Open Table

September 1, 2013

Sunday, September 1
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
Open Table

Weekly Prayer
Almighty God, in your goodness, you provide for the needy. Remove from your people the pride of place and the pursuit of power that mocks humility. Open our hearts in generosity and justice to the neglected and lonely, that in showing esteem for others, we may honor and please you through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Amen

Focus Scripture
Luke 14:1, 7-14

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.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable."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; 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. 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. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

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. But when you give a banquet, 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."

All Readings For This Sunday
Jeremiah 2:4-13 with Psalm 81:1, 10-16 or
Sirach 10:12-18 with Psalm 112 and
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Focus Questions

1. What does hospitality mean to you? To your church?

2. What makes hospitality "strategic"?

3. How can you be a blessing in your everyday life?

4. Who is missing from the table of your church? From whom do we "avert our eyes"?

5. How do you imagine the Great Feast will look and feel?

Reflection by Kate Huey

Spending a little time wandering around a bookstore provides some sense of the deep contradiction, or at least tension, in our culture: on the one hand, you'll find plenty of books to help a person "get ahead," make it to the top (and maybe even to the corner ñ office, that is), to succeed and be recognized and rewarded. I suspect that not one of those books advises the reader to make a habit of seeking the margins, the lowest places of invisibility and inconsequence, far from the "important" action. After all, how can you make your mark on the world from way out there? On the other hand, in that same bookstore, you'll also find shelf after shelf of books that promise to help you find inner peace, wholeness, wellness ñ books that will tell you how to relax, to enjoy a fulfilled, happy life. Perhaps it depends on your definition of being fulfilled. Or at least of being filled.

In her book, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert shares the story of a personal quest that takes her to Italy, India, and Bali, where she, well, eats, prays, and loves. Perhaps she appropriately begins her spiritual journey not with strict, ascetic practices but with consuming big plates of pasta with unreserved gusto, for isn't physical hunger a good image for spiritual hunger? Fred Craddock makes an even deeper connection between the physical and the spiritual with his observation about the importance of bread in the writing of Luke, which emphasizes the connection between hunger and injustice. Eating--that most human and most necessary of activities--and all that we associate with it are entwined with our spiritual lives, so it's no surprise that meals and food are significant themes in the Bible.

Lessons learned at the table

Indeed, scholars observe that meals are very important to Luke, the writer of this Gospel: N. T. Wright observes that "Luke's gospel has more meal-time scenes than all the others. If his vision of the Christian life, from one point of view, is a journey, from another point of view it's a party." It doesn't matter whether the eating happens in Emmaus, an upper room, or the fields along the road (plucking the heads of grain); in the home of a despised tax collector (Levi, in chapter five) or even those of respectable religious leaders who invite Jesus to join them, such as Simon the Pharisee in chapter 7 and here, in chapter 14, another, unnamed leader of the Pharisees who offers Jesus hospitality for the Sabbath dinner.

Speaking of tension: we usually feel it whenever Jesus and the Pharisees--not to mention the lawyers and other leaders--get together and talk about religious issues. However, that doesn't make Jesus and the Pharisees enemies. On the contrary, Gary E. Peluso-Verdend observes that Jesus behaved more like a Pharisee than like any of the other groups of his day, including the Sadducees, the Essenes, or even "the people of the land." It's much better, then, for preachers to approach these disputes as intracommunity conflicts, he says, rather than attacks by Jesus on the traditions of his people. However, while commentators often remind us that the Pharisees, just before this scene, warned Jesus about Herod's plan to kill him, there is still that haunting sense that they are so displeased with Jesus that they, too, will finally decide that this trouble-making "heretic" has to be stopped. Richard Swanson writes that the things Jesus says and does only make matters worse, for example, when he "celebrates causing divisions": for Luke's audience a generation or so later, these words would have "a painful ring in the aftermath of the burning of the Temple in 70 C.E., which was judged by later Jewish reflection to have been the result of divisions within the Jewish people."

Being careful about the invitations one accepts

In any case, here we are, in the home of a Pharisee who has extended the honor of hospitality toward Jesus. Even that invitation is tinged with controversy: Lisa Davison observes that the Sadducees considered the Pharisees "too moderate in their application of the law," and were scandalized that Jesus would eat with them. And how does Jesus respond to the honor of being included in this social occasion? Not surprisingly, he does and says things that inevitably cause either dead silence or an uproar of protest. Setting the scene in the very first verse of this week's passage, Luke writes that Jesus was being watched by the religious authorities, so has already tipped us off that things are going to be tense. John J. Pilch tells us that Luke's word for "watching" here suggests that Jesus' audience was anything but friendly. And Jesus does not let them down.

In the verses omitted by the lectionary reading, "a man who had dropsy" appears before Jesus, who seems to think it would be a good conversation starter to ask about the lawfulness of curing someone on the Sabbath. When he gets no response, he goes ahead and heals the man, and then points out that any one of the guests obviously would have helped their child or their ox if either had fallen in a well, even if it were on the Sabbath. Again, they say nothing. So Jesus turns to one of my father's favorite pastimes: people-watching.

When I was growing up, we kids often sat in the car with our dad while our mother shopped and were entertained by his interesting commentary on the people who walked by. In the same way, Jesus observes the guests maneuvering for the places of honor at the table and recalls the ancient wisdom of an honor-based culture about holding back and hoping to be called up to the higher place: he practically quotes Proverbs 25:7, that "it is better to be told, 'Come up here,' than to be put lower in the presence of a noble." It sounds like shrewd advice rather than a spiritual practice, something cultural and very this-worldly, a good strategy to avoid embarrassment and maybe even enjoy other people watching as you are raised to a higher place. Of course, the dinner guests, including the Pharisees, are missing that point entirely. Perhaps they skipped Proverbs 25:7 in their Bible studies, or perhaps they're only human like the rest of us, and they give in to their pride.

The Pharisees were trying to do the right thing

Are the Pharisees hopelessly prideful, and are they "the bad guys" here? Raymond Bailey touches a nerve when he challenges the preacher to represent the Pharisees as "the good people of their day. They never missed a religious meeting, they studied the Scriptures, they tithed, and they set the moral standard for their cultures." Today, we would consider them faithful, solid church members. On the other hand, Bailey says, the people that Jesus holds up as worthy of inviting to dinner--rather than people of one's own station who can repay the favor; where's the generosity, the grace, in that?--are the very people who would not be permitted (let alone welcome) in the homes of "respectable" folks or in places of worship either, for they were considered "unclean" because of their poverty, "sinfulness," or physical imperfections. Today we might have different names and designations for those on the margins, those in the lowest seats (if they're even in the room), but Jesus' instructions are the same. And they make us very uncomfortable.

Jesus' response to the mad rush for the best seats among the honored guests is twofold. His advice to those around him may sound like just that--advice--but. as N. T. Wright  astutely observes, "Jesus didn't come to offer good advice." There's even a measure of risk in offering this particular passage as advice to the folks in our pews, when many of them are already wounded by years of being told just how imperfect, how "lesser, even how "unclean" they are. Feminist theologians, for example, have pointed out the problem in preaching about pride to women in the church, when they have traditionally been taught to be "lowly" or at least subservient. Here preaching must take a decidedly pastoral turn, and challenge the person in the pulpit to hear the sermon through the ears of the people in the pews.

Looking toward that great feast we will all share

Scholars note that Luke himself calls Jesus' teaching a parable, so we can safely assume that there are layers of meaning in it. N.T. Wright suggests that Jesus is not just talking about seats at a dinner but about our position before God as well, a position that can't be earned by good behavior or by claims to superiority over others. For Luke's generation, these instructions, Rodney Sadler, Jr. writes, provided a blueprint and a foundation for the church from the very beginning, a community of faith that put table fellowship at the center of its worship life. However, Wright also intriguingly suggests that the teaching of this passage is more specifically addressed to the Jewish Christians in Luke's community who were having a hard time accepting the non-Jews who had joined them at "the dinner party prepared by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." According to Wright, these early Christians could not imagine or accept that God was including these outsiders at the table of God's love. Even more importantly, Luke's Jesus draws our hearts and minds toward that great feast that we will all share, the one we look forward to every time we celebrate the sacrament at a table that welcomes all of God's children to be fed by the grace of God. Is it any wonder, then, that people are deeply moved there, that lives are changed, and we catch a glimpse of the reign of God? Perhaps it depends on how you define "wonder."

The second part of Jesus' advice, or instructions, is directed toward his host but is really for us all. It follows from the first part: when making up our guest lists and deciding how to share the blessings we've received, don't be strategic. Don't go for reciprocity. Be extravagantly, forgetfully generous. Invite the most unlikely, most unexpected of guests into your home and share that most necessary, most enjoyable experience of eating together. "You will be blessed," Jesus says, repaid at the resurrection, for sure, but we sense that he's referring to more immediate blessings as well.

A domesticated hospitality for "nice" people only

We have domesticated hospitality, shaped a kind of ecosystem of inviting that keeps the welcome circulating among our own "kind" of people, or at least those we can feel comfortable around. Our generosity toward strangers and all those we might consider "strange" is often offered from a distance, without personal contact. But we're reminded by many commentators that love doesn't mean "love your own family and friends," but love the stranger in your midst. Ronald Byars observes that the list of those "strangers" changes, depending on who's being ostracized at a given time and in a given setting, but Jesus challenges us to open our eyes and see those who are pushed outside our own circles, those who would be deeply grateful to be included in the larger community that has marginalized them. In those moments, we will catch a glimpse of the way things will be in the reign of God, but not because we have condescended to welcome those "beneath" us; rather, we will understand that Jesus has changed "the rules" for, as Dianne Bergant writes, he "redefines" both "honorable behavior" and "honored guests."

Early in the film version of Eat, Pray, Love, the main character seems to realize that she's missing something in not being able to extend herself, to be present for others. We might say that she hungers not just to count her blessings (which she does do, at one point), but to be a blessing as well. Emilie Townes has written a beautiful reflection on this passage from Luke that incorporates just such an awareness, of becoming a blessing to others rather than focusing on our own need to receive blessings for ourselves.

Living with grace and humility

With those words in mind, I read an op-ed piece, "Angels in America," by Frank Rich in the August 15, 2010, New York Times about the death of a wealthy, prominent woman, Judith Dunnington Peabody. Surely, Mrs. Peabody enjoyed the highest place at the tables she graced, and we might think that she was one of those people who chose to remain in her own circle of privilege and comfort. However, Lisa Davison provides a different lens through which we might read this woman's story, for Davison observes that power and wealth are morally neutral, but "how one uses these privileges...matters most to God." More than one article about Mrs. Peabody's life reveals a woman who understood--deeply--what it means to be a blessing, and what it means to love the strangers in our lives, not from afar, but sitting right down, next to them.

In addition to the traditional fundraising (among her "own") that most society matrons engage in, Judith Peabody worked with and for those in need, those whom most folks would have avoided, including, for example, a Hispanic youth gang in East Harlem. Her obituary in the July 27, 2010 NYT, written by Bruce Weber, makes it sound as if she keenly understood Jesus' instructions about whom to invite to one's table, if the surprise of the doormen at her guest list is a good indicator. And Guy Trebay's article, "The Gimlet Eye: Into the Breach, Clad in Adolfo," gives voice to those who recall her courage and generosity of spirit, when she also worked hard during the 1980's as a caregiver for gay men with HIV/AIDS, while others stayed away out of fear. According to Marjorie Hill, the director of the Gay Men's Health Crisis, Judith Peabody never failed to hold the hands of those she comforted. Trebay quotes a number of people who try to describe what made Mrs. Peabody so unusual, and such an inspiration for others: perhaps it was because those she served were so unlike her, so far away from her own life setting, at least in outward ways, like privilege, class and wealth. And William Norwich's reminiscences certainly evoke the heart of Jesus' advice to his dinner host, for she did not shy away from "areas where polite society didn't goÖ.Friends of hers would tell her: 'I can't believe you're doing that. We don't know people like that'" (Trebay, NYT August 4, 2010). In this week's Gospel passage, Jesus tells us to surprise others by our own dinner guest list and prepare for a "great" time, too. Perhaps we, too, will come to understand a little better the meaning of true fulfillment and joy.

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/september-1-2013.html.

For further reflection

Boris Pasternak, 20th century
"He comes as a guest to the feast of existence, and knows that what matters is not how much he inherits but how he behaves at the feast, and what people remember and love him for."

George Bernard Shaw, 20th century
"The churches must learn humility as well as teach it."

Thomas Merton, 20th century
"Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real."

Victor Hugo, 19th century
"There are people who observe the rules of honor as we observe the stars: from a distance."

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 20th century
"A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you."

Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, 20th century
"True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person. Henri Nouwen has described it as receiving the stranger on his own terms, and asserts that it can be offered only by those who 'have found the center of their lives in their own hearts.'"

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Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey
Dean of the Amistad Chapel
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3855
hueyk@ucc.org