Sermon for Proper 17 C
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Once I was at a meal with a dear friend at a Greek restaurant. It was one of those order-at-the-counter-then-take-your-seat places. We sat down and immediately the server brought olives, pita bread, and hummus. I was famished and I immediately dove into the appetizer, as did she. As we chatted and solved the world’s problems the main meal was brought. The server laid out my gyro and salad, but nothing for my friend. I said, “Didn’t you order anything?” “Yes,” she said, “Oh,” I said, looking around, “What did you get?” “Well,” she said sheepishly, “I ordered olives, pita bread, and hummus.”
Worst meal companion ever. I just pounced on her food. I think I remember being embarrassed and offering some of my food to her, she shared and we laughed. That’s what I remember at least, and that’s the story that I’ll stick to.
You ever do anything like that? Ever do something that was rude or just bad etiquette?
Today Jesus is teaching about etiquette. How one should sit at a banquet. It’s all good advice, in order to avoid embarrassment: “don’t take the place of honor in case someone better comes along displaces you, better to take the lower spot and then be elevated.” Jesus is basically rephrasing a popular Jewish proverb. Back in the Greco-Roman world at banquet meals the host of the meal would invite and seat people based on material or social wealth. It created a system of tit for tat, quid pro quo invitations and honoring. If someone of low estate sat in a place of honor then they would be humiliated to be moved. However, the lowly could be elevated to a more honorable position. It was a way of indicating the social mobility of a person but also an opportunity of your own.
Jesus then offers a more spiritual interpretation of the need to socially not place one’s self above their station: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." This is not only good social advice, let those with election-ears hear; but it’s also sound spiritual advice: God seems to work against the normal worldly ordering of things, we see this a lot in the Bible: backwater tribes like Israel, stuttering murderers like Moses, unprepared arborists like the prophet Amos, and carpenters living in an occupied land like Jesus: God takes what the world considers lowly and exalts it, and the opposite is true as well: God is unimpressed and unbought by our achievements and privileges; indeed God is not swayed or moved by even our morality. Instead we learn about how God would have things and we learn that we are loved and accepted before and, even despite, our attempts at morality, which, let’s face it, is many times our attempt at exalting ourselves.
So far so good. The story continues in our gospel, Jesus says 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.” And here we see that Jesus may have been an even worse meal guest as I was. Jesus is pushing against the normal custom and even reason for having a banquet. The banquet in the ancient world was partially to show off and increase your own social capital. Jesus isn’t the most mannerly of guests because he is cutting through the social veneer of why and how everyone in the room got there in the first place and he is criticizing the host.
And he’s not done yet, “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." It is because they cannot repay that the blessing can be found, because the normal ordering of things, the tit for tat, quid pro quo, the using each other for social gain, all that is short circuited in this new way of being together.
So what’s this look like? I would caution all of you to not to immediately spiritualize this reading too quickly. Undoubtedly there is a powerful lesson about humility as a spiritual discipline but let’s get to that in a minute, first: who are you hanging out with? Are these only people that can “pay you back”? Are the people that you have around you just like you who help to secure a certain kind of life? Are you inviting other kinds of people into your life? Our society has been carefully constructed to keep the full spectrum of people apart, and you had better believe that such separation is good for business and the powers that be. Being around other people that can’t pay you back is part of the work of this church, if you don’t have opportunity to hold the kind of banquets that Jesus is talking about, join some of our mission and outreach work, we make it really easy to jump right, in fact, why not join the group making sandwiches for Urban Ministry Center right after this service, or better yet, help out at the Men’s Shelter today at 4:00 to dip your toes into one of these kind of banquets?
But more than this, more than inviting others not like you into banquets; when was the last time you were invited into a banquet that you couldn’t repay? Most of us are quite powerful and comfortable, and the kinds of banquets that we get invited to it’s easy to pay people back; but we are only powerful and comfortable because we have kept ourselves in situations where we retain the social, political and cultural power. What if we routinely placed ourselves in places and times where the best thing for us to do would be to shut up and listen, to learn, to just be with? What if we both gave and were invited to banquets where paying back is just not an option?
This is precisely why Jesus gave us the meal. The meal of Jesus is a special way of living out this banquet where repayment is impossible. There is nothing we can do to repay in full what God has done and is doing for us. That bears repeating: There is nothing we can do to repay in full what God has done and is doing for us. So we live this life in which God has fully accepted us and loves us so desperately, we live this life of a banquet that is utterly free and open to us. Now what? We can’t pay that back to the one who threw the banquet. What to do? First of all, I think we go to the meal, to the banquet, and we keep going back so that we can learn how to live like that banquet. Then I think we go out and make our lives like the kind of banquet that Jesus is describing.
So we can go back and read Jesus’ saying that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” is in fact a spiritual skill for how to live closer to what God would want. But it is not merely spiritual. Don’t get me wrong, our spiritual side is vital, but to separate inside and outside, personal and public is to do violence to what Jesus was all about. The spiritual and the physical, the social, in Jesus Christ are utterly bound together, inseparable and mixed. As Marion preached a couple months ago: “we need to put legs on our prayers.” To live a life like Jesus, and that is the entire point my sisters and brothers, our spiritual lives must be mirrored in our public lives. And the converse is true: our public lives are an indicator of what’s going on spiritually.
That to me is a frightful truth: our public lives are an indicator of what’s going on inside, spiritually. I’ll have to sit with that reality for a bit. But I’m encouraged to remember that all of this teaching that Jesus gives us today is in the context of a banquet, a party. Jesus is inviting us into a party where the normal ordering of things, paying and paying back is suspended in favor of a whole bunch of humble people elevating each other over and over again so that all are honored and loved as they should be.
That sounds good, that’s a party I’d go to, want to join me?