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 of Paul to the Galatians. He was writing to a group of churches that he had established, and, like some of his other letters to other churches, this one addresses some of the conflicts that were tearing the young churches apart.
Likely written 45 to 55 years after Jesus ascended to heaven, it speaks to the churches internal disagreements that were apparently sparked by some traveling missionaries, who had taught that Gentiles wishing to become Christian, and even the churches looking to welcome them should put into place some of the traditional Jewish rites like circumcision, food observances, Sabbath, and festivals.
The section we’ve read today is the final section of a fairly short letter, and it summarizes and encourages the churches in Galatia to address their conflicts with mutual responsibility. Having made his detailed argument earlier in the letter, Paul uses his concluding words to focus on Jesus, and on our Lord and Savior’s commandment that we love each other as he has loved us.
Although this letter was written to a specific set of churches for a specific reason, one of the miracles of our Holy Scriptures is that we can apply these sacred words to many other areas of our own modern lives. The approach Paul exhorts his churches to take is an approach that we, too, would be wise to take, should we ever encounter serious conflict in the church, in our community, or in our family.
Now, those of us gathered in person and on-line can count ourselves blessed that there are not existential threats looming in our worshiping community. We aren’t torn as to how we might go forward in faith. Our Mission, Worship, Congregational Life, and combined leadership are all of one accord, and since we began working together to be one worshiping community, our time has been marked by a deep, mutual respect and an abiding love; for each other, for God, and for Jesus. God is good.
Even though both congregations may have experienced serious conflict in the past, and that is not uncommon for churches, our present is relatively conflict-free.
On the other hand, the conflicts that have arisen in our political and cultural lives is a clear and present danger to the very foundational principles upon which our country has been founded. There are only a few times in our nation’s history when it’s people have been so polarized, so divided, so entrenched.
This most recently concluded Supreme Court Term has simply thrown gasoline onto a fire that was already burning with red and blue flames over the legitimacy of our last presidential election.
Vilifying, demonizing, and ridiculing each other over what freedom means, our country is as divided as the churches in Galatia were back in Paul’s day. And while my own personal understanding of freedom is that we can’t mandate how another believes, or what sacred text they must adhere to, it seems to me that Paul has a pretty good strategy for lowering the temperature on what ails us these days.
For those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus, Paul’s advice to the churches in Galatia is clear: if we detect any of our neighbors in a transgression, we should treat them with a spirit of gentleness.
That’s right, as angry and as frustrated and as confused as we may be, no matter which side of the culture wars we stand, we are called to treat the one’s who oppose us with a spirit of gentleness, with respect. In fact, Paul would say that we should be working with those with whom we disagree with mutual respect and care, because our very existence as a community depends upon it.
That doesn’t mean we can’t protest, that doesn’t mean we can’t vote for our political leaders that we believe will lead us best, that doesn’t mean we can’t resist unjust oppression, in all its forms. It means that when we encounter each other in those activities, treating each other with a spirit of gentleness will help us focus on what’s really important.
I know some of you will say that in our current climate, a spirit of gentleness is inadequate in the face of such intense disagreement, but what seems to be fueling our entrenched partisanship is our finger pointing and our dismissal of those with whom we disagree as evil.
How is it that we, as a faith community, seem to be able to put aside our private, political differences, and focus on being God calls us to be? I mean, we can’t all believe the same things, we must represent the political diversity that is present in our country today, and yet, here we are, today, focused on God’s Holy Word, intent on worshiping together, sharing a sacred meal together, and we seem to be able to leave our political and cultural differences at the door. Paul would be happy about that.
So what are we to do, in this climate of burning partisanship, when the foundational concept of keeping our faith separate from our politics is under attack?
Can we take what we do here, and apply it to our wider culture? It’s hard, because here, we put that stuff away in order to worship. In the wider culture, the voices can be public, strident, insistent, and often caustic, and there isn’t a unified focus at all.
Can we apply our faith principles to how we approach these political and cultural clashes? Of course we can! We can seek comfort from the one who calls us on the way, and who has given us a spirit of gentleness as a guide along the way.
Violence, either physical, emotional, or verbal, flies in the face of what Paul, and ultimately Jesus, calls us to be. Even if those whom we oppose don’t reciprocate, striving for mutual respect and using the spirit of gentleness as a guide may be our best tool for affecting change.
While we need to resist the powers that oppress, and while we need to oppose the acts that strip freedoms away from the vulnerable, Paul tells us that we must take care not to get carried away in the rhetoric of argument. That when we approach conflict with the intent of using a spirit of gentleness, it will have its own rewards, just as those who don’t will have their own consequences.
But even as all this is going up in flames, the real victims are those who do not have a voice, those who do not have access to power, or financial resources, who have impossible decisions to make in their lives.
I know it sounds naïve, I know some of you could say that this is an unrealistic and ineffective approach to such big conflicts. I know that some will come to realize that Jesus took the ‘resistance with a spirit of gentleness’ approach to the culture wars of his day, and look where it got him.
But if our resistance to oppression, if our resistance to the systemic ills in our government and society, and if our resistance to those in power who would seek to limit or even eliminate freedoms from some of our neighbors, if they aren’t based on a spirit of gentleness, if they aren’t based in love, and instead are based on anger and hate, well, we’ve then become that which we despise.
Katherine Lee Bates, author of the lyrics to the hymn, O Beautiful for Spacious Skies, had a spirit of gentleness, and a wider view of our country. In her refrain from the second stanza of her hymn, she writes: America! America! God mend thine every flaw; confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!
A gentle way of saying that as a country, we aren’t perfect, and that we need God to help us get better.
These are big issues, and I will admit that I feel wholly inadequate in trying to address them theologically or biblically. But our faith has a powerful role to play in the way that we live. Our faith has a role in the way that we resist oppression, and the abuse of power. And in spite of the intensity of the conflict, Paul’s advice to a church in conflict is that they take on a spirit of gentleness when addressing one with whom they disagree, even if the ones with whom they disagree won’t join them.
Our country is best when its glorious diversity is celebrated, not squelched. Our country is best when its freedoms are respected, not rolled back. Our country is best when its citizens act on its behalf with the very best of intentions, based on the very best of their own faith impulses or philosophy.
May God mend our every flaw, and may the spirit of gentleness guide our journey that as we live our faith lives, we become hope for the hopeless, comfort for the uncomfortable, joy for the joyless, and a voice for the vulnerable. These are the things Paul would consider important. And so should we. Amen.