Blessed to Welcome: A Sermon

Blessed to Welcome
A Sermon Preached on September 1, 2013
At the Larchmont Avenue Church
By Rev. Julie Emery
Texts: Hebrews 13:1-6, 15-16 and Luke 14:1, 7-14

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Hebrews 13:1-6, 15-16
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

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 honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, 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 honored 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 neighbors, 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.”

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There is no question: the Jesus in Luke’s gospel eats. He eats a lot. There are more references to eating, banquets, tables and reclining at tables than any of the other gospels. It is clear that Jesus taught around tables, and the fellowship his followers enjoyed there was an integral part of their faith and relationship both with Jesus and each other.

The story we hear today from around the table, read just a bit ago by Alexandra, takes place at the house of a leader of the Pharisees, where Jesus and the disciples have been invited for a Sabbath meal. When he arrives, Jesus watches from a far, ready with sharp tongue and critique on the way these Pharisees have arranged themselves.

It was not an uncommon arrangement: a gathering of friends and acquaintances, all of a certain class, reclining at tables around a large open room. At the center of the room was the host, laughing and talking with those closest to them. Dinner guests would take the most honorable seat available to them, and then if someone more important came along, late as usual, they would move down to a lower place at the table, further away from the host, to make room for the more important guest.

Jesus watched – as each of the guests took the best seat available to them, and joined in the festivities. Of course, we all want to be in the place of honor. Not unlike looking for the seats closest to the stage at a concert or closest to the bride and groom at a wedding. Not unlike laying down our blanket on the best slice of beach or the best corner of grass in a park for the best view or most shade. It’s natural to want to see and be seen, to be comfortable and pleased, to be close to the action, to be closer to the glow.

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Last weekend, a colleague in ministry from Raleigh, NC, posted a story on his blog that quickly went viral. Hugh Hollowell is the founder and director of Love Wins Ministries, which ministers to the most vulnerable and needy residents of Raleigh. If you look at the home page of their website you read that they sometimes feed people, but are not a hunger-relief organization. They sometimes help people find jobs, but they are not a job-training program. About 10-12 times a year, people leave homelessness with their help, but they are not a housing ministry. “Yet, at any given moment, (they) may be doing any of those things. What (they) really are, Hugh will tell you, is a ministry of presence and pastoral care for the homeless and at-risk population of Raleigh, NC.”

Over the past few years I’ve watched through twitter the ways that Hugh and his ministry colleagues have served those with mental illness, or young LBGT teens who have been thrown out of their homes, or people just down on their luck.

One way Love Wins does this, is to provide breakfast on the weekend. You see, during the week, a hungry person can find a free meal every day in Raleigh, but on Saturday and Sunday, they must fend for themselves. So, for six years, in cooperation with five large suburban churches, Hugh and his partners have been passing out breakfast sandwiches and hot coffee every Saturday and Sunday morning in a place called Moore Park in Raleigh.

Every Saturday and Sunday, for six years, until last weekend. Last weekend, when the folks from Love Wins pulled up, an officer from the Raleigh Police department approached them and told them to stop. Stop. Or you will be arrested. Stop feeding hungry people. Stop giving out food for free. Stop.

To be fair, the folks from Love Wins had been told they could not pass out food in the park itself, since they would need an $800 permit. But they had agreed to stay on the sidewalks outside the park, and had been told that was acceptable. And it was. Until it wasn’t.

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“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.”

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Both of our passages for this morning proclaim the deep and abiding value of Christ that places hospitality at the center of our lives of faith. We learn through the life of Jesus and the words of the writer of the Hebrews that “Hospitality is not optional for Christians, nor is it limited to those who are especially gifted for it. It is, instead, a necessary practice in the community of faith.”

But the thing about these two stories is that there is a certain kind of hospitality that Jesus talks about. Jesus, invited to the home of wealthy, powerful person, observes the kind of hospitality we most often engage in: welcoming friends into our homes, feeding them, conversing with them. Jesus watches as the friends of the host move to their seats, gather together and chat, gravitate toward the host and the entertainment.

At first, Jesus takes note of the ways in which they take the best seats for themselves. He suggests they begin from humility: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

But then, Jesus takes it a step further. He suggests that even the guests around the table might be adjusted. Who is missing? Who is not here at all? Who has been left on the streets or in the darkened places of our community? Who is left the most humble of all?”

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You can imagine the way social media and news cycles work today – this story of Love Wins and its founder Hugh Hollowell was shared far and wide, and quickly. First a tweet that said the city of Raleigh apparently did not want them to feed hungry people, then a blog post shared from twitter to facebook to the world around.

By Monday the Mayor had contacted Love Wins and told them they would not be arrested for giving out food. By Wednesday Hugh Hollowell of Love Wins was making a public statement to the Raleigh City Council’s Law and Public Safety Committee. And yesterday, volunteers resumed giving out sausage biscuits and coffee, and recipients and volunteers had pictures taken holding up signs that said, “Thank you,” to thank the city for bringing back the breakfast so quickly.

It’s still unclear why they were stopped in the first place, but newspapers suggest that someone high up felt ready to crack down. Apparently it made someone nervous, all those needy and likely dirty people, congregating together. Apparently there is sometimes trash left behind, and sometimes discomfort when those most vulnerable bump up against those who want to eat at local restaurants or walk with their children in the park. There are plans for revitalization of the area – perhaps someone thought a revitalization involved getting rid of the riffraff.

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Whatever the reason, it makes me wonder. I wonder as I come to this table, here, who is missing. How we might have exchanged beauty or order for the message of Christ to welcome those most vulnerable into our fellowship.

I wonder, who we’ve turned away because we subtly expect a certain dress code, or a certain type of person to join our community; Who we might have unconsciously neglected or ignored, because they didn’t have the right number of people in their family, or the right address. I wonder, who we might have neglected to invite?

Where is the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind? Where is the stranger, welcomed to the seat of honor, the angel we entertain without even realizing it?

Perhaps we thought they wouldn’t want to come, perhaps we weren’t sure we want them to be here, perhaps we don’t know where to find them. Perhaps…

But now here we are. And all of us are welcomed.

Theologian Miroslav Volf once wrote, “Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents. What happens to us must be done by us. Having been embraced by God, we must make space for others and invite them in – even our enemies, even those undesirables.

We are here. And all of us are welcomed. All of us are folded into the loving arms of God. All of us are fed, and blessed, honored and nourished. And so we have to wonder – shouldn’t everyone, everyone feel this? Who can we invite, who can we feed, who can we welcome today?

Amen.

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