NRSV LUKE 14:1, 7-14
14 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.
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.
8“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; 9 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. 10 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. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 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. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
It’s great to be back with you all after a week in the mountains of western North Carolina. Relax, I am not going to bore you with all the details about my study leave, except to say it was great to get away and study and learn and meet new people and reconnect with old friends. But I should say in the course of my studies, which dealt with Transitional (i.e., Interim) Ministries, I discovered something very good: Whereas before the attitude of some interim pastors seemed to be that of a rescuer, someone who was called to come into a church and whip them into shape, now the attitude has been emphasized to help a congregation recognize and affirm their assets, their strengths, and work with those. As you all will be moving to that time of being in-between pastors next year I have no doubt you will be in great hands, working to renew yourselves in your commitments to be agents of the kingdom of God.
But since today is the tenth anniversary of my coming here to be your pastor I also noticed and remembered something that happened back then. Sue still had work to do so I came down by myself and decided I would drop in on my future church the Sunday before I started work. I remember sitting up in the balcony hearing Dr. Bob Hall, a professor at Hampden-Sydney who still preaches here once in a while, who delivered the sermon that day.
After worship I enjoyed getting to meet several of you, including one now departed saint of the church. It was during our first meeting that he did something, probably out of habit and probably out of practice. He looked me up and down. Maybe he was trying to figure out if I was good enough to be pastor of his beloved church. I could have told him that I wasn’t but God’s grace abounds. Or he could have been trying to measure me up as far as what kind of character I had. Maybe he was evaluating me, maybe he was judging me. I don’t know.
It had been a long time since I felt someone’s look like that. I think we all do it to some extent; we meet someone and we look them up and down in an effort to try to figure them out. And it’s not just here. We like to people watch, in grocery stores, in the park, in the airport. It can be fun to see people, to appreciate them and try to understand what kind of world they come from, what issues they are dealing with, what they enjoy doing.
As the late great philosopher of just about everything and baseball all-star catcher Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”
But there can be a word of caution there, too. Caution that comes from thinking that we can know all there is to know about someone just by first appearances, just by looking them up and down. And once we know that – or think we know that – it’s too easy to come to the conclusion that we can accept them or dismiss them. We can say “This is the kind of person I would like to know better,” or “I don’t want to have anything to do with this kind of person.”
It’s not that I felt rejected by this person. It’s just that every now and then we need to check out how we are greeting people, especially in the church. Are we open to them? Are we willing to hear their stories? Can we accept them as they are? Or do they have to meet some particular criteria before we will even say hello? Do we have some kind of a litmus test they have to pass before we open up to them?
This being the start of the school year for Longwood University up the hill and Hampden-Sydney College (a good Presbyterian school, of course), it’s a good time to check out how we are being hospitable (or not) to people who come in our doors. It’s also a good time to recognize that there is more to people than we can see at first glance. It comes from days, months, years of getting to know them, of seeing how they change, of seeing how we change, and how we grow together. As the saying goes, “People are dealing with issues you have no idea about, so be kind.”
It’s especially important for us to consider that in these days. We know that we are like many other mainline churches, getting smaller and older, and with our influence in the wider culture diminishing. We may also know that, while we would like to think that this is a cyclical thing that will play out eventually, the reality is that it may not change back, at least for a while. People don’t come to church like they used to. And yet there is always a need for a community that reaches out to people and welcomes them as they are. New people may want to come here – if those new people feel welcome, if they feel accepted, if they sense the look in our eyes is one of care and compassion, and not an up and down glare of impending judgment.
So it’s a nice coincidence that Luke’s gospel takes us into the home of a leader of the Pharisees, a home that Jesus has been invited to. As he walks in the door there is a lot of watching going on, and not all of it the good kind. The others at the tables are “watching him closely.” What are they looking for? To see if he is going to heal on the Sabbath, something strictly prohibited? To see if he will do all of the proper, ritualistic activities such as washing hands? To make sure that he will be a good boy, doing all things decently and in order?
Jesus is watching, too. Actually the way Luke puts it is that Jesus is “noticing” them. He notices who is sitting where, with whom they are sitting, where they are sitting, how quickly they took their places. Meal times then (and now) were social events; they were occasions for people to gather with like-minded souls, to share with each other how things were going but also to maintain a pecking order. If this person was prominent they would sit here, if they were not so special they would be expected to sit somewhere else. And heaven forbid if anyone sat in a place that was not for them. Kind of like a plaque someone gave me that said, “Some people are kind, polite and sweet-spirited until you try to sit in their pews.”
We still have our pecking orders. We still have our designated places which are reserved for some people and not for others. It is in all parts of our society, and in all parts of the church. But it is good to remember that Jesus is also noticing. He notices the ones we reach out to, the ones we will walk across the room to greet; and the ones we will avoid at all costs, the ones whose gaze we seek to ignore. Jesus notices the ones we pay attention to, and the ones we don’t.
But Jesus does more than notice. He points out. He tells them that they have this way of dividing themselves into who is in and who is out. He then gives what seem to be basic, common sense table manners. Don’t sit where you don’t belong. Sit in a lower place so you will be invited up.
But of course we know that Jesus is into more than nice, polite table manners. He is doing more than telling us to show a false mask of modesty so that we will get the approbation of others, especially those we most want to impress. After all, Jesus is a disrupter. Jesus is a revolutionary. Jesus turns things upside down and inside out, and he does it again when he tells them that those who are exalted will be humbled, and those who are humbled will be exalted.
He really gets into it when he advises his host about whom to invite: Not those you can get something out of. Not those whom you know will bring a nice gift, an expensive bottle of wine, something special to express their thanks. Invite those who can’t return anything in return. Invite those who won’t give you anything because they have nothing to give – except themselves. Which is the whole point behind relationships in the name of Jesus.
Recently I have been reminded of some wonderful insights given by Martin Buber, in particular from his classic book I And Thou. Buber wrote that there are basically two kinds of relationships. One is based on ‘I-and-it.’ This is a cool, calculating relationship based on what one can get from the other. It’s not all bad; when I took my car in to have the oil changed two weeks ago at Jerry Stuart’s place I wasn’t interested in his mechanic’s opinion about my car, or about his politics, of even where (or if) he went to church. I just wanted my oil changed. Sometimes the relationship is based on services rendered.
But not always, though some people operate this way. We all have to watch out for making our connections, our relationships with other people into just another thing to consume. The other person is okay as far as it goes but only as long as I get what I want from them. When that’s over, we just cut loose and look for other relationships where we can, as the old and tired line says, “get our needs met.”
All that is is an exercise in narcissism; of self-worshipping at a level where we do not regard the other at all because we are too absorbed in ourselves. What can I get out of this person, out of this relationship? Jesus notices that, then and now. But Jesus offers us another way.
He offers us what Buber called ‘I-and-Thou.’ The ultimate Thou is, of course, God. God calls us into relationship, a deep relationship, an honest relationship, a relationship that gives. But God does not just call us into relationship with the Almighty; God also calls us into that kind of relationship with each other. It is not a relationship based on my needs. It is based on the connections with each other. We enter into a relationship based on accepting and celebrating the totally distinctive other with whom we are in relationship. We do not seek anything from them, other than to be open to their presence, their words, and the grace God has given them. In such a relationship we can be accepting and respectful, while hoping that we will also be accepted and respected as we are.
It would be nice if that was the way the world worked. But we know it isn’t. We all have our moments of entering into the ‘what’s in it for me’ mode of connecting with others. But Jesus invites us to go deeper in our connections with each other. We are not conveyors of things for other people to use. We are people who are invited to bring our whole selves into connections with others, others who are also seeking that same loving, accepting relationship. It is a relationship given by a confrontational Jesus, who loves us too much to let us get away with artificial and superficial relationships. Christ calls on us to open ourselves up to one another, that others might be invited to open themselves up with us. And in that opening, we may yet find God’s Spirit blessing us all. Amen.