First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
September 1, 2019
“Hospitality: It’s a God Thing”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Proverbs 25:6-7 (NRSV)
6 Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; 7 for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.
Luke 14:1, 7-14 (NRSV)
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, 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. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Give me a comfortable chair and something good to drink where there’s a lot of people and you’ll keep me occupied for a long time. I get a kick out of watching people. I love watching how people move and interact and respond to things around them. If I have the time and feel creative enough, I’ll do that thing where you make up a story in my head about what’s going on in this or that person’s life.
I know, it sounds a bit creepy and voyeuristic but I figure that it’s all out in the public and it’s not as if I’m peeking into people’s windows or targeting a certain segment of the population. I’m just sitting there, enjoying the fine weather and watching people as they go by. And… it’s all fair play – I’m sure I’ve been the target of someone else’s people-watching a time or two.
Besides, Jesus was watched a lot and he did his share of people watching as well. But, both his watching and his being watched often had a purpose behind them. He was watched a lot by the religious and political authorities – just in case he’d present some reason to challenge his ways and teachings – which he did a lot. But Jesus watched people for a reason, too. And, he seemed to be pretty intentional about it. We really don’t know the exact reason, but it seems that he was often looking for opportunities to present the in-breaking of the realm of God on earth in memorable ways. Like healing people in front of those who might challenge his actions. Then he’d create a powerful educational moment to challenge restrictive laws that perpetuated injustices and restricted people’s access to what they needed in life, including connecting with God. He’d challenge his disciples with unlikely opportunities like finding enough food for thousands of people and use it to reveal God’s abundance in a world driven by scarcity. He’d take the opportunity to expand people’s understanding of God by turning social norms of who was accepted on it’s head. Everyone. Everyone is accepted in God’s realm.
That was the opportunity that presented itself the day he went to the leader of the Pharisee’s house for dinner. While they were watching him to see if he would cross a religious boundary or two, he was doing his own people-watching as the guests arrive. He was making note of how the other guests would seat themselves, seeking the places of honor around the table.
Now the rules around seating placement at banquets in Jesus’ day would make Martha Stewart drool with envy. There were pretty strict rules around who sat where and if you sat yourself down in a place that indicated more honor than was due, well, let’s just say that the shame-face would be yours for quite some time. There were some pretty strict social placements that were not to be messed with. And that’s where Jesus saw the opportunity. First, he reinforced those social placements: sit farther down the social ladder so you can be called up, not the other way around. Nothing out of order for that. I imagine his host being much relieved for what Jesus spoke was indeed what would be expected.
But Jesus never seemed to leave it when things were just okay. He always had to take it further, push the envelope, forge ahead, test the waters and just flat out ramp it up. He turned to his host, who had invited all these fine folks and suggested that, when giving a banquet, invite those whose social status is so low it doesn’t even register on the “where should they sit list” because they would never be invited to such a banquet to begin with. Invite the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Not only would these people never be invited to a meal at the leader of the Pharisee’s house, there was no social norm for where they would sit. And, to make the teaching even more glaring, they, in no way, would ever be able to return the invitation – another social requirement.
If I had been there watching Jesus that day, it might occur to me that Jesus was presenting a preview of holy communion. He was setting the table for what was to come – an invitation to dine at the finest feast of grace where all are invited, welcomed, and fed just as they are. There are no places of low honor for everyone is honored by God. There will be no way to return the invitation for no one who comes to this table would ever be able to repay the invitation to share in God’s love and grace. It’s a leveling table where rich and poor receive the same, where young and old are equally valued, where gay, straight, sober, drunk, wise, and naïve are welcome and seated in places of honor.
It’s God’s way of doing hospitality. A hospitality of broad welcome and acceptance, not for the purpose of changing the people but for the purpose of revealing the realm of God that exists and has the potential to exist deep on earth. Isn’t that what we pray for every week…. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth… as it is in heaven? It’s a very different kind of hospitality than the earthly hospitality of quid pro quo and status and attire and needing to worry about which fork to use when. It’s a hospitality that simply says come as you are and be fed.
It’s occurred to me that when Jesus changes the rules of the banquet, he changes the entire banquet itself. It’s no longer an exercise in remembering the rules and living into them. It’s an opportunity to live into and experience the expansive love of God. It’s an opportunity to receive the deep, deep grace of God in community with those we may not have the opportunity to rub elbows with at any other time.
But, communion isn’t just about receiving. This realm of God on earth isn’t solely for our own good fortune and well being. This massive banquet isn’t to be held only within these walls. For communion is about taking… Taking what has been received here, a spirit of grace and love and acceptance, out of this place and into the world. Taking the grace that welcomes us just as we are into our lives to know that we are loved in all things and to take that gracious welcome to others we meet along the way. We have taken in the body of Christ. In the blessing, the breaking of bread and cup, in the sharing in community, we have received the Body of Christ. Christ has been revealed in the actions of grace and has become a part of us. What we have received will be taken with us wherever we go. And that means that every time we take what we have received into the world, we participate in communion more deeply.
The communion table is broad and long, not just in this room but in every room and at every table where we sit, for what we receive here we take into those places. Some of the tables we might find ourselves at may not look like tables at all. Communion tables where we take this grace received here today might look more like work places and street corners. They might look more like the line in the grocery store or a seat on the bus. They might look like a prison cell or a hospital room. They might even look a bit like the voting booth or an email sent to a legislator or two – any place where love and grace needs to be spilled out across the land. The communion tables we encounter outside of this place might even look like our own dinner tables in our own homes or a table at McDonald’s where someone just might be eating their last supper.
Let’s remember that people will be watching us. Wondering if we will live out what we have received. Checking to see if we walk the walk and talk the talk. Looking to see if they see Christ in us.
And, let’s not miss seeing the people who come before us as Jesus would see them and recognize the opportunities before us to do our part to bring a little bit of the realm of God into reality here on earth every day. Let’s not miss the opportunity to turn things on earth a little upside down so they look more like heaven’s streets that our own and let that body of Christ within us spill out.