(A sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 14:1,7-14.)
Last weekend I watched Shrek 2 with all three of my children. It was the first time #1 Son had seen this movie, which is so familiar to me that I know exactly when I want to look up from my knitting to catch a particular image.
I love the dinner table scene in which Shrek and Fiona sit down with her parents. Ogre and King become angrier and angrier with one another, both of them behaving monstrously, and food flies around the room!
But earlier on, Shrek is trying. He really is. He crunches his snails, and he sips a clear liquid with a spoon giving his compliments to his mother-in-law.
Then comes my favorite moment: the perspective changes as Shrek looks up the banquet table and sees everyone daintily using their finger bowls.
Makes me laugh every time.
Of course, it’s not so funny when WE don’t know what we are supposed to do in a new situation, is it? Then it is embarrassing, makes us want to run away or hide under the table, or to pretend we don’t care what the rules are anyway.
It’s enough to make anyone feel like an ogre.
I believe Fiona’s mother makes an effort to welcome Shrek, despite her natural dismay that the lifting of an enchantment on her daughter leads to ogres in the family. But when we are familiar with the customs and language and practices of our own home places, it can be hard for us to imagine how mystifying they might be to others.
Last Sunday afternoon, I attended an ordination. For the past three years I have served as In Care Advisor to the candidate, a former church musician who loves a liturgy that is a bit more “high church” than those I generally use. She also chose a lot of unfamiliar hymns, and that is saying something since I have a fairly wide knowledge of Church Music. The hymns, all printed in the bulletin, had only a melody line. As a person who reads music, I like to sing from a hymnal. I like to see the whole arrangement of the hymn. I want more context to prepare me for singing.
Toward the end of the service we sang unfamiliar words to the tune of a hymn I like a lot, “At the Name of Jesus.” What a relief it was to sing a recognizable melody line! Suddenly I felt I knew where I was and what I was supposed to do. I must not have been alone in that feeling, for when the organist, during the communion service, included “Come, O Fount of Every Blessing,” I was not the only person singing along quietly.
Now, if I felt confused, imagine the response of two German guests at the service. They were visiting with the preacher, a pastor from Massachusetts, and joined her on the day trip to Maine. They were able to understand the parts of the service typed up in the bulletin, but the spoken portions were much more difficult to comprehend.
I had a similar feeling a couple of years ago when I traveled to Boston and visited the last church in New England offering the Catholic Mass in Latin. I enjoyed hearing the music, but I had no idea when to stand or sit or kneel, and had not a clue what the liturgy said. I felt left out as I sat in the back and pondered the notion that some people there would have considered me not just an observer, but an outsider. I began to think about my own small church and how we judged what made a person an acceptable participant in our community?
Jesus wants us to give some thought to our own standards of the acceptable participant and our assumptions about appropriate practices and behavior.
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.
"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host;
and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.
But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." (Luke 14:1,7-11)
Genteel expectations, well-established traditions, previously acceptable hierarchies: all are overturned by Jesus.
As a person who was gently raised, I sometimes find this shocking! I have vivid memories of my mother, sitting at her writing desk, carefully preparing place cards for dinner parties or family holiday celebrations. She gave as much thought to seating her guests in our home as the Social Secretary at the White House might expend for a State Dinner! I was still a little girl when I learned rules about how to seat people. I read the First Edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette from cover to cover.
I still feel more secure when I know exactly what is expected of me. And don’t we all? Why else would we gravitate toward the same pew over and over again?
There is an old preacher’s joke that these are the TRUE Seven Last Words: “We’ve never done it that way before!”
But here is Jesus’ word to the people: Do it anyway!!!
He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, 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." (Luke 14:12-13, NRSV)
Jesus preaches a radical hospitality that shocked his listeners. The poor and the disabled were the dregs of society, not the people who would ever be included at a banquet. They had no place in the world of repaying social obligations, because living on the margins, they could not return the gift of hospitality.
When The Princess went to Montessori kindergarten, she learned to set the table each day at lunchtime. Each placemat had a picture of the silverware upon it, to help the children learn where to place the fork, the knife and the spoon. And when a parent came to lunch as a guest, as I did one day, the young host or hostess had a special responsibility in setting the table, being sure to put a festive little flowerpot on the corner of the guest’s placemat.
Jesus wants us to show that hospitality to anyone who comes through the church door, and more than that, Jesus wants us to show that hospitality even to those who do not. He tells us to go out and invite in those who would not ordinarily be considered, to extend ourselves, to overturn our own expectations, to take a risk.
Here are the social rules Jesus give us:
- Welcome everyone.
- Include everyone.
- Make a special effort to reach out to the people we feel sure are not important.
- Give them the best seat at the table.
- Find our satisfaction in God’s’ pleasure with us, not in our place at the banquet table.
If it makes us uncomfortable, if it makes us feel like ogres, we are not alone. Jesus came to upset the old ways, and people keep sliding back into them. Each time we gather we must work against our own tendency to make new rules and draw new lines that are not so different from the ancient ones. We get carried away with our own importance, find security in our own knowledge and distribute the finger bowls to kings and donkeys alike, never bothering to be sure any of us knows why we do it.
How do we overcome our natural resistance to change, then? I
suspect we must do it by remembering the times we didn’t know everything, or
weren’t the first choice for the team or the one who got the best job or the
most popular kid in school. We have to recognize that all the hierarchies we
invent are just that, inventions. No one of us can determine who belongs at the
head or the foot of the table, because it belongs not to us, but to Christ.
Jesus asks us to be open to the truth: his way brings all people to the banquet