September 1, 2013
Luke 14:1,7-14, Jeremiah 2:4-13, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Lucy was a young adult with no family. Her mom died when she was little, her dad died when she was in college. She got a job working for the L in Chicago, and she shared a small apartment with a cat, with no friends besides her co-workers, her boss and the creepy son of her apartment manager. Each day as Lucy sat in the token booth collecting quarters from people coming through to get on the train, she would dream about a life of adventure she didn’t really expect she’d ever get to live.
When a set of unfortunate circumstances and a strategic misunderstanding pushed Lucy into the life of Peter, a customer she had a crush on but had never met, she didn’t know it would result in breaking through the loneliness and isolation she had felt for so long. Peter’s family was different than most people she met. They didn’t really know her from anybody, except they thought she was engaged to their son. But they had generated a culture within their family that a friend of one was a friend of all, and so, as Peter’s fiancé, she was now part of the family—no questions asked. And their hospitality, their welcome of her, was so complete and so genuine she couldn’t resist it. One evening, Lucy was invited to supper with Peter’s family. She sat there listening to the banter going back and forth between the family members. And in that moment, surrounded by these relationships she didn’t even know she was missing, Lucy realized she wasn’t alone anymore. In fact, later, when she had a chance to tell the family what they meant to her, she said, “I went from being nobody to being sister, daughter, fiancé, and friend…and I hadn’t had that in a very long time.”
Does this story sound familiar to you? If you’re a fan of the actress Sandra Bullock like I am, you might recognize this as the basic plot to the movie “While You Were Sleeping.” Sandra Bullock plays the character of Lucy, who stumbles into love as a result of a misunderstanding. On one hand the movie is a love story. But on another hand, it’s really a story about the healing power of hospitality…of being shown love you didn’t feel you deserved, and as a result being able to love in return.
In our gospel story today, Jesus is having a meal on a Sabbath day at the home of a head Pharisee. Meals in Jesus’ time were really significant, because, especially banquets, were all about identifying community—who’s “in” and who’s “out”. So meals weren’t just about the food, they were much more about things like value, belonging and relationship.
It’s no surprise, then, that in almost every account we have of Jesus at a meal, we find him doing stuff that messes with the norm…’what we’ve always done.’ He uses the context of meals to regularly challenge people about these lines they draw between who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out.’ In fact, this becomes one of the main criticisms that people have about Jesus—who he eats with.
So Jesus finds himself once again invited to a meal, and after watching how people seat themselves in the seats of honor, Jesus tells them a parable. Remember, a parable is a story meant to make a point. In this parable, Jesus paints a picture of a banquet in which the ‘guests of honor’ are not the ones with the social power and influence, who you invite to your party because then they’re obligated to invite you to theirs. Instead, the guests who are seated in the positions of ‘honor’ are the poor, the homeless, the victims…those who will not ever have a party of their own and will never be able to reciprocate the invitation.
One of the ways to help make meaning of parables is to ask, “who am I in that parable?” Which of the characters in the parable resonates with me, and what can I learn from that? Whenever I hear the story of the Good Samaritan, it’s hard for me not to see myself in the religious leaders who walk past the man wounded on the side of the road. When I hear the parable of the Prodigal Son, it’s hard for me not to identify with the older brother, who’s been loyal to the Father all his life and doesn’t understand why the party is being thrown for the other guy. But the parable often takes on a richer meaning when I can think about it from the perspective of a different character —from the perspective of the one who has been wounded and rescued, or from the son who has wandered away and been welcomed home.
In this parable, I think it’s natural for us to see ourselves as the ones who are throwing the banquet and inviting the guests—at least it is for me. I want to be the one in a position of influence, eager to share my compassion with the poor, the homeless, or the distraught. It makes me feel good to hear Jesus’ parable and walk away thinking, “okay, I just need to reach out to more people this week, and keep my eyes open for the visitor who doesn’t yet know he belongs in this community.” And that’s not wrong. We would be a stronger community if we who are in positions of influence more often extended invitation and hospitality to those who cannot pay us back.
But what if we think about it from the perspective of the ones who are invited to the banquet? What if we see ourselves as the poor people, the homeless, the distraught, who are invited to a banquet we don’t think we deserve to attend and are seated in the seats of honor we figure ought to go to someone else? What does that do to how we hear this parable?
Let me ask it this way: Which would you say is tougher: to extend hospitality and not expect anything in return, or to receive hospitality and not feel obligated to reciprocate? I think it’s harder to receive hospitality. Think about if you’ve ever been invited to something or been given a gift of some kind. Isn’t your first reaction to wonder, “how am I ever going to pay these people back?” or “what can I do to return the favor?” That’s part of who we are. And I think Jesus knew that. He knew that the tendency will be for us to say, “sure, I do nice things for people all the time without expecting anything in return.” And I think he wanted us to wrestle with how eagerly we try to repay those who do nice things for us. Particularly, I think Jesus wants us to wrestle with how we sometimes think that our following of the rules are a way we can pay God back for extending to us the gift of grace and salvation. Remember, this story is being told after Jesus is challenged about healing someone on the Sabbath—because that’s not what the rules are. That’s ultimately what made his actions on the Sabbath so problematic for the Pharisees—following the rules had become their way of paying God back for being chosen as God’s people, and if they didn’t follow the rules, they no longer deserved to be invited to God’s banquet.
Yes, maybe Jesus wants us to wonder what we expect in return from the people we are reaching out to and inviting to join our community. But maybe he also wants us to think about why it’s so hard for us to see ourselves as the poor people, invited to a banquet we don’t deserve to be at and seated in the position of honor we don’t feel worthy of. Because isn’t that the gospel? The gospel, the good news, is that in Christ God has invited us to the banquet, given us a seat of honor, and embraced us in genuine community—all in spite of our poverty and inability to earn it or pay God back.
In a little bit we will be invited to come forward for Communion. We call this meal “The Lord’s Supper,” and we talk about it like it’s a feast. Isn’t this a meal we have no right being invited to? And when we come into this sacred space and dip our hands in the baptismal font, don’t we remember that we’ve been given a position of honor we don’t deserve? What do we say when a child or an adult is baptized? “Child of God, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Talk about a position of honor! We are made children of God, co-heirs with Christ, the scripture tells us. That is a seat of honor worth more than we will ever be able to earn. In Communion we are invited to a feast we have no right being at, but with the words, “this is my body, given FOR YOU,” and “this is my blood, shed FOR YOU,” we belong here! Not ‘belong’ in the sense of having a right to be here, but ‘belong’ in that here, we find a sense of belonging. The waters of baptism are for us. The bread and wine of Communion are for us. We’ve been invited to the banquet.
So what would it look like for us to stop trying to pay God back for what God has done for us? I don’t know about you, but this is really hard for me. Instead of beating ourselves up for how short we fall from what we perceive as God’s expectations of us, what if we lived into the genuine love and hospitality God has already shown us through Christ? What if we embraced our identity as children of God, co-heirs with Christ and co-feasters at God’s banquet? Not because we deserve it, but because we receive it. Wouldn’t that transform how we treat those we meet who are outsiders? In our reading from Hebrews, we are told to entertain strangers, because in hosting strangers we might be hosting angels. We are told to remember the prisoner, as though we too were once prisoners, or to remember those who are being tortured as though we too were once tortured. I think that when we can see ourselves as fully undeserving of the gift of grace given to us through Christ, and when we stop trying to pay it back with our rules and regulations, we are free to fully embrace those who don’t yet know that they’ve been invited to the banquet as well. I don’t mean we beat ourselves up over our failures and weaknesses. I mean we receive the gift for what it is…a gift that transforms us. Out of that transformation, then, we invite others to join the feast.
The story of Lucy in the movie “While You Were Sleeping” is a story of a young woman who receives welcome and love she doesn’t feel she deserves. In the process of opening herself up to the love others are showing her, she finds herself able to show love she forgot she had. Being loved changes her. Jesus invites us into a similar story, but one that is real and unfortunately doesn’t come with a script. Through the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of Communion, we are invited to a banquet and given seats of honor. And being loved changes us when we open ourselves up to it!! In response to this invitation, not as a way of paying a debt or earning a reward, but in response to the transformation that we experience, we are charged to “let mutual love continue,” to bring in those who feel excluded, to reach out to those feel forgotten, and to create a community where all people are welcome, all people are fed, and all people find value and belonging.
So, as we continue to strengthen the ministry of this congregation, both here and at the Advent campus, what do we need to do to name our tendency to try to pay God and others back for their generosity? What do we need to do to embrace those who are not yet part of this community?
My prayer is that we will believe that we, although we are poor and don’t deserve it, we have been invited to this banquet. And my prayer is this invitation will propel us into the community around us and into relationship with others so that when visitors and strangers show up, their loneliness and hurt will be healed by genuine love and community. May we all be able to say, “I went from being nobody to being friend, sister, brother, son, daughter…and I haven’t had that in a very long time.”