United Church of Christ

Open Table

Sunday, September 1, 2019
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17)

Focus Theme
Open Table

Focus 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 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."

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."

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."

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."

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."

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.

Jesus is being watched carefully

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.'" 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 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.

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."

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."

The "place" for women in the church?

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.

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."

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."

Making room for others

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."

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."

For the host and for us

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."

A changing list of strangers

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."

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."

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."

(I recommend the book, 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."

The rest of the story

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.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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."

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."

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."
and
"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.'
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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.


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