Sunday, September 2, 2007

Year C: Proper 17 (2 September 2007)

Luke 14:7-14

Once upon a time, in a small southern town, a couple of visitors from the local Baptist church called on a poor family in their neighborhood. The conversation was going very smoothly, and the visitors finally asked the family if they might like to attend church the following Sunday. There was an awkward silence, and some downward glances. Finally, the parents explained that they would be embarrassed to bring their children to church, because the kids didn’t have any decent clothes to wear, and the family was too poor to buy them any. The hearts of the Baptist visitors were moved with compassion. They smiled, and told the parents, “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of that.”

So, the next Saturday morning, a couple of mothers from the Baptist congregation showed up at the door of this poor family’s house, and took the kids shopping. They bought each of them a fine new set of clothes that would make them indistinguishable from any of the other more well-off children who would be attending services the next day.

Well, Sunday morning rolled around, and those who had been on the visiting team, and those who had been on the shopping team, waited outside the church in great expectation, looking for the family they had helped to arrive. They waited and waited. The service got started, they sang the hymns and prayed the prayers and heard the sermon, and pretty soon it was all over, and still no sign of the kids or their parents. Naturally, they were disappointed, and even a little irritated. So the mothers who had bought the clothes and the visitors who made the original contact walked right over to the house and knocked on the door. The kids themselves answered the door, and, sure enough, there they were, dressed in their new outfits. The parents immediately guessed why their Baptist friends had such befuddled expressions on their faces, so they quickly explained: “We had planned on coming. All the kids had baths last night. We got up in plenty of time, and put on their new clothes and . . . well . . . everyone looked so good that we decided to go to the Episcopal church!”

Well, this story says a lot about perceptions and stereotypes among the different “brands” of Christian churches, but that road’s pretty well traveled, so we won’t go there today. It also says a lot about social expectations, and feelings of superiority and inferiority, and how we habitually and easily assign value to ourselves and others according to secular norms and standards that have very little to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such categories as ethnicity or political affiliation or occupation or level of education heavily influence the judgments we make about all sorts of people in the course of our daily lives. They help determine the character of our relationships: personal, social, business, and even religious.

But these values, these secular social distinctions, collide very hard with the advice Jesus gives about our relationships. In the fourteenth chapter of St Luke’s gospel, he makes two very concrete recommendations about how we should conduct ourselves in social situations. First, when you’re invited to a fancy dinner party, don’t automatically assume you’re the guest of honor and sit at the head table! It might be a little embarrassing when you’re asked to step down. Rather, take the worst seat in the house, and maybe you’ll be invited to move up, and won’t that be fun? Now, we need to remember that in the kind of society Jesus was taking about, it wasn’t just a matter of the view or proximity to the air conditioning vent. Seats were assigned based on rigid social class distinctions, and at the same event, the quality of the food and wine could vary greatly, depending on what section one was seated in.

The other counsel Jesus hands out has to do with giving a party. You might think it a good idea to invite those whose social circle you aspire to be a member of. Maybe, if they’re sufficiently impressed, they will think to invite you the next time they throw a shindig. Wrong again! The thing to do, Jesus says, is invite those whom you know cannot return the favor by including you in an even more upscale occasion.

I suspect that the first of these two recommendations at least appeals to a sense of prudence; most of us want to avoid being embarrassed. But the second one may be a little more difficult to swallow. Why should I worry about being “paid back” for my social generosity? Why should I not try to mingle with those who are “above” me socially? And besides, isn’t who I hang out with like . . . my decision? I mean, Jesus, really, aren’t you starting to micro-manage here, telling us who we should and shouldn’t have over to the house for a cold one?

It seems an infringement of personal freedom. You and I are strongly conditioned by the individualistic values of our American culture--sometimes I think our national anthem should be Frank Sinatra singing “I Did It My Way”--we are so strongly influenced by individualistic values that it should come as no surprise when we approach “church” and “worship” as activities that “I” do. I decide that I want to establish or maintain a relationship with God, so I shop around for a church that makes me feel comfortable, and I decide when I’ll attend and when I won’t, and what activities I’ll participate in and which ones I’ll stay away from, and which of the members I’ll associate with and which ones I’ll stay away from. We may realize that there is a social dimension to worship, but that dimension does not lie at the heart of what coming to church means to us. The fact that there are other people around may be interesting or even enjoyable, depending on who they are, but we tend to look on it as secondary, or even incidental. Bottom line, it’s about God and me, and me and God. I’m here to get my spiritual needs met, and if you can get your spiritual needs met in the same place and the same time, then so much the better, as long as you don’t distract me. But if not, then no big deal. And if I ever feel like my spiritual needs are not being met, or if people around here start to bother me too much, well then I can always go shopping for another church. It’s a free country, isn’t it?

The attitude I’ve just described may be a bit of an exaggeration, a caricature, but there’s certainly nothing unusual about it. It represents the norm, I believe, of our society’s approach to church and worship. But inasmuch as we adopt this attitude and make it our own, we are building a highway on which the values of the secular world can infiltrate and invade the kingdom of Heaven. We are perpetuating secular categories and secular distinctions within the life of the church.

You know, in this passage from Luke’s gospel, Jesus uses the image of a social occasion--either one that we get invited to or one that we invite others to--Jesus uses the image of a dinner party to enable us to go deeper into the mystery of his father’s kingdom. His advice about taking the seat of lesser honor in hopes of being invited to come up higher may be wise and practical, but he’s not trying to compete with Emily Post or Miss Manners. And the bit about not using the parties we give as a chance to do a little social climbing is not really about Jesus trying to micro-manage our relationships. In either case, the banquet that Jesus is referring to is really and ultimately the banquet that he gives: the heavenly banquet, the messianic banquet, the marriage supper of the Lamb, that wonderful party outside of time and space as we know it, where all wrongs are put right, all sickness healed, and all tears wiped away, where God’s people feast sumptuously as they enjoy the splendor of His presence.

The community of the church, gathered in worship, is the sign and sacrament of this banquet, this heavenly dinner party at which every seat is in first class and the best food and wine is served at every table. The community of the church, gathered in worship, is the visible, tangible manifestation of God’s “long range plan” for the ordering of human social relationships in the kingdom of Heaven. This community, which transcends and renders obsolete the “ordinary” social distinctions that might divide us in secular society--this community is most vividly and powerfully expressed in the celebration of the Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, the Divine Liturgy. In other words, as we worship in this place and lay our gifts on this altar, we are not doing so as a mere group of individuals. We are offering our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving corporately, as one body. And it’s a good thing, too, because when you actually look around, we are a diverse group of people who might not be likely to ever get together under any other circumstances. I would suspect that our politics cover the full range from conservative to liberal to libertarian. Our taste in music runs from classical to country to hip-hop. We are single, divorced, widowed, and re-married. We are healthy and we are sick; we are old and we are young and everything in between. Some of us have PhDs and some of us haven’t even been to school yet. Some of us were born with the proverbial silver spoon and some are familiar with what it’s like to spend food stamps at the grocery store. But we are all here, we are united by our common baptism into Christ Jesus, and our common participation in his life in the celebration of this solemn sacrament.

The Eucharist is a meal at which we are the invited guests. Any other social occasion to which we may be invited in this life pales in comparison to the honor of being invited to eat and drink with the Son of God at his own table. That’s the point of being humble at any banquet we may get invited to: Why jockey for social position when we are already assured of a place at the table where every place is a place of honor, and the food and drink is the finest, and will never run out?

And the Eucharist is also a meal at which we are the co-hosts, assisting the Host in welcoming the other guests. When we come to the liturgy, to use language from our own Prayer Book--when we come to the liturgy “for solace only, and not strength; for pardon alone, and not for renewal”--in other words, when we come to church only to get our own spiritual needs met, hoping only that we are not too distracted or bothered by those around us, we run the risk of missing out on the transforming power that is available to us in this mysterious activity. The social dimension of the Mass is an essential and integral part of its character. To ignore the fact that it is “we” who worship, and not just “I,” that the liturgy is a communal offering, is to put a roadblock in front of God and the work He wants to do in our hearts to bring our holiness to perfection and our salvation to completion. Through habitual and conscious participation in the liturgy, with our eyes wide open, grasping its true and full significance with our hearts and minds and wills, we gradually learn to see people and relationships with God’s own eyes--and love them with God’s own heart. Then we’ll start to really enjoy the party! Amen.

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