Sunday, September 01, 2013

Sermon; Proper 17C; Proverbs 25:6-7; Luke 14:1, 7-14

What connections do you see between the first (and very short) first reading and the gospel?  Upward mobility might be one answer.  Avoiding embarrassment might be another.  Knowing your place could be a third.  But we need to be careful because although we might clearly see the connection, we also might miss their implications for us living in God’s kingdom.

Today’s reading (sentence) from Proverbs comes from a section copied by Judah for King Hezekiah, and seems to offer advice to members of the king’s court.  It’s a guide on how to stay out of trouble, avoid personal disaster and climb the corporate ladder.  But this should be about more than surviving office politics, exhibiting false humility and scheming for new and creative ways to look good; especially when paired with a gospel lesson revolving around humility and hospitality.  
When we connect this reading to the gospel we can see kingdom behavior.  We move from “how to get ahead in this world” to humble service of others and caring for the less-than by following the example of Jesus.  And when we do that, we both honor and are honored by God.
In today’s gospel we are given the same advice about an over-inflated ego.  Jesus attends a Sabbath meal and watches how the guests choose where they will sit.  It may seem a bit silly to us who don’t live in such a stratified society, but there are still times when people jockey for the best seat in the house based on status.  And there is a well-documented record in our own history of making sure people sit in their proper places.
After noting their behavior, Jesus tells a parable.  This is important.  When Jesus tells a parable he is making a reference to the kingdom of God.  What Jesus says today is not simply social commentary.  It is not a new way to get ahead.  And Lord help us if we use this parable as a reason to start jockeying for the lowest seat in the house in an attempt to get recognized and elevated.
This parable is about kingdom behavior.  Last week we heard a little about what kingdom behavior looked like – loose the bonds of injustice, free the oppressed, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless.  Part of kingdom behavior is serving those on the bottom and at the edges of society.  When we do that, we are in effect taking the low places at the banquet, allowing those whom society dishonors to be honored.
Jesus’ parable of kingdom behavior moves into the real world when he presents guidelines to the host.  In the society Jesus lived in, honor, shame and reciprocity were big deals.  A party was thrown.  Honor dictated a reciprocal act or a person would suffer the consequence of shame.  You throw a party and invite me.  I am required to invite you to a party of mine in return.  In short, I become indebted to you until in reciprocate.
We see this in our society today.  A gift is given.  The giver says, “You don’t need to return the favor.”  But in reality uses a non-returned favor to hold sway over that person.  And at times we go to the extremes of trying to figure out the value of the gifts so that it all comes out equal.  
There’s an episode in one of my favorite TV shows, “The Big Bang Theory,” revolving around this very thing.  Penny, the blonde bombshell who lives next door to the science geeks, tells Sheldon, the head science geek, that she has a Christmas present for him.  Sheldon objects to any gift-giving because of the social pressure to reciprocate.  Nevertheless, he makes a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond and buys up one of every kind of gift basket, ranging from small to very large.  His plan is to receive her gift, feign digestive distress, retreat to his room, do an online price comparison, and then bring out the appropriately equal-value gift in exchange.  He will then return the unused baskets for a full refund.  It’s all very logical.
Penny is an uneducated but street-smart waitress looking to break into acting and not making much money.  But she has found a gift for her friend.  It turns out that her gift is a used napkin from her restaurant and is signed: “To Sheldon, Live long and prosper – Leonard Nimoy” (Mr. Spock for those who don’t know).  Now Penny couldn’t care less about Star Trek, the Green Lantern, Dr. Who or science in general.  But she did this for her friend because he does.  The only way Sheldon knows how to cope is to give her every single basket he purchased . . . and a hug – a huge gesture for the obsessive compulsive germaphobe who can’t stand physical contact.
Sheldon was playing by the rules of reciprocity.  Penny was playing by the rules of the kingdom in that she didn’t expect anything in return.  She did it to give joy to the other person.  This is kingdom behavior.
It takes on a deeper meaning, though, when we realize the church is to be a servant to all.  We are to offer a banquet to all.  We are to welcome people like us and people not like us.  We are to offer hospitality to all of God’s children – especially to the less-than, the hungry, the homeless, the oppressed, the outcast, the Other.  And we are to do this, like Penny, with no expectation of reciprocity.
Kingdom behavior means that we look to serve those who have no ability to repay us.  But it also means that we are to host those who are in no position to host us in return.  We are to invite Those People into our home and share a meal at our table.  By doing this we begin to see Those People not as Them, but as Us.  Getting to know someone this way helps to break down those barriers.
Whom do you serve, and why?  Pay attention to your motives.  If you keep track of every gift given, or use your generosity to look good, you’re doing it wrong.  Just like gifts from God are given freely to us with no expectation of repayment, we should offer our gifts freely to others without expectation of repayment.  Because true hospitality, where the goal is to be gracious and supporting of the other, is what kingdom behavior looks like.


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