Sunday, August 28, 2016

"Entertaining Angels": A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Luke 14:1-14 and Hebrews 13:1-2

"Entertaining Angels"

Luke 14:1-14 and Hebrews 13:1-2 

            By all accounts, Jesus loved parties. The Gospels tell us that he often had so much fun at parties that he was accused by some of being a glutton and a drunkard. 
            Yet the party Jesus attended at the Pharisee’s house didn’t get off to a good start.  It seems that this party didn’t seem to be a party at all—not by the standards of the Kingdom of God.   
            A leader of the Pharisees had invited him to a Sabbath meal, and people were watching him closely.
            Now, from a biblical perspective, a party or shared special meal is supposed to be a gospel feast--  a sign of God’s hospitality, a sign of God’s kingdom breaking in,  offering hope to the poor and oppressed, the least and the lost.  
             The prophet Isaiah described the great messianic banquet, where God will be the host: "…the LORD will make for all people a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines…and wipe away the tears from all faces"[1]
Note that the text says "all people."  That’s part of what Jesus was getting at when he told his host he should invite the poor and the lame and the blind –- not the social elite, but the ones who have nothing of their own to bring.  They can’t offer anything in return for their invitation.   
            One thing you can be sure of:  they won’t be heading for the "highest," most prestigious seats.  They’ll hang shyly by the door, probably wondering, “Are you sure it’s okay for me to be here?”  They might be afraid to take any seat until the host comes over, puts a reassuring arm around their shoulders, guides them to a table, and then introduces them to the other guests.  That’s what a party is like in the kingdom of God.
            It’s helpful to know something about Palestinian wedding feasts of that time.  It was the custom for the male guests to recline on couches, with the center couch being the place of honor, reserved for people of wealth, power, or office.  If somebody was reclining there and a more prominent man arrived late, someone of lesser rank would be asked to move to a less prestigious location. 
            In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus isn’t just giving a lesson in manners.  He’s pointing to the ways in which the realm of God turns these customs upside-down and establishes its own social and spiritual order.
            In today’s gospel, we hear Jesus saying, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled    and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”   
            In the epistle lesson, from the letter to the Hebrews, we hear words written to the early Christian church a few decades after Jesus:  “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
            Hospitality is a very important biblical theme.  Lives which have been redeemed and re-formed by the love of Christ demonstrate openness and generosity and hospitality.
            When the Epistle to the Hebrews talks about how, in showing hospitality to strangers, some have entertained angels without knowing it—it alludes to a story in the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, in which three strangers visit Abraham and Sarah.  They receive them graciously, bring water to wash their feet, and extend typical Middle Eastern hospitality:  they bring them drinks, slaughter a calf, and bake cakes.  It turns out that the three strangers are on a mission from God,  there to tell them that Sarah is going to conceive in her old age and have a child.  So the men were angels, messengers from God.              
            This is one of many Bible stories in which God makes an appearance in an unlikely, unexpected way.  If people aren’t open to something new and strange and different, they might miss a revelation from God.
            “Let mutual love continue,” the letter to the Hebrews admonished the early church.  Let love among you be genuine and powerful and real.  But don’t forget the stranger…don’t forget to be hospitable. 
            Sometimes people in a congregation enjoy loving one another so much that they become an intimate and closed community   and an outsider doesn’t feel welcome… can’t figure out how to break in.  When that happens, we might miss a revelation from God.
            But what Jesus was talking about in Luke is even more serious than that.  He scolds the host, criticizing him for his choice of guests.  “Don’t invite these kind of people,” Jesus says, referring to friends, relatives, business associates—people who will, in all probability, agree to the conventional social custom and in some way return your invitation.  People who are like you, people you’re comfortable with.
            Jesus proposes a human community based not on social custom, economic reciprocity, on “people like us”— but on the good news that each person is a precious child of God.  This teaching challenged people two thousand years ago, and it continues to challenge us today.
            At Jesus’ table there is no distinction.  There are no boundaries.  And he insists that this is the way things will be in the kingdom of God.
            Jesus tells a parable to make his point.  A man gives a party, invites friends, and at the last minute learns that not one of them can come.  So the man invites “the poor, the cripples, the blind, and the lame.  He invites strangers who are passing through town.  To any who are reluctant to come because they don’t have the right clothes or manners or connections to come, he won’t take NO for an answer.  Go out, he says.  Bring them in.  I want my house to be full.”
            This advice runs counter to the way we’re used to thinking about things.  We tend to invite people who are our friends or relatives—people we feel comfortable with…people like us… people who’ve invited us to their parties.  But Jesus says these notions of politeness and reciprocity and associating with people like us miss the true meaning of hospitality. 
            The connection between today’s Gospel and epistle lessons is in how they move beyond the specific reference to hospitality, to focus on grace and love in our interactions with others.   Today’s scripture lessons remind us that there are lots of people out there who need to experience the love and peace and joy of Jesus Christ.  They remind us that we need to be faithful in our relationship with God, and in our relationships with others.  
At the very heart of Jesus’ preaching and teaching is a radical inclusiveness.  This is one of the basic principles of our Christian faith.  We can’t escape it.  All are welcome at the table.
            Many communities in this world define themselves by exclusion.  But a church united around the story of Jesus is a very different sort of community.  The New Testament word for “hospitality”--  philoxenia—literally means “love of strangers.  It’s the opposite of xenophobia, which is the fear of those whom one does not know.  Hospitality, in the biblical sense, is about making room for others in our lives.  It means being able to say, “Make yourself at home.”

            We are a community of people who follow Jesus—the One who upsets the seating arrangement at the dinner party by suggesting that the people on the fringes of society are honored guests.  The Jesus who dared to hang out with women and tax collectors.  The Jesus who calls us to love our enemies and welcome the strangers.
            The epistle lesson from Hebrews chapter urges the church not to neglect to show hospitality to strangers, “for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”         
            Alice Walker’s short story “The Welcome Table” tells of an old African American woman, tired and thirsty, who enters a white church.  “Some of them there at the church saw the age…the dotage…the missing buttons down the front of her mildewed black dress.  Others saw cooks…chauffeurs…maids…. While others were reminded of riotous anarchists looting and raping in the streets.”
            The story tells how the hierarchy of the church mobilizes in defense of the racism of the congregation:
            The reverend of the church stopped her pleasantly as she stepped into the vestibule…  “Auntie, you know this is not your church?”    As if one could choose the wrong one.
            “Inside the church she sat on the very first bench from the back, gazing with concentration at the stained-glass window over her head….” Until the men of the church picked her up and carried her out of the church.
            The old woman stood at the top of the steps looking about in bewilderment.  She had been singing in her head.  They had interrupted her.  Promptly she began to sing again, though this time a sad song.
            Suddenly…she looked down the long gray highway and saw something interesting and delightful.  She started to grin, toothlessly, with short giggles of joy, jumping about and slapping her hands on her knees…  for coming down the highway—was Jesus.
            She would have known him, recognized him, anywhere.  There was a sad but joyful look to his face, like a candle glowing behind it…
            “All he said when he got up close to her was “Follow me,”  and she bounded to his side.  Finally she started telling him about how many years she had cooked for them…cleaned for them…nursed them…
            She told him indignantly about how they had grabbed her when she was singing in her head and not looking, and how they had tossed her out of his church….”[2]                  

            So… who is on the guest list in the realm of God? 
            As most of you know, we’ve been working as a congregation to achieve greater clarity about our mission and to identify our core values.  A group of 30 people met last November, and then a group met last May to follow up, and we ended up with a lot of notes from our ideas.  There was a great deal of general agreement about what our core values are, but we needed to do some work to boil down the work to five core values that can guide us when we make decisions about how to best use limited energy and resources and that can help others understand who we are and what makes Littlefield Presbyterian Church vital and unique. 
            Bob Stead, Anna Dewey, and I met twice to do this “word-smithing,” to pull together all the ideas in a way that communicates clearly.  Then we took that draft to Session for some final editing, and Session approved it at the August meeting. 
            One of the core values we spent a lot of time on was the one about Inclusiveness, because that might mean different things to different people.  
            There are people who have been hurt or disappointed by previous church experiences and people who have never had any experience with a church community.  How do we find ways to help them connect with their spiritual longings?  How do we make it clear that they are welcome and invited?  So we tried to spell it out:
            “As children of God, we see all persons as God’s children.  As Christ welcomes all to the table of fellowship, so we also invite, respect, and accept all—regardless of social/economic/marital status, sexual identity/orientation, race/ethnicity, and faith orientation.”

            Today’s scripture lessons remind us that a community that is faithfully following Jesus cannot be a community that excludes.  It’s un-Christian to do so.
            Part of our hospitality is finding ways to get the word out that everybody’s welcome, and to actively invite people and then make them feel at home.
            You may remember the story about the man who got on the elevator of his hotel and saw a neatly lettered sign:  “PARTY TONIGHT IN ROOM 815.  EVERYBODY INVITED.”    
            For the rest of the day, he kept thinking about that sign.  Who would give a party and issue an open invitation like that?  Was it for real?  Who would accept an invitation like that?  Maybe others who—like himself—were in town by themselves and were lonely?  People who were curious?  Maybe some people who were really needy, starved for companionship?
            He fantasized about what the party would be like, and who might be gathered there.  By the time he returned to the hotel later on, the sign had been removed by someone—perhaps the hotel management.  Or maybe the person who’d written it had gotten cold feet. 
            The man never found out who had posted the invitation, or who would have attended the party.  He felt a vague sort of disappointment, wondering what the party would have been like.

            Who would throw a party and invite everyone?   Jesus Christ…and the church of Christ.
            So I invite you to reflect prayerfully today and in the coming weeks:  Who’s on our guest list?  Is it as inclusive as God’s guest list?   
            We have been invited to a gospel feast for which we can never reciprocate.  Jesus stands waiting as our host, ready to put reassuring arms around our shoulders and guide us to places of honor in the kingdom of God.
            Like the host in the parable, God has heaped up his table with good things like love, grace, forgiveness, and new beginnings… precious promises of the presence of the Holy Spirit…   and the promise that sin and suffering will not have the last word in our lives, because love is stronger than death. 
            Christ has put the bread of life and the cup of salvation on his table, and he is eager to share them with his guests.  God has prepared a great feast-- a table piled high with the food and drink that gives us new life. 
            At God’s party, everybody is invited.  Everybody is welcome.
            Y’all come!    

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
August 28, 2016

[1] Isaiah 25:6,8.

[2] Alice Walker, “The Welcome Table.”

Friday, August 26, 2016

Book Review: "Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead

“What if the underground railroad was a literal railroad?”  This was a question the author, Colson Whitehead, asked himself in 2000, but he wasn’t ready yet to write the book.  At some point, he began wondering,  “what if each state, as a runaway slave was going north, was a different state of American possibility, for an alternative America?” 

I hadn’t read any of Whitehead’s other books, so I was expecting a work of historical fiction, and I kept checking my memories of African-American history until I caught on to the author’s use of imagination.   The book combines elements of historical fiction with what some might call “magical realism” and which reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.   The author draws on 19th-century slave narratives including Harriet Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and Solomon Northrup’s “Twelve Years a Slave,” and oral histories of former slaves gathered by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930’s. 

Historically, the “Underground Railroad” was a network of people, black and white, that carried escaped slaves in their long journeys northward to freedom.  This network is part of the story, but the author also creates an actual underground railroad system to carry the story.

The main character is a teenager named Cora who was born on a cotton plantation in Georgia and grows up as a “stray” after her mother, Mabel, escapes.  She survives rape and other brutalities and is convinced by Caesar to try to escape with him when the conditions of their slavery become even more horrendous. 

In the narrative, Cora travels through several states which Whitehead has reimagined as variations of history to evoke “Negro uplift,” eugenics experiments, something that bears similarity to the Tuskegee experiment, and night riders.  Throughout this time, she is relentlessly pursued by a notorious slave catcher, Ridgeway. 

The book’s conclusion is open-ended, with Cora heading toward to St. Louis.  Or could it be Ferguson, Missouri?  Or beyond?

This is a gripping story and an important book for our time, if we are to come to grips with

America’s original sin and find our way together to a true freedom for all.