Sermon on 15 Pentecost C, Lectionary 22: Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16, Luke 13:1, 7-14
Preached at Bethany, Escanaba, on September 1, 2019 by Pastor Dave Van Kley
Dinner time at Holden Village, the retreat center high in the Cascades. We’d finished eating and the director was making the usual announcements. “Does anyone have a birthday?” she said. James raised his hand. “Oh, James, can we sing happy birthday to you?” A scowling young man with long sideburns and a shaved head, topped by a stocking cap, with an attached bandana covering his neck, James went about his work at the Village silently. Interactions with him were awkward. During a staff meeting that summer, I’d seen him take off his shirt, throw it on the ground, and start swearing at no one in particular. He suffered from some kind of emotional or intellectual disability. I wondered what he would say.
There was a moment of silence. Then James mumbled: “Sing it ‘underwater style.’” And he put his finger to lips and waggled it like this: “Happppy Birrrrtttttddddayyyy to youuuuuuuuuu.” So that’s what we did. The whole dining room, 200 strong, sang, “Happppyyy Birrrthhhdddayyyy to youuuuuuu.” Later that night, James received the ultimate Holden recognition: an ice cream party in his honor. Many staff members wore caps and bandanas.
Holden made room for people like James—people who didn’t quite fit. There was Matthew, a young fellow with a terrible stuttering problem, who sprayed saliva all over you when he spoke. Kevin, so timid he kept his eyes continually trained on the ground. Young people several years out of college, trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Old people still trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Several people making gender transitions. Lots of people in some kind of transition. Holden Village offered hospitality and honor to such as these.
Today’s Scripture texts are concerned with our conception of hospitality and honor. In the gospel lesson, Jesus observes the pecking order at a dinner party. He watches the guests choose their places at the table—preferring the seats of honor, the cushy seats instead of the folding chairs, the seats closest to the food and next to people of influence. “Don’t do that,” he tells his disciples. “Choose the lowest places at the table; sit with those of no account.”
Jesus’ words make me wonder why I so seldom sat with James, Matthew, or Kevin during the summer I worked at Holden. Was it only because I didn’t know what to say to them? Was it because I was afraid of them? Or was it because I didn’t want other people to associate me with them? To be honest, it was a bit of all three.
Jesus challenges our thirst for recognition. It’s as if he were saying: Don’t let anyone know about the academic degrees you’ve earned or the titles you’ve held. Don’t demand your rights or insist on your privileges. Don’t go to the front of the line. Head to the back and wait.
Challenging words, aren’t they? Who of us likes to eat humble pie? But Jesus says, “Those who humble themselves will be exalted; those who exalt themselves will be humbled.”
Jesus also challenges our definition of hospitality. When you make up your dinner list, he says, don’t just invite family and friends. When you schedule a business lunch, don’t invite your associates and potential customers. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Invite Matthew and Kevin and James and, well, you fill in the blanks. But really, when was the last time any of us has actually done such a thing?
Show hospitality to strangers, the second lesson chimes in. In our culture, we are suspicious of strangers, almost as if all strangers are terrorists until proven otherwise. When my friend Sharon—who has only one leg—goes to the airport, TSA makes her give up her crutches—because of the metal in them—and hop through the metal detector on one leg. When she cannot do that, they sit her down and frisk her so completely that hardly an inch of her is left untouched.
Once, I was walking through a lower income section of an unfamiliar town. I saw a little girl outside her trailer house, trying to retrieve a jump rope that had somehow ended up caught in the clothesline. She had pulled a wagon over there and was standing in it, on tip-toe, trying to get that jump rope, but it was just out of reach. I wanted to go over there and get it for her. But then, I thought: I’ll scare her! An older male with white hair, a stranger? Kids are suspicious of strangers—sometimes for good reason. But Hebrews says, show hospitality to strangers. The risk is worth taking.
Show hospitality even to prisoners. Remember prisoners as though you were in prison with them! But in the US, where we incarcerate people at a rate many times that of other developed countries, we isolate our prisoners. Out of sight, out of mind.
At every point, these texts challenge the way we live. Do you see how odd Jesus is? He calls us, too, to be odd. It’s hard to hear his call because we are part of the culture. Hard because we’re afraid. Afraid of showing hospitality to strangers and convicts who might hurt us. Afraid of honoring others because we might lose out on whatever honor we feel is rightfully ours. As if honor were a limited commodity and there’s only so much to go around.
But that’s not the way Jesus thinks. In Jesus’ view, honor and welcome are as abundant as the leaves on our trees. Christ Jesus died for all—all are forgiven and beloved of God. The risen Lord is here and with us. All of us. There is a place set for all at God’s dinner party and we are on the guest list. No one can take that from us, however menacing they appear.
The writer of Hebrews says, “say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’” So why not be odd? Bold, humble, and welcoming to all?
That’s why we practice open communion here at Bethany—all are welcome at the table of Christ.
That’s why so many of you came out to the U.P. State Fair to sell water to those who have plenty in order to provide water to those who have none.
That’s why we served that picnic meal the other day at Church—free of charge—to whomever showed up. It was interesting that, even though it rained, there were a few people from the community who came, including some who were not your “typical” Bethany members. I’ll never forget seeing one of the women sitting at a far table spring into action when the bat started flying around the fellowship hall. She took off her jacket and wielded it like a matador, heroically shooing the bat out of the fellowship area and on up the stairs into the sanctuary. “I didn’t want the kids to be scared,” Christy said. It was an honor being with her.
That’s why, I think, the recent ELCA assembly voted to become a Sanctuary Church. It doesn’t mean we have consensus on immigration policy! It just means that we are to treat migrant families and children with hospitality and honor and love. As Jesus surely would have.
Friends, let us show honor to all, but especially to those who are without honor in the world. Let us be hospitable to all, especially to those who often are not welcome. For in so doing, we will come to know this amazing truth: “those who humble themselves are exalted.” Amen