The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Luke 15:1-10

“All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

I love it! Sometimes I think Jesus thrived on creative tension. He seemed always to be pulling someone’s chain, challenging the pious and the powerful. And the opening verses in today’s gospel are a case in point.

Through our biblical heritage, most all of us are aware of the fact that Jews, during the time of Jesus, were bound by some very strict dietary practices. Indeed, even today, most religious Jews continue to require particular standards of purity – of “cleanness” – in certain kinds of food they eat. It must be “kosher,” its ingredients and preparations controlled by meticulous sanitary conditions. In other words, Jewish people believe what one eats is important.

But it is also extremely significant in Semitic circles with whom one eats. For the very act of eating with someone creates a oneness, and solidarity, a communion, if you will, with that person.

Frederick Buechner has a similar view of this kind of communion and the sharing of a meal. He writes:

“To eat any meal together is to meet at the level of our most basic need. It is hard to preserve your dignity with butter on your chin or to keep your distance when asking for the. . . ketchup. To eat together. . . is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need not just for food but for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. [And] as for the emptiness that’s still left over, well we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers [and sisters].”

So, it isn’t difficult to understand why Jesus was crucified. Just check out his list of dinner companions. They weren’t exactly the kind of people who make the guest list at the White House or who appear on the society page of the newspaper. Jesus’ rather subversive eating habits were forever getting him into trouble.

The Jerusalem establishment saw it like this: Jesus was welcoming these “outcasts” into table fellowship with himself in the name of the kingdom of God, in the name of the Jews’ ultimate hope, and, as a result, not only was Jesus prostituting that hope, he was also shattering the closed ranks of the community against their enemies (or those they saw as unfit table companions). It is hard to imagine anything more offensive to first century Jewish sensibilities. And that offensiveness is at work in our text. The Pharisees and scribes are grumbling because Jesus’ eating with people like tax collectors and sinners, the lame and the sick, drove them “up a tree.” And, for this, they eventually “treed” Jesus.

Thirty-five years ago, Luther Place in Washington, D.C., opened its doors to the de-institutionalized homeless. They came in droves out of the bitter cold January nights filling the church to wall-to-wall capacity. The following December, when the congregation’s parent body sent out its annual parochial report forms to be filled out by the pastor, he entered 15,000, in the block slotted for “new members.” It didn’t take long for the forms to come back with an accompanying letter:
“Dear Pastor Steinbruck. . . you have not followed the criteria. . . This information does not compute.”
The Pastor responded:
“My criteria for membership is Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. What’s yours?

As a matter of Gospel fact, by Jesus’ criteria, these are his brothers and sisters. And strangers or not, friend or foe, they are welcome at his table and to his banquet.

Just as in the parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus does, in fact, go looking for strays, along the by-ways of life. And talk about what the cat dragged in, Jesus instructs one of his host: “when you give a feast, 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 would love to see some modern day Leonardo Da Vinci do justice to the Lord’s supper community by painting a picture of those gathered round the table, and filling the other side of that table with people normally excluded from life’s feasts.

What a collage of humanity that would make! As Groucho Marx once declared, “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member!” But God invites everyone. And God makes a place for everyone who will come to the supper of the lamb, and so should we.

Biblical hospitality is not entertaining. It’s not a performance at which we cast peripheral glances to gauge how our acts are received and applauded by our guests. Rather, biblical hospitality is evangelism: a selfless act done out of love without regard for reward. It’s welcoming the stranger and the sojourner and all in the community into our midst and to our tables, and continuing here on earth the great messianic banquet.

Biblical hospitality is a foretaste of the marriage feast of the lamb. It’s expanding our communion circles to embrace into our community “the least of these,” and to share the bread of life and the cup of living water with all who hunger and who thirst. It’s to offer life in all the hidden places where “lost coins” and “lost sheep” tend to hide, and to invite each and all to the celebration that has no end.

In both of this morning’s parables, there are three acts: the first act is tragic loss; the second act is grief-stricken search; and the third act is unconditional joy. Our constant seeking, and hope and need for the happy endings of life may not be, after all, a sentimentalism; for perhaps, deep down, we realize that human history is not out of God’s control, and that finally the power of God’s love will overcome the power of sin’s pain and grief, and God’s purpose will be fulfilled.

Through Christ, we have become the covenant people of God. And our calling in that covenant is to exemplify the love and acceptance and welcome that is in Jesus to all, even and especially to outcasts—and to pay close attention to who those outcasts are, who we’re leaving out, and why. We are to bear witness amidst all the idolatries of this world to the difference that faith makes; to bear witness in offering hospitality with the whole of our beings for the well-being of others; to bear witness that our fellowship is extended even to all. & that will make clear the difference that faith makes in the life of the covenant people, –the life and grace of Christ that empties itself, becoming, at once, both a servant and host to all. Amen.