The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Human beings are by nature somewhat tribal. We are likely most comfortable with people who are very much like we are. That doesn’t mean these tribal tendencies cannot be overcome or set aside. But it does take some effort. For most people, intentionally becoming aligned with a group of which we are not naturally a part will take some discipline and determination.

This is not a new situation. In Jesus’ day there were all sorts of groups, and groups within groups, that tended to congregate with each other. Some of these are fairly well known to us. Jews and Gentiles were not normally found eating together. Even men and women ate and worshiped separately. The ill were often segregated from the healthy, and the poor and homeless were left to congregate with each other, but not with the population at large.

These were basic rules of etiquette for the time, and for societal living: the tribal code, if you will, of who belonged to what group. It was a kind of caste system that operated in first-century Judaism that assured that like people stayed together and kept their proper place.

And before we too quickly condemn that kind of behavior and society, think about how things are – and how we are – today. The old saying, “Birds of a feather flock together” is not really that old. It’s no first-century proverb. It’s probably a fairly modern rhyme about life as we know it.

And it’s true, isn’t it? Whether it’s right or wrong, this is the case in most societies: –now; before us; and, likely, after us. People tend to group with like people along the socio-economic continuum and that’s the way it is and that’s the way we want it. That’s how, and with whom, we are most comfortable: –our group. It certainly doesn’t mean we can’t and don’t and shouldn’t associate with those below and above our means (our “position), but the fact is, if we’re honest, most of us don’t. We are who we are, and want to be with who we are (those like us).

And all of that, the staying within our station, around like people, is tied into – because of, reasoned and centered around – the principles of honor and shame.

And, believe it or not, that is the main point of the gospel lesson and Jesus’ parable today. It’s not about Jesus haranguing people because of the company they keep or the group they’re in. It not even about who gets invited to the party. It’s not as much about inclusivity and exclusivity, as it is about honor and shame, and why one gets invited to the party.

Honor can be derived from many things: courage, commitment, humility, longevity, patience, wisdom and so on. Even lesser things. But, ultimately, in a word, we can say, honor comes from accomplishment (some accomplishment) or acclaim. Shame, then, comes from the lack of accomplishment or acclaim. Sound like a harsh definition? Not really, if you understand the terms.

And Jesus gives an example: For instance, to walk into a room and take a seat of honor (regardless who you are), only to have the host take it away would be an instance of great shame. However, to take a seat lower down from the seat of honor (a humble act) and then have the host offer an even better seat (regardless of who you are), that is the very definition of acclaim and would demonstrate great honor.

So, Jesus’ point, I think, is that accomplishments, and acclaim, don’t have to come by way of your station in life or the great things you’ve done based on the world’s idea of success. Accomplishment and acclaim are measured simply by the ability and willingness to bless and the blessing received, the blessing gained, from blessing others. (And based on this particular example, shame comes from taking or claiming rather than giving. Or the lesson for our lives: Receiving blessings, but not giving back—not blessing in return.

One of the most humiliating experiences in the honor/shame relationship is when something is done for someone and that person is not in a position to reciprocate. That, too, was a part of the culture of Jesus’ day and he uses it in his parable to make a point about the kingdom of God.

As a matter of course, the wealthy did not invite the poor to a dinner party, not because they were afraid the poor would come (although they probably would have been appalled if they had), but the mere act of inviting them would inflict unnecessary shame. The invited poor probably would not have accepted such an invitation because they knew that under no circumstance could they ever repay such a gesture.

Now, obviously Jesus understood the rules of the honor/shame value system, but he seems intent on turning matters upside down. In his vision of the kingdom of God, disclosed in many, many places in the gospels, Jesus almost always presents the Kingdom of God in this way, as opposite of the way of the world. Not only does he counsel his disciples not to seek places of honor (don’t go for the best seats), but he even goes so far as to suggest they should shatter honor/shame transactions by inviting those who can never repay the favor into their homes. The disciples are encouraged to take those whose lives are normally characterized by shame (the outcasts of society and the lowest of the low) and treat them with honor.

So, who are the people we normally invite into our homes? Are they people like us or different from us?

There’s a story about a young seminary family, far away from home and family, who found themselves all alone one Thanksgiving. Most of the students had left the dorms and apartments to be with extended family for the holidays. But the young family didn’t have enough money to make the long trip home. They settled in for what seemed to be an intimate and low-key family celebration on their own.

As they looked around, however, they began to notice that they were not the only ones staying on campus. There was a young single man that worked as a janitor in the school and lived in campus housing. He had no nearby family and wasn’t going anywhere. There were several foreign students who couldn’t go home. There were other people who, for one reason or another, couldn’t get away to be with their family or friends during the Holidays. So, with the seminary family’s urging, all these people got together and combined their resources, each as he or she could, for a huge Thanksgiving celebration.

Under normal circumstances, this group would not have been together. Had there been enough money and time, all of them would have been with family, with friends, with people just like themselves. But in the midst of the realities they all were facing, they forged a new family; they found a basis for a different kind of togetherness. And around the table of Thanksgiving they found a way to create community, overcome differences and defeat loneliness. They blessed the others and were blessed by the others. Everyone said that it was one of the most meaningful Thanksgivings, one of the most meaningful occasions, they had ever experienced.

The church in the world today faces its greatest challenge in trying to fulfill Jesus’ vision of one big family — a family that takes everyone in.

Grace Cathedral faces the same challenge. A welcome place where we can worship AND fellowship with one another. A house of prayer for all people, for young and old, rich and poor, the fit and physically afflicted. People of all classes and colors and cultures.

As we study church life in many places, we find there what is also evident in the general population — people gathered with people just like them. People expecting people only like them. People thinking only of people like them.

I’m wondering if we might change that at Grace Cathedral with the opportunity we have before us. For those of us, most of us, in that middle 40-70 or 35-75 age range, which is most of us, if we might give up the seats of honor, which this group usually holds, for the young, the old, the physically challenged?

You know, this whole building – these buildings – were designed for us, that middle aged, physically fit group. Whether intentional or not, that’s what and who most buildings are designed for, the privileged, the blessed. In recent years, code compliance forced us or, at least, reminded us to consider the less able folks among us when we build, but still most of the thought goes not to the young or the old or the handicapped, but to us, the middle-aged, the privileged, the blessed, who would never need parking close to the door, who never have a problem with stairs, who would never consider a sleep-over or sock-hop here; who never hang around for after church fellowship or attend covered dish suppers and can’t imagine why we even need a parish hall anyway, much less a new one. Or, why new folks can’t find their way around and feel just as welcome and familiar as those of us who have been coming here for decades.

Look, there is no shame in what we have here. What the generations before us have built – this beautiful church – and what we’ve added to and restored is a testament to faith and the love of God. And much good is done in and through this place, in outreach an d welcoming on a weekly basis. But much is missed as well. Our physical plant could be and do more to welcome and connect and serve and keep all sorts and conditions of people.

And reaching out to people who will never enter our doors is important, too. In Topeka, we have a whole community of homeless people sleeping under bridges, broken families, large groups of folks in our city – in this neighborhood – with no social or faith network at all, and we strive to serve those people, as well, through our ministries.: our Saturday feeding teams, our backsnack program, our monthly food ingatherings, hosting AA and parenting classes and anger management classes and others.

As a community of faith, as followers of Jesus, we must respond to the needs of God’s people inside and outside the church, outside and inside the church: the young and the old, the poor and the homeless, the lonely and the physically impaired, and especially the ones who under no circumstances could ever reciprocate – the very people Jesus reminds us not to forget to include and invite to dinner.

It’s probably not practical or even reasonable to expect individual Christians to go out and take strangers into their homes. There are those who do such things, but prudence suggests that’s generally not even a good idea. It’s probably not practical or even reasonable to think that this church can do and be all things to all people.

But here, in God’s house, in our church, we should do all that we can to welcome and provide for all, including our own. That’s a part of what the proposed building plan does. It provides for all of us, but not just us. It invites and provides for those not yet here, those who will come. It’s the same with our church budget: it provides for all of us, but not just us: it provides outreach and program ministries for people who will never come here and never reciprocate for the help given.

Our purpose in all these things is to change things for the better. That is the task we are called to accomplish. And accomplishment brings honor, not to us as individuals but as a community of faith striving for the honor of God.

This is what Jesus means when he calls us to seek the place of honor through humility and service and giving and welcoming and blessing, without thought of repayment or return. In this way Jesus has reversed the process of honor and shame. And he calls us to live in this way.

It’s a shame for so many of us to have so much and share so little.

It’s a shame for people to be homeless and hungry.

It’s a shame for us to say what we have here is good enough for us, if we’re not meeting the needs of all our people.

It’s a shame that we yield to our natural tendencies of congregating with people who are just like us, when there are others – not like us – we could invite in and provide for.

It’s a shame that we have such high ideals offered to us by the one we call Lord, and yet often fail even to attempt to reach for those ideals, much less attain them.

On the other hand, it is an honorable act of faith to find ways as a church to care and provide for all those in our church.

It is honorable to care for and share with those outside this church who have so little.

It is honorable to invite and welcome to our church, and into this family of God, those who are like us and, also, those who aren’t like us.

It is honorable, in our buildings, in our individual lives and in our corporate life to seek change for the better, and to work and give to see that change come.

That is accomplishment we seek,
And that is the honor we attain, and give when we do these things,
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.