Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost,
September 1, 2013
St. Paul’s-on-the-Hill, Ossining, NY
“Friend, move up higher.”
Our lessons today have a lot about hospitality. The reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews begins: “Let mutual love continue—do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Welcome and hospitality are at the root of who we are. And of course, what is more of the essence of hospitality but a dinner party?
So when Jesus shows up at this dinner party today, what does he see? It seems that he saw a competition. Note that the competition was NOT to see who could give the most hospitality. Rather, it was to see who could get the best share of the hospitality the host was offering the dinner guests.
The story that Jesus tells is a bit truncated in the Gospel of Luke, so it sounds at first like it’s just a bit of advice. But Jesus is not a writer of an etiquette book—this passage makes more sense if you understand it as a parable, that is, a story.
So the one guy goes in, finds the best seat, right on the platform, next to the guest of honor, or the host and sits down, tucks in his napkin. Then the host enters. He’s probably getting ready to seat the special guest, but that seat is already taken. So the host says, “err… um. We have another seat for you…” and so our guy ends up behind a column, next to the swinging doors from the kitchen, where they bump his chair and cut off the view of the rest of the banquet.
Another guest comes in to the party, and he goes right away to sit near the kitchen. Now, the host, coming into the kitchen to check out preparations, sees him there and says, “Oh, my friend, we have a much better seat for you, come this way…” This is the kind of story that we see in the real world—maybe it’s even happened to you.
But Jesus’ point actually comes at the end of the lesson—“when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. You will be blessed because they cannot repay you…”
When Jesus talks about hospitality, he’s not talking about gaming the system so you can come out ahead. And he’s definitely not talking about throwing the best fund raisers. It’s about welcome. And welcome is not a competitive sport. It’s not a question of who brings in the most blind or homeless people. It’s not a matter of trapping angels. Welcome is being there for someone other than yourself: “Friend, come, be comfortable.”
But it’s more complicated than that. The elect in the kingdom of God are not just the ones we select either because we are comfortable with them, or because we put them in categories for whom we can perform a “ministry,” without truly being truly welcoming, that is, putting them in the place of honor reserved for the special guest. It takes a risk of course—but less of a risk if you aren’t expecting some benefit in return. Think—how many people do you know who could use a little boost? A little encouragement? A little attention? Perhaps you, too?
Each Sunday we share in a meal where Jesus gives of himself—not to count heads, or gain prestige, but to heal and welcome you and all the angels you entertain.
Welcome Friend, come up higher.