Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Sirach 10:12-18
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

 

 

Three meditations on setting your heart free.

Meditation Number One. Jesus goes to a party.

It is the Sabbath and Jesus is at a fancy dinner party. The party is held in the home of a Pharisee, a wealthy and privileged and respectable person. There is Vivaldi playing through a high-end stereo system, there are caterers carrying plates loaded with esoteric hors d’oeuvres , there are enough gleaming watches and necklaces in the room to open a small jewelry shop, there is a marble floor polished to an almost blinding gleam.

The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus’ host – and his host’s friends – are watching Jesus closely.

Now, I don’t know about you, but hearing about this party and, in particular, about its watching guests, I feel a surge of sympathetic anxiety. I feel nervous on Jesus’ behalf. I’ve had enough teachers and bosses and colleagues and authority figures in my life over the years who didn’t entirely trust me (and, perhaps, who didn’t entirely wish the best for me) to understand what it is like to be in the presence of people whom you know aren’t 100% on your team. If you’ve had folks like that in your life (and I suspect that all of us have), then you’ll know how hard it is to relax in their presence, how hard it is to do your best work. I tend to I tense up when I am around my personal Pharisees, I get flustered, I inadvertently prove the people who don’t trust me right: I make way more mistakes than I would make if I were feeling relaxed and confident, if I were in the presence of people who I thought were rooting for me.

Jesus notices the dynamic in the room – both the conspicuous symbols of status and the suspicion of him – and, because he is fearless or reckless or both, he immediately responds out loud. Maybe this is why so many people are watching him closely, because they know that Jesus is infamous for doing this sort of thing. He starts projecting his booming voice throughout the house, a voice like a PA system that he has honed talking to the crowds in wilderness. He interrupts the many conversations taking place around him. And he tells a story about a wedding banquet.

The wedding banquet in Jesus’ tale is almost the perfect opposite of the dinner party. At the dinner party, everyone is looking for opportunities to network, to sit beside the person who will let them expand their influence or their career. At the banquet, by contrast, the good and the wise choose the place of least status. They leave open the possibility that the host will honour them by inviting them to sit nearer. Everyone who humbles themselves, Jesus says, will be exalted.

And then, in the embarrassed silence that follows his story, Jesus turns and speaks directly to his host. Next time, he instructs him, don’t invite this crowd, don’t waste your hospitality on these people, don’t send your embossed invitations to folks who can send an invitation right back to you. Invite the poor, the physically and mentally disabled, the developmentally atypical, the ones whose English is too broken or whose skin is too brown be allowed entrance into a home like this one. Invite the people who, either because of an absence of money or an absence of social capital, can’t pay you back.

Jesus finishes speaking. And the silence returns to the room.

Luke doesn’t say what happens next.

Meditation Number Two. A love letter.

Let mutual love continue, says the anonymous author of the Letter to the Hebrews. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

This entreaty to hospitality, which is almost assuredly a reference to the passage in Genesis in which Sarah and Abraham entertain three mysterious strangers in the desert, may sound more or less harmless to those of us living in Portland in 2016, it may sound like the sort of facile nicety that we might put on a T-shirt or a greeting card. But, as Naim Ateek taught us when he preached at Grace a few weeks back, hospitality was and is a really big deal in the Near East, hospitality was and is something awesome in the old school sense of the word. The author of Hebrews tells us the same thing as Naim. To be hospitable, he explains, is to:

Remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them

hospitality is to:

Remember those who are being tortured as though you yourselves were being tortured.

O my God.

Hospitality, Hebrews tells us, is something radical, something transformative, something that involves us entirely. To choose the example of poverty, hospitality is not simply saying to the poor, “Yes, you can have some food” or “Yes, you can use the restroom” or “Yes, you can use the phone,” although all of that stuff matters. Hospitality means remembering the pain of living on the street or living with hunger or having to choose between health care and rent as though that pain were your own.

Or what about the example of race? The Pew Research Center just released a study in which it found that white people are vastly less likely to use social media to discuss race than people of colour. (It’s a pretty reasonable bet that white people are similarly silent about race in “real world” conversations.) People like me, in other words, are leaving the heavy lifting, the difficult work of talking about race, to people of colour. Talking about race just feels too hard, too dangerous, too fraught to me. So I’m just going to choose to say nothing.

But Hebrews says: No. Silence isn’t what Christian hospitality looks like. Ignoring race, pretending to be “colour blind,” claiming to be “neutral,” (all of which, by the way, are privileges that are only available to white people; not noticing race is essentially impossible if you are a person of colour in America), not one of these actions or inactions passes Hebrews’ test for hospitality.

Hebrews says that those of us who are white are called to remember the anxiety of seeing a police car in a rear view mirror as though it were our own anxiety; we are called to remember the wild overrepresentation of African American men in our countries prisons as though we were incarcerated; we are called to remember the inherited generational imbalances in wealth in this country as though it were we who were shut out of privilege; we are called to remember the exhausting reality of being under continual suspicion as though it were we who were suspect.

And having remembered, we are called to act. Do not neglect to do good and share what you have, says Hebrews, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Meditation Number Three. The beginning of human pride.

I know that a number of people in this room grew up in church contexts that were hard and draining, that left you feeling burned or alienated or ashamed or injured, that promoted a picture of God as someone judgmental and vengeful and punishing, as the Angry Old Man in the Sky. I’m mindful, therefore, that today’s reading from Sirach may be difficult to hear. So I really want to emphasise that what we encounter in Sirach this morning isn’t particularly helpful if we read it as a literal picture of what God is like. God is not waiting to punish us for behaving incorrectly.

I want to suggest that this passage is best understood in the same way that we understand Jesus’ story about the wedding banquet – that is to say, as a parable.

This parable tells us that God persistently chooses the side of the marginalised, the side of those shut out from power. God’s choice to stand on the margins – a choice that we see throughout the Old Testament, that we see made manifest throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry – is what Liberation Theologians call God’s Preferential Option for the Poor. God’s hospitality is directed towards the poor, the hungry, the forgotten, the hurting, the cheated, God will enthrone the lowly in place of the rulers. To be on God’s side, to join in with God’s work, is to be on the side of those who are in pain.

And the parable in Sirach testifies that there is a cost to us when we choose to ignore the work to which God has called us, when we choose to ignore the plight of those who suffer. There is a punishment, if you like. But here’s the critical thing, the punishment isn’t administered by God. It is administered by ourselves.

The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;

the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.

All of us have met people with withdrawn hearts. And at one time or another, all of us have been people with withdrawn hearts. I certainly have. And much as virtue is its own reward, having a withdrawn heart is its own punishment. The irony of a withdrawn heart, the irony of what Sirach calls human pride, the irony of choosing selfishness, is that the great cost of doing so is to ourselves. Having a withdrawn heart alienates us from God and from our neighbours and from creation.

I remember sitting at the feet of Kent Hoffman a couple of years ago, Hoffman who is man of deep prater, Hoffman who has spent his forty-plus year career helping parents and children to nurture loving and vital and freeing relationships; he and his colleagues call their work Circle of Security. Donald Trump had not yet announced his candidacy for the Presidency, but he was in the news. And I remember Hoffman speaking of Trump, not with contempt or anger or hostility but with pity. He said:

I guarantee you, that inside of Donald Trump is a little boy who is deeply afraid that he is incapable of being loved.

All of us have that little child within us. And when we withdraw our hearts, when we become closed and think that will make us safe, we starve that child of love.

Every reading that we have heard this morning is about opening our hearts up. All of them are about the scary and freeing and vital work of risking giving our hearts to God and, by necessary extension, risking giving our hearts to the world. In the Parable of the Banquet, Jesus calls this work humility. In the Letter to the Hebrews, the author calls it hospitality. When we see yes to this work, we give the greatest gift that we have to everyone and to everything around us. And God’s promise is that we will receive the greatest gift that there is in return.