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Pentecost 15 August 28, 2016 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
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Sermon for Sunday, August 28, 2016 | Pentecost XV | Proper 17
Sirach 10:12-18; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke14:1, 7-14
 
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, WA
Sunday, August 28, 2016
The Rev. Samuel Torvend


At first glance, this story from Luke gives the impression that Jesus is an expert in ancient Mediterranean etiquette. To guests he offers advice on where to sit and to hosts he suggests who should be included in the guest lists. He sounds a bit like Judith Martin, “Miss Manners,” who dispenses social customs in her Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. But is that his purpose here: to offer a lesson in good manners? Robert Karris, an expert in the Gospel of Luke, makes the striking claim that Jesus was put to death because of his meal practice. Could anyone get in such terrible trouble over dining customs or serving food to the poor?
 
Luke begins with these ominous words, “they,” that is, Jesus’ critics, “were watching him closely.” Perhaps this was so because a meal in the ancient world was no casual affair: no picking up fast food and wolfing it down, no beer and pizza in front of the T.V. Rather, any and every meal in that ancient culture was a powerful means of communication: of communicating one’s social status, one’s business connections, one’s relationship with God. That he’s being watched closely suggests that the critics are waiting for Jesus to make a mistake. This is no innocent invitation, not at all.
 
His first instruction alerts us to the fact that there were designated places of honor reserved for a few but that there were many guests who hungered for those seats of honor: being close to the host as sign of their apparently important social standing. I am mindful of the seating charts used at the university where I teach when wealthy donors or potential donors are invited to a dinner. I am mindful of the wedding industry’s insistence that brides and grooms must have separate seats rather than sit among their guests; mindful that many churches, including our own, reserve seats for the clergy and other worship leaders. In this story, the advice Jesus offers is actually nothing exceptional. In that culture then, you didn’t claim the “best” seat for yourself but were directed by the host. However, Jesus seems to know that a good many people at this dinner are eager to demonstrate their status. Thus, his advice to take the lowest seat would be received as a criticism of their social striving, a potent reminder of what their faith taught them but they had forgotten: that all humans are created in God’s image and all enjoy a fundamental equality that overrides custom.
 
Perhaps you’ve experienced this in your life: you’re invited to someone’s home for dinner, enjoy yourself, and then seek to reciprocate by extending an invitation to your home. Perhaps you experience no sense of obligation in extending this invitation. But such was not the case in Jesus or Luke’s world. You invite me to your home; I’m obligated to do the same. You do for me; I do you for you. And so, it would come as an utter shock, an insult, to the host to hear one of his guests – Jesus – give him instructions concerning his guest list. Let’s call him Bad Manners Jesus. But  a second and greater insult would be the content of the list: the poor and the crippled could not reciprocate in any way toward a host who would be foolish enough to invite them to his home. And furthermore, the host’s social standing would plunge downward the minute the word got out that he was welcoming into his home people who were thought to have no social, economic, or religious value. Let’s call him Messin’ With Our Social System Jesus.
 
It was my senior year of college and I was home early for Christmas Break. It was the Third Sunday of Advent and I was standing with my sister and mother at the church coffee hour on plaza in balmy Los Angeles. The Schwartz sisters, middle-aged and never married, were talking with us but really at us and over each other, making it impossible to keep track of the conversation, talking louder and louder as each tried to dominate the chatter. And while talking they continued to nibble on their coffee cake, the crumbs cascading down their tired blouses or hitting our clothing. To this smartass college boy, bound for an Ivy League graduate school, it was a relief to walk away, to walk home with my sister and mother. But, then, as we came to the front door, my mother stopped and then told my sister and me that she and our father had invited the Schwartz sisters to Christmas Day dinner. Their mother had died in the Fall and they were alone and still hurting from her death, the death of a mother, it seemed, who had given some measure of order to their lives. I groaned inwardly thinking this was the dumbest idea ever but quickly rallied and offered that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day would be such incredibly busy time in our home, given that our father would be presiding and preaching at seven services within a 24 hour period. Wouldn’t it make more sense to invite the sisters to an Epiphany dinner on January 6 (by which time I would be a 1000 miles away in school)? Never the fool, my mother looked at me and said ever so gently and ever so clearly: “It will be Christmas, Sam. Let’s think about what that feast might mean for us. Don’t you think the dining room table is large enough to include these two women?” And so they came in their Christmas finest, their lips colored the brightest shade of red, wearing the Christmas crowns my sister had made for all of us, laughing hard at our stupid jokes, telling us about their beloved mother, toasting her memory, walking home tipsy, their laughter carried by the warm Christmas breeze. 
 
Luke is writing to a Christian community. But he is not writing about their eucharistic practice, about who is served communion. Rather, he includes this story of the seemingly bad mannered Jesus to ask members of the worshipping assembly, Who is welcome in your home?