Sermon Archives

Sunday, August 28, 2016
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17, RCL Year C)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
A New Banquet

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It is always difficult, on those occasions when we hear again a story with which we are particularly familiar, to hear or to say something new, or at least unexpected.  It really doesn’t matter how complex the story is – whether it is The Boy Who Cried Wolf or Romeo and Juliet – once the story becomes internalized, we begin almost not to hear the story at all; it simply is.  We know it well, we enjoy it every time, perhaps even love it immensely, however, it seldom speaks to us in the way it once did. 

It’s no surprise then that such good books become for many like treasured, old friends. They are familiar, cherished, and reliably predictable – we know what they’ll say well before they say it.

This is certainly fair to say about today’s Gospel lesson – we have heard it before and we know it well. Like many other stories within the Gospels, today’s parable speaks of our place at the great banquet table of the God.  Having heard this story, or any number of similar parables within the Gospels, we know that we avoid the behavior of the Pharisees, humbly seating ourselves at the lowest table in the hope that our humility will be rewarded with honor as we are moved to the seat beside the host herself.

We mustn’t fault ourselves if we hear this parable with an ear toward our future reward – that is, be humble today in order that you may be honored tomorrow – for so it is regularly taught.

In fact, this isn’t the only parable with an apparently similar message. Today’s lesson from Luke falls in with the many other sayings of Jesus which we might, collectively, summarized as “the last shall be first.”  Grouped together, these biblical lessons on humility, deference, sacrifice even, are often taught as the means to greatness and reward from God.  Such a message, in contemporary theological language, is nothing more than a version of the Prosperity Gospel . . . . which is not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  At the heart of the Prosperity Gospel is the fundamental belief that the reward of the faithful life is honor, health, and financial wealth.  Pray regularly, tithe, and God will reward you.  And, perhaps most perversely, your wealth and health are a sign of God’s blessing.

Let me say again, this is not the Gospel of our Lord A Christ. 

Contrary to the prominent teach of the Prosperity Gospel these past fifty-plus years, Jesus is not advocating humility and sacrifice as a path to greatness and reward.  No, in these lessons, in fact, one of the fundamental lesson of Jesus’ life, Jesus redefines greatness and reward; they are ends in-and-of themselves.  What the world calls great – wealth, power, strength, intelligence – are not what Jesus calls great.  Welcome, humility, sacrificial love for another; these are the marks of greatness in Jesus eyes.

Now, as essential and life altering as this redefinition of personal greatness is for Jesus and his community of disciples, and as confrontational as it is to his audience (secular and sacred) then and now; it is not the only the only discomforting message within this parable.

In this exchange between Jesus and the guests at the Pharisee’s home, we must also hear the simultaneously pivotal and confrontational discussion of Israel’s place within God’s kingdom.  For some, represented here by the Pharisees, God’s kingdom begins and ends with God’s people, the Israelites full-stop.  Within the Pharisaical movement and among the religious elite of Jesus day, the great reach of God’s embrace extended to draw in the chosen people of God alone.  Placement at the wedding table, was without question –Israel alone comprises the guest list!

Of course, Jesus does not adhere to this limited understanding and experience of God’s embrace.  Seen within this broader context, this parable quickly moves from the personal to the societal, for it is as much about the place of Israel within God’s kingdom as it is about an individual’s greatness.  Here Jesus is laying an ax to the base of the tree of the religious community of his day, bluntly challenging their theology of God’s embrace:  God’s kingdom is not for Israel’s alone; Israel is not the only honored guest.

On the contrary, through the layers of today’s gospel lesson, Jesus challenges a fundamental understanding of his religious community.  The banquet hall that God prepares is set for Israel, yes; but not Israel alone.  Jew and Gentile, sinner and saint, are welcome guests, invited together to this wedding feast. 

And this should shock us as much as it did the Pharisees of old.  You see, we, too, must make room at this feast.  God’s banquet is not for Jew and Christian alone, either.  It is for the Jew and Christian, yes, but also Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh, and yes, even those who have no faith at all.  God’s feast is for the rich and the poor, the well-educated and the illiterate, the Olympian and the feeble, the youngest among us that the oldest, the kind-hearted and the mean-spirited, the humble and forceful, the white and the black and the brown and all the shades in-between. 

Today’s lesson, and others like it, are among the most discomforting the Gospels have to offer, for they do not simply offer a new, insiders’ path to worldly reward as the Prosperity Gospel proclaims.  No, here in this lesson Jesus re-defines reward itself – humility is greatness; self-sacrifice is the reward.  At the same time, he lifts open the tent walls so that there is no longer an inside and an out.  In this new kingdom proclaimed by Jesus is no honored guest, for all are honored equally.

Now, lest you think this is hard enough, Jesus goes further.  In his parable, he does more than offer a theological or even social teaching; he offers a practical teaching as well; that is, a teaching that is as much about the practice of welcome and humility as it is about the spiritual concept of them.  Yes, humility is honored; yes, all are welcome.  But what does it look like in practice?  Even more, what does it look like for those of us who proclaim such honor and welcome? 

Here, he gets to the finest, most difficult point of his teaching.

It means, getting up.  It means making room not simply at the back of the hall – the back of bus, if you will – but getting up and sitting at he back so as to make room for others to sit there at the front, the places we once occupied.  It means sitting in a new place, lower down so that someone who was once left out, may come to experience the honor we have already enjoyed, but which we all share.

It means, also, redefining our invitation lists as well, inviting not only our friends and brothers and sisters, but those friends and brothers and sisters who make us uncomfortable or ashamed or fearful.

In this parable, as Jesus re-sets the seating assignments and re-writes the invitation list, he boldly challenges the theology and religious practice of his day, and directs his disciples not only to believe it but to enact it.

It means that we, yes, you and I, must make room at the front; we, yes, you and I, must invite those who would not otherwise even know they were invited; and we, yes, you and I, must direct others to the seats once reserved for us.

Now, bear with me one more step, for there is one more crucial layer to this story.  In making room for others, for those who have never been there before, we will have to accept two extremely troubling things.

First, “they” will not “behave” as we expect they should.  It is no different than inviting my son and daughter to the adult table.  “They” will not behave as we adults will; “they” have neither been there before, nor are they “adults” and so we cannot expect the same from them as from us who have sat at this table for so long.

Lest you think that was troubling enough, the second thing is even more troubling than the first.

As new guests arrive and take up seats in our midst, let alone honored seats of equality among us – we will change.  Not only will be sitting in new seats, the head table will begin to look different.  New leaders will be chosen and new decisions will be made; new customs will be set and new traditions will be created.

To expand the guest list and re-arrange the seating assignments is not simply an invitation to join the family dinner just as it has always been.  By inviting newcomers to the feast, placing them at them at the center of our community, and humbly honoring them with the honor we have so long enjoyed, will change the family; it will change our look, our feel, and our practice. 

This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

With teachings such as this, we can begin to understand why Jesus was so unwelcome within the halls of the religious leadership of his day.  Such a message, however, must not fall on deaf ears today.  We, as the living body of Christ, must not fail to understand that what was said of the religious elite two thousand years is fundamentally true of us today.  Luke does not re-tell this story simply to expand Israel’s understanding of its place at the table, or even to expand the Church’s understanding of her place at the wedding feast as the bride of Christ. 

No.  Today honor is redefined, the guest list is re-written, and the seating chart is re-drawn.  And it is our responsibility to make this fundamental reality of God’s kingdom a practical reality in our lives and in the world about us.

The questions for us are simple:

  • Will we welcome the change? 
  • Will we redefine honor in our lives? 
  • Will we welcome the guest beside whom we are seated?
  • Will we make room for new friends at the heart of our family?