Hospitality – September 1, 2019

This past Sunday we had some technical issues that led to us not being able to post a video of the sermon. For those who may not know, I write my sermons in script – not typing. They are not always full “manuscripts” either but enough notes to get me through the sermon. So, what I am posting today may be what I said on Sunday or it could be what I wished I had said on Sunday. Either way, I don’t let it get in the way of what I hoped I heard in the midst of it – Good News for all!

Luke 14:1, 7-14 Common English Bible

14 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to share a meal in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, they were watching him closely…
When Jesus noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table, he told them a parable. “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host. The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. 10 Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11 All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

12 Then Jesus said to the person who had invited him, “When you host a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, or rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you in return and that will be your reward. 13 Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. 14 And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.”

 

It was the last week of my seminary education at Duke, a very busy time. Celebrations were scheduled. Family was coming to town. A very busy time.

The Divinity School had made arrangements with our publishing house in the United Methodist Church to offer training to students on the “hottest” new Bible study program – Disciple Bible Study. The training would normally cost a pastor several hundreds of dollars and this perk looked like something I should check out – at least the first day. I would have to miss a couple of important events but I honestly thought I would attend a session or two and then just not come back due to lack of interest.

Somewhere in the training I got hooked. And I was glad I did. In some ways, the training I received over those three days were more useful than a lot of the classes I had spent weeks in during seminary.

Over the years I have led several Disciple groups in churches that I have served and I am certain that it was offered here at First Church as well. (Out of curiosity, could I see a show of hands of the number of people who have been involved in DBS?) About what I guessed it would be.

One of my favorite parts of Disciple both in teaching and taking the course was the way it handled the Gospel of Luke. Something about the title of those lessons stuck with me – “The Least, the Last and the Lost.” DBS explained that Luke wrote that particular Gospel from the perspective of that group of people – the least, the last, and the lost. It was the Gospel of the people on the margins, the people on the outside, those who were not religious insiders.

As I prepared for this week’s message, it was disconcerting as I kept reading through this particular story about Jesus spending his Sabbath day with Pharisees (consummate religious insiders) and very wealthy Pharisees at that. In some ways the Jesus of “The Least, The Last, and The Lost” seemed to take a break from the gospel narrative Luke was weaving. I kept asking, “What is Luke’s Jesus doing with all these people who are trying to impress God with their ability to keep rules.

And the more I read it, the more troubled I became. Until…until I noticed something peculiar happening in the text. These Pharisees who stuck their claim on religious righteousness by obeying the Law to its fullest extent were breaking the Sabbath! They were throwing a dinner party on the Sabbath – the day they were supposed to be honoring God. Now, I know, they could indeed invite a guest or two to their Sabbath meal, but it is quite apparent in this text that there is a whole lot more going on than that. This was an all out celebration of all things Pharisaical.

And believe it or not, that made Jesus’ presence sensible to me. Suddenly, Jesus is hanging out with the “rule breaking, rule keepers.” (Some might call them the hypocrites, but I just prefer to see them as yet another group of “the lost.”) They were breaking the Sabbath by partying even as they accused Jesus (their guest at the party, no less) of breaking the Sabbath by healing people!

The irony of it all hit me.

The thing about trying to get close to God by keeping all the rules is pretty simple: your faith has everything to do with ‘what you do’ and nothing at all with what ‘God does for you.’

And sure enough, as they gathered for their Sabbath shattering gathering, it was all about them. So much so that Jesus tells a parable about a wedding feast where the guests are jockeying for the best seats at the table. In some odd way, this parable of Jesus affirmed the Pharisees tacit acknowledgement that the Sabbath was made for humans while pointing out that they were missing the point of being invited to take part in what God could offer them by way of invitation. They would rather just point to themselves instead of waiting to be invited forward.

Jesus is saying, “Sure, have your big parties – even on the Sabbath – but if you really want to do them right, give seats of honor to the least. At the very minimum, don’t grab these seats for yourself because the host might just know to whom it really belongs. The host might show hospitality to “the least”.

And in this story we know who the host honored the most. Right after the parable, Jesus turns to that host to address him personally. Now, I am pretty certain Jesus could have pulled this off from any position at the table, but there is something about Luke’s telling of this story that makes it obvious that Jesus is seated at the place of honor – just to the right of the host. He turns to him and offers him some words that most people see as words of “warning” or maybe even condemnation.

I don’t get that.

I see Jesus thanking the host for including this homeless, wandering, Nazarene teacher as the guest of honor at the Sabbath shattering dinner party. Jesus is thanking him and letting him know that by continuing to invite people that could never pay him back with an invitation of their own, this Pharisee is really going to see some fabulous rewards.

And then there are those who are invited to a Table this morning – a Table that is hosted by Jesus. The invitation has been extended to us and if we take it we know that we could never, ever, really pay back the invitee.

Jesus is the host.

Jesus is the very Feast.

Jesus is the presence that we all need.

So, what are we to do?

When you walked into the Narthex of the Mt. Hope United Methodist Church on Sunday morning you would almost always see a snow shovel hanging on several of the coat hooks that lined the wall. It was not waiting for winter to be used, but instead had painted on it words that had been carried all through the town that morning – “Repent! Jesus is coming!”

Somewhere near the fourth row from the back – on the right hand side as you entered the sanctuary –just outside the pew and just enough in the way to trip an unsuspecting guest, you would find a pair of oversized, pull-over, rubber, snow boots as well. And you would be right to assume that the boots and the shovel belonged to the same person.

Paul – or “Crazy Paul” as the kids of Mt. Hope had christened him with their words and the occasional pelting of rocks – would be in that fourth pew from the back. His heavy winter coat on during all seasons for fear that when that sun went dark and the moon turned to blood, he might be cold and unprepared. His beard was hanging down upon his chest with the obvious crumbs from breakfasts past peppered among the hairs.

Paul was as faithful to that little church as any one of the pew racks – he was there every time the doors were open and sometimes the imagination of a child would think he was there even when the doors were locked tight.

However, on communion Sundays, when the pastor would stand at the front and offer the little cups of Jesus blood and the little cubes of Jesus body, Paul would come forward with the rest of the crowd. But he was different than the rest too. Paul would come with those weathered hands that held the snow shovel sign as he walked through town, gently crossed over one another like a beggar who would be happy with the crumbs from his own beard. He would come forward and “receive” communion – he never took it – he received it as the gift it was to him. He knew he could never pay it back.

My sisters and brothers, like in the gospel of the Least, the Last and the Lost this morning, hospitality is offered at the Table we come to today. It’s offered for rule keepers who fail gloriously and for all those who realize we can never pay it back.

And as we leave this Table today, may re remember the host/honored guest whispering in our ears like he did the host in that story we read – “Everything you need to know about hospitality you just learned here.” Everything. Whether you are in the church or at work. Whether you are at your home or talking to the server in the restaurant. Hospitality is learned at this Table.

Amen.

Looking Around

In the Fall of 1989, I was headed back to college after a break of a couple of years.  I was a new student pastor – in Kincaid, WV – and a new student at what is now West Virginia University of Technology.  (It was just known as WV Tech when I was there.)  I had spent the summer getting to know my two new churches, was enjoying the “newness” of ministry and really looking forward to getting back and finishing my education.

The first day of classes arrived and I found myself running late to make the trip across the mountain that separated Kincaid and Montgomery.  I rushed out of the house and then back into it to get my book bag and then hurried toward my car a second time.  I got in, started it up and backed up in my parking area (yes, the parsonage actually had a space where you could park four or five cars – the down side of that was that you had a steep driveway to get onto Johnson Branch Rd.) and within a second or two found myself stopping abruptly and unexpectedly as I smashed into another vehicle parked behind me.

Now, if I back up a couple of days I can explain how the vehicle got there… My neighbors across the street were have a lot of company visiting them from time to time and graciously I invited them to park in this nice parking area since there home had very limited parking.  Well, obviously my neighbor took me up on the offer and her brother from Ohio paid the price.    I tore the tailgate right off of his truck as I backed up in a rush that morning not even checking my rearview mirror simply because I had become so accustomed to driving there that I didn’t think I needed to pay attention.

Oh, they were gracious in accepting my apologies and were even good enough to work out a reduced price for me to pay for the damages.  However, no one from that family ever parked in the area again!

Sometimes, I fear that we are so accustomed to seeing certain things around us – or not seeing them – that we fail to notice when something changes.  (How many people have seen the new signs for Princeton?  Has anyone noticed that the dead tree in the fountain area across from the church has been removed?)

My reason for telling all this is pretty simple: If we desire to be the church in the heart of Princeton then one of the main things we will have to do is keep our eyes open no matter how many times we are around our community.  There are countless ways that we can show our love (be the heart) for this community – if we aren’t to busy getting to our destination that we fail to notice what is really happening around us.

Jesus is ready to come back to this community and we can pave the way by spending our treasures – time, talents and resources – where we see the needs.  That is, as long as we aren’t so busy that we back into them and cause damage instead.

The church in the heart of Princeton!  I know we love this place and we love this community.  I just pray that we are ready to be Jesus as each and every opportunity arises!

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give alms.  Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.  (Luke 12:32-34, 40 NRSV)