with changing neighborhood demographics. Nobody put up a basketball hoop that could have formed a beautiful bridge between the congregation and its neighbors. Hosting after-school programs and ESL classes never figured into the church board’s imagination. Creative partnerships with area agencies or businesses went unexplored. Sadly, the nature of some of these opportunities is that they’re fleeting; once we’ve missed them, they’re gone, never to return.
In “What Mary saw at Cana,” Michael J. Buckley, SJ, argues that Christians and their faith communities unconsciously alienate themselves from the social needs and poverty of people outside their walls. In John 2, Mary tells Jesus that the wedding guests are without wine. In a fascinating interpretation of Jesus’ response —“What concern is that to you and to me?”—Buckley proposes that Jesus is really asking how the needs of others affect us. To paraphrase: How are we involved in the circumstances of these people? Does their plight impinge on our lives or force an examination of our consciences?
So what about us, what about you? How open are you to inviting the people who God wants to join the banquet? What does it mean for us a congregation to care about the neighborhood around us? What are the ways we can reach out and offer a helping hand to people? Who are the people we are willing to share Christ with? What are we willing to give up to welcome the neighbor.
The title for this sermon is probably one of the few I will preach that comes from a cookbook. It’s a cookbook produced by the congregation of St. Francis Lutheran Church in San Francisco. This was a church that began welcoming gay and lesbians to fellowship when it was still a new thing. And the title was used as a slur against them since they were doing something that some might have thought was beyond the pale.
I think that’s the kind of church we want to be. We want to be a church that welcomes those that God welcomes. We want to be the church that finds it hard to welcome people who we might not normally welcome, but we do it because we know Jesus loves them. We want to be the church where our welcoming might get us in trouble.
When I was in college, I remember trying to share Christ with someone I knew. He seemed like cool guy and I liked being around him. He had a roommate that was well, not cool. He was fascinated by this talk about Jesus and started coming to events at our college faith group. This guy wasn’t that cool and could be a bit annoying. Wouldn’t you know it, that he was the one that became a Christian and started coming to our group?
Just a reminder that this is God’s table, not mine. Thanks be to God. Amen.