August 28th, 2016
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
If your family is like my family, you might often begin your meals with a prayer like the one I learned to pray growing up: "Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed. Amen." My family prayed that prayer three times a day as I grew up--I still remember the strange feeling I got when I went over to other kids' houses and found that they did not pray that prayer, or that they didn't even pray at all. For me, it became as automatic and almost as thoughtless as adjusting your clothes after you stand up--you just do it so you can be comfortable. In fact, I began to learn that people have actually added couplets to the prayer: to "Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed," some pious souls like to tack on, "Blessed be God who is our bread, may all the world be clothed and fed." I remember hearing that for the first time and just thinking--what? No! Don't ruin the prayer! It's a nice sentiment of course, everybody wants the whole world to be clothed and fed, but this little innovation, does two bad things: one it shifts the petition of the prayer from us addressing Jesus to us addressing each other, and secondly, it also has this horrible passive voiced wish that all the hungry people in all the world will suddenly be filled. It always struck me as self-righteous and self-sastisfactory: you might pray that an absent Jesus comes and blesses your food, but I pray that God, who I know feeds me spiritually all the time, clothes and feeds the hungry. I have literally seen shade passed around church dining tables through this proxy couplet war, smug little grins that say, "We prayed the other couplet and you didn't!" And one time, I led a table grace, "Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, etc." then the innovators added, "Blessed be God, who is our bread." They do this, of course, as your Amening, but just as they said their Amens with firm self-satisfaction, and then some wild and crazy left-wingers went ahead and said something that I have blocked out of my mind, it was so righteous.
But here's the problem with this little faith practice of mine and of many Lutherans: if you really invite Jesus into your home, do not get comfortable. Do not expect to stay comfortable. If you invite Jesus into your home, Jesus is not coming alone: Jesus is your guest, but Jesus is bringing a whole lot of friends you didn't invite and you might not like. And if you're praying for all the world to be fed, Jesus might just bring someone in and say, "Here's this hungry person. Feed him." Will we be ready for that? Jesus might come to our homes and say, "Here's this naked person you prayed for. Clothe her." Are we ready to go back to the closet and bring out the jeans and the T-shirts? Maybe, if we prayed, and maybe, if we really did welcome Jesus at our tables as our honored king, guest, and friend. But truthfully, when I think about what I'm actually praying for in that little prayer, I get a little worried. I sometimes think that I'm like that Pharisee, who wants Jesus to come and enjoy a meal and some sparkling conversation, while I enjoy a nice big glass of a peppery Zinfandel and sit at the head of the table. I want Jesus to stay for desert and tell me how good everything tastes: I don't know if I really want Jesus to provoke me and shock me and bring all his poor, blind, lame, mentally ill, addicted friends.
Because that's what's happening in this Gospel text this morning. Some Pharisee saw Jesus at work, and saw how all the people were mentioning his name and praising him in the streets for all the good he was doing. And he thought, I should invite this popular new preacher to my house, to see what he's all about. This Pharisee is part of his cultural world--an invitation was not a way of opening for friendship, exactly. It was a way of discerning social status--you could literally see the social hierarchy at banquets like these. The highest sat in places of honor, up and above, in some arrangement near the host; the lowest sat the furthest away. The Pharisee wanted to check him out, to see what seat in the village hierarchy Jesus ought to occupy. You can bet there was an examination of the adequacy of the table blessings. Our Proverbs text gives us a bit of advice on navigating the social hierarchy of those places and times: deliberately sit lower than you think you deserve, so that when the host invites you sit at a higher place, everyone will know the value you hold. And that's much better than being shown to a lower place, which will make everyone laugh at you. Jesus seems to be repeating this quote to his hosts, who probably know it very well.
But notice that Jesus has a different motivation here than societal honor. Jesus does not worry about societal honor at all because he is the King of the eternal kingdom, and his very presence among the people was a sign that he himself had taken a seat with the lowly. As a matter of fact, Jesus took this advice from Proverbs and ran with it all the way--from the highest seat of honor at God's right hand, full of honor and glory and power, to the seat of execution on a cross, a gross miscarriage of human justice. This, in a way, is the entire point of the incarnation: that God, holy and immortal, became a mortal creature, and took sin on his very own shoulders. Jesus says, "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted." Jesus is speaking not only about his followers but also about himself: the exalted Son of God humbles himself, and is lifted up, exalted in death on a cross. The most glorious God becomes a horribly executed criminal, bloodied and beaten, but, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us in its beginning passages, "When he had made purification for our sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he inherited is more excellent than theirs."
And now Jesus proceeds to tell us how to throw a party, with instructions I imagine very few of us follow. He says, don't invite your friends or family, with the hope that some day you will get repaid by receiving an invitation in turn. Remember this advice when Christmas comes around and you stress over how much to spend on your cousin. But, Jesus says, "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."
And again, Jesus here embodies the instructions he gives to those that would follow him. Who can repay Jesus for what he has done? Can the woman, who had been bent over for eighteen year, whom he freed from her ailment, which caused the uproar of the crowds and precipitated the invitation to the banquet, have paid Jesus back? Could any of us, receiving pardon and grace and the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, ever pay Jesus back? Jesus says in another Gospel, what can you give in return for your life? But we are blessed because we together with all the suffering people of the world, we also have a place in God's banquet. We also get an invitation, even those of us who are healthy and wealthy and powerful--yes, even you, the least of the kingdom, get invited to the banquet.
A couple days ago, I was putting Lucy asleep. I sit in a chair and rock her until she lets a breath go with a big heave and lets her arms flop down, and starts with a gentle, cute snore. I looked at her face, which, even though the room was dark, I could make out thanks to the glow of the streetlights and building lights that seep in through the window shade. Her mouth was open, her head tilted back. I love that face so much. I thought I could just stare at it all night--I wanted to store it in a vault where it would never be touched or harmed or hurt. Of course I know that's crazy. I also know most parents look at their children the same way I look at mine. Lucy is a normal child, literally one a billion others. But to me she's the most precious, just as I imagine Beatrix and Stella are to Jaquan and Hiedi, as any of your children are to you.
Jesus wants us to know, today, that you are even more precious to him than our children are to us. He wants you to know, today, that every person, whether we find them ugly or attractive, heroic or cowardly, useful or useless, is more precious to God than our children are to us. So precious, in fact, that the one who was most exalted humbled himself so that we may be exalted. So be careful what you pray for at lunch. Be careful--you might think you're praying right, but you have no idea how much God loves all of these people in this world. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack