September 29, 2010

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Welcome Table

Luke 14:1-14

There is an old spiritual with verses that start with these words:

I’m gonna sit at the welcome table, hallelujah!

I’m gonna feast on milk and honey, hallelujah!

I’m gonna tell God how you treat me, hallelujah!

All God’s children gonna sit together, hallelujah!

This song originated among those who believed that they were God’s honored guests,even though they were not welcome at the tables where they were. After all, Jesus himself was not exactly embraced with open arms at some of the dinner parties he attended. In today’s gospel story, the invitation to the meal at the house of the Pharisees was not motivated by welcome and hospitality so much as by wariness and hostility. In one of their most bitter condemnations of him, the Pharisees observed that “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” This was a serious matter. But Jesus did not seem to worry about who should be in and who should be out. No, he acted as if there was a place at the table for everyone and everyone was welcome there.

For the religious leaders of the day, this was more than they could stomach. What was the use of being in if no one was out? How could you consider yourself one of the haves if there were no have-nots? If love was not limited, how could the religious leaders have any special claim on it.

Well, Jesus had little patience for those kinds of views. As far as he was concerned, everybody was in, there should be no have-nots, and love, his love, could never be limited. Yes, as far as Jesus was concerned, unlike the Pharisees, everybody had a place at the table.

And maybe they could have coped with that. Maybe it would not have seemed too bad if Jesus had stuck to at least some of the rules of protocol. Maybe it would be okay for everyone to come the dinner as long as the really important people got to sit at the head table. But Jesus would not allow even that. He told them a parable, one that might be entitled “the humiliated guest”.

When you are invited to a fancy dinner party, he said to them, do not take it upon yourself to choose the best seat in the house because you might be embarrassed when the host comes and says “You have to move to the children’s table. Someone more important has arrived and needs to sit here.”

Jesus told them that it was better to seat yourself at the children’s table to start with than to presume on a seat of honor. Besides, there was always the chance that the host would relocate you to the head table.

And the teaching of the parable is this: Everyone who humbles himself will be exalted, but everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. It is a kind of double reversal. Not only will the lowly be raised up, but also the high and mighty will be brought down.

I like to think that Jesus learned this teaching from his mother. After all, she proclaimed it before he did, before he was even born, in that wonderful song that is known in the church as the Magnificat. Listen to the words of Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. … He has shown strength with his arm: he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary knew from before the beginning that her boy-child would turn things upside down. His cousin John knew it, too. He proclaimed that this one would fulfill the ancient prophesy: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”

The hungry fed and rich dismissed, the lowly lifted and the powerful dethroned, mountains leveled and valleys filled: This was the good news that Jesus would proclaim, did proclaim, the good news of the gospel. But whether it seems like good news to those who hear it might depend on where they sit. If you are used to sitting at the head table your whole life, you might have a hard time giving up your seat, especially for one you don’t think belongs at the dinner party in the first place. But remember Jesus’ teaching: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The Pharisees heard this as a loss of privilege and status, and certainly it was. And I suppose they found all this even more offensive because it went hand in hand with the elevation of those they saw as unworthy. In their eyes, it must have seemed that their loss was another’s gain. But I don’t think it felt like that to Jesus. I think he was telling them something very different. I think he was saying to them: “You are all made in the image of God. You are all equal in the sight of your creator. “ Those who had placed themselves above others had forgotten this, and those who had been stuck at the bottom never had a chance to understand it. What Jesus was doing was bringing about equality: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” These two groups shall find themselves face to face, equal in the sight of the world and in the sight of God, equal in the sight of each other.

That is what Jesus had in mind, I think, and it made folks down-right uncomfortable, at least the folks who were accustomed to the reserved seats. I suspect some of them would just as soon not even come to the table if they had to do it that way.

Whether it is the Pharisees of long ago, or the Pharisees of our own times, there have always been some who will not accept the invitation Jesus offers because it comes on his terms, not theirs. They are the ones who think they can be holier than the Lord – imagine that -- but what happens is that they are not holy at all. I suppose they think the party won’t happen without them. But this party goes on, no matter what, and what happens is that they end up missing the celebration altogether.

In the world where we live, a world dominated by the powerful and important, there are lot of little folks that seem to have no place. There are a lot of folks who seem to have missed out on the world’s celebrations. But they are the very ones for whom Jesus is saving seats at the table.At his table everyone will be welcome, and everyone will get the best seat. In the kingdom of God, the high and mighty and the low and least are made equal. It’s the gospel. And it really is good news.

And there is one more thing about this party that Jesus hosts. He doesn’t expect a return invitation. There is no obligation, no expectation of repayment. There is only grace, the free grace of God, unconditional love with no strings attached. And those who would live in the kingdom with him are supposed to entertain in the same way. “When you give a dinner,” he says”, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Not only does he want some seats saved for the least and the unlikely, but he also wants us to go out of our way to invite them to the table in the first place. Not because they can repay our hospitality – they can’t. Not because they deserve it – they don’t. But then, we don’t deserve it either and Jesus has welcomed us.

There are a lot ways to obey this commandment. You open your doors to any who would come. You minister to those who have no means of making any contribution to the church. You put a lot of effort into programs for a bunch of children, for heaven’s sake,who certainly aren’t putting anything much in the collection plate. This is the kingdom way. Everyone is equal, and the gift is free.

Now there are some that will think this doesn’t make any sense, and they will pay no attention to it. There are others who will throw up their hands in despair because what Jesus asks seems impossible. And there are some who will read this scripture and nod and smile and go away unchanged because they think this teaching of Jesus is just a nice story for church but not very useful anywhere else.

But every now and then, someone will take this teaching seriously. That is one of the things I love about being with you. You think the gospel is important. You act as though Jesus really meant what he said. You live as though the kingdom is coming.

You do this in church, but I think you also know that you don’t have to be in church to live this way. Sometimes the kingdom breaks through in the midst of everyday life. Sometimes the welcome table is spread where we least expect it.

Let me tell you a story about this, a true story and a kind of parable of the gospel, about a woman named Kathleen Gooley. It happened several years ago but her story has stayed with me.

Kathleen was living in Norwalk, Connecticut, and she was planning to be married. Her June wedding included a fancy reception and she had met with the caterer and planned the menu and paid her money. Then Kathleen’s groom had second thoughts, and the wedding was canceled. But Kathleen learned could not get all her money back for the reception.

So she decided to throw a party and invite people who could really use a celebration. As she said to a newspaper reporter, “Why waste a good party?”

Kathleen invited a lot of ill and elderly homeless folks to her party. She had 118 places reserved at a sit-down dinner served on fine china, with real linens, and fancy hor d’oevres and dessert.

You see, Kathleen herself had been homeless once, only for a couple of nights, but she ended up in a shelter with her 2-month old baby. She knew what it was like. So when she had a party that needed guests, she knew who to invite: Not her friends or her family or her rich neighbors – certainly not her would-have-been in-laws. When Kathleen gave a party, she used the same guest list as Jesus: she invited the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. She had been one of them; she knew. Why waste a good party?

And isn’t that what Jesus is saying. Jesus knows, too. After all, he was also one of them, a homeless man, persecuted, arrested unjustly, executed as a common criminal. But he also knows that the kingdom of God is waiting, like a great party lacking only the guests. He knows that the table is set and the places reserved. All is ready. He knows because it is with his own body and blood that the Table has been prepared.

The welcome table is for us, all of us together. It is the place where we are equals, made in the image of God, and our invitation to the table comes with unconditional love. It is the place where we sit together and eat together and know the kingdom of God.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, O Lord, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Holy Touch

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Luke 13:10-17

These two stories from scripture – the call of Jeremiah and the healing of the woman in the synagogue –have some common threads. What strikes me first about the stories is the way they illustrate God’s unusual choices. They remind me of the little ditty: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” How odd of God to choose a child and a woman as agents of transformation and grace. But that is exactly what happened.

God’s call came to Jeremiah he was only a boy. The Hebrew word used to describe him is na’ar. A na’ar was a child no older than 12 years. God was calling this boy to a daunting task. Jeremiah seemed justified in his protest. “Oh Lord God, I won’t know what to say. I am just a kid.” How could he go to the rich and powerful and call them to account? How could he confront the religious leaders of the time with a call to repentance? How could he presume to speak the word of God in his wicked world? And yet all that is exactly what God intended him to do.

Jeremiah was wiser than his years. Even though he was just a na’ar, he understood that this was hard and disruptive work that God was setting before him. God gave him six things to do: “To pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” It’s interesting isn’t it, this list of the six things that God called Jeremiah to do, this list of the prophet’s tasks? Two-thirds of the list is about clearing out and getting rid of that which is no longer useful. It is the prophetic equivalent of taking out the trash. It is only then that the last little bit of the task, the building and the planning, can take place.

Some of those who seem to me to be self-appointed prophets, rather than God-anointed, lean to the first part of the list, the plucking up and pulling down, destroying and overthrowing. They are more interested in pronouncing judgment than sticking around for reconstruction. On the other hand, the folks I know in many congregation, maybe including this one, seem to be mostly drawn to the last two things on the list, the building ad the planting part, making something new, bringing something exciting into existence. We think that’s the good stuff, the true holy work. Whether it is a new program, a new mission, planting a new church or just building up and growing an old one – yeah, that’s the good stuff.

But the call of God is clear: The holy work of the prophet has both aspects. Tearing down does hand in hand with building up. And building up cannot take place until the old structures are gone. What lesson is there here for us? How does God touch us through these instructions?

Probably very few of us would gladly welcome destruction and overthrow. We want to keep the structures of our live in place, not pull them down. Isn’t it much better to have the same familiar patterns and people around, even when they aren’t perfect? You know the old saying: Better the devil you know, than the one you don’t.

But think about this: if you have ever remodeled a kitchen or started a new garden or called a new pastor… you’ll know that there is a lot of plucking up and pulling down, a lot of disruption that has to precede the building and the planting.

That work is hard and sweaty. You have to get your hands dirty; you have to live in a place where you can’t see anything new and exciting except in your own imagination.

When God reached out to touch Jeremiah, to call him to a holy work, God set before him a difficult task. Jeremiah had to get his hands dirty, he had to put himself at risk, he had to be unpopular, to put it mildly. He was God’s messenger of restoration and wholeness, but he was also the one who reminded the people that they needed to change their ways in order to find that shalom. And remember, he was just a boy.

Like Jeremiah, the woman in the synagogue was also a most unlikely choice as one to embody God’s healing message. For eighteen years, she had been a prisoner of her own body, bound up in a terrible, crippling disease, one that left her bent over, unable to stand erect and look up. Eighteen years is a long time to live with the kind of limited perspective she must have had, full of pain herself and painful for others to see. When she came into the synagogue, she would have stood in the section with the other women, not in the place to speak or even be counted. Women would have been strictly segregated since there was always the danger that contact with them, even accidental, could render a man unclean and therefore unable to come into worship.

Given this practice, what Jesus did was especially astonishing, even offensive. In the middle of the services on the holiest day of the week, in the presence of all of them, he seemed to violate the very laws that had called them into being as God’s chosen people. He spoke to the woman. He singled her out and called her to him. He brought her into the center of worship. And he touched her. She was healed and began to praise God.

Just as God’s call and contact to the boy Jeremiah seemed odd, so was Jesus’ call and contact with the woman. The leader of the synagogue was furious. There was Jesus, participating with this woman in ways that seemed counter to some of the most precious teachings of the faith. If there was anyone there who was bent out of shape, it was not the woman, but rather the leader of the synagogue. Like the religious and political leaders of Jeremiah’s day, he was offended, irate, and (hmm) more than a little self-righteous. But as an old preacher once said: It is always dangerous to try to be more spiritual than God!

Both Jeremiah and the woman were odd choices. The fact that they were singled out for a holy role upset the status quo and angered those who were in charge. And there are other similarities in these two stories. Neither Jeremiah nor the woman was seeking a position of power. In fact, they both understood their place in society as being on the margins, not fully accepted or respected or valued in society. But it starts to seem that is where God might work the best -- on the margins. God seems to choose the least and the last, maybe because those are the ones who have the time to hear what God is saying.

Another common thread in the stories is an attentiveness to the word. Jeremiah and the daughter of Abraham were both listening. They may not have liked what they heard, it may have taken a lot of courage to respond, but they were paying attention. They were ready to hear.

And finally, they were both transformed by a holy touch. God reached out and touched Jeremiah’s mouth and said: “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” Jesus laid his hands on the crippled woman in the center of the synagogue and healed her and she was able to look up.

Both the boy and the woman responded to the holy touch with words and action, prophecy and praise. And both of them created controversy.

God’s holy touch demands a response that might be prophecy or praise or both. God’s holy touch is transforming. Nothing will be the same after you experience it. God’s holy touch can lead you into a place of controversy and chaos, a place where you find yourself plucking up and pulling down, destroying and overthrowing, confronting and offending, associating with those on the margins. It is only then that you can build and plant. It is only then that you can look up and see what God has in mind for God’s creation.

God’s holy touch is a transforming, healing action. Those whom God touches are called respond in the same way, with their own actions of transformation and healing, their own words of prophecy and praise. Without a doubt, the world needs people to do this work. Are you one of them, one whom God is touching, one whom Christ is calling?

You are, all of you: women and children, young and old, men and boys and girls. God is choosing you, Christ is calling. Pay attention. Do not be afraid to answer and act. Let the holy touch transform and heal your life and then go and do likewise.

Thanks be to God -- may it be so. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith