Sunday, August 28, 2016

Invited to the Banquet

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
August 28, 2016

Year C, Proper 17: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Invited to the Banquet
            During the summer things slow down just enough around here that I can do a little more reading for pleasure than I normally get to do.
            This year I was able to read a few books I enjoyed, including one that’s been on my shelf for years but I hadn’t gotten around to until now: The Devil in the White City, a bestselling history (that reads like a novel) of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the world’s fair that gave us such enduring things as Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer (that’s where it won its ribbon) and the Ferris Wheel.
            It’s fascinating story and along the way the author, Erik Larson, delights in reproducing menus – menus from the luxurious, sumptuous, over-the-top banquets that were held by and for the great men of Chicago – and, yes, they were all men back then - the politicians, architects, engineers, and artists who dreamed up and built the grand exposition.
            The author has a lot of fun listing all of the rich French foods, all the many courses, and he seriously wonders how these men were able to pull away from the table stand up after eating so much!
            Customs have changed over the past century or so and I don’t think it’s that usual for the wealthy and powerful men (and, now, at least some women) to gather for banquets, to eat heavy foods for hours and hours.
            And, customs have changed for the rest of us, too.
            I don’t think it’s so common these days for people of more modest means to have dinner parties or even to have family and friends over for dinner.
            For many of us, our meals have become solitary affairs – lots of us eat on the run, often while watching TV or with our noses in our smartphones.
            Much has been made of the fact that families don’t eat dinner together anymore – and, based on what I see in restaurants, if they do eat together they barely speak to each other.
            These are big and probably not so good changes.
            Throughout most of our history and in most places even today, it was and is important to gather together for meals – to invite family, friends, and neighbors into our homes – to break bread together – to eat and drink and tell stories, together.
            And, that was certainly true in first century Palestine where hospitality was a highly valued virtue – and people with the means would host banquets on special occasions, like a wedding, parties that would last for days.
            In today’s gospel lesson we find that Jesus has apparently been invited to the home of a leader of the Pharisees on the Sabbath for a meal.
            I say “apparently” because we know that Jesus is fully capable of just inviting himself over!
            Anyway, some red flags should go up right away because we know Jesus has had conflicts with the Pharisees – and, as we saw last week when Jesus healed the woman bent over for 18 years, the Sabbath has been a sore spot between Jesus and the religious authorities.
            Luke sets the tone by telling us that the other guests are watching Jesus closely – and not in a good way.
            And, it seems that Jesus has been closely watching them because he notices how guests first take the places of honor.
            Then and now people want the good seats, right?
            And at first Jesus sounds like Emily Post or Miss Manners offering etiquette advice, telling people not to take the best seats because you may get bumped if somebody more important comes along. Better to wait for the host to invite you to the place of honor.
            OK, fair enough. Good advice.
            But, then Jesus digs a little deeper, getting to the heart of the matter.
            We’re told that he addressed his host, telling him to not invite his family and friends or rich neighbors – who can all return the favor – but instead to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind – to invite the people who can’t return the favor.           
            We’re not told how the Pharisee host received this instruction, but I think we can guess.
            Jesus tells his host that his party, his banquet, should be like the heavenly banquet where the poor and the weak get invited first and get to sit in the best seats.
            Jesus tells us that our parties, our banquets, should be like the heavenly banquet, too.
            Very tough – but now and then here on earth we get glimpses of that heavenly banquet – and it’s so very beautiful.
            As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
            Some of you know that for a year I was the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Florida. Since Sunday morning and college students don’t always mix very well, the chapel service was on Sunday evening.
             One of the really wonderful things about that year was that different Episcopal churches would take turns preparing and serving dinner to the chapel members – the “EpiscoGators” – really beautifully prepared home cooking that the kids loved.
            Good food and plenty of it.
            But, it wasn’t just students. There were others, poor and a few even homeless people who sometimes came to the service and then stayed for dinner - and some who just came for the dinner.
            And, the kids and the hosts were just great – treating everybody exactly the same – and sometimes I’d be present enough to look around the big table, piled with food, with everybody eating and talking and I’d think, this is what the Kingdom of God is like.
            Sometimes, we get a glimpse of that around here at coffee hour when a stranger – sometimes a clearly bedraggled stranger - is welcomed as warmly as an old friend, or as an angel, or as Christ himself.
            And then there’s Stone Soup. Back when Catherine Marcial came up with the idea we were thinking that we’d be feeding people who might not otherwise eat that night.
            There have been some guests like that of that but mostly it’s just been all kinds of different people enjoying good food and conversation, eating, drinking, and talking, together – all very rare in today’s society.
            And, soon enough it will be Thanksgiving and once again Trish Szymanski will host her community Thanksgiving feast right over there in Carr Hall, beautiful food lovingly prepared for anybody and everybody who shows up, including maybe an angel or two, and maybe Christ himself.
            On Thanksgiving, I’ll try to remember to look around and think: this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.
            Speaking of the Kingdom of God, here we are today – invited to yet another banquet – all of us, no matter who or what we are, no matter what we’ve done or haven’t done – all of us invited to the banquet with Jesus, the banquet that gives us a taste of heaven, a banquet with the richest food and drink, infinitely better than even that rich food enjoyed by the great men of Chicago long ago.
            Thanks be to God.