Christianity 201

September 7, 2013

Everyone Is Welcome

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Occasionally I run into blogs that consist of pastors’ sermon notes involving churches that use the Lectionary as a guide to preaching. In these churches, the Evangelical concept of a sermon series in completely foreign; instead there are three or four prescribed readings for each Sunday, usually consisting an Old Testament reading, a Psalm , a selection from the gospels, and an excerpt from an Epistle.  (These vary somewhat by tradition and some denominations send out an amended version to their ministers.)  One of the texts is required to form the basis of the weekend sermon. I believe that’s the case with the blog ForeWords written by Rich Brown.  This one appeared recently there under the title All Are Welcome.  Click through to read at source (with pictures!) and discover more Lectionary based sermons.


Jeremiah 2:4–13; Psalm 81:1, 10–16; Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16; Luke 14:1, 7–14

Any reading of the Gospels reveals this defining characteristic of Jesus: He loved a party. Of course, that raised more than a few eyebrows back then, as it does for many “good, church folks” today. Jesus was often confronted with the way he and his disciples comported themselves, in comparison especially to John the Baptist and his disciples. But Jesus was not John. His agenda and “gospel” was a different, yet related one. We pick up the action in chapter 14 of Luke’s Gospel:

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.” 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 14:1, 7-14 NRSV

The rules for hospitality were pretty strict among the Jews of ancient Judea. An invitation to dinner required reciprocal treatment. Furthermore, there was a definite hierarchy as to who would get the place of honor. Characteristically, Jesus turned all that upside down. It’s not that he didn’t believe in being hospitable or valuing the practices of the day, although he was certainly known for bending rules (if not breaking them at times) when he felt the need. Most likely, though, Luke doesn’t share this little story to enlighten his readers/listeners on eating habits. No, I don’t think this is a story about eating and drinking and partying as much as it’s about who gets invited to Jesus’–and therefore God’s–table.

Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, Jesus tells his audience. And by doing so those issuing the invitation will be blessed. Here in the 21st century we would probably phrase it differently, with the familiar words “pay it forward” to be found somewhere in the mix. Jesus held a special place for those on the margins of his society, the people who were pretty much invisible to respectable folks. Those marginalized people weren’t important to Judea’s Roman occupiers, nor were they valued by Pharisees or Sadducees–or anybody intent on somehow ingratiating themselves with those groups.

What’s remarkable is to consider that the same sort of situation takes place today. We, too, have the rich and the powerful in charge of business, politics, and the social order. And although we have a far larger middle-class than in the first century of the Common Era, it’s also true that our North American middle-class is shrinking as the disparity between really rich and really poor increases.

The marginalized folks in Jesus’ day were identified as the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. To a certain extent we can start our 21st-century list of marginalized with those groups, too. But we can add many more: think of the massive numbers of people (especially in minority groups) who are in prison, those women and men and children who are denied access to adequate health care, the homeless, the hungry (which includes all those who are in various stages of being “food challenged”), immigrants (especially those who are “undocumented”) who live in an underground economy, many in the LGBT community, people who are denied their right to vote, and those stuck in generations-old cycles of poverty and ignorance and illiteracy.

If Jesus were to tell his parable today, he’d most likely include those groups in his list of marginalized. He’d probably have an even more extensive list. Coincidentally, [last] week marked the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. And, amazingly, on that anniversary date the first African-American President of the United States, Barack Obama, drew on King’s imagery in his own speech, which included these words:

“We must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call—this remains our great unfinished business.”

The question for followers of Jesus in the 21st century remains: Who is invited to God’s banquet in the peaceable kingdom, the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven? Yes, this broad question includes some smaller ones: Who is welcome in our congregations? in our neighborhoods? in our towns and cities and suburbs? in our schools and businesses? ultimately, in our hearts and minds?

Jesus’ first and constant concern was for the marginalized. That would appear to be where we, who call ourselves followers and disciples of Christ, should begin as well.