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Sermon: September 8, 2019

Preached by The Rev. Tracie Little
September 8, 2019
At St. Jude’s Episcopal Church, Fenton, MI

Proper 17 –
Luke 14:1, 7-14


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. 

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, 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 honoured 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 neighbours, 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.’ 

I really struggled with the sermon this week. In a world where our news feed are bombarded with mass shootings, hate and violence; where the entire world seems locked into a pattern that doesn’t consider the consequeces of decisions; well, arguing about who gets the best seat in the house seems rather trivial.

As my head hit the pillow last night, my mind stilled just enough for the parable to begin to open.  That’s okay.  That is the nature of parables.  They open in different was to reveal their treasures.

How do you experience God’s grace?

In giving to others?

In receiving from others?

Is one harder than the other?

Today’s Gospel marks the fourth time that Jesus is pushing against long held boundaries regarding the Sabbath.  Once again he’s with the Pharisees.  And they are struggling.  They’re watching him closely.  What Jesus has been teaching is a threat to all that they hold dear and today’s parable is really no different.

As Jesus begins his parable, his teaching would have sounded very familiar to the Pharisees.  His words would have reminded them of teachings in the Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon which guides seating plans and etiquette for royal banquets. Teachings that highlight the importance of taking the humble path.  And then Jesus goes one step farther.

When you are hosting a meal, don’t invite those who can reciprocate.   Instead invite those who have no chance of throwing a party and inviting you in return.   Instead, invite the marginalized, the invisible ones, the ones that we tend to avoid. We’ll be blessed in doing so.  But not in the way we might think.  It’s not about racking up brownie points.  It’s about living a life that is transformed.

He was a mentor in his soul.  When I met Bill, I saw that all through his life he’d been the one that others looked up to and learned from.  In his work career, he took the newbies under his wing, coached them and helped them to grow into their careers and his love and support pushed them to be the best people they could be.  He never saw himself that way.  He was just living into who he was at his core.  To me it seemed as if he’d always been this way.

At church he mentored the young people, especially the ones who wanted to serve as Acolytes.  His way of training them was unique to him.  For many years his career was in military intelligence and his formation of the acolytes didn’t leave them any room for playing around.  He was gruff and insistent and very regimented. They respected him for the boundaries he set.  

He was always the strong one, the giving one. His back had been sore for weeks that led into months.  Eventually, he got tired of the pain and decided to get it checked out.  The doctors had ordered tests to determine the origin of the pain and he was in the MRI machine.  All of a sudden, the platform moved him to a different location. Looking back, that was the first indication that something else was going on.  The astute technician, looking at the extreme edges of the pictures that were emerging, noticed something in his lungs and moved him to get a better look.

There it was.  Non-symptomatic lung cancer that had spread to his bones and then to his brain. All of a sudden, he found himself in the position of needing to receive God’s grace.  And for a long time he couldn’t get there.  For weeks after his diagnosis, he couldn’t share the news. He wanted all of his friends and his family to know nothing.  He needed to be the strong one.  To be okay. To continue being the giver.  

Eventually he began to share his diagnosis.  I’ll never forget the day he shared his news with the choir.  Bill had a way of looking through my eyes and reaching deep into my soul.  That day he looked right at me and told me to stop looking so sad.  Guess my poker face betrayed my deepest feelings.

Bill and I travelled the journey of his diagnosis, his treatment, and his death and as we walked together, I learned a lot about being blessed.  I learned that Bill hadn’t always been a mentor.  Bill was a recovering alcoholic and he when he shared about his past, he was clear that it wasn’t a happy story.  He’d hurt his family and pushed away his friends.  Bill saw himself as totally undeserving of blessing.  He was crippled by a disease that he could not control. One that was destroying his life.

Jesus saw something different in Bill.  Jesus saw a beloved child of God.  Jesus saw potential.  Jesus knew that Bill didn’t need to stay stuck.  All Bill needed was to hear the invitation to sit at God’s banquet table as an equal.    Eventually Bill heard that invitation and started on the life-long road that is recovery. His family didn’t desert him.  He made new friends.  He learned to live a new life.  And he never forgot.

Having heard and accepted God’s invitation to join in the banquet, having experienced the power of knowing what it means to be blessed when you feel undeserving, Bill’s life of mentoring others began. Bill continued making a difference in people’s lives for the rest of his life.  As Bill’s illness progressed and the end of his life drew near, Bill started receiving cards and letters thanking him for his love and support.

Many of them detailed just how Bill had influenced the author’s lives; how they’d been blessed by all that Bill had done for them.  As he would read me the letters, Bill could remember each of the authors and their stories. Reading through the cards and letters, he’d always say that he had no idea what a difference he was making in their lives.  Really, he’d said, it was him who was blessed.  

Many of the letters told stories about how the recipients of Bill’s care had been nobody’s.  They weren’t loved and many of them weren’t even respected.  All of them saw themselves as unworthy.  Many of them were people that you’d cross the street to avoid.  That wasn’t Bill’s way.  Bill’s love, compassion and mercy made a real difference in their lives.  His mentoring changed them.  

Every single card and letter that Bill received was kept.  Carefully and lovingly placed in a photo album.  One album filled and another was begun.  In the end at least 6 photo albums were filled to bursting with stories of how much Bill’s love had made a difference.  As he shared his side of their stories, it was clear that Bill not only valued them. He learned from them.  He was blessed by them.  Bill was living into who he truly was at his core – it just took a bit to recognize that reality.

I think that’s what Jesus is getting to in today’s Gospel.  Jesus’s parable stretches the rules of table hospitality in a way that opens the invitation list and invites all of us to not only do the same, but also to be open to receiving God’s blessings from unexpected places.  When we experience God’s blessings in ways that are, perhaps, surprising, we, like Bill, will find our lives are changed.

Jesus is clear that all of us are equal in God’s sight.  We aren’t to see one another as worthy or not worthy based on any human standards.  God sees us all as beloved, no matter who we are and we are called to do the same. 

Jesus has spent his entire ministry recognizing those that the world tries to ignore.  He’s gone out of his way to expand the invitation list of those God invites to share in a meal in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus has erased the lines that we draw to designate who’s in and who’s out.  Jesus is shattering the status quo.  He’s not doing this so he can feel better about himself or so his ministry looks powerful because of the numbers of people he reaches.  No.  Jesus makes it clear that those who live on the margins are valuable beyond measure.

God’s love and mercy and justice are for all of God’s beloved.  And, my friends, you and I are God’s beloved.  All of us are worthy to receive God’s blessings.  And all of us are agents God uses to share God’s blessings.

That’s what my friend Bill had learned.  When he was at his lowest point he didn’t see himself as valuable or worthy of blessing.  God never gave up on him and others around him helped him to see himself differently.  Receiving God’s mercy from some of those that he’d hurt the worst was unexpected.  It changed his life and it changed the lives of countless others whom he never gave up on.

When we see one another as God sees us, as equals, as beloved, then we become open to receiving God’s blessings in ways that might be unexpected.  We might find that God’s blessings turn up in surprising places, and when we receive them our lives will be transformed.  

I wonder, where have you been touched by God’s blessings?  

Who have been the agents of sharing those blessings?  

Did those blessings come in expected ways and places?  

Have you been surprised by them?

I wonder, what in your life has changed because you have received God’s blessings?