Psalm 81 Part 2, Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16
Wedding practices aren’t what they used to be, at least in our culture here in Ontario. Millennials seem to be challenging the customs that their parents may have had (unless of course they had hippies for parents who favoured flower child weddings in the woods). Many couples are doing away with the formal meal at their wedding in favour of holding the ceremony and festivities in a restaurant, arts centre, museum or some other kind of event space.
The last wedding I presided at was at a restaurant and after the ceremony people milled around intercepting the finger foods that whisked by, visiting the oyster bar and maneuvering the space with drink in hand. There was no MC per se to keep the evening moving along and no organized seating. Yet, perhaps out of habit or seeking the familiar, Grant and I managed to find the table where the grandmothers were sitting enjoyed some conversations there. I must admit though that over the years when I was invited to stay for the wedding feast, I felt somewhat uncomfortable being placed with the parents and special aunts and uncles as a special guest of honour. The odd time though I would be intentionally seated in a situation where conflict was bound to ensue such as being between parents who were in the middle of a stormy divorce, especially if the new partner was on the scene as well!
The setting for today’s gospel reading in Luke is at a special meal at the home of one of the Pharisees, important leaders in the synagogue who were the teachers of the law. It is seems that while they were watching Jesus closely to see how he would behave, Jesus was also watching them, analyzing their every move. This is the third instance in Luke’s gospel where Jesus has been invited to enjoy a meal with the Pharisees which some have suggested implies that Jesus may have been a Pharisee himself, or for sure he was a very highly regarded as a teacher in his own right.
Always someone who searches for that teachable God moment in every situation, Jesus notices the seating arrangements at the meal and how some guests tried to get the best seats in the house. He then uses as an example for his teaching the common occurrence of a wedding feast which would have had very special protocol as to how things were done. As usual Jesus goes to the heart of the matter in regards to the motivation someone has in wanting to feel like they are an honourable guest, searching out the special seating. Instead he teaches that we should sit in the least important place in order to be raised up by the host. The backdrop to this wedding story also would be a critique of the Greco-Roman world where feasts were great opportunities to ensure some political and social patronage from your guests, ensuring your rise in status and power.
We expect to see this kind of status seeking when we live in a very political city such as Ottawa, however it becomes very inappropriate when it is part of life in a church. I remember as a child for instance that we were often taken by the front pew in our very grand sanctuary to notice the gold plaques on those pews because back in 1953 I believe, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip sat in those very pews the Sunday that they were visiting Kingston when the Royal Military College was in attendance, clothed in their bright red wool uniforms. I was never sure as a child if the gold plaques meant I should try to sit in those two pews and feel that sense of royalty myself to motivate me to higher goals, or if I should quaver with awe and fear because the Queen and Prince had once graced our church.
In another example of status seeking that misses the point of the gospel message, was when a parishioner at Winchester United Church where we were serving who had been Speaker of the House in the 1960s for a number of years was very clear that no one, NO ONE, was ever allowed to sit in his pew, harkening back to the days when people rented their pew. It was a very chilly Sunday when a visitor arriving early before service sat in his pew before he arrived, quite innocently, and was very sternly ordered out of the pew when this gentleman arrived. He was a well-known lawyer as well as Parliamentarian, so he knew how to make people shrink in fear. I suspect they lost a few new members from that kind of a welcome.
It is not surprising that Jesus would challenge the social values of his culture given the attitudes of his mother Mary who sang this wonderful song to Jesus when she was carrying him in her womb: The Magnificat – Luke 4: 46-55- “He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with goo things and sent the rich away empty-handed.”
We are reminded too of how Jesus first articulated his vocational goals when he first stepped forward to read from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: Lk 4: 18-19
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lords’ favour.
So it is no wonder that later in Luke’s gospel we hear Jesus clearly teaching the Pharisees what their actions should be if they were serious about making God’s kingdom of justice and compassion a reality. He would continue to push the envelope for these religious leaders to break down social barriers as he described another meal, “a lunch or dinner where you don’t invite your family or rich neighbours but instead give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind. And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.”
The image that Jesus describes is a rich image found throughout the Bible and points to the final Messianic Banquet described in the Book of Revelation, where all of God’ people are welcomed and find a welcome at the Feast. So it is no surprise that Jesus locates holiness in hospitality. It is the image that we try to embody in our shared holy meal, the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion, referred to as the Eucharist in many traditions. Our own United Church tries to send this same message whenever we celebrate the feast of Holy Communion as I announce that we have an open table, that all are welcome if they have an open heart and mind to God – love for neighbour should follow when we are filled with the grace and love of God.
For over ten years this congregation has participated in the Open Table Ministry along with several other main line churches, to provide a nutritious meal which is an open table for any students attending our local universities or colleges. Up until a few years ago we used to also provide a Christian themed program after the meal, but that was dropped as more people of other faiths, or no faith began attending the meal. We became convinced that sharing in the meal itself, naming this as an Open Table provided by local Christians, was enough to communicate the message that we believe is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And so as we stand on the edge of a new season for the many new students starting up their programs, some who are newly arrived to our city; as we notice the many new condo units in our area near the church filling up with new people, some arriving for school or perhaps new jobs in Ottawa; as we notice the increasing number of homeless people in our area of Ottawa in particular, including those who are more seriously drug addicted, struggling with illness, both physical and emotional -what might this gospel lesson today challenge us to do or to become? Are there grand or even small gestures of hospitality and welcome that we might engage in to show that we believe in the grace found in an Open Table? Is there a change in our heart that we are being called to live into, a heart that is more compassionate, unconditionally loving?
The Sky Island Unitarian Universalist Church in Arizona that Rev Tina Squire is serving at this time, is not too far from the Mexican Border and she was challenged by her small congregation recently to help them live more intentionally into their call to social justice ministry. She is part of the Interim Ministry Network that I have been involved with since last March and we support each other by email and Conference Calls to further explore our unique ministries. When we met by a Zoom Call earlier this week, she was delighted to share how their small group has taken on feeding the people who are legally seeking asylum into the US who have been stalled at the Mexican Border. On every fifth Thursday they pack up some sandwiches and other healthy foods and give them to the mainly Mexican, Russian and Ukrainian immigrants who are waiting on the other side of the border to begin a new life in the US. It’s not a lot, but they feel they are serving God in doing this work and making some difference.
In a similar vein I have read how several Hispanic Evangelical churches in the US are visiting the detention centres where the children are being held offering to bring food, to provide shelter and care in their churches and in some of their foster homes…..they are stilling waiting for a response and a green light from the government to take on this work of compassion.
I know that this ministry that Jesus called his followers to live out is not an easy ministry. We can get overwhelmed by the human need let alone the needs of all God’s vulnerable creatures. We can easily get distracted, absorbed by our own personal needs and interests, we can get frustrated and discouraged…..but this is what the life of faith calls us into – to be a caring, compassionate and loving people continually seek to reach out with grace, humility and an open heart. The writer of Hebrews reminded his faith communities to live by the same spiritual practices taught by Jesus – “keep loving each other like family. Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it”. Hebrews 13: 1,2
We know too how the gospels story ends, not with Jesus rising to high status because of the wisdom of his teachings and through his fame as a healer, but that he was humbled, stripped of all he owned even wore, despised and mocked for who he was, abandoned by those who said they would follow him and learn…..Jesus himself, the Son of God, became one of those poor ones, tortured and shamed, to die a lonely death on a cross…..but he believed that this would not be the last work, the final curtain, for his life or for the lives of God’s beloved……he had faith that his work and his mission in the world would be raised up again, that love would prevail and would come alive in people who would continue in his work of mending a broken and bruised world.
And so we are called to take up this work again, and yet again, of offering an open table with open hearts, creating friendship and a beloved community where love and justice changes live. This is when the resurrection is real and the promise is fulfilled – God is with us, we are not alone, thanks be to God.
Jesus, though you were of one age,
you spoke to the ages.
Jesus, though you lived long ago,
you spoke words that continue to move, motivate,
mature, and transfigured us.
Jesus, though you were of Palestinian color and culture,
you spoke to all cultures and colors.
We thank you for your timeliness and timelessness.
May the church that bears your name
continue to reach out with love and compassion
toward other members of the human family,
no matter what age, culture, color, or context. Amen