Is Being "Nice" Enough?: A Sermon for 12 Pentecost, Proper 17
“They were watching him closely…” Such was the situation when Jesus was invited to a meal in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. Upon first glance, the leader of the Pharisees was doing exactly what Jesus was known to do himself – dine with the outcasts of society. Jesus wasn’t a tax collector, prostitute, or even a sinner. But to the Pharisees, he was a threat because the kingdom he kept speaking of – the kingdom he claimed to ushering in – challenged much of what the Pharisees held to be most important. To the Pharisees, Jesus was an outsider. So the leader of this group inviting Jesus to dinner was making a statement. Perhaps this Pharisee was inspired by Jesus’ teaching and extending hospitality to someone who he normally would feel uncomfortable around. Maybe he was “reaching across the aisle” so to speak and seeking common ground with an opponent. And certainly table fellowship would be a less threatening context for this coming together of opposites than the synagogue. So I wonder if Jesus was pleasantly surprised at the invitation, as well as hopeful for the opportunity for reconciliation of sorts.
But when Jesus entered the home, it quickly became obvious that this invitation was not an attempt at reconciliation or genuine table fellowship. Our text tells us that “…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.” In other words, it was the Sabbath day, he was in the home of a prominent Pharisee, and he was being evaluated. This wasn’t a safe space so to speak.
But Jesus was watching them as well. And what he saw was a jockeying for position among their own group “when he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor.” In that context, at a dinner party like this, the guests would have eaten reclining, in groups of three. And in each group of three, the person with this highest status would sit in the middle, flanked by someone on his right and left. And if someone with high status arrived late, he could “bump” someone out of the middle position. This sort of bumping would have been obviously embarrassing for the person being demoted. So just imagine the awkwardness when the host says, “OK, everyone take their seats, it’s time to eat.” You’d have to quickly scan the room to size up who is there, and where and how you fit within the hierarchy. Needless to say, Jesus didn’t think much of this tradition, and he most definitely wasn’t going to play the game. Of course, the Pharisees there wanted to see if Jesus thought as highly of himself as others who had been speaking of him. If he saw himself to be a prophetic healer and teacher who was ushering in the Kingdom of God, surely he would claim to best seat in the house. And if he did, they could accuse him of poor taste at best and perhaps even blasphemy at worst. But again, Jesus knew their eyes were on him, so he used it as an opportunity to tell a parable about hospitality and humility.
Our epistle lesson from Hebrews, as well as our brief lesson from Proverbs, are also about hospitality and humility. I’m guessing that we are given these lessons at this time of year because many churches are having or gearing up for their Rally Days and kicking off their program years. So now is the time for us to re-focus on hospitality as folks are finding their way back into their routines after the summer season. Of course, I have to be careful not to imply that the full depth and breadth of these passages from scripture are all about being nice by being hospitable at our rally day-type events. After all, at the end of our gospel lesson, Jesus says that “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." In other words, this sort of hospitality isn’t about being nice. According to Jesus, it is a matter of salvation.
But regardless of the context, I believe that, taken together, these lessons from Proverbs, Hebrews, and Luke are inviting us to take a deep look at how we practice hospitality as individuals, families, and congregations. For quite a while, the Episcopal Church has taken great pride in our official slogan, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” Indeed, it is a nice, feel-good slogan that was adopted as an attempt to counter our reputation as a fairly closed, country club, members-only type denomination. In some ways, this slogan has proven true, as the Episcopal Church has become a destination church for many disaffected evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and others who felt excluded for one reason or another by their denominations or congregations.
The late Rachel Held Evans rose to prominence from well-known blogger to New York Times bestselling author when she wrote a memoir about her journey from her non-denominational evangelical church to the Episcopal Church, entitled “Searching for Sunday.” Many Episcopalians felt very affirmed by Evans’ well-written endorsement of our church’s more open, inclusive, and welcoming stance on many issues. Yet, the fact remains that being more welcoming, open, and inclusive has not resulted in numerical growth for the Episcopal Church. As a matter of fact, the Episcopal Church, like other mainline denominations, has experienced considerable decline in attendance and membership over the past decades. So while we have placed a lot of theological, doctrinal, and marketing emphasis on being “welcoming,” the fact is, people aren’t flocking to our doors for us to welcome.
I think that perhaps one problem with placing so much emphasis on welcoming people is that we are essentially saying, “This is who we are and what we believe, and if you’d like to be a part of it, you’re welcome to come and be a part of it. But we’re still the ones in control here.” Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not a terrible way to be. But it is not the sort of hospitality that Jesus is speaking of in our lessons today. Jesus said that hospitality wasn’t for the sake of hoping that you might get a return invite from those you invite. And it’s not for the sake of adding members to our rolls. He said that “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…”.
And notice that Jesus doesn’t place an emphasis on welcoming people if they happen to show up at your door, but rather, on inviting people who otherwise might not be inclined to show up on their own…on people who aren’t being invited by anyone else. And once “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” arrive, not only are we to welcome them, Jesus urges us to invite and integrate them into the life of our community. In other words, we are being called to be transformed by those who enter into our midst. Taken even further, Jesus urges us to give our guests the seat of honor in our community – “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
Now don’t get me wrong…this is not easy work. It is can be much easier to hang a sign that says “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” and hope that folks will come to our church and feel welcomed because we are nice. But Jesus is calling us to a deeper, more risky form of hospitality. And the writer of the letter to the Hebrews goes as far as drawing the connection between the strangers to whom we extend hospitality to angels sent from God when he writes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
There is no way that this sort of risky, radical hospitality can be practiced without our utter dependence and reliance on God’s mercy, love and grace. As we prayed in our Collect of the Day, we need God to “Graft in our hearts the love of God’s Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” And the fruit of the good work of this sort of hospitality will be a church that more reflects the heavenly kingdom that Jesus was ushering in when he dined at the home of the leader of the Pharisees. And let us remember, we are not in this alone. As our psalmist today declared, “The Lord is [our] helper, we shall not be afraid.” Let us not be afraid to humble ourselves as we invite others to our church, and when they arrive, to welcome and exalt them as if they are angels sent by God into our midst.