Saturday, August 31, 2013

Who’s at your table?

Luke 14:1, 7–14
On our cruise, Mike and I learned what happened when we went to dinner without changing out of our blue jeans. First, on our way to our table, we passed a number of people who gave us some disapproving looks. Our waiter normally took our napkins, shook them open, and placed them on our laps. On this evening, he left the napkin ritual to us. We did not conform to the norm that night. We laughed it off – after all, we manage our own napkins quite well. And we remembered to dress for dinner for the rest of the cruise.
We get hung up a lot on who we are in comparison to others. We worry a lot about what others will think of us. We wear the clothing and hairstyles of those we hang out with. We decorate our houses and yards in similar styles. We hang out with similar folks, because we feel comfortable with them.
(We don’t greet others with our thumb on our nose and wiggle our fingers, because we don’t want to appear silly to our friends. Lol)
… In today’s Gospel story, Jesus is in essence challenging the host and the guests to not be so concerned about impressing their peers. They should worry focus instead on pleasing God and taking care of the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.
Ancient Middle Eastern culture was, and to a great degree still is, very concerned about social status. If you were born into a wealthy, high-ranking family, you were going to stay wealthy and high-ranking. If you were born into a priestly family, you found your spouse among other priestly families. If you were born into a poor family, you had little to no chance of changing your social rank.
One’s place at the dinner table was determined by complex social rules. When two relatively equal people were at the meal, they both wanted the higher value seat. Jesus suggests they sit at a lower place so they can receive the honor of being invited to take a higher place, instead of claiming it for themselves. This is not such a bad or radical idea.
But what he proposes next takes their breath away. Jesus says they should not invite their peers, as they play the game of who owes who a dinner. He suggests they invite people who can never repay the social debt. They should ignore social status and include everyone in the community at the table. They should stop thinking about who owes whom a dinner, and just enjoy the meal.
… Today, we can understand Jesus’ words to mean the inclusion, not just of people of a different social class, but of the wide variety of people we meet every day.
This past week, we celebrate the changes that have taken place in the fifty years since Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We have made significant strides toward full equality of all people in America, but we still struggle in many ways. Think about how far we have come, and how far we still have to go for the dream to be a reality.
Our current president is African American.   
The ELCA has elected a female for the first time to serve as the Presiding Bishop.
We have recognized the tragedy of the invasion by European peoples into land held sacred by Native Americans. And yet, a Native American woman called Mike to discuss the problems she and her fiancé are having in planning their wedding. A ritual in her tradition includes placing a feather in his hair, which means he needs to grow his hair long enough to hold the feather. His boss claims the ritual is pagan and anti-Christian, and he is refusing to allow the fiancé to grow his hair.
There are no signs designating white and colored access, and yet, an African American pastor told a group of us that one day she went to church while she was on vacation. She sat in the middle of the pew, near a white woman who was sitting on the aisle. The white woman moved to a new pew. The pastor jokes, “I moved too, because I thought there was something wrong with that seat.”
A gay couple I met at a conference asked me if they would be welcome at Hope. They never know what kind of reception they will have, and have learned to be cautious.
We are suspicious of most Arabs, worrying that they all want to blow us up. We forget that some Palestinians are Christians.
We are trying to find a way to offer citizenship to illegal immigrants. But determining what is just for all is not easy.
I remember my mother’s horror at the Beatles and the Stones, even as I found it hard to appreciate twangy Country-Western music, the heavy metal my sons love, and the hip hop music my grandchildren choose.  
We tell young men to pull their pants up, and we tell young women to cover their bra straps, even as we forget the outrage our own clothes caused in our youth.
I learned recently that several of the folks who enjoy the Kiwanis Club’s annual Christmas dinner are Jewish.
… What Jesus is saying to the Pharisees gathered at the dinner table, and to us 20 centuries later, is that those who are not so welcome should be invited to join our feast. All should be made welcome at the table; all should be invited. We should make it plain that we want them to join us.
Hope is a pretty welcoming congregation. Anyone who comes in is welcome here, as we gather around the word and the meal at worship, and around the tables with coffee and goodies afterwards.
We are experimenting with newer formats for worship and music in an effort to make younger folks feel welcome. We sing music from around the world, to gain an appreciation for these sisters and brothers, and to learn how to make them feel welcome here. And we still sing the traditional hymns and use traditional worship formats, so older folks feel welcome here, too.
We reach out into the community and around the world so folks know Jesus welcomes them, even if they don’t know he touches them through us at Hope.
… So, now I ask you, in what ways do you play the game of owing invitations and favors to your peers? In what ways do you make welcome those who are different from you? How often do you invite your friends and neighbors and casual contacts to worship or another event at Hope? Do you assure them that they will be welcome here?
As individuals and as a congregation, let’s strive to be the most welcoming people in the community.

Please pray with me. Creative God, you made us all to be different. Help us to value each other for the differences among us, and lead us to welcome everyone as your beloved child. Amen