Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Humility and Hospitality Sermon

Luke 14: 1, 7-14

1st Sabbatical Sunday

September 2, 2007

Humility and Hospitality

I wonder if you knew before you came to church this morning that you would get an etiquette lesson once you got here. Well, let me tell you that according to, Etiquette for Dummies, “assembling the right crowd,” is an important part of any dinner party. The book says, “As you assemble your guest list, you want to consider inviting friends whose company you enjoy, guests whom you know mix well together, and those friends and family to whom you owe an invitation. All guests should feel special and know that they were invited because they have something special to contribute to the event.”

Do you think our precious Lord Jesus forgot to consult this manual before he gave his ideas of who should be invited to a dinner party? What a social faux pas! I joke about dinner etiquette this morning because it seems to me that on the surface this scripture looks like a lesson in manners. But if you look more closely, you can see that Jesus is not playing the role of Martha Stewart, but instead trying to let us know what manners look like in the Kingdom of God. It seems that in God’s beloved community, humility and hospitality are prized above all else.

In the Gospel of Luke, eating is an extremely important event. There is nothing insignificant for Jesus about attending a meal. Jesus often uses meals to teach about the Kingdom of God, and this morning’s scripture is no exception. The first etiquette lesson Jesus has for his audience is about where you should be seated at a party. David and I did not have a formal dinner party as part of our wedding celebration- so we were spared the nightmare of deciding who should sit with whom at our reception. However, most hosts that throw a formal dinner party must come up with seating arrangements that take into consideration a guest’s status in relation to the other guests. Ettiquette was no different in the ancient world. At a formal dinner, the most distinguished guest had the place of honor and the rest of the seats were assigned from there.

Jesus tells his followers that if you are invited to a wedding banquet, you should not take the place of honor, but you should assume a lower place. If you assume a high place, then you might be disgraced if the host asks you to move. However, if you have chosen a lower seat, you might feel great if you get moved up to a position of higher status. This rule would not have come as a shock to his audience, taking the lower seat at a party in hopes of getting moved up was common practice in Jesus’ time. In fact I can just hear the mothers in the background clucking their approval. “Oh that Jesus, he’s such a nice boy. So smart- and teaching our children manners- I love that!”

What is different about what Jesus is saying here is the motivation for taking the seat of humility. You see Jesus is teaching humility for humility’s sake. Humility is a valuable characteristic in God’s community of love. Jesus isn’t saying that you should choose a humble seat, so that the host will move you up in front of everyone and make you look very important. Jesus is advising choosing the humble seat because humility is a trait treasured by God.

Humility is part of what the Kingdom of God looks like, and if you don’t believe me, keep reading. In one line of this scripture, Jesus makes it very clear that he is not really talking about a dinner party, but how to live together in God’s world. One scholar calls this line the “Lukan punch line.” The punch line of this story goes like this, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” If you are looking to be exalted in God’s eyes, if you want the place of honor in the Kingdom of Heaven, then what you should do is practice the fine art of humility in the here and now. Humility is a crucial part of God’s Beloved Community.

As long as Jesus has a captive audience, who thinks they are getting a simple etiquette lesson anyway, Jesus decides he should talk a little bit about the guest list. If you were to go home and start planning a party this afternoon- who would be on the guest list? My mind would probably first jump to my closest friends, then family- and then maybe I would consider what the etiquette book said, people that would mix well together or people to whom I owe an invitation.

Jesus had something to say about a party guest list as well. “When you give a dinner party,” Jesus said, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your 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 the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…” “Well, that’s kind of strange Jesus,” the host must have been thinking as he heard these words. Have a party and not invite any of my close friends of family? Oh, I get it- maybe that’s another one of those Kingdom of God dinner parties. Perhaps that’s what the Great Banquet in heaven will look like. Well, that’s a relief; I can’t be having a party and inviting a bunch of underprivileged strangers! That whole Kingdom of God thing is some heavenly standard- not something I’m actually supposed to be doing, right?

It struck me as I was reading this scripture again this time with new eyes, what if we are supposed to be doing this right now? What if these are the kind of parties we should be hosting if we want to usher in the Kingdom of God? As best I understand the Gospel, Jesus did not come to talk about the Kingdom only in the future tense. Jesus came to earth and boldly pronounced, “God’s Beloved Community, God’s Kingdom is here! It begins here and now with me, and I’m going to teach you how to participate in it!” One of the ways we can participate in the Kingdom of God is to welcome people into our church and our lives with no expectation of return. You see if we are only generous to those who can be generous back to us, then we’re falling short of what God expects. God expects us to be generous and hospitable to those who could never possibly repay us.

So open the doors of the church, and let’s not just invite the people who can part a large portion in the offering plate. Let’s not just invite the people who have done us a favor in the past, let’s not just invite the people who we know well and love. Jesus has the guest list laid out for us. Let’s invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and those who can’t afford to throw a dinner party. Then let’s sit down at a meal together and proclaim that God is good, and the Kingdom is here.

You see, Jesus wasn’t running a manners seminar for people in the business world, so they could network and be more successful. He wasn’t giving tips on how to be the most important social butterfly in town. To Jesus, neither of those things was of any importance. Instead, Jesus was teaching us about the Kingdom of God, and giving us a little glimpse of what it might look like. In his Interpretation volume on the book of Luke, Fred Craddock states that, “Plutarch once observed that it is in the small, apparently trivial act that character is most accurately reflected.” If this is true, what do our actions say about our character? Day to day, do we practice humility and hospitality as if these two traits are of utmost importance? If Jesus’ teachings are any indication, humility and hospitality are of highest value in God’s community. May we each individually, and as a church family, act as if we are living together in that Beloved Community. Amen and Amen.

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