This sermon was preached September 1, 2013, at the Tunbridge Church; Gospel reading was Luke 7.1, 7-14. I preached a similar sermon at East Barnard last Sunday, with the Luke reading as well as Isaiah 61.1-3. The second sermon was only loosely based on this one, since I went off-text to talk about the immigration crisis and two responses to it: there’s the Murietta, California, response, which is to shout ethnic slurs and spit at immigrants, and there’s the McAllen, Texas, response, which is heartening.
I had only been living in New York for a couple of weeks. Orientation to the seminary had just ended, and classes were about to begin. My friend Amy and I were on the subway, travelling to a get-together at a restaurant a couple of miles away; both of us were new to the city, and we just sort of drank in the diversity and number of people in the world.
An older Indian couple boarded the train at one stop. She wore a faded sari—no gold thread, no bright colors. It had once been gorgeous, but now it was faded and threadbare. He wore an old suit in navy blue. The style was decades out of date and the hems were a little frayed, but you could tell he’d taken good care of it. His shoes were creased and worn, but freshly polished. You could tell they didn’t have much money. You could tell they worked hard. Mostly, I just got the overwhelming feeling that God loved these people.
I don’t remember the appearance of anyone else on the train or details about what they wore. I remember that everyone looked completely different and unique, but somehow gorgeous. And I remember that I felt awe in the presence of all these people beloved of God. I turned to Amy and whispered, “Everyone is so beautiful.” And she turned to me and said, “I was just thinking that exact thing.” It was a moment of grace, a sacrament which allowed us both to see every human being at that moment as precious, a unique and wondrous creation of God.
Later on in my stay in Manhattan I sometimes dreaded needing to take the subway. It was often crowded, hot, and stinky, especially in the summer. The line I needed to take wasn’t air-conditioned. And the rudeness of some New Yorkers often made me dread it even more. But every once in a while I’d experience the awe of that early subway ride. Instead of trying to avoid getting caught looking at my fellow passengers, which is what New Yorkers typically do on the subway, I’d look around and think, “Wow, everyone is so beautiful.”
It’s this kind of grace, I think, that Jesus wants to make us ready for in today’s Gospel reading. Here he is, watching people at a dinner party choose seats. Now, Palestine in Jesus’ day was what anthropologists call an honor-shame society. In such a culture, men’s social role is to seek and retain honor. When the book of Proverbs says that “a good name—or reputation—is more desirable than great riches,” this is what it’s talking about: honor. If you don’t have honor, you haven’t got anything, you’re a social nothing. So a dinner party in such a culture is of course going to be peopled by men all wanting the place of honor at the table. Willfully choosing a place of less honor at the bottom of the table would be unthinkable, much more so in that time and place than it is today.
It’s in light of this upsetting of cultural norms that the second part of the passage should be read. Jesus is not telling us that we shouldn’t get together for meals with our friends and families—after all, consider how often the Gospels depict Jesus and his disciples in gatherings with friends. No, it’s the banquet’s use for gaining honor and power that Jesus speaks to.
Imagine a politician or a powerful Wall Street banker hosting a dinner party. Chances are, this banquet is not going to be about hanging out with friends; it’s going to be about appearing well-to-do, making a show of strength, gaining votes or backers, making business connections. It’s going to be about power and reputation and it’s going to be about this world, the world of material gain and power over others.
And imagine Jesus at one of these fundraising dinners or networking parties. All eyes are on him—probably because they expect something outrageous from this man. They know he spends a lot of time with cleaning ladies and homeless folks—the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden. They know he spends a lot of time with junkies and streetwalkers—the social outcasts, the scapegoats. Maybe the host invited him because he’s the latest curiosity and he knows his friends want to see him up close and in person. And Jesus doesn’t disappoint. With all eyes on him, he says, Don’t throw parties like these, which are only about your reputation or shoring up your power. Instead invite the cleaning ladies who tidy your office at the end of the day. Invite the junkies and the prostitutes. Invite the street people. This world—the world of honor and power and business as usual—has no lasting value. Look instead to the Kingdom of God. Look instead to the beautiful souls around you, your fellow creatures of God.
Is it any wonder this is the last time the book of Luke portrays Jesus at a banquet hosted by one of the religious authorities? From here on out, he’s only to be found in the company of the outcasts. I think we can conclude that his words at today’s banquet fell on deaf ears.
Yet if the church is to have any transforming power in the world, we cannot let our own ears remain deaf. We must recognize that what Jesus calls us to is nothing less than letting our faces reflect the face of God in the world. The same God who ordained that the last would be first in the kingdom also tells us now to do our own work in ushering in the kingdom: to invite, not those who will give us power, stature, and influence, but those who have nothing to give according to the social economy of the world. The gift of the outcast’s presence is God’s presence.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King spoke often about the beloved community, a society we can create in this world, if we have a critical number of people working towards it. In the beloved community, violence would never be used to solve conflict. In the beloved community, there would be no discrimination of any kind, not between races or religions, not between social classes, not between us and those we now consider our enemies. In the beloved community, there would be no hate. For King, the beloved community would be characterized by Agape love, “the love of God operating in the human heart.” He wrote that “Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people . . . It begins by loving others for their sakes.” Agape love “makes no distinction between a friend and enemy; it is directed toward both . . . Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.”
Working towards the beloved community is always going to look scandalous to the world at large. The groundwork of God’s kingdom is going to upset all our neat dichotomies—for example, between legal and so-called “illegal” immigrants, between the apparently law-abiding and the criminal, between those who are clean and those with addictions. It’s going to look like white folks calling for an end to racial profiling and agitating for voting rights. It’s going to look like ministers protecting the rights of sex workers. It’s going to look like resisting violence of all kinds, even legal violence. It’s going to make people upset. Think of the outrage when Pope Francis washed two girls’ feet on Maundy Thursday last past year—it was something new, something that had never been done before, and something that was against the written rules of the Roman Catholic Church—only male feet can be washed on Maundy Thursday! But Pope Francis chose to act, not according to the words of the church, but according to the acts and words of God in Christ. The hubbub this seemingly simple act caused among Catholic traditionalists should show us just how radical Jesus still is. But Jesus did warn us of such reactions when he said, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5.11-12).
So taking Jesus’ advice—inviting and including those normally kept outside the walls of our church, our country, our towns and families—may in the end make us look a lot like those outcasts. Caring for the outcast, even in the humblest of ways, rocks the boat a little. Anytime we choose forgiveness over grudges and resentment we take a small step towards the beloved community. Every time we act out of love and inclusion instead of ostracizing or, worse, ignoring people, we upset the status quo. It shows those who have honor now that their honor counts for nothing in the eternal scheme of things, and that is profoundly upsetting, even frightening, to people in positions of power, whether at the national level or even in a small town or church or school. Folks who have a lot to lose will often do what they can to make us look foolish. But in the beloved community we strive for, as in the Kingdom of God that is to come, what the world calls foolish is actually great wisdom. Leaving behind the places of honor and seating ourselves among the humble is to free ourselves of the prison we’ve made of what the world calls success. So what if we’re foolish? Jesus was called foolish. St. Francis was called foolish. Many of the greatest saints were called fools for Christ.
There’s another blessing in this vision of humility, of divine foolishness, and that is that when we begin to see others as God sees, to love others instead of competing with them or judging them, then we also begin to see ourselves as God sees. When we let go of the false standards of the world, we also stop measuring ourselves by them. We begin to see that we too are loved and forgiven, that we can be fearless because nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing.
Please join me in prayer. “Oh God, in your incarnation you knew loneliness, pain, and exclusion. And in your incarnation, you also knew the joy of human fellowship. Teach us to see the world through your eyes, a world beloved and in need. Teach us to act in such a way that others might see you in our actions. And open our hearts to moments of grace, so that we might build the beloved community here on earth. Amen.”