You have probably heard me say on more than one occasion that hospitality was a really important concept in biblical times. Hospitality around weddings, hospitality around travelers and strangers; there were societal rules and expectations around how people were supposed to act in providing or receiving hospitality. Jesus uses the concept throughout the gospel in a variety of ways to make his points understood to a group of people who were highly sensitive to these kinds of social rules and expectations.
Today’s gospel lesson does exactly that. Invited to dinner by one of the church leaders, Jesus observed how the guests jockeyed for position around the places of honor, the seats closest to the host.
His first lesson to the dinner party reminds them that guests should choose the lowest seat at the table, so that the host might invite them to move to a seat closer to the host.
Jesus couches this part of the lesson in apparent concern for the guest’s feelings, pointing out the embarrassment one would feel should the host ask a guest to move further away so that a more distinguished guest might have their seat.
Jesus concludes this part of his lesson by telling everyone there: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
Like much of what Jesus says to us and to those who would listen, this lesson has multiple meanings. The literal meaning has practical applications in the social interactions of the original listeners. The metaphorical meaning has implications for all of the children of God.
If we understood the wedding banquet to be the Heavenly Banquet, and if we understood the host to be God, or even Jesus at the head of the table, then a lesson in practicing humility in the presence of the sacred would be an important lesson indeed.
It seems that even 2000 years ago, people were scrambling and striving to be first in line, to be closest to the host, to be seen as honorable above every one else.
What we in the modern world have come to call ‘ego’, or ‘self-righteousness’ existed way back then, and in today’s world, it’s what drives huge industries like advertising, entertainment, and yes, even the hospitality industry.
Appealing to a person’s inflated sense of self is often a way to help them part with their hard-earned resources.
But of course, that wasn’t Jesus’ point.
His point is that practicing humility, in social settings, in other settings too, has both practical and metaphorical benefits. And the miracle that is God’s Holy Word is that it was true when he first said it, and it is just as true today.
Yes, our world suffers from an abundance of ego-driven celebrities, and we suffer from whole industries that have sprung up to serve them, and those who would revel in being near them.
But Jesus is ultimately talking about how we are to approach God. How we, as children of God, can avoid humiliation by practicing humility with integrity in the presence of our God.
And when are we in the presence of our God? Pretty much all the time!
Today’s gospel lesson, and this part of the lesson in particular, invites us to ask ourselves, how do we act when we have been invited to the table? Do we rush to find the best seat? Do we hang back, or choose a less desirable seat so another may have the seat of honor? How do we act in the presence of the sacred?
What started out as a public lesson in social manners has now become a private lesson on how we act in the presence of God. This is an important lesson worthy of our attention, today, and every day we awaken.
But this isn’t the only lesson in our scripture today, is it? Jesus has a ‘part 2’! If the first lesson was for those who are invited, then the second lesson is for those who do the inviting.
In the same way that the first lesson became a metaphor for something larger than just a banquet, so the second lesson is a metaphor for how we treat the people around us.
Jesus is reminding those who have the resources to ‘host a banquet’ to do so for those less fortunate. He’s encouraging us to use our resources not in the hopes that we, in turn, will be invited to a great banquet in the future, but to use our resources to invite those who struggle, those who might otherwise not receive any invitations, to our banquet.
In the context of the Heavenly Banquet, in the context of how we focus our mission or our charity resources, in the context of how we are to act as beloved children of God, this makes a lot of sense, and is perfectly consistent with other lessons Jesus offers in the gospels.
Now, with all the richness and wisdom of this morning’s gospel lesson, our Hebrew scripture looks very different than when we first read it. Let’s take a moment to hear what God has to say through the prophet Jeremiah:
“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, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
I can’t help but link our Hebrew Scripture with our gospel lesson this morning. The literal and metaphorical scrambling and striving for seats of honor at the banquet table, the literal and metaphorical throwing of banquets for only those guests who can help us in the future, these are things God would say are evidence of our forsaking God.
These are the things that are cracked cisterns that can’t hold water.
When our humility and our generosity have integrity, then we honor our creator God, we honor the fountain of living water. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, (which I do all the time, by the way), when and where do we forsake God, when and where do we dig cracked cisterns that can’t hold water?
When and where do we honor the fountain of living water?
Contemplating these questions can have a profound impact on the way we live out our faith lives. And they can also have a profound impact on the way the world moves forward.
Thinking about how we act when we are invited to a metaphorical banquet, and thinking about how we act when we host a metaphorical banquet can have a profound impact on the way the world moves forward.
Our Hebrew scripture and our gospel lesson this morning give us a pretty good idea of how God and Jesus hope we will live. The challenge, of course, is to begin to make the necessary changes in our lives that will help us become more aligned with the sacred.
And the really good news for us today is that it is never too late to make a change. The impact on the world and on those around us when our humility and our generosity have integrity is real, and immediate, even if the reward Jesus promises is delayed.
I know how hard it can be as one individual, to live out one’s faith life with integrity. I can imagine how hard will be for a community like ours to live out our faith life with integrity as well. But walking the path Jesus sets before us means doing both: individual and collective humility and generosity.
When we start to pay attention to some of these things in our personal faith lives, then there starts to be an effect in our congregational faith lives. A miracle for sure.
I pledge to take a look this week at the cracked cisterns I have in my own life, and see if I can either repair the cracks, or dig new ones that have integrity. I hope some of you will do the same. Thanks be to God, the host of the heavenly banquet, to which we are all invited. Amen.
This morning’s Epistle lesson is from the letter to the Hebrews. Written 65-95 years after Jesus ascended into heaven, it uses some of the most sophisticated Greek in the Christian scriptures.
Except for it’s ending, it takes the form of a sermon, instead of a letter.
It’s target audience was the second generation of Christians; having experienced both persecution for their faith, and some disappointment that the promised kingdom had not yet arrived, it seems the author was acutely aware of the vulnerability of the intended readers, and the potential for their faith to weaken.
The writing remains anonymous, with various scholars finding little hard evidence of any one author. Though anonymous, this text is a powerful support for those who may be wavering in their faith. Persuasive, supportive, encouraging, it just may have been exactly what the people needed at that time.
And, maybe it’s exactly what we need, today.
Haven’t we all felt like our faith could use some shoring up at one time or another? Haven’t we all wondered whether we had enough faith to get through a tough time? Haven’t we all found ourselves disappointed that something we had hoped for didn’t come to fruition? I know I have.
Our reading begins with a bold definition of faith: ‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ When we accept that assurance, when we have a conviction about something not observable, when we believe where we have not seen, that’s faith.
The author of Hebrews uses Abraham and Sarah as an example of faith, traveling at the request of God, not knowing where they were going, but believing in the promise God made them. And the example used today aren’t the only one we have for Abraham, or Sarah, their story gives us many examples of the strength of their faith in the face of uncertainty and risk.
From a couple too old to have children came countless generations of faithful children of God, all because Sarah and Abraham had faith.
Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard coined the phrase ‘leap of faith’ to describe a religious belief in God. And we can all identify with the concept, as we have all likely taken many leaps in the living of our lives.
Acting on our faith does feel like a leap, sometimes, feels like jumping into the air without knowing what will break our fall. When we do it, we are demonstrating our faith, our belief in the assurance of things hoped for, showing the world our conviction in things not seen.
Sometimes we’re afraid to jump, sometimes we don’t give a second thought. Abraham and Sarah took the leap, several times, and God made good on God’s promise.
Can Sarah and Abraham be models for us? In our modern world, with our modern lives, can Abraham’s and Sarah’s faith be something we could emulate?
A while back, when Fairmount was still in our old building, a couple announced during joys and concerns that they had two joys to share: they were celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary, and, that they weren’t pregnant!
Aside from being just plain funny, Hugh’s comment gets to the heart of a sort of distance faithful children of God have from our biblical forebears. Are the concerns that Sarah and Abraham lived through similar enough to ours that they can serve as models for us, in our living out our faith lives?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Can a piece of writing nearly 2,000 years old, intended for a community at risk for losing its faith give us hope, give us strength when our faith falters? For me, this is a much more likely scenario. But the miracle of God’s Holy Word is that it can have a deep and powerful effect on people, long after they were written. Our faith tells us this.
God’s Word, after 2,000 years, can offer us assurance in the things we hope for, can convict us in things not seen. So it’s not a huge leap to think that on some level, even if we aren’t in our 90’s, even if we aren’t looking to have children, that Sarah and Abraham’s story can feed our faith too.
On our worst days, in our worst moments, in the throes of our deepest pain, God is there for us. God doesn’t cause those things to happen. And we are not alone.
On our best days, in the best moments of our lives, in the excitement of our joy, God is also there for us. God doesn’t cause those things to happen. And we are not alone.
On these two things alone, we could be taking leaps of faith all over the place! With God ready to catch us, we could be taking all kinds of risks to live out the good news. But do we? Not as much as we could, I’m sure.
God got Abraham and Sarah’s attention by promising them the one thing they couldn’t have: children. They did what God asked them to do because they were worried about their legacy. How does God get our attention? What would God have to promise each of us to get our attention, to get us to go where God sends us?
The Letter to the Hebrews was intended for a community that was being challenged by persecution for their faith, and being challenged by disappointment that Jesus had not yet returned, as he had promised. Many of us may not be able to relate to either of those things, as we aren’t persecuted for the practice of our faith, and we may only think about Jesus’ return a couple of times a year when we’re reminded by scripture.
And yet there is obvious hope and encouragement here for us. These are words of comfort, holy words, that still ring true with God’s intentions.
We can leap. We can risk. We can get creative in the ways we live our faith lives, because whatever we do or don’t do, God has our backs. God will catch us if we stumble, and God will guide us if we lose our way.
Even if Jesus doesn’t return for another 2000 years, the truth in God’s word, in God’s love, and in God’s encouragement remains constant.
Doesn’t that make you want to leap for joy? It does for me. Amen.