Sunday, August 28, 2022

A Different Sort of Dinner Party


August 28, 2022 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 17C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 21:15.

Jesus says, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor…but go and sit down at the lowest place.” Jesus also says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, don’t invite your friends or relatives or rich neighbors…but invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Those are pretty clear instructions. And they probably made his hearers uncomfortable, given that Jesus offered them while being entertained at a formal sabbath dinner by a local religious authority. 

But today I wonder whether Jesus meant those words as an earthly teaching or as heavenly advice. Is he telling us how to behave at a dinner party or how to get ready for God’s eternal banquet? Sometimes our knowledge of God shapes the way we live our lives, but sometimes it’s the way we live that shapes what we know about God.

It was, again, the sabbath. This probably wasn’t the same sabbath or the same synagogue that we heard about in last week’s gospel lesson, when Jesus called the leader of the synagogue a hypocrite and invoked the law of Moses in ways that made him look pretentious and foolish. I doubt Jesus hung around that place long enough to go over to that man’s house for Shabbat dinner. But the setting isn’t all that different. In the opening verse of today’s reading, Luke tells us not only that Jesus was headed to the home of a leader of the Pharisees for dinner on the sabbath, but he also tells us that everyone in the place was watching him closely—scrutinizing his every move and every word.

But then our gospel lessons skips over five verses. Perhaps that’s because, in those five verses, Jesus does, more or less, the same thing he did last week: he heals on the sabbath someone who was sick. I think the committee that put together the lectionary wanted to spare you from hearing the same sermon two weeks in a row. But I think it’s helpful to know that, when all the eyes were fixed on him, Jesus again stepped out beyond the traditions of his people and their faith. By healing a man with edema-swollen limbs on the day when no work was supposed to be done, Jesus was claiming for himself an authority to reinterpret the heart of the Jewish faith. “If on the sabbath you would waste no time pulling out a child or an ox that had fallen into a well,” Jesus said, using logic strikingly similar to that of last week’s encounter, “surely it is within God’s good and gracious will that we heal someone in need on the sabbath day.”

No one uttered a word in reply. Their silence said everything. And now that Jesus had demonstrated his authority as one who could apply the ancient teachings of God’s people in ways that impacted their contemporary lives, he turned his gaze back upon those around him. It was his turn to scrutinize their actions—those of his host and the other guests. When Jesus noticed how everyone found their place at the dinner table, he offered some practical-sounding advice: “When you are invited to a wedding banquet,” he began, swapping their current setting for an encounter even more tightly governed by societal norms, “don’t sit in the place of honor, or else someone more important than you might come and the host would be forced to ask you to move down while everyone in the room looked on at your shame.” Instead, he offered, you should sit at the lowest place so that your host might come and invite you to move up higher, and you would then be held in high esteem by all the guests.

At first, this feels like good, reasonable party etiquette. If you went to the wedding of a family friend whom you hadn’t seen in years, would you choose the spot at the head table beside the wedding party? Of course not! We all know better than that. And so, too, did the people listening to Jesus. In fact, they knew those social conventions even better than 21st-century Episcopalians. In the ancient near-eastern world, a formal dinner was a highly prescribed exercise in honor culture. You wouldn’t need to find your place card at the table where your host wanted you to sit. You already knew before you walked in the door where you belonged. Rich, powerful, important people sat up front, close to the action, while less well-connected, less affluent people filled in further down. Knowing your place was as obvious and familiar as knowing your own name.

But a closer look makes this teaching feel less grounded in reality and more like a vision of something else. You might be bold enough to stretch from your station just a little bit, hoping that you might earn some status points in the eyes of your peers by moving a few places closer to the host, but no one was naïve enough to presume to take the place of honor, which surely belonged to someone else. And how often does a host, who is busy hobnobbing with people to the left and right, stop and notice that someone on the other side of the room should be brought up higher? Would someone really take the lowest place just to give the host a chance to show everyone how important they really were? It sounds to me like Jesus is beginning to mix earthly advice with heavenly instruction.

The second part of what Jesus says seems to confirm that: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, don’t invite your family, friends, or rich neighbors or else they might invite you over to their house in return. Then you won’t have any reward in heaven. But, when you throw a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind—people who could never pay you back—and then you will be rewarded at the resurrection of the righteous.” In that culture, honor dictated that everyone return an invitation with a reciprocal invite. I may not invite you to my party just so you can invite me over to yours, but it is nearly impossible to imagine a circumstance in which you would not return the favor. That’s just what polite people did back then—unless you didn’t have the means to throw a party in the first place. 

Normally, a host would never invite someone who couldn’t return the favor—not only because the host wouldn’t get the pleasure of the reciprocity but because the demand on reciprocation was so great that it was rude or shameful to place that social burden upon someone who couldn’t invite you back. To invite the poor and disabled was, in a real way, more callous and insensitive than leaving them off the guest list. Yet Jesus tells us that those are exactly people whom we must invite—those who could never pay us back. That’s because he knows something about God’s great banqueting table that doesn’t fit into the dinner party analogies that his contemporaries understood so well.

What if God’s great and final banquet with all of humanity is the sort of place where you don’t have to stretch to a higher station in order to receive the host’s honor? What if your place at God’s table doesn’t depend upon your status in the world’s eyes? And what if an invitation to God’s triumphant wedding feast is one you would never be expected to repay? What if God loves the world and everyone in it without expecting anything in return? How wonderful and magnificent are those truths about God, but, given how unfamiliar they are in this world, how are we ever supposed to know them?

Sometimes what we know about God shapes our lives in ways that reflect God’s reign. But other times we change the way we do ordinary things because doing them differently has the power to teach us something about who God is and what God sees in us. Why do we gather at this table every week, using the words of invitation we know and love? Why do we come to this Sunday banquet, where everyone is welcome and everyone is given a seat of honor regardless of what they have to give back? 

This holy table is not only a reflection of what we believe about God—the one who welcomes us all and honors us all, never expecting anything in return. It is also the place where we learn how to believe those things. We need help learning those divine truths that sound too big, too amazing, too radical to be true. And that is why we practice in this place every week. This table can never become a place where only some of God’s people are welcome and where worldly status determines who is most important. Not only would this altar then fail to reflect the heavenly banquet that it must always represent, but then all who gather around it would lose the chance to learn just how much God loves them. Don’t we all need more of that?

Sunday, August 21, 2022

When They Stand Up Straight


August 21, 2022 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 16C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 19:10.

She appeared out of nowhere. This woman, whose gaze had been bent down toward the ground for eighteen years, shuffled toward the assembly well after the service had begun. She knew that she did not belong in that place. No one needed to remind her of that. A woman in her condition was, to her peers, the embodiment of humanity’s brokenness, the inherited sinfulness of a people. No one wanted to see her, especially in a holy place on a holy day, so she made a habit of sneaking up to a door or a window to catch a few words of the rabbi’s teaching—a brief chance to feel normal, like she belonged among the children of Abraham, before returning to the reality of her downcast life.

But this sabbath day was different. Jesus saw her. He noticed her. Before she could slip away, right in the middle of his sermon, he saw the woman who for eighteen years had lived an invisible life, and he called her over. From beyond the edge of the assembly, where no one would notice her, Jesus invited the woman to come and stand beside him in the center of attention, where the scrutinous and critical stares of the congregation beheld her. There, before God and everyone in the synagogue, Jesus laid his hands upon her and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 

Immediately, the woman stood up straight and began praising God. Her voice, which had been silenced by those who believed that a woman such as her would never have anything worth uttering to the divine, was lifted up in song and praise. This child of God looked up toward heaven, reaching toward her Creator with both body and soul, and spoke words of healing and wholeness for everyone to hear. And the ruler of the synagogue was furious.

Indignant, enraged, grieved, and pained, the man who was in charge of maintaining order within the religious assembly immediately lashed out at the entire crowd: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” He knew well what would happen if this sort of renegade action took hold within the community, so he did what any good religious leader would do: he reasserted his authority over the congregation and called into question the legitimacy of the visiting rabbi who had done this unholy thing. Invoking the law of Moses, he reminded the people of their sacred obligations. Only if a life were in danger should the sabbath be broken. This woman had carried this infirmity with her for nearly two decades. Why couldn’t she wait one more day and honor God by coming to be healed after the sabbath was over?

But what if the healing she sought—the restoration she needed—wasn’t available after the sun had set and the sabbath was over? What if her salvation had as much to do with confronting the religious leader as with having her spine straightened out?

Two thousand years later, in a thoroughly Gentile Christian community that is largely unfamiliar with sabbath observance, we have hard time recognizing just how right the leader of the synagogue was. Five times in this passage of only eight verses, Luke mentions that it was the sabbath, drawing even a Gentile reader into the heart of the matter. Apart from being one of the ten commandments, why was keeping the sabbath so important? A few centuries before Jesus came to that synagogue, after the first temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, God’s people looked for ways to remain faithful even when they were unable to worship on God’s holy mountain. During the Babylonian exile, household practices like circumcision, keeping kosher, and observing the sabbath became the principal ways that a people remained connected with God and their ancestors. Even though by the first century, when Jesus lived, another temple had been built, gatherings like this one—synagogues in which the community came together in faith on the Lord’s Day—were the primary way that Jewish people lived out their faith. Anyone who threatened that, including an eloquent rabbi from out of town, threatened the very core of Jewish identity.

Are our reactions any different than that of the leader of the synagogue when it’s our identity under threat? What would happen if we allowed religious leaders to bend our sacred traditions until they started to break? What would become of our religion if preachers and teachers, theologians and seminary professors, bishops and convention deputies started to question the very core of our faith—the central practices that we have inherited from our spiritual ancestors? Won’t everything we hold dear start to fall apart? 

If we listen to people like Jesus, how long will it be before we no longer recognize the church we hold dear? How long until this place is filled with formerly bent-over people who now stand up straight? How long until we let women speak in this sacred assembly—even let them preach or preside at the Lord’s Table? How long will it be before women’s voices and stories and experiences and bodies are as valuable as a man’s? What will happen to these sacred walls or the foundation upon which they are built if trans voices were ever lifted up to the heavens in praise of their Creator? What will come of us if we allow the people whom religious society has kept bent down toward the ground for generations to stand beside us and praise the same God who has made us all? Would those who come together in this place still be called children of God? Could we have a church like that and still call ourselves holy?

What if the bent-over woman needed the sort of healing that only a radical, institution-questioning, tradition-shattering rabbi could provide? What if the very spirit that had bound her for eighteen long years—the satanic weight that had pressed her down, bowing her entire existence further and further from God—what if that spirit was precisely the sort of religious oppression that only the Son of God could cast off?

To be clear, the institution that Jesus confronts in this controversial healing is not Second Temple Judaism, the faith of his people handed down from their ancestors. What he confronts is humanity’s inexorable drive to restrict and restrain the unconditional love of God until it conforms to the image of their best intentions. When Jesus rebukes the leader of the synagogue, notice that he does not discard the law of Moses but uses it to expose the hypocrisy of his opponents: if you would loose your livestock every few hours on the sabbath in order to let them drink, he explains, how much more should we loose this daughter of Abraham from the spiritual bond that has imprisoned her for eighteen long years? The problem Jesus identifies is not sabbath observance but the ways in which people use religion to bind others and prevent them from receiving God’s grace. The danger Jesus exposes is how easily good and faithful people like us confuse the liberating work of God with the threatening work of the devil.

If the relationship with God that Jesus offered the world was as universally popular and inviting as we like to make it out to be, the religious and political leaders of his day would not have crucified him. The ways that Jesus spoke about God and God’s reign were that threatening. To people in positions of religious authority today—even and especially those who call themselves Christians—the way of Jesus remains just as threatening. But, in his death and resurrection, Jesus does something that reorients us—that recalibrates the way we know God and God’s will for the world. 

Because God has come among us in the flesh and because in Christ God has suffered and died for the sake of the world, there can be no rule or tradition or best intention that stands in the way of God’s love. Because God responded to humanity’s rejection of God upon the cross by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, we know that nothing has the power to restrict or retrain God’s unconditional love, and we know that anything or anyone that tries to cannot be of God. Although human beings continue to try to twist God’s will and invoke it in ways that bend other people down to the ground, those who look for Christ will always find him raising those people up in our midst.

In his book, The Meaning in the Miracles, Jeffrey John quotes a YWCA Bible study that captures the meaning of this miracle for today:

What is the kingdom of God like? It’s like more and more Bent-Over Women standing up. How can we know if the kingdom of God is actually coming? Why not look around and see if there are any formerly Bent-Over Women standing up? …Brother, if you ever see a Bent-Over Woman beginning to unbend and straighten herself, at the very least you had better give her a little standing room, because that isn’t just another Bent-Over Woman standing up. That’s your sister rising to her full stature—and that’s God’s kingdom cranking up! And sister, if for whatever reason you are still bent over and weighed down, and you think that’s the way it was intended to be or must always be, then know that you have been given divine permission to straighten yourself fully and to stand up. And know too that since it is Satan who wants you to be a slave, only the Devil himself would say that now is not the time or this is not the place. If your spirit is bent over, you are free to rise up! Let it be so, brothers and sisters! Again and again and again, let it be so! [1]

1. Through the Eyes of a Woman, ed. W. S. Robins, YWCA, 1986, p 190, quoted in J. John, The Meaning in the Miracles, Canterbury Press, 2001, p 212-13.