Sunday, August 28, 2016

True Hospitality

A Sermon preached on August 28th, Pentecost XV at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden (Open Air Service)
Sirach 10:12-18, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

As we will be eating, drinking, and celebrating together after this service, it seems very appropriate that both our readings today mention hospitality, invitation, and banquets.

In one of his books, Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham and a prolific NT scholar and writer, mentions how once, when he was a parish priest he preached on today’s passage from Luke, especially on Jesus’ call to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, rather than friends, family or rich neighbors, to lunches or dinner events. Bishop Wright noted how, in the following weeks, he and his wife received a number of invitations to dinner from people who had never invited them round before. Which led him to wonder which of the groups, the poor, the crippled, the lame, or the blind, they were thought to belong to.  Please feel free to continue to invite Heidi and me …. We will not be insulted.
But seriously, who are the stranger, poor, crippled, lame, or blind for us? And why should we invite them?

Both of Jesus’ examples are parables, so they have at least two layers of meanings: a surface and a deeper meaning, and both are equally valid. The obvious answer to the question is that his followers are called to follow his example and to invite those on the margins of society, those who struggle to get a simple meal, let alone enjoy a banquet, to their meals. The Old Testament imperative to seek justice, to care for the poor, and to change the circumstances, conditions, and attitudes that make and keep people poor is still valid today. This is also a call for social justice. 

But it is more. Jesus is not just thinking of physical food and drink, but of access to himself, the food and drink of life and of admission to the heavenly banquet that stands for God’s kingdom. His teaching is also a teaching against any tendencies to see the membership of God’s people and access to God’s kingdom as being in any way dependent on a person’s social and economic status, education, health, supposed perfection, ethnicity, in fact anything that people just are. There are no limits. All are invited to the feast. 

I first wore this stole, a present from St. George’s College in Jerusalem, at an open air Eucharist on the Mount of Beatitudes, the place identified and revered as the site of the Sermon on the Mount. So when I read of an invitation to the poor, I am reminded of the first Beatitude, the first blessing: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)  And so in Jesus’ command to invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind, I also see a call to reach out to and invite those who spiritually impoverished to our spiritual feast, to welcome those who feel lost and unloved, even by God, because of what they have suffered. Our unconditional invitation, our hospitality could be a first step on their path back to faith.  And that is also one reason why Jesus wants us to extend this invitation on his behalf. 

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:1) He is referring to the story in Genesis (18:1-8) of how Abraham entertains three strangers, who turn out to be God’s messengers – and that is all the word angel means, messenger. They bring good news, in Abraham’s case the good news that he will have a son of his own. If Abraham had not welcomed them, he would have missed that news. Showing hospitality to strangers is always an opportunity: to make new friends, to hear stories, to learn and to grow, and to help where needed. 

The Hebrews’ passage also reminds me of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats Matthew (25). “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (25:35-36) Jesus tells the righteous in that passage, because he is in everyone in need: “just as you did it to one of the least of these … you did it to me.” (25:40) This was a surprise to the righteous, they had not helped the people out of some sort of calculation, because they expected to be repaid. They did so because their faith community and religious practice had formed them that way. 

Our fellowship – like today’s picnic – is an expression of our mutual care and affection. But it is only good, Jesus tells us, if that care and affection is not restricted to our immediate community, just to our friends, relatives, and rich neighbors. Despite all our failings and doubts, and our own poverty of spirit, we have already been invited to join the great banquet that is God’s kingdom, we have been welcomed in and so we welcome all in turn. We were the guests, and now it is our turn to be the hosts. 

“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Hebrews 13:16) Finally, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, our common life as a Christian community, our life of mutual fellowship with Jesus at its heart, our life of giving and loving is an act of worship and one that we can be sure that God is delighted with.


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