Sunday, September 30, 2007

Year C: Proper 21 (30 September 2007)

Luke 16:19-31
Amos 6:1-7

Out of all the parables of Jesus, perhaps only that of the Prodigal Son is more graphic, more compelling, than this story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man is not simply well-to-do, not merely “comfortable.” He is what we can justifiably call “filthy rich.” If he were living today, he would live in an estate with a high wall around it, wear only designer suits and imported shoes, and retain a five-star quality chef on his staff. And Lazarus is not merely “less fortunate,” he is the poorest of the poor. He sleeps in the gutter outside the gate of the rich man’s house. He would consider it a luxury to be fed scraps from the rich man’s table. His body is covered with lesions that are forever attracting stray dogs who find a perverse pleasure in licking them. One cannot imagine a more extreme disparity between the living conditions of two human beings.

In time, both the Lazarus and the rich man die. The disparity between them continues, but they trade places! Lazarus is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham, which in the symbolic vocabulary of first century Judaism, is about as good as it gets. One could not ask for a greater honor or blessing. The rich man, by contrast, isn’t carried anywhere by anyone, he simply “dies,” and finds himself in Hades, which is a term from Greek mythology that signifies the generic abode of the dead. Traditionally, it’s not a place of particular suffering, but in the rich mans’ case it seems to be so, because he’s very hot and very thirsty!

Now, when we listen to a parable, there is usually an implied invitation to identify with one of the characters. So, which one of these characters do we wish to identify with? Well, by the standards of most of the world, most of us are pretty well off. But, to my knowledge, nobody in this parish enjoys a lifestyle remotely resembling the rich man in this parable. At any rate, he’s the “bad guy” in the story, so we wouldn’t be too crazy about being painted with the same brush anyway. How about Lazarus, then? He’s certainly the good guy, and it would be an honor to be seen in his company. But, come on now. None of us are that poor, nor are we likely to even know anybody that poor. If we can’t identify with Lazarus in his poverty, then, we surely don’t get to identify with him in the bosom of Abraham.

The cast of characters is shrinking. Abraham is still left, but that’s even more of a stretch than Lazarus or the rich man. Who does that leave, then? It leaves the five brothers of the rich man. When it becomes clear that he isn’t going to persuade Abraham to relieve his own suffering, the rich man intercedes on behalf of his five brothers who are still alive. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus back to the land of the living as a messenger, to warn his brothers to change their ways, to not make the same mistakes he made, so as to not end up where he ended up. Abraham denies this petition, replying that they already have all the warning they need in the Law and the Prophets, and even if somebody came back from the dead, that would not be likely to influence them.

But whether Lazarus warns them or not, what is it that the rich man wants his brothers to do? What is their task? Their task is simple—not easy, perhaps, but simple—that is: Repent. Change their ways. Live differently. Do whatever it takes to not suffer the same fate that has befallen him. It’s these five brothers who represent you and me in this parable; they are the ones we are invited to identify ourselves with. It’s still not too late for us. We can still do things in this world that will have a positive effect on our quality-of-life in the next. The task of the five brothers is also our task! Repent. Don’t make the same mistake the rich man made. Don’t end up where he ended up.

Repent. OK . . . repent of what? We need some more specific information here. What is it exactly that we are supposed to change? The answer, once again, is simple, though not easy. We are to repent of the improper use of money. And why is this so important? It’s important for the same reasons, and to the same extent, that faith is important. What Jesus is, in effect, trying to tell us in this parable is that the way we use our money is a primary sign of the quality of our faith. We might even say that the way we use our money is a “litmus test” of the quality of our faith. Anyone who’s taken high school chemistry has probably handled a piece of litmus paper, which immediately reveals the pH balance in any fluid into which it is dipped. The expression “litmus test” has become a figure of speech which indicates a conclusive, definitive revelation of who a person is or where a person stands. The way we use the money that has been entrusted to us is a “litmus test” of our honesty in our relationship with God. The word “faith” in the New Testament is an all-encompassing word. It isn’t just a matter of mental agreement with a doctrinal statement. It’s about the whole disposition of our lives—in heart, mind, body, and soul. To have faith in God is to be completely oriented toward God, without qualification or reservation. We can say we have faith, we can even feel that we have faith, but if we use money poorly, our profession of faith can be legitimately called into question. We need to examine how honest we are being, with ourselves and with God.

Now, I want to first be clear that it’s not a sin to have money, or material goods, or whatever it is we have, presuming we didn’t come by it dishonorably, that it isn’t the fruit of crime or shameless exploitation. But it is a sin not to use what we have as responsible stewards. The rich man of Jesus’ parable, in his first century “gated community,” had no notion of stewardship. He labored under the delusion that his money was … well … his money, his to do with as he saw fit, which in his case meant a lifestyle of lavish and decadent and self-indulgent consumption. You know, nothing is said about his ever being deliberately cruel to or scornful of Lazarus. The fact is, he was probably so self-absorbed that he never even noticed Lazarus being licked by dogs outside the walls of his estate. This is the sort of complacent ignorance that the Old Testament prophet Amos rails against when he goes on a tirade over those in his day who lived like the rich man of Jesus’ parable:

Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock . . . who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp . . . who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of [their nation.]”

Once again, Amos is not describing people who are consciously or intentionally cruel. In fact, they may be people whom we would readily describe as “nice,” and be great conversation at a dinner party. But they are self-absorbed and self-indulgent. They see themselves as existing in a universe of their own, without any relationship to the larger fabric of society. They are not stewards at all. They are, in fact, squatters on God’s property. Amos’ warning through his prophetic ranting, and Jesus’ warning through his compelling parable, is that the eviction notice has been served and the sheriff is on his way.

A responsible steward, on the other hand, recognizes that the material and the spiritual are connected; there is no part of our life that is “secular,” there is no part of life that is outside the realm of God’s concern. One of the collects for Morning Prayer contains language that reminds us that “we are ever walking in [God’s] sight.” I think this is primarily meant to be comforting—whatever happens to us, God is watching over us. But it’s also a bit of a warning, isn’t it? Beware of trying to domesticate God, to housebreak Him, to keep Him in a box. God will not be tamed, and He demands the run of the house!

As good stewards, we recognize that we don’t own anything, in the last analysis. Words that are very familiar to most Anglicans speak this truth more clearly than anything else I might say: “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Mark that well: “Of thine own have we given thee.” It was never ours in the first place. And this is not a completely foreign concept. We’re familiar with the legal principle of eminent domain—that is, the right of the public, acting through duly authorized processes, to require the sale of private property when it is deemed to be in the best interests of the public. Ownership, even in the secular realm, is conditional. And in the kingdom of God, it doesn’t even exist—God alone is an owner!

A good steward also recognizes that we live in a web of interdependent and mutually accountable relationships. The seventeenth century Anglican priest and poet John Donne is remembered by generations of high school English literature students for his poem which contains the lines “No man is an island, entire of itself … Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” We are connected to one another by the bonds of our common humanity. The rich man in Jesus’ parable, and the rich Israelites in Amos’ day, failed to see this connection, and that was their undoing. They thought they could hide behind their iron gates and high walls and security systems, and insulate themselves from the rest of the human community. They thought wrong, and regretted their mistake. It was too late for the rich man. It wasn’t yet too late for his brothers. It isn’t yet too late for us. There is yet time for us to become stewards.

When we are good stewards, our faith has credibility. Our witness as Christians in the world has credibility and power. We are more integrated and whole within ourselves. And if all that is not enough, we have the Christian equivalent of the “bosom of Abraham” to look forward to: Being a joint-heir with the one who sits at the right hand of God. It doesn’t get any better than that. Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Year C: Proper 20 (23 September 2007)

Luke 16:1-13

If you were to inquire of anyone who has lived with me or worked with me closely, you will probably learn that I am—to an extraordinary degree perhaps—a creature of habit. I am most comfortable when the incidental details of my life are routine and predictable. I generally eat the same thing for breakfast that I ate on the same day last week. I like the icons on my computer screen arranged in a certain way, and God help you if you change the desktop pattern without consulting me! I realize, of course, that I am not the only one who has likes and dislikes, quirks and pet peeves. We all do, to one extent or another. Most of the time, we look at these as little things. That’s why we don’t want anybody to mess with them; we don’t want to have to be thinking about them. I want a car that starts every time I turn the key, with vents that blow cold in the summer and warm in the winter, and otherwise keeps quiet and doesn’t call attention to itself. We tend to look at the “little things” as mere intrastructure, material details, as the skeleton on which real life is hung, not as something that has substantial significance and meaning in its own right. The “little things” are so deeply woven into the fabric of our lives that we overlook them (or get irritated when they don’t let us overlook them). They are trees, but my life is a forest, and it’s the forest I’m really interested in.

Realizing that the little things are indeed little things can lead to either of two quite different responses. Some become puritanical. If caffeine and alcohol are little things, then I’m not going to have any coffee or beer. If clothing is a little thing, then I’m going to live in a community where everyone wears the same uniform. If automobiles are little things,then—who needs one?—I’ll just walk or ride a bike instead.

Others come to the opposite conclusion from the same realization. Life is an eternal frat party. If alcohol is a “little thing,” then what does it matter if I drink to excess? If my body is just a material detail, a little thing, then what does it matter who I sleep with? If transportation is just part of the infrastructure of my life, then I may as well drive a BMW and fly first class, right? If money is but a little thing, then…hey, I’ll see you at the nearest casino!

I hope you realize I’m about to tell you that both these attitudes—the puritan and the party animal—fall short of the mark. In fact, I’ll let Jesus tell you, as if he were speaking to us in the first decade of the twenty-first century, rather than to his original listeners in the first:

There was once a loan officer who did most of his work in the field, at his customers’ places of business. He enjoyed the travelling part of his job, especially the fact that he had an expense account. One day, the internal auditor took a closer-than-usual look at this loan officer’s receipts, made a few phone calls, and discovered that a great many of them were forged. The guy was living high at the expense of the company’s bottom line. So when the crooked loan officer checked his voice mail, he heard that the bank president wanted to see him in the home office first thing the next morning. Well, he knew that he was too old to find a job at another bank, and too proud to live on unemployment. So he had to think of something fast. He dashed off to a half dozen of his best accounts and had each of them sign new loan papers cutting their original interest rate in half, and discounting the principal amount to boot. The cusomers were, needless to say, very happy with Mr High Living Loan Officer, and more to the point, likely to look kindly on him in his approaching hour of need. The next morning, of course, the bank president fired him, but he did so with an admiring grin on his face: “You old son-of-a-gun, that’s some golden parachute you went out and got for yourself!”

At the end of this parable, Jesus commends the corrupt loan officer, not for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness. And he suggests that his own followers should be as wise and prudent and shrewd with the “little things” in their lives as the corrupt employee was with the little things in his life, only to a worthier end. In fact, Jesus seems to be implying that the little things can in fact become tools in the development of such wisdom and prudence and shrewdness. Those who show that they can handle the little things well give evidence of their trustworthiness to take care of the truly big things.

But what does it mean to be “faithful in little” in order to be found worthy to be “faithful in much?” There’s one word that sums it up, a word that we tend to hear with some frequency at this time of year, and that word is stewardship. Good stewardship starts with the realization that everything I have—every coin in my pocket, every dollar in my bank account, every hair on my head, every blank space in my appointment calendar, the person on the other end of every phone call I made, every breath that I draw—has been given to me, not outright, but in trust. I am a steward, and I will one day have to turn in my receipts to the only auditor whose opinion ultimately counts, and they better not be forged. Good stewardship continues with the wise and prudent and shrewd use of the entrusted resources toward the expression of the values and the fullfillment of the purposes of the Kingdom of God, and, lest I be accused of not being specific and clear, the primary concrete token of Christian stewardship is the tithe—10% of our income given, no strings attached, to the ministry of the local parish church at which we worship.

Now let’s work it back the other way. Tithing is good stewarship, good management of the “litte things.” Good stewarship expresses the wisdom and shrewdness appropriate to Christian discipleship. And good Christian disciples are joyful, purpose-driven, confident about their future, and at peace with God. follow the logic...if you want to be joyful, purpose-drive, confident about your future, and at peace with God, become a tither! Tithers are good Christian disciples, and good Christian disciples are faithful in the little things, and therefore given the opportunity to be faithful in the big things. If you can find a better deal out there, take it! Amen.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Year C: Proper 18 (9 September 2007)

Luke 14:25-33
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Philemon 1-20

They say a preacher’s job is to both comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. My wife tells me I do a little too much afflicting and not quite enough comforting. I don’t know; she may be right. For the last several weeks, at least, the appointed scripture readings have been overhwlmingly challenging, and lend themselves to calls for decisive action and sacrificial behavior. The problem is compounded by the fact that a preacher never knows exactly who’s going to show up on any given Sunday morning, and what baggage they’ll be bringing with them. In my experience, from time to time, someone walks through the doors of the church who is a virtual blank slate in terms of Christian faith or practice. When this happens, chances are the person is in some sort of personal internal crisis, or is at least seriously disturbed about his or her place in the world. And among those who attend regularly, I’m certainly aware that behind smiling faces there is a tremendous amount of pain, fear, and guilt. All these folks need to hear about a Jesus who not only says “Follow me,” but goes on with something like, “and I will give you rest.” They need to hear good news of deliverance, pardon, and hope. And, fortunately, deliverance, pardon, and hope make up the mother lode from which we mine the treasures of the gospel of Christ.

Now, a Jesus who says “Come unto me, and you’re going to feel a whole lot better” is going to be a popular fellow, especially if he backs up what he says with miracles of healing, free food in the wilderness, and wholesome advice on pleasing God and dealing with family and social issues. These things would tend to build him a base of followers that would keep growing and growing. So, as we might expect, Jesus had quite a following. The more he ministered, the larger the crowd grew.

Christian preachers and teachers and Christian churches are correct and wise when they pay attention to people’s needs and desires, and to how a relationship with Jesus Christ in the company of the church can meet those needs and desires. We are not dishonorable or hypocritical when we address the “What’s in it for me?” question. And, from time to time, churches that are very good at answering the “What’s in it for me?” question attract a huge base of members, and become very large. By just about any standard, they could be considered “successful” churches.

There are also, however, those who come to church in any given week who are not in acute personal crisis at that moment; who have their doubts, but are essentially people of faith; who have their share of sorrows and anxieties, but are not suffering inordinately. Yet, as people of faith, as practicing Christians, they may be…what’s the polite way to say this?... they may be slacking off. They could be more faithful in worship, they could be more disciplined in their prayers, they could be less fearful in their stewardship, they could be more focused in the discernment and exercise of their spiritual gifts. And when a pastor looks out over a congregation and sees these people, he thinks to himself, “Here is someone who needs to be challenged; here is someone who needs to be prodded; here is someone who is perhaps a little too comfortable, and needs to be a little bit more afflicted. Here is a complacent soldier who has forgotten there’s a war on, and all hands need to be at their battle stations. To these folks, Jesus says, “Follow me,” and then adds stuff like we find in today’s gospel:

"If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”

In fact, this theme of “costly discipleship” runs through the readings from Luke’s gospel that we’ve been encountering over the past several weeks. They definitely represent an “afflict the comfortable” approach, don’t they? Today, Jesus tells us point blank to “count the cost” before making a decision to become his disciple. “If you’re going to hang around me,” he says, “I can promise you that it’s going to be tough sledding. So don’t sign up if you haven’t got the stomach for it.” Now, this would undoubtedly have the effect of tending to thin out the crowd of Jesus’ groupies. In fact, one of the commentaries I consulted suggested that Jesus was manifestly nervous around crowds, and didn’t like them, and said these things intentionally in an attempt to make some of them go away. In any case, he no doubt disappointed many of those who had great expectations for him. He would not make a very successful politician, with his message of surrender and sacrifice and counting the cost.

So, just what does it cost a person to be a Christian disciple today? I could give you a sophisticated long answer with lots of twists and turns and nuances, but the short answer is this: It costs us everything. You’ve probably seen those phony IRS forms that contain just one question: “How much money did you earn?” and one instruction: “Send it in.” Well, that’s a nice joke about taxes, but as far as Christian discipleship is concerned, it’s the dead-on truth. Following Jesus requires the surrender of the whole of our lives, all that we are and all that we have.

The first outward and visible act of surrender a Christian makes takes place in Baptism, and it’s ratified in Confirmation. On those occasions, we give God a signed blank check. Only the amount is not filled in. We just tell him, “Whatever it takes, it’s yours. If I have it, it’s yours.” The actual cost will be revealed only as time goes by. We would certainly never do this for a contractor to work on our house, or a mechanic to work on our car. But we do this for Jesus, because it’s what he asks of us; it’s what he requires of us. Following Jesus comes with a cost.

As we grow into the Christian identity we were given in baptism, we give him all that we are—our core identity, our sense of self. Many years ago, a friend sought my pastoral counsel on a matter of great importance to him. He had just finished his doctorate in music, and had a nice job as a university professor and choral conductor. But he also felt very deeply a call to Holy Orders, to become a priest. And he had, in my opinion, the right set of gifts and skills to serve quite effectively as a priest. The problem I saw was that he wanted to script how it was all going to happen; he wanted to be a priest/professor. He wanted to direct the choir and then be able to hear his students’ confessions and give them absolution after they poured out their hearts to him, as people are prone to do with someone of his apparent empathy and personal magnetism. But what I told him was that he needed to be willing to take “Doctor” and place it on the altar and let go of it in order to become “Father.” That was the “cost” he needed to “count” if he was going to respond to his vocation to be a priest. I further told him that I suspected the Lord would probably give “Doctor” right back to him, and that the academic priesthood he imagined for himself would indeed come to pass. But first he needed to surrender, fully and without reservation, that title that he had worked so hard and so long to earn. He needed to count the cost of following Jesus.

And sooner or later, we discover that, as cost-counting disciples of Jesus, we reach the point of giving him our affection and our emotional loyalty. For some, this comes naturally and easily. For others, it’s a habit that needs to be cultivated intentionally. But how blessed we are, as disciples, when we can say simply, “I love Jesus from the bottom of my heart.” Learning to love Jesus is part of the cost of discipleship.

Eventually, we learn that what Jesus asks of us is all that we are and all that we have. We give him our time, which is an incredibly precious commodity in our culture of constant busyness and demanded productivity. We give him our money—checking, savings, investments, cash in the mattress and the contents of our piggy banks and in the case of Philemon in today’s epistle, a “human asset” named Onesimus. Not to worry, though—he gives us back 90% of it to cover the expense of getting through life on this planet, but we need to come to the point of realizing that even that 90% isn’t really ours. He just lets us use it so we can learn gratitude and discipline and faithfulness and all those good things. In the end, he’s even going to want that part back. A cost-counting disciple knows this.

And, we also give him our relationships. The phrase “forsaking all others” that we associate with the marriage service applies even more directly and appropriately to a disciple’s commitment to Jesus as Lord.

And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the answer to the question I’ve alluded to but never answered: Just what is in it for me? Why would anyone want to become a disciple of Jesus when it costs so much? Here’s the answer: When we surrender all, no strings attached, God gives us back those things that are necessary for our welfare and our happiness. But in doing so, he first repacks and re-labels all those things. He puts them in a context that gives them transcendent meaning. He makes our lives like a graphic presentation generated by a certain popular software program—our lives have Power and they have a Point! As a result of following Jesus, our lives have purpose and direction. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, as we are conformed to the cross of Christ in and through all our doubts and fears, in and through all the guilt and pain that we carry around, we are also conformed to the love of God the Father. We are conformed to the power of God the Holy Spirit. We discover that by letting go of everything to follow Jesus, we have followed the advice of Moses to the children of Israel camped in the wilderness: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life.” Choose life. Amen.

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.