Homily for Proper 17, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
September 1, 2019
Lectionary Readings (Track 2):
There is nothing more ordinary or extraordinary than sharing a meal. For most of us, the earliest meals we can probably remember involve family dinners or other shared dining with people who cared for us and would teach us to move from playing with our veggies to trying bites of what had been prepared for us. Sometimes that process goes more smoothly than others! But eventually we learn the manners of the table and take in the social cues of how we are to conduct ourselves during meals as social situations. And then, it’s time to start school. And, as we know, the school cafeteria is its own lesson in social graces, or lack thereof.
While we don’t live in the same cultural context as Jesus, I think that the school cafeteria offers us a relatable, and admittedly timely, way to enter more fully into today’s Gospel lesson. Imagine walking into the school cafeteria and sitting yourself down next to the pinnacle of popularity. Maybe even someone a few years ahead of you, popular and from the most senior class. Now, perhaps some of you were more popular than I was in school, but let me just tell you that sauntering up to those choice seats, even as a naive newcomer, would surely have resulted in my immediate expulsion from the lunch table, sending me with taunts of shame far, far away from the “in-crowd.”
Many of us have watched it happen. And some of us have spent plentiful time weaving in and out of uncomfortable lunch-time situations, not sure of where we belong and just hoping to find a seat or a seat-mate who will accept us. The social pecking order of the school cafeteria is not for the faint of heart. Reflecting back on my own experiences, though, I have to tell you: once I finally found what became “my seat” those rough and tumble, sweet and funny mutually nerdy friends who made a space for me at the table were some of the people who have remained my friends for life. Being an outcast from the center of attention actually taught me something that I believe Jesus already knew: the low end of the table is actually a fantastic place to be.
Jesus the guest was being watched in today’s Gospel lesson, and he was watching people clamor and climb to be seated in the power seat. In the cultural setting of a meal such as this, this would mean watching people trying to be the literal center of attention. The guests of honor reclined in the center of the room, with those who wanted to be seen and heard crowding into that central, often elevated space. Jesus’ parable, which at first might sound like an instruction for social advancement, is really an invitation to take a closer look at what we think we know and in doing so, to reverse the status quo of daily life to align with the vision of the reign of God.
In the first part of this lesson, Jesus is drawing our attention not just to finding our place at the table, but how we occupy that space. If we are only looking for power and prestige at the center of attention, then we don’t notice who is with us, or who we crawl over in the process of getting there. We stop seeing those on the margins, and we don’t bother building relationships with those whose seats are in the “lower places” of the social pecking order. When the guest in Jesus’ parable manages to snag a seat at the head table then subsequently gets demoted, it’s to an isolated and outcast position surrounded by those already thoughtlessly stepped over.
Jesus offers up a different perspective: being in relationship with those who are on the outskirts breaks the power cycle and builds community among those gathered at the table. Jesus points out that even if we are subsequently invited closer, then it won’t just be about us. If we are truly living in beloved community, others at the table are rejoicing and remaining in relationship with us. We are honored in the presence of all who are with us and because we know them, we will want them to remain with us, in relationship. Jesus the guest reminds us that it isn’t the position where we start out or where we strive to be in the social ranks, but instead it is being in relationship: seeing ourselves as a part of the table…the community…that makes all the difference. When one of those humble guests is honored, all of the guests are exalted.
I think of Jesus, the guest, reminding us that he didn’t choose to enter this world amid wealth and power. He chose relationship. His incarnate beginnings were humble, and his relationships crossed all the social margins that separated people of that time. And, it is through his exaltation and rising to new life that all of us….ALL of US…are brought closer to God.
Then, in the second part of the lesson, Jesus turns the table and invites us to see through the eyes of the host. Jesus the host is, in essence, inviting us to see the hospitality of God. The invitation extended by the host in this example isn’t based on worthiness, social power, or reciprocity. The invitation is extended to those who are broken, vulnerable, and marginalized in this world. This is our host, opening up the heavens to come down and be present with this world in the lowliest and most humble of places. This is our host, not wanting to be repaid but to rejoice with us together in the world to come which God is making. This is our host who loves us not in spite of our brokenness, but because of it. This passage echoes the blessings of the beautitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. We will see God, because we are invited to God’s table. The hospitality overflows for us at the table set by our lavish host who simply says, “come and be my guests.”
When we dine at the table set for us by God, is it any wonder that, as the Epistle suggests, we occasionally find ourselves entertaining angels unaware? We are reminded in today’s lessons that there are no places on this earth: not prisons, not places of torture, not detention centers, not border crossings, not hiding places, not abandoned houses, neither homeless shelters nor eviction courts where God is not particularly and purposefully present. The hospitality of God reaches into the most unfathomable places of this world with exquisite intention. When we find ourselves in those places: whether by fault, or by accident, or with intentional presence of showing up then we will most assuredly encounter God. It is only in our arrogance of thinking we already have everyone and everything we need within our own locus of control that we close our hearts off to experiencing God’s presence among us.
But I believe there is also one more vantage point in today’s Gospel lesson that it can be just as easy for us to overlook. In his book, Stranger God, psychologist of theology Richard Beck breaks down and reconstructs this phenomenon of encountering God in the other. Beck reminds us that when we listen to lessons of God’s hospitality as told in our scriptures, we can have a tendency to reverse these characters and see these stories unfolding as members of the audience, watching a type of morality play. We hear the lessons play out and think we are being asked to perform a task: to show hospitality to others in order to be like Jesus. And of course, that is the kind of hospitality that Jesus models for us. But the larger point of these biblical stories of hospitality, Beck reminds us, is not about trying to be Jesus. but to help us truly welcome Christ into our lives.
So, in today’s lessons, we may also consider the possibility that God isn’t just the host but also the guest. God is the one entering the world at the margins and the low places; God is the stranger whom we welcome when we are the host, opening the doors to the guest house of our lives. Hospitality isn’t about trying to be God, a task for which we will invariably fall short, but in welcoming God whose one great desire is to be invited into our lives. The miracle isn’t God showing up for our benefit as an angel is disguise when we most need to be made aware of Divine presence. The miracle is when we open our hearts to see and experience God who is already in our midst, in the people and situations we have chosen to welcome to the guest table of our lives.
Who is circling around the table you host in this world, looking for a seat?
Gracious God, you are the host who welcomes us to the table, and the guest who dines in our midst. May we welcome each other as you would welcome, and come to see you in the faces of all those whom we meet. This we ask in the name of Jesus, who has made his home with the lowly and with whom we all rejoice in his exultation. Amen.
James Tissot 1836-1902 “The Meal in the House of the Pharisee” [Public domain]