Sermon: PENTECOST 12, September 1st, 2019
In the Name…
There’s a story told about one of our past bishops who was noted for his dignity and bearing. Once, at a banquet, a waiter spilled hot soup on him. Closing his eyes, but, maintaining his composure, the bishop asked, “Would some layman please express my feelings?”
It can come as a surprise for us to read that Jesus was occasionally a dinner guest at the homes of Pharisees. It’s a surprise because he was often critical of Pharisees, and they of him. But, the Gospels tell us that some were genuinely interested in what Jesus had to say. And, so, we come to this morning’s text.
Jesus is the guest of honour at a Sabbath dinner. This is a big deal. And, we are told that the other guests were “watching him closely.” You can imagine the scene. Jesus is a celebrity. He’s been getting a lot of attention. This is quite a social event. His host had doubtless taken some trouble to make out an exclusive guest list. Actually, it probably had been difficult to work out the precedence for seating with so many of the great and good present.
And, this is the very thing upon which Jesus decides to comment.
At first glance, this story appears to be nothing more than a straightforward, practical lesson in the virtues of courtesy and hospitality. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,” our Lord begins, “do not sit down at the place of honour.” After all, there may well be other, more distinguished, guests who outrank you. Choose instead the lower places at table, he continues, “so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher.’”
Common sense, we might rightly say, and nod our heads in agreement.
But, Jesus is no first-century Miss Manners, and he has far more important things on his mind than table etiquette and protocol. Our selfish instincts, he knows, are not confined to the dinner table. In every age and culture, it has been human nature for folks to act in their own self-interest. We do it all the time, often without even thinking about it.
Indeed, the principle of rugged individualism and self-reliance - the notion that, without help, or interference, from others, we’re better off relying on our own initiative and enterprise – is deeply engrained in our national psyche. Social scientists tell us that this is simply part of human evolution. All creatures have a natural propensity to advance their own survival and we are no exception. As one popular bumper sticker puts it: “It’s All About Me.” And, I think that pretty much says it all.
At a certain level, of course, some might argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with putting “me” first. Flight attendants warn us to secure our own oxygen masks before assisting others. Therapists urge clients to be sure they are getting their own needs met. And, every day we hear ads which teach us the importance of taking responsibility for our own health and well-being.
But, what takes place at the banquet in Jesus’ parable reflects different and much deeper truths. For, Jesus does not condemn the desire to do and achieve great things for oneself. On the contrary, he encourages his host to seek a personal reward. But, he changed the terms of what defines a great thing and what constitutes a reward.
Invite the poor, the disabled and the disadvantaged. In other words, consider those with whom you have nothing in common to be your equals. Look at them not as objects of pity, but, as members of your family and treat them that way. “For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous"
So, it’s not all about me, after all.
Today's Second Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews describes the dramatic contrast between the Old and New covenants. The covenant made on Mount Sinai was majestic and even terrifying. But, our covenant is characterized by its intimacy. The Hebrews stayed at the foot of the mountain, but, the risen Christ draws all believers up to Mount Zion, a symbol of God's kingdom, or reign. And there, all the angels and saints are gathered in a joyful celebration, a continuous wedding banquet where titles, position, and wealth become meaningless.
This is not the practical experience of the workaday world we know so well. And, if we are to believe Jesus, in the upside-down, topsy-turvy world of the Gospel the ordinary rules suddenly no longer apply. The humble are the exalted ones, the poor are the rich, the crippled and lame are the well, and the blind are the ones who see.
The New Covenant, you see, brings about a change in the way we interact with God. He no longer deals with us from on-high amidst peals of thunder and lightning, but, rather, through Jesus, the completion of all previous revelation and who reveals that our self-reliance turns out to be an illusion. For, we all depend upon one another, whether we recognize it or not, and, even more, we all depend upon God.
This is the paradox, and the challenge, of the gospel. The kingdom, of which our Lord so often speaks, is a realm at odds with this world of ours and its values. In the spiritual realm of God’s kingdom, survival of the fittest takes on a whole new meaning. The “resurrection of the righteous,” as Jesus calls it here, reveals our true nature. And, we will be repaid, not in higher salaries or exalted titles, but, in the only currency that counts, the love God has for us and which we share with one another.
In today's gospel, Jesus gave us some good advice about ways to be a guest and ways to be a host. Well, as God's guests in this world, we should remember that we are always in the presence of a Someone greater than we. And as hosts of God's people, we don’t have to leave out our friends and families. We just need to make sure we don’t leave out all the other people who make up our human family – God’s human family.
I’ll give the last word to the author of Hebrews. “Let mutual love continue.”
Now, wouldn’t that be a great feeling to express?
In the Name…