The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 17—Year C; Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Great story today from Luke’s gospel! Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, and they were watching him closely. Wait, wait, stop right there. Didn’t we hear just last week how Jesus got in hot water with the leader of the synagogue for healing on the sabbath? Aren’t the Pharisees and Jesus tangling a good bit these days? Well, yes and no. Yes, Jesus is tangling with the Pharisees, but Pharisees don’t all think alike, or talk alike, or act alike. In fact, in the chapter just before this one, some Pharisees came to warn Jesus, telling him to “get away from here because Herod wants to kill you!” But there were other Pharisees that seemed to delight in playing gotcha with Jesus. And it would seem that it was these Pharisees who were going to be at this particular dinner party. So, the first item of note is that Jesus went to have a meal at the home of his opponent. And actually, kudos to the Pharisee who invited his opponent, Jesus, to come have dinner at his house. Jesus and he could have kept a polite distance from each other; they disagree about a whole lot of stuff. But Jesus and the Pharisee didn’t keep a distance; the Pharisee invited and Jesus accepted an invitation and opponents sat down to dinner. Think about that. When was the last time you went to dinner with a bunch of folks who thought differently, radically different, from you or your circle?
Well, the night gets off to a bit of a rocky start. It’s omitted in the lectionary passage for today, but right off the bat, a man with dropsy appears right in front of Jesus (dropsy is a condition where you swell from abnormal fluid retention). So, Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” Because Jesus remembered getting in trouble last week for curing that woman on the sabbath who had been crippled for eighteen years; Jesus knows he’s on thin ice here. But they were silent. So, Jesus took the man and healed him and sent him on his way. Then Jesus said to those Pharisees and lawyers, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this. The laws around sabbath were clear, and yet, when a person in need is standing before you, a man with dropsy, a child, an ox, what takes precedence? The imperative of the law or the imperative to love the neighbor as yourself?
Well, one might imagine that a little bit of social tension has just been introduced into this little dinner party. Wait, it gets better. Jesus started watching how the guests chose where they would sit. So, let’s try this out. Okay, we’ve got the leader of the Pharisees sitting at the head of the table; he’s a big deal, a lot of status, a lot of honor. And there are seats all along each side. Now, according to Emily Post, and the traditions back then, the seats closest to the head of the table have more honor, and the ones farther down the way have less honor. Where would you choose to sit? Go ahead, pick your seat, go ahead and fill in. [Let the kids fill in]
So, you did exactly what the folks at that dinner party did. But when Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he went, “Hmmmm.” Now, he didn’t tell them that they had poor etiquette. No, he just told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, don’t sit down up here at the place of honor because if someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host, then the host who invited you both might come to you and say, ‘Give this person your seat,’ and, then what? You would have to move down to the lowest place, and that would be what? Right again, embarrassing. But when you are invited, go and sit at the lowest place, and when your host comes, he might say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. Because here’s the deal, everyone who exalts, who lifts themselves up, will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted; it’s just one of those pesky turn-everything-upside-down things that tends to happen whenever Jesus is around. So, that’s Jesus’ etiquette 101 for the guest, but listen to what he’s got to say to the host!
Okay, if you are having a luncheon or a dinner party, who would you invite? This is one of those you-can-invite-any-six-people-to-dinner-who-would-you-invite scenarios. So, who? Who would you invite? Interesting people, fascinating people, people who excel in their fields, writers, artists, societal change agents, governmental leaders, people in movies, sports idols, or closer to home, your family, aunts and uncles and cousins, your friends, rich neighbors? Who would you invite? [pause] Well, whatever list you just made, Jesus says, “Toss it out because all of those people have the capacity to invite you back, and you would be repaid. No…” and here comes another one of those turn-it-all-upside-down things…”No, when you give a banquet, you invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
This is Jesus’ etiquette 101 for the host. What do you think of that advice? What do you make of it? Why does Jesus point us toward the definitely-not-rich-nor-famous guest list? What is Jesus trying to help his host, the leader of the Pharisees, to see? What is Jesus trying to get this upstanding, rule-following, pillar-of-society, really good guy to see?
What is Jesus trying to get the Pharisee, and all of us who follow in his footsteps, to see? Why does Jesus continually throw us into these whiplash reversals? Well, it’s easy to get into a groove, a comfort zone, and our hearts can grow pretty insulated in such spaces. There’s not much challenge to our heart to expand if we only hang out with people who think and feel like we do. And it’s generally not until we are thrown out of our comfort zone that our hearts can grow, just like the Grinch, and bust out of the tiny frames we have placed them in.
And what of the guest list? Did you notice some of the nifty shifts in language that Jesus employs? Fairness and scorekeeping move to sheer blessing in this realm and repayment in the next realm when scorekeeping is completely irrelevant and there are no gradations of human beings, only a beloved community of brothers and sisters sitting around one big table. And, and, the luncheon or dinner turns into a banquet, a lavish, overflowing, feast.
These particular Pharisees were awfully good at knowing the law, and keeping the law, and applying the law, and keeping score, and keeping it all very fair. They knew how to do things decently and in good order, kind of Jewish Episcopalians. Rules are good. Fair is good. Fair is fine, but fair is far too little. Quite frankly, God isn’t interested in fair; God is interested in love, and abundance, and blessing—blessing so deep and rich that it blows right past repayment and throws the heart wide-open.
There is so very much in this world; why on earth do we settle for what’s fair from the vantage point of our little calculating minds, and I say that as someone who used to make a living calculating and who loves to keep count of just about anything. But in God’s kingdom, in God’s world, in God’s grand vision, this way of transacting human relationships is just far too little. It’s just not rich enough for Jesus. He knows, God knows, that blessings beyond measure are found whenever we open ourselves up to an encounter with pure, sheer grace. A poor person, a crippled person, a lame person, a blind person cannot pay you in the currency of this world; they can only pay you with the gift of their very self, and that is everything.
It’s the same point that Jeremiah is trying to drive home this morning in his very Jeremiah sort of way. But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
What is it about us human beings that we forsake, we leave the fountain of living water. We leave God’s overflowing, never-ending, pure grace, completely unearned-and-undeserved abundance and start breaking our backs digging out cisterns of our own design that are cracked to begin with because they are hewn out of things that are not God, and a cracked cistern just can’t hold water, and so we end up parched, dying of thirst, scared, empty, sure that there is not enough because in that cracked cistern, there is indeed nothing to satisfy our thirst. ***
***And here’s where my sermon has an asterisk that says, “Syria” because in the three times I woke up last night, I realized that I needed to say something about Syria this morning, even though I don’t yet have the words. So, here it goes. I am about 4 days behind in the news this week, but late last night, I did listen to the President’s statement about his decision to take military action. Honestly, as a Christian, I don’t know what the right thing to do is. As a person of faith who is growing in non-violence, is military action the right course? But if a leader is killing innocents…WWII comes to mind…it’s hard to imagine not intervening as Hitler exterminated millions. I always struggle with a lack of intervention when genocides take place, it just seems we ought to do something, but how, what? I do not envy the President or our Congress, but I think we all need to discern this, and we need to pray like we haven’t prayed in a long time. So, let’s think about this in light of Jeremiah. Has al-Assad, President of Syria, forsaken the fountain of living water? Has he been seduced into digging out cisterns of his own making, scared to death of losing control, trying to control his country, his people, through the use of terrifying chemical weapons? It’s pretty clear those cisterns are cracked. But what cisterns might our leaders be digging out that will be cracked and which, ultimately, just won’t hold water? Does a violent response ever end violence, or does it just set another cycle of violence in motion? Do we take a violent action just because our words have boxed us in? Where might we lose touch with the fountain of living water, and start trying to dig out cisterns that are going to leave us all feeling thirsty? I truly don’t know how our country should proceed, but maybe if we hold fast to the fountain of living water, some new third way will emerge that we can’t even see right now, but some creative way that will hold water and that can lead us all forward, maybe such a way will emerge.***
Because all the while, the fountain of living water is flowing. All we have to do is hold fast to the Source and say “yes” to the abundance that never stops flowing.
Why, why, can anyone tell me why, why do we resist the unfathomable grace of God’s boundless love? Why do we try to constrain it in rules, force it into acceptable channels, build cisterns to contain it? Why don’t we just let it flow? Why don’t we just drink it in and let it flow back out through our lives toward every other living thing in this cosmos? Jesus never hoards love or clings to love; love is always superabundant, and always, always flowing back out through his words and actions. Why invite those who can’t repay you? Because it’s the only way that we will ever understand that the love he has in mind is so much richer than repayment. And I don’t know that we can conceive of just how vast this love is until we sit down at the table with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind and share a feast of God’s making. I don’t know why it works this way; I only know that every single time I have been in the presence of people whom society has cast-off, but who are so precious in God’s sight, every time I have been in their presence, my heart knows something about riches and blessings that the cracked cisterns of this world, of my world, simply cannot comprehend, and I want more of that love, I want more of the living water that flows from that Source. I want to know more about that grace.
So, as you look out over your life, are you spending a lot of time and energy digging out cisterns? And if you’ve constructed a really fine cistern, are you starting to notice any cracks? Is it holding water like it used to? Are you beginning to discover that that water just doesn’t satisfy your soul thirst anymore? Maybe you’ve heard tell of a fountain of living water, maybe you’ve begun to taste it yourself, are you ready to go all in? Are you ready to give up keeping count, are you ready to let go of fairness, are you ready to forget about tidy portions and leap into a sense of abundance that transforms luncheons and dinners into banquets with more than enough to feed the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind? Are you ready to discover that the gift of one’s self far exceeds any value that the world might assign? Are you ready to risk being soaked by grace beyond your imagining?
It’s yours. It’s yours for the taking. All you have to do is drink it in, and hold nothing back as you let it flow back into the world. That’s how it works. Once you drink of this fountain, you become part of the fountain. The Source and you are one. Drink it in, release it freely, and watch the fountain flow. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 1, 2013