Space For Something New
First Lesson: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Second Lesson: Luke 14:1, 7-14
There’s a delicious irony, so to speak, in this scene from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus is at a dinner party at the house of one of the Pharisees to celebrate the Sabbath and begins teaching everyone, the host included, about proper etiquette and practices around hospitality, which is that this is terrible etiquette!
Jesus was an awful dinner guest, here and other places in Luke! Invited into people’s homes to eat and socialize or in this case celebrate the Sabbath, and then proceeding to confront them—those gathered as well as the hosts—on all that they’re doing wrong. One has to wonder how he keeps getting these invitations in the first place!
And at first glance, Jesus’ lesson here seems to be something less than gospel. It’s more like a bit of shrewd advice about navigating social hierarchies—something you might better expect to find in Emily Post, or even Machiavelli, not the New Testament. He tells the guests gathered there who have all taken their place in the appointed social tier—a custom then as it is now—When you get invited to a wedding banquet, don’t sit at the place of honor where you think you ought to be. Instead go down to the very bottom, the worst seat, so that the host will call you up to sit closer and everyone will fawn over your humility.
It’s a good trick! I remember a friend of mine years ago after hearing a sermon on this passage—not one of mine, I’ll add—eagerly reported back to me that he had done just what Jesus said to do at the next business meeting he attended where he was to be making a presentation, sitting in one of the chairs around the conference table and then having the head of the company call him to take a seat at the table. “And we got the account!” he reported, delighted. So I can confirm to you that this can be good advice, if not a little calculated. But Jesus doesn’t stop at good advice, he keeps reaching for the good news.
He turns to the host who invited him, whose face must have been a special shade of purple by this point, and tells him, When you host a luncheon or a dinner—such as the one we’re at right now—don’t invite your friends or your family or your rich neighbor or that young couple that lives around the corner from you who you found out hosts a neighborhood cocktail club that you haven’t been invited to join but desperately want to and you wonder if it’s because you have kids and they don’t or that they know you’re a baptist pastor and think you wouldn’t be interested and probably no fun anyway and so maybe if you have them over you’ll hit it off and…
Where were we…
Don’t invite the folks who may invite you in return and so you would be repaid, either in cocktails or, more importantly, social cachet. When you have people over, invite the folks who can’t repay you, who have no social capital to bring with them, for this is who you’re called to be.
And suddenly this calculated lesson on etiquette and gaming the social hierarchy is revealed to be a lesson in how to subvert it, how to opt out or break free of it—even how to expose it for the lie it is, and in so doing, open up a glimpse of the banquet table of the kingdom of God to to which all are invited, right there in your own dining room.
And the secret to this in-breaking of the kingdom, it seems, lies in understanding the deep resonance between humility and hospitality.
Throughout scripture these two virtues are lifted up as being of central importance to the life of faith, and they’re often lifted up together. They complement each other. Jesus teaches about few things more than humility and hospitality—probably only money and giving, which of course is wrapped up in this teaching on humility and hospitality, too.
It takes humility to truly offer hospitality. It’s impossible to truly open your home, let alone your heart, to someone without a sense of humility, a sense of gratitude that they are there with you. And probably the most tangible and profound way we practice humility is through hospitality, both offering it and accepting it. This is a universal truth. Every culture and religion on earth has practices and expectations around hospitality, including our own. But I think it’s fair to say that some of these practices in our own culture are slipping.
Two Friday evenings ago a little more than 30 of us gathered in the fellowship hall for the first of what we hope will be many of what we called Dinner and a “Movie,” the “movie” being highlights from this past summer’s CBF General Assembly, our annual denominational gathering. For this first gathering we watched the keynote address from the final night of the gathering, given by Krista Tippett, the noted Public Radio personality, author, and the host of On Being, a wonderful podcast that has found its way into many a sermon here at the Top of Poplar. She spoke on the need for and blessing of "civility” in our common life together. And after introducing a number of qualifiers to this term that can seem too timid, too nice or too tame for the current moment—calling it “muscular civility,” or “adventurous civility,” she offered a number of virtues that open or position us to share more fully in common life.
Her primary muse for the evening was a poem by Elizabeth Alexander entitled “I Believe,” that I’m pretty sure has been recited from this pulpit in a sermon once before, but is worth hearing again. Alexander writes,
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love,
and I’m so sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?
“Are we not of interest to each other?” Isn’t that a question?!
Doesn’t true common life require a kind of humility that bends toward curiosity? She said in stepping into a room with those who are on the other side—whatever that may be—
“ask yourself, are you willing to be surprised by others?” Are you willing to be surprised by what they have to say—more directly, are you willing to be wrong about them? And if you’re not, she said, “just go away and work on yourself first.”
If humility and curiosity are what we need to first come into a room with the right spirit, then hospitality is how we might respond once we’re in it. “Hospitality,” she said, "would resist and disrupt the litmus test we’ve set up for who we will be with and how”—who, Jesus might say, we will invite to our supper party or wedding banquet. Hospitality is not about celebrating what feels uncomfortable to you in the other, or feeling lovingly toward someone on the other side, “But,” she says, “it’s [also] more than simply extending an invitation. Deep hospitality creates an inviting, trustworthy space—it’s an atmosphere as much as a space—in which the ground for something new can be laid.” This is a more expansive notion of hospitality. Not simply the act of inviting someone into your home or your community or your church, but creating a space, an atmosphere, setting a table, we might say, for something new to happen. In you, in them, in your life together. What could be more beautiful? What could be more necessary?
And could it be that this is why Jesus would call us to extend hospitality to those who cannot repay us, or those who bring with them no social value, or even those whom we would count as our opponent, in whatever way that may be true? That we’re to extend hospitality not because these poor souls don’t get invited many places and wouldn’t it be sweet to have them over—hospitality how Jesus means it is something much different, much more than charity.
Could it be that we’re to extend hospitality to unlikely guests because aren’t they of interest to us? Could it be that we’re to invite them not because we have something they need, but because they have something we need—after all, Jesus says elsewhere in the gospels it’s the people whom we would define by their need who are in fact nearest to Christ’s heart. Could it be that we’re to invite them because they too are beautiful, interesting people—which is to say, people—whose life we have many assumptions about but no real knowledge of, and to resign ourselves to living without them—their lives and their loves, their passions, their experiences, their hopes, yes, their needs—to not open ourselves to all of this is to settle for something far less than the abundant life to which we’re called. Something far less than the Kingdom of God.
What a difference this would make in how we view missions and service in our community and abroad, if we opened our lives to those of a different economic or social status not because we have something to offer them that they need, but because our own lives and our life together in this world is enriched when we share in life with together with them. Because when we do, we all grow in such a way as to become more like the whole people God made us to be. Because when we do, our own assumptions about who they are and who we are, and why they’re where they are and why we’re where we are get challenged, and perhaps even exposed.
And I wonder what a difference it would make in our lives, our families, our communities—our churches—if we opened ourselves to those whose views we oppose or object to, and likely they ours? If we allowed ourselves to be open to being surprised by people of a—let’s say it—different political persuasion? What’s the real risk? Is it being hurt or offended? Possibly. Or is it learning that there is light we have not seen, lives and experiences we have not known. That what we thought was whole within us would be revealed as somehow incomplete? Is this the risk?
Of all the images available to him in Scripture to describe life in the world to come, Jesus always seems to come back to that of a great heavenly banquet with rich food and conversation and laughter and maybe even a few, joy-filled tears. And when we think about the tables we’ve gathered around with family and friends for holidays and other celebrations—weddings, even funerals—this life to come does not seem so foreign or even so far away.
But the good news Jesus brings to us—in ways that are jarring and may even seem impolite—is that these gatherings we have known and have loved with family and friends are somehow incomplete. Because it’s not truly Christ’s table we gather around unless we find ourselves sitting with unexpected guests. It’s not life in the world to come unless we live it with people we would rather not.
And as it always seems to be with the gospel, this news at first seems daunting or uncomfortable or frustrating or even paralyzing.
But isn’t it finally so deeply good to know that life as we so often live it is not all there is?
That the world is, in fact, much bigger than we know it to be?
That people are much more than we take them to be?
That we ourselves as we are today, are not who we have to be?
That there is in this world and at our tables and even in our own hearts, space for something new?
Isn’t that good news?
 “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” by Elizabeth Alexander, recited by Krista Tippett, in her keynote address at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, in Birmingham, AL, on Friday, June 21, 2019, accessed 8/29/2019, https://vimeo.com/349734910