Sermon Seeds: Open Table
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 17
Jeremiah 2:4-13 with Psalm 81:1, 10-16 or
Sirach 10:12-18 with Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Worship resources for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time are at Worship Ways
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Additional reflection on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Sample sermon on Jeremiah 2:4-13 and Luke 14:1, 7-14
by Kathryn M. Matthews
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 to “get ahead,” make it to the top (and maybe even to the corner–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–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.
Physical and spiritual hunger are related
The book and film, Eat, Pray, Love, are based on the story of Elizabeth Gilbert’s 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 writing of Luke, relating hunger to injustice: “Bread was important; in fact, where some eat and some do not eat, the kingdom is not present” (Preaching through the Christian Year C). Consider too the words of Dom Helder Camara, which connect justice and food, and in very real sense, the risk in pointing out our equal value before God when we come to the table: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.” 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, many scholars observe that meals are important to 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” (Luke for Everyone). 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, like Simon the Pharisee, in chapter seven, and here, in chapter fourteen, 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, as Richard Swanson notes in his books on “provoking” the Gospels, that doesn’t make Jesus and the Pharisees enemies, or the Pharisees somehow “bad” people.
A conversation within the community
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 conflicts within a community and a tradition,” Peluso-Verdend writes, “than as Jesus’ efforts to destroy the tradition and its adherents” (New Proclamation Year C 2007).
Nevertheless, while 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 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” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke).
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 “Jesus’ acceptance of the dinner invitation…a sign that he is not a truly pious Jew” (New Proclamation Year C 2010). 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 “they were watching him closely,” and he has, of course, already tipped us off that things are going to be tense: John J. Pilch tells us that Luke’s word here “implies ‘hostile observation'” (The Cultural World of Jesus Year C). 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 observes that any one of the guests 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, the Great Observer, turns to one of my father’s favorite pastimes: people-watching.
People watching and life lessons
When I was growing up, we kids often sat in the car with our dad while our mother shopped, and we were richly entertained by his 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, “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 very this-worldly, a good strategy to avoid embarrassment and maybe even enjoy other people watching as you are raised to a higher place. As John J. Pilch explains, “The centrality of honor in this culture teaches natives to stay always a step behind their rightful status,” for it’s important that “one is not at all trying to appear or to be better than another person.”
However, 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. Pilch describes the behavior of these guests, specifically the Pharisees as “true to type” when they push their way to the best and highest places at the dinner (The Cultural World of Jesus Year C).
The Pharisees try 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 “get the contemporary Christian audience to identify with this group. The Pharisees were 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 (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). 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 may make us very uncomfortable indeed.
How do some people hear this text?
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” (Luke for Everyone). There’s even a measure of risk in reading this particular passage to some people who have made their way to church pews, when many of them are already wounded by years of being told just how imperfect, how “lesser, even how “unclean” or “intrinsically disordered” they are. According to Ronald P. Byars, “exhortations to be humble can be dangerous to those who already have little sense of their own worth” (Feasting on the Word Year C).
Feminist theologians, for example, have pointed out the problem in our teachings about pride for women in the church, when they have traditionally been taught to be “lowly” or at least subservient, that is, “meek and mild,” as Mary herself has often been mistakenly characterized. Then there is the whole problem of women and “purity,” which may be another impediment to inviting them to a place at the table, both literally and metaphorically. Teachers, preachers and all students of the Bible must approach a text like this one thoughtfully, hearing it through the ears and experience of many others around them, as well as their own. In any case, Byars writes,”[w]e may find it difficult to assess exactly where we fit in the pecking order, but Jesus’ story tells the truth: God’s point of view matters more than our own,” or that of others (Feasting on the Word Year C).
More layers of meaning in one story
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 referring to “the way in which people of his day were jostling for position in the eyes of God,” the way they would “push themselves forward, to show how well they were keeping the law, to maintain their own purity” (Luke for Everyone). For Luke’s generation, these instructions, Rodney Sadler, Jr. writes, provided “the basis for the subsequent fellowship of this nascent Christian community, for whom communal meals are among the principal bases of their worship experiences” (Feasting on the Word Year C).
However, Wright also suggests that the teaching of this passage is even 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 grasp God’s great design to stand the world on its head. Pride, notoriously, is the great cloud which blots out the sun of God’s generosity….Jesus spent his whole life breaking through that cloud and bringing the fresh, healing sunshine of God’s love to those in its shadow” (Luke for Everyone).
Looking toward that great feast we will all share
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, and 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
Have we 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 love doesn’t mean “love your own family and friends”–it means love the stranger in your midst. Peluso-Verdend reminds us that the “Greek word for hospitality, philoxenia, means ‘love of the stranger,'” and “banquet behavior fitting for the reign of God ought to affect dinner invitations even now” (New Proclamation Year C 2007).
And Byars observes that the list of those “strangers” changes from one time and place to another, the ones “whom respectable people expect to turn aside. Jesus’ challenge reaches across boundaries of place and time, calling us to be more aware of those from whom we are inclined to avert our eyes, and to follow him rather than those who baptize common prejudices as virtues”–that is, we are to include at our tables “those who do not take an invitation for granted” (Feasting on the Word Year C). 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” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year C).
Being a blessing to others
Early in the film, 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 to be a blessing as well as to count her blessings (which she does do, at one point). Emilie Townes has written a beautiful reflection on this passage from Luke that incorporates just such an awareness and the challenge being a blessing presents: “…trying to jump-start it by scurrying into spaces and places we think will shower us with blessings or display the blessings we have received or perceive we have received is much easier. In all these cases, the deep theological meaning of blessing is lost….” Townes challenges preachers to “mine for how we seek blessings, rather than how we try to live our lives as blessing” (Feasting on the Word Year C).
I also recommend Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, Sara Miles’ personal account of moving from atheism to deep and unusual spirituality through connecting the power of the sacrament of Communion and the hunger ministry of a church in her city; if Anne Lamott calls it a “most amazing book,” you know it’s good.
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: “Having power and wealth is not inherently evil; it is how one uses these privileges that matters most to God. Is power used to oppress others or to liberate them? Is wealth hoarded only for self-gain or shared with those who have so little? When the human family works together on behalf of everyone, life improves for all, and God is pleased” (New Proclamation Year C 2010). 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, 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: “One night she invited them all for dinner to our apartment,’ Mr. Peabody recalled in an interview Monday. ‘The doormen were, well, a little surprised. It was a great night'” (NYT July 27, 2010).
Why is this unusual among Christians?
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, “There was this constant with her of consoling and holding people’s hands.” Trebay quotes a number of people who try to describe what made Mrs. Peabody so unusual, and such an inspiration for others: “That the people in her particular village were ‘the most marginalized,’ and often those furthest from her own milieu of ‘incredible social privilege’ was what set her apart, Dr. [Jonathan] Jacobs said.”
And William Norwich’s reminiscences certainly evoke the heart of Jesus’ advice to his dinner host: “What made her different was she was always going into areas where polite society didn’t go….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.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
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.”
“Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.”
Voltaire, 18th century
“We are rarely proud when we are alone.”
Ernest Hemingway, 20th century
“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
C.G. Jung, 20th century
“Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune.”
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.'”
Most folks are familiar with the song, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” and today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews does a good job of describing what that looks like, how we might be recognized as followers of Jesus. According to Gary E. Peluso-Verdend, “One could argue that Hebrews 13:17…approximates a definition of love” (New Proclamation Year C 2007), and Lewis R. Donelson claims that “it would be hard to find a more representative account of Christian ethics in the New Testament.”
Donelson then digs deeper into the meaning of love, something we probably think we already know about, but he focuses on vulnerability, an unusual and provocative way of thinking, for example, of hospitality: “To love is to let another person, an unreliable other person, inside your safe walls.…To let a stranger into your house is always a risk. These strangers might be ‘angels,’ but they might not. This call to hospitality is a call to ongoing vulnerability to the unknown other” (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles).
Vulnerability and power
It’s natural to think of a host, especially in ancient times, when life was especially inhospitable and terrain difficult to cross, as holding an advantage over his guests. No matter how welcome a guest is, the person with the shelter and food has something the other one needs. Who then is the vulnerable one? But Donelson seems to expand the idea of “not neglecting hospitality” into a kind of umbrella over what it means to love and, in doing so, to live faithfully as followers of Jesus. This openness to another necessitates a willingness to share more than food and shelter, a willingness to share one’s own self. Instead of a wary guardedness, we Christians are called to open our hearts, simply and humbly, and to trust God about what happens next.
Then Donelson pushes even harder on this point, and his claim may provoke a reaction when read through the lens of women’s experience, and the experience of people who have known subjugation at the hands of others: “To love,” he says, “is to stand outside the safe camp; it is to open oneself to the violence of others….” Wives who have been beaten by their husbands, and people of color who have experienced the violence of racism may question Donelson’s wording in a literal sense.
Standing up to the powers that be
In fact, the 1986 film, The Mission, provides a good illustration of the tension between love that stands firm in non-violent resistance to evil and love that stands firm in whatever it takes to protect the innocent from harm. Jeremy Irons’ character, Father Gabriel, starkly contrasts that of Rodrico Mendoza, played by Robert de Niro. Mendoza, the former slave-trader-turned-Jesuit, is beside himself at the thought of the Portuguese and Spanish troops taking over the mission and carrying the Guarani people into slavery.
The disagreement between Gabriel and Mendoza is anguished, and in the end, neither can stop the troops tragically authorized by the authorities of the priests’ own church. One thinks of “radical priests” in Latin America at the same time that the film was made, wearing guns and doing what they felt needed to be done in the face of indescribable suffering and injustice for the people there. Those priests too were opposed by their church, and those of us watching from a safe distance can try to pass judgment on their actions. But this text from Hebrews, as Donelson reads it, exhorts us to “open [ourselves] to the violence of others,” and the struggle between Gabriel and Mendoza powerfully suggests in any case that Christian ethics do not come easy.
Love as something we do
It’s true that love is difficult and that the ethical teachings in this reading are not easy to live up to. Love is great when it’s for someone we know…well, maybe not always, but certainly more than it is for strangers, especially strangers who are perceived as dangerous or not like us. It’s hard to work up a warm, loving feeling toward such strangers, whether they may be angels or not. But Francis Taylor Gench reminds us that “love, in the New Testament, is not something you feel; it is something you do….Love seeks the well-being of others and is embodied in concrete efforts in their behalf” (Hebrews, Westminster Bible Companion). It’s interesting to view the actions of Mendoza and Gabriel, as well as our own each day, wherever we are, through the lens of those words.
In the life of the church here and now, we might consider a gentler but very real challenge of hospitality, vulnerability, and Christian faithfulness: when we welcome visitors and newcomers into the life of our congregations, are we doing so with an openness to what these potential “angels” might bring to our lives, including profound and not always comfortable change? Do we welcome them on our terms, or with a willingness to say, “Today we are a different church because you are here in our midst, because you are part of us”? Let’s be the church, and let’s be open to the newness of what God is doing each day, the gifts brought in the person of new members, new friends, new Christians.
How do we belong?
Donelson is again helpful, because being the church has to do with belonging: “The first four imperatives seem to focus upon a redefinition of the self. To be a self is to belong to others. To be a Christian self is to not belong to oneself.” The more we see and experience ourselves as part of something greater than ourselves, the more we “belong.”
Of course, our culture might urge us to focus more on what “belongs” to us, but this text offers a corrective in verse 5, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for [God] has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.'” As Donelson says, “To avoid money is to become vulnerable, both to people and God. This final image of vulnerability leads to a wonderful call to trust God.” Jesus spoke often of not worrying about physical needs, of considering the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. The writer of this letter to an early Christian community is true to the spirit of Jesus’ teaching when he exhorts them (and us) to rely on God, to trust God, and to be willing to risk everything for the sake of God’s reign. For faithful followers, Donelson writes, “The Christian life is a life wherein we risk everything on God’s promise not to leave us or forsake us” (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and Epistles).
First and second loves
Few Christian writers have written more movingly than Henri Nouwen about the contemporary situation of the church and the state of the world we live in: “Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time there is a deep current of despair. While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world.”
What do we, as the church, have to say about that, and to that? For Nouwen, the answer is “God’s first love,” the love that is “without any conditions or limits,” unlike the “second love” of human beings in our lives, a love that is “limited, broken, and very fragile.” As the church we proclaim the gospel: “The radical good news is that the second love is only a broken reflection of the first love and that the first love is offered to us by a God in whom there are no shadows…” (In the Name of Jesus). No shadows, true, but also and always, a place at the table for each and every one of God’s precious children. When we set that table, we would do well to remember that we are not the hosts, but the God who loves us all, and invites each and every one of us to the feast.
For further reflection:
Desmond Tutu, 21st century
“A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
Brené Brown, 21st century
“Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging have the courage to be imperfect.”
Jesse Brownerm, 21st century
“Eating, and hospitality in general, is a communion, and any meal worth attending by yourself is improved by the multiples of those with whom it is shared.”
Letty M. Russell, 20th century
“Hospitality is the practice of God’s welcome by reaching across difference to participate in God’s actions bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis.”
Holly Sprink, Faith Postures: Cultivating Christian Mindfulness, 21st century
“We don’t practice hospitality to point other people to ourselves, our church, or even our beliefs. We practice hospitality to point people toward the ultimate welcome that God gives every person through Christ.”
Madeleine L’Engle, 20th century
“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
Frank Crane, 20th century
“We’re never so vulnerable than when we trust someone–but paradoxically, if we cannot trust, neither can we find love or joy.”
Sample sermon on Jeremiah 2:4-13 and Luke 14:1, 7-14:
Our reading from the prophet Jeremiah is one of those passages that gets better and better if you read it over and over. The first few times I read it, I thought God sounded a little like a frustrated parent who says, “What did I ever do wrong as your father or your mother to make you behave this way? Didn’t I bring you up right? Didn’t I take care of you and protect you and provide for you and teach you how to be a good person? How could you do this to me? Listen to me, young lady or young man, there are going to be serious consequences this time!”
God says through the prophet Jeremiah, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” Then God speaks about the long history of Israel being led out of Egypt, through the wilderness and the deserts to a land of plenty, where – unfortunately – they promptly forgot all of God’s goodness and the covenant they had made with God at Mt. Sinai. They defiled the land, those rulers and the priests and the prophets. They “went after things that do not profit,” turning to other, lesser gods.
This is astounding to God: “Look all the way from Cyprus to Kedar (that is, all the way from the west to the east, across the land) and see if such a thing has ever been done before, where people have abandoned their gods for other gods–even those people in other lands, who have vastly inferior gods, don’t abandon their gods–they stick with them.” But Israel has forgotten the God who brought them out of slavery and into the Promised Land. Again, that phrase, “my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit” expresses God’s frustration and grief. Two things, God says, Israel has done: they have forsaken me (the fountain of living water) and they have dug out cisterns for themselves that are cracked, and can hold no water.
Those “consequences” I mentioned earlier are all over the book of Jeremiah, because the prophet was warning Israel of the impending doom of Babylon sweeping down and carrying her off to exile, a defining disaster for the people of Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures wrestle with this terrible moment in their history, when the temple–God’s dwelling place–and a long history of knowing themselves as God’s people seemed to do them very little good when the big bad wolf of Babylon came to blow their house down and swallow them up.
The prophets cried out against the sins of the people and warned them that breaking the covenant they had with the Lord would bring them such a fate. They needed to repent, and they needed to do it NOW. They needed to turn away from false gods, and they needed to do it NOW. They needed to return to God with all their hearts, to receive correction, and to accept God’s mercy and forgiveness, NOW. When you read the book of Jeremiah as a whole, you encounter this mercy and forgiveness in a section called “The Book of Comfort,” where Jeremiah speaks of the love that God has for the people no matter what they do–and uses the image of a loving parent whose child strays but who can’t help loving that child, tenderly, just the same.
Prophetic texts are often hard words to hear. It’s tempting to think of them as very old words addressed to a people long ago and far away, but not to us in the modern world, here in Christian America. But if you sit down and read them over and over, they begin to sink in with a disturbing kind of relevance and power. Last week, after worship, my daughter Kathryn and I drove for four hours, to Oxford, Ohio, on a tour of prospective colleges for her. Kathryn wants to be a theater critic, and she got a little practice in on our trip by reviewing my sermon that day. Ouch.
So, during the next two days, I talked to her about this week’s sermon. I described the readings to her, and we had a good time talking together about what they meant. She was particularly interested in the passage from the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus tells us not to grab the places of honor in life, but to take the lowest and perhaps be called up to a higher one later on. Jesus also tells us something that he says, in one way or another, over and over again, especially in the Gospel of Luke, which stresses the inclusive love of God: invite and include the poor and the less-than-perfect people into your banquet, not the people you have to invite, or the people who can do you some good.
As we drove, Kathryn and I listened to CD’s, including the musical score of the Broadway show, Titanic. The musical does a better job than the movie of depicting the intense class consciousness of the people travelling on that ship. In 1912, the Victorian age was coming to an end as the storm clouds of war gathered on the horizon. People were truly amazed at the work of human hands, and the ship itself was a great expression of technology and engineering that even competed, it seemed, with divine design. We’ve all heard the words, “Even God couldn’t sink this ship!” As the people board, class by class, you hear the sharp divisions between them, the ranking by worth that was determined by their money. The ship had many levels, and no one was permitted to cross the lines that separated one class from another. It simply wasn’t done.
At the top of the pyramid were the millionaires: famous names like Guggenheim and Astor and Strauss, people who had made a lot of money in the new world of capitalism that concentrated a lot of wealth in the hands of a few. Now, the rich people, the first class passengers, enjoyed a particular way of living and a particular way of being treated–because of their class. They hung around only with one another; that way, they could strike business deals with each other and talk about the coronation they had recently attended in England. They definitely got special treatment and a place of honor at every meal. They assumed they would, of course. That was the way things worked, and you were not to break the rules and traditions that were firmly in place.
Below them (literally), the second- or middle-class passengers hoped to strike it rich, perhaps, but for the most part, they accepted their place (which wasn’t too bad), behaved as expected, and looked down upon the third-class passengers a level below them. And the third-class passengers, the working class and the poor, were people who were hungry for all that America had to offer. In Maury Yeston’s evocative lyrics, one young Irish woman sings of being “a proper person,” respected by others because she will be a “lady’s maid.” Another wants to be a governess, and another a sewing girl. A man sings of being a policeman, another an engineer, and another a shopkeeper in this amazing land of opportunity to rise above one’s former station in life, rise above themselves and the grinding poverty they wanted to escape. America was a great beacon of hope for them, and as you listen to them, you can’t resist hoping with them.
We all know what happened to these people. We know what happened to the miracle of technology and engineering that could supposedly outsmart even God. And we know how much the “god” of class really mattered when the ship went down. Without a doubt, there was unfairness in the loading of the lifeboats, but in any case, rich and poor alike, hundreds of them, including the millionaires, suffered together a terrible fate. As the ship slowly gathers water and begins to list, its designer, Mr. Andrews, studies the drawings that show what alterations could have made the ship truly unsinkable (he sounds as if he is his own false god). Then he describes what the ordeal of the sinking will be like, with swarms of people running in panic from the advancing and freezing water, and suddenly all those class distinctions will fall away and matter no more.
As we listened to these songs, Kathryn connected them with the words of Jesus and the words of the prophet Jeremiah. She could see how we humans construct gods–maybe not gods of stone that we bow down and worship in a temple, but false gods nevertheless. And in our own way, we bow down and worship them, we give up what truly matters and erect barriers that separate us from God and one another, just as surely as those second-class passengers were separated from both the first and the third. Today, in America, in our society and even in our churches, in our private lives and our public ones, we see the false gods and the empty pursuits that bring upon us the direst of consequences.
Is it worshipping a false god–even a little one–to care about the labels on our clothes? Is it turning from God and having lesser gods to think that the right amount of money will make us happy, or maybe being the most powerful nation on earth, or being right all the time, or having “perfect” children or the right career path, or chasing after any of the ultimately dissatisfying marks of distinction and honor that the world holds? Could the make of our car determine our self-worth–really?
For that matter, do the things we do or build matter as much as our status as children of God? And yet how often do we speak of all those things compared to how often we speak of being “a child of God”? How often do we look at other people and appraise them by their dress or their education, their home or their occupation or their physical appeal, rather than encountering them, each one, as a child of God? What if, truly all those things didn’t matter, if first and third and second class didn’t matter, and only our “status” as children of God mattered?
And what about our way of putting God and God’s truth in a box, as if it can be possessed by one group of people, one church or one part of the church, passed down like an untouchable but frozen treasure to be guarded but never truly encountered? It doesn’t matter what church we belong to, this is a human inclination–I need to be right, I need to believe that I have the truth, and other people are simply wrong.
Making our truth the only truth is worshipping a lesser God, not the great Mystery that put the stars into place and cannot be contained in any temple, church or box we build–no matter how well we engineer it, not the Creator who fashioned us lovingly and breathed life into our souls. Have we turned from that God and made for ourselves idols–have we exchanged our glory for things that do not profit? Have we gone far from God, gone after worthless things, and have we let ourselves too often become worthless ourselves? That is the crisis of self-esteem in our culture, and no self-help book can restore our self worth as powerfully as God and God’s truth can. Just as much as the children of Israel long ago, we can turn from the fountain of living water. The cracked cisterns of our pride and the sinking ships of our arrogance and greed are symbols of our great sin.
What if we turn back, repent, and ask, “Where is God?” What if we remember the God who has been faithful to us in the face of our wandering? What if we truly listened to the gospel, the good news? What if the humanity that we share, the sheer humanity that Jesus shared with us, led us to see one another as equals in the eyes of God? What if we could see ourselves and each other as God sees us, what if we could look at ourselves and each other through God’s eyes? Well, I guess then we wouldn’t have any problem at all inviting everybody into the feast, would we? We would sit down together, and we would break bread together. No barriers, no class, no labels.
When I was growing up in a family of eleven, supper was something very important. My mother sat at one end of the table, and my father at the other. My four big brothers sat along one side of the table, and the five youngest, beginning with me, faced them on the other side. We always ate together, no matter how late my father had to work. Often, my parents would talk about the family business, but my father always asked each one of us, quietly, the same question: “How was your day?”
And occasionally, out of the blue, he would do a rather wonderful thing, as I look back on it now. Each of us could get lost in a sea of so many faces. But my dad would say, in a very serious tone, “How many people are happy we have…John [or Libby, or Chuck, etc.], raise your hand.” And we would all raise our hands. (You made sure you always raised your hand, because you wanted everyone else to do the same when it was your turn–a great equalizer!) I can’t describe the effect it had on each of us to see ten hands go up in the air (some days people would put BOTH hands up–that was really something!) Well, I think in that heavenly banquet in the eternal city, God will be like my dad. God will say, “How many people are glad we have Jeff and Ruth and Mae Alice and Lloyd and Nancy and Bill and Irma…raise your hand.” And we will. Amen.
Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob,
and all the families of the house of Israel.
Thus says the Lord:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things,
and became worthless themselves?
They did not say, “Where is the Lord
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that no one passes through,
where no one lives?”
I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.
Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord,
and I accuse your children’s children.
Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
that can hold no water.
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Sing aloud to God our strength;
shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
“I am the Sovereign your God,
who brought you up
out of the land of Egypt.
“Open your mouth wide
and I will fill it.
“But my people did not listen to my voice;
Israel would not submit to me.
“So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
to follow their own counsels.
“O that my people would listen to me,
that Israel would walk in my ways!
“Then I would quickly subdue their enemies,
and turn my hand against their foes.
“Those who hate God would cringe before God,
and their doom would last forever.
“I would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;
the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.
For the beginning of pride is sin,
and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.
Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities,
and destroys them completely.
The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers,
and enthrones the lowly in their place.
The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations,
and plants the humble in their place.
The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations,
and destroys them to the foundations of the earth.
He removes some of them and destroys them,
and erases the memory of them from the earth.
Pride was not created for human beings,
or violent anger for those born of women.
Praise be to God!
Happy are those who fear God,
who greatly delight in God’s commandments.
Their descendants will be mighty in the land;
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
Wealth and riches are in their houses,
and their righteousness endures forever.
They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright;
they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.
It is well with those who deal generously and lend,
who conduct their affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved;
they will be remembered forever.
They are not afraid of evil tidings;
their hearts are firm, secure in God.
Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid;
in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.
They have distributed freely,
they have given to the poor;
their righteousness endures forever;
their horn is exalted in honor.
The wicked see it and are angry;
they gnash their teeth and melt away;
the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?”
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
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.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”