Impossible guest list and other difficult acts of faith

September 1, 2019 (The 12th Sunday after Pentecost)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Jeremiah 2:4–13

Psalm 81:1, 10–16

Luke 14:1, 7–14

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

14:1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12 He said also 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. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:1, 7-14, NRSV)

Let us pray: Lord God, friend of those in need, your Son Jesus has untied our burdens and healed our spirits. We lift the prayers of our hearts for those still burdened, those seeking healing that we may love you with our whole being and willingly share the concerns of our neighbors. Amen.

Hello, my name is Stephen Caine and I believe in Jesus Christ.  I imagine you did not expect that as a sermon starter today.   I guess that most of you assumed that as an ordained clergy person it would go without saying that I believe in Jesus, the son of the living God.  You would be surprised to know how many clergy don’t believe. But this sermon is not about that, no.  This sermon is focused on how hard it is to follow Jesus, the only begotten son of God born in a manger, lived and walked the dusty roads of Palestine, ate with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick and cured the lame, was betrayed by his closest followers, was tried, found guilty and died a horrible death on a cross.  Now it is not hard to say those words, but it is hard to believe them.  But this sermon is not only about belief in Jesus because that is easier than what he is challenging us to do.

It seems fairly easy to say the words on a Sunday morning that we follow Jesus or believe in him and yet it is nearly impossible to live them out.   

We have a mantra in our house that when one of us is feeling down about ourselves, worried or anxious about how we are measuring up or fitting in…that it is time to go and visit someone else. Monnie often says to me get out of yourself and go visit someone, talk to somebody else, get out of your own head for a while. Focus on someone else and what they are dealing with.

In a roundabout way that is what Jesus is saying in this gospel lesson, move beyond your normal group of friends, invite others to your party, invite some people for whom there is no payoff or gain.  Expand your life, your circle of influence, your group of friends. Invite people who can never pay you back and from whom you will not gain any social status or upward mobility.  This is not easy! This is really hard!

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus challenges his host about the make-up of his guest list. “By inviting your friends and family and your neighbors who are in your social class, you have made sure that you have lost nothing, risked nothing, spent nothing, sacrificed nothing, actually done nothing that qualifies you as a host in the spiritual sense of the word.   You have invited only people who can afford to return the favor and invite you to their house and feed you there.   This is a nice social event, its good fellowship, but it’s not real Biblical hospitality.”[1]

Biblical hospitality is about taking a risk on behalf of the strangers and aliens in your midst.   It is rooted in the Hebrew awareness that we are all, every one of us, strangers here on this earth.[2]

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Remember that groundbreaking movie from the late 1960’s?   For those of you who don’t it was a movie that starred Spencer Tracy, Sidney Potier, Katherine Hepburn, and Katharine Houghton.   It tells the story of the daughter of an upper-class white family, Joanna Drayton (played by Houghton), who comes home from a vacation to tell her parents that she is getting married. She tells them that she is going to marry a young physician also from an upper-class family named John Prentice (played by Potier). As the plot thickens when Joanna Drayton brings John Prentice home to dinner to meet her parents who do not know that John is black; John’s parents also come into town for this big dinner at the Drayton’s home so that the families can meet.   John’s parents don’t know that Joanna is white until they meet her at the airport.   I will not spoil the rest of the story but the important take away is this; it might not seem like such a big deal today but way back in 1967 it was very controversial.  Especially for a mainline movie to present a positive representation of a such a controversial subject like interracial marriage was quite bold.  Bold because interracial marriage was illegal in most states and at the time the movie came out it was still illegal in 17 states.  This movie presents a cultural taboo of that time and it does so around the dinner table because who’s at the table says something about who’s in and who’s out.

The dinner table is not only where one may say grace; it is the space where one extends grace.  Tables in the ancient world were places where philosophers and teachers could share their wisdom.   Tables were also the place where a community’s identity could be marked; a Near Eastern proverb declares, “I saw them eating and I knew who they were.” Who we share a meal with says something about us.

To the gospel writer Luke, “nothing [is] …more serious than a dining table”[3] Which leads to the hard part of following Jesus.  I imagine that most of us can say that we believe in Jesus, we call ourselves Christians, most of us come to church on a regular basis, we try to do the right thing, take care of our loved ones, our families and our friends.   But it is hard to do much more because it takes so much effort to reach out, to love others, to speak to people who don’t look, act, believe, vote like you do.  So how in the world are we going to invite them to dinner?

Why would I invite a smelly homeless person to my dinner table?  Why would I invite a drug addict to eat with my family?  Why would I invite a prostitute into my home with my spouse and children?  Why? Jesus, do you want me to do that?   I don’t want to do that.   I have nothing to gain.  I have everything to lose. They could steal from me, they could ruin my reputation, they could upset the neighbors.   Absolutely nothing good can come of inviting one of them to eat dinner with me and my family.  Aha!  Jesus has baited the hook and set it and I have taken it in.

I heard of a book this week entitled The Best of Enemies, written by Osha Gray Davidson.  She tells the story of Durham, North Carolina during the 1960’s and 70’s and how two people from opposite parts of town came together.  The first, a woman named Ann Atwater, an African American single mother and a maid, who was from a poor black section of town. The other person, named C.P. Ellis. Ellis grew up in the poor white section of Durham and as a young man joined the Ku Klux Klan, eventually becoming the Exalted Cyclops of the Durham KKK.

The book details how these enemies, came together to bring about change to a Southern city around the difficult political issue of court ordered school desegregation.  These two individuals ultimately became friends and welcomed each other to each other’s table for a meal.  It was truly a glimpse of the kingdom of God played out in Durham North Carolina in the shadow of Duke University.[4]

Inviting the other to join us at the table is not just a nice thing to do.  It is the right thing to do but it is a hard thing to do.  In fact, it makes for a better table and a better life. Having people around the table who don’t look like us, act like us, talk like us, think like us, who are not us, helps us understand the beauty of God a bit better and it makes for a better life.  So, challenge yourself and invite someone new to break bread with you…it just might change your life.

Let us pray:

[1] Reverend Dr. Delmer Chilton

[2] Reverend Dr. Delmer Chilton

[3] Rev. Luke A. Powery, The Welcome Table, Duke Chapel quoting Reverend Dr. Fred Craddock.

[4] Rev. Luke A. Powery, The Welcome Table, Duke Chapel