Friday, September 27, 2013

Crazy Like a Fox

Sermon preached September 22, 2013

Texts: Luke 16:1-9

Last weekend, we watched a very entertaining movie starring Matthew McConaughey entitled “The Lincoln Lawyer.” The movie is based upon novels written by Michael Connelly. McConaughey plays Mickey Haller “L.A.’s top criminal defense lawyer – a fast-living, freewheeling pro who does business out of the back seat of his classic Lincoln Town Car” (from the back of the dvd). Haller is not above skirting some of the legal niceties. He sends gifts to court officials so as to get inside information about his cases. He takes money from a motorcycle gang, to defend one of their own, but does so under some false pretenses. The movie was very entertaining and engaging – intense and suspenseful. McConaughey’s Mickey Haller is a familiar type of character in our movies, television, and fiction – the kindhearted rogue or the loveable outlaw.
The kindhearted rogue, one whose heart and intentions are in the right place, who wants to do good, and is willing to short-circuit what it considered proper or even legal, is a familiar character. So, too, the loveable outlaw. We see this character in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. We see it in James Garner’s Jim Rockford, a private detective who would impersonate others when needed. We see it in Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. I would guess that many of us have our favorite kindhearted loveable outlaw or rogue.
Jesus seems to have a soft spot for such characters, too. At least he does in the story he tells today. A manager for a rich man is taken to task for not managing responsibly. The rich man wants an accounting of the manager’s work as he is being let go. The manager says to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” The manager goes about reducing the debt of those who owed the rich man money. And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.
Strange story in many ways. Why would the rich man approve of the actions of his manager? The manager may have had authority to lessen debt. What he may have been cutting was his share, not what had been owed the rich man in the first place, and perhaps thereby even increasing the likelihood that the rich man would be re-paid. Being a shrewd business man himself, the rich man admires the manager, appreciates his street smarts, his wit. His actions may seem crazy, but he is crazy like a fox.
In telling this story, Jesus, too seems to admire the manager. Is he advocating corruption, business deals that are not on the up and up? I don’t think so. Like novelists, television writers and movie makers today, Jesus tells an engaging story to get us to think. What Jesus is getting us to think about is thinking, is questioning, is discerning.
This coming week in your church newsletter you will receive a copy of a Member Covenant for First United Methodist Church. My article in the newsletter describes what this is about, and I don’t want to go into all of that this morning. I want to mention one part of this covenant. One part of the covenant says that as a congregation we pledge to “support the growth of a thoughtful, passionate, compassionate faith in all who come to First UMC.” The kind of Christian faith we want to nurture here is a thoughtful, passionate and compassionate faith.
So here is one version of Christian faith. You say “yes” to Jesus. Some may call that conversion. Some may call that being born again. You say “yes’ to Jesus and then you look into the Bible as an answer book, that gives you all the answers you need in your life if you just read it rightly.
I found a church that has quite a presence on the internet, and is a good example of what I am talking about. It is also a real church community. The church, in its statement of beliefs says this: The sole basis of our beliefs is the Bible, the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. It was uniquely, verbally, and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit and was written without error in the original manuscript. It is the supreme and final authority in faith and life in every age. From that base, the church has among its core values the following: We believe that God designed men and women to be different. The husband and wife have differing but complementary roles in the family. The husband is the head of the household, loving and leading his wife, as Christ as his example. The wife is to support and respect her husband. I wanted to find out more about what that might mean so I listened to parts of four sermons in a series “How Should a Man Really Love his Wife.” By the way the shortest of the sermons was about how a woman should love her husband and it was 26 minutes long, the longest was 53 minutes long. Just saying. Anyway, in the briefest sermon, the pastor said to women: “Here’s how God wants you to be: sweet, gentle, gracious, kind, responsive, cooperative and respectful.” Now there is nothing wrong with any of those things, but is that really a complete list of the qualities we want to see in women? Where is strength, or courage?
I am not interested in an extended discussion of this theology, only wanting to note that the kind of Christian faith that some churches put forward is one where you say “yes” to Jesus, and then find all your answers in the Bible. This may not be a “thoughtful faith,” that is, one that asks questions and invites thinking.
Let me be clear about something here. There are places where very definite biblical values don’t leave a lot of room for debate. If we follow Jesus, for instance, I think murder is out. Stealing is out. Lying seems out. I am just taking some of the basics from the Ten Commandments. Seems pretty straightforward. Not all cats are gray, afterall.
But have you ever asked, “Is all killing murder?” If so, followers of Jesus should not be in the military. What constitutes a lie? Your loved one comes to you and says, “how do I look in this?” You can tell she or he really likes the outfit but it is not your favorite. Do you fudge a bit? Is that a lie, or are you acting out of care for someone you love?
What about other questions that confront us in our lives? What should I do with my life? What vocation should I choose? What sorts of outreach should I choose as I seek to share the love of God in Jesus? Afterall, there is more good to be done in the world than anyone of us can do.
Jesus holds up a loveable rogue to help us admire his thoughtfulness, his thinking, his questioning, his discerning. A thoughtful Christian faith takes discernment seriously. Here are a couple of good descriptions of discernment.
[Discernment]… a set of attitudes and practices by which we willingly open our hearts to the heart of God, our minds to the mind of God, our intentions to the purpose of God. (Gil Rendle and Alice Mann, Holy Conversations, 139) Discernment does not simply confirm our hunches or intuitions. Instead, it is a perilous practice that involves self-criticism, questions, and risk – and it often redirects our lives. (Diana Butler Bass, Christianity For the Rest of Us, 95)
The idea that we have to think about our faith, deeply and critically, is rooted in a theological perspective. God’s creative word meets our condition, emerging quietly and most often unnoticeably in the midst of who and where we are (Marjorie Suchocki, The Whispered Word, 4). God’s word is hidden incarnationally in the world. It is a whisper. Suchocki, 6)
Jesus praises a loveable rogue because he understands our need to be thoughtful, questioning, sharp witted in our journey of faith. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist stream of the Christian tradition may also have understood some of this when he put forward the idea that in making decisions about life and faith, Christians need to consult Scripture, which remains central to our faith, but also tradition, reason and experience. On this journey of faith we need to be thoughtful, thinking, questioning, pondering. We need to do that together. Together we need to be a community of conversation and action.
Two final thoughts this morning about a thoughtful, discerning faith. A thoughtful Christian faith really is a journey, an on-going process of growth. That makes it both uncomfortable sometimes, but also makes it an adventure. Joan Chittester writes these wise words. Life is an accumulation of becomings, all of them important, none of them complete…. Because life tests us, we must not fear to test life. Every decision must be reviewed, every impulse evaluated. Then we will only be where we are because where we are is still right for us, still teaching us what we dearly need to know. (Called To Question, 56, 60)
The life of faith is an adventure. We need to keep saying “yes” to Jesus as we think about what it means to follow him in our complex world. Yet the God we know in Jesus, this Spirit that always seems to be somewhere on the horizon always beckoning us forward, is also an ever-present companion. God is not like that irate rich man, leaving us to our own devices. God is with us. The poet Mary Oliver put it well (“Look and See”):

Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we
only look, and see.

Only look and see – discernment.
Look, see, think, dream, imagine, question. Be crazy like a fox. Grow a thoughtful faith, by God’s grace and Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Where Have You Been?

Sermon preached September 15, 2013

Texts: Luke 15:1-10

John Sebastian "Welcome Back"

This summer I preached a series of sermons on “sticky Scriptures,” Biblical texts suggested by you, texts that were problematic in one way or another. So with this sermon it would seem I am starting a series of snotty sermons. Doesn’t this title – “Where Have You Been?” reek of arrogance? I mean, where have you been?
With this phrase, tone and emphasis are everything. Where have you been? Where have you been… to which we might append “all my life”? Where have you been? Part of the challenge of our reliance on e-communication, text messages and the like is that they don’t come with a tone. We sometimes have to explain ourselves by adding letters like – lol (laugh out loud). Body language makes a difference, too. Arms crossed, tapping your toe – “Where have you been?” Arms extended, lightly – “Where have you been?’
Jesus is telling us “where have you been stories” with the emphasis on “you,” on welcoming. The stories have a light touch, a streak of humor. Which one of you, having one hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? Think about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if nobody’s hand went up. So I have ninety-nine sheep, and I am going to leave them to find the one that has wandered off? What happens to the other ninety-nine? What are the chances that one of them will wander off? I’ve heard that this is not likely, but you have already had one wander away, why not another? Sounds like something out of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. It would not make economic sense. The shepherd in the story, assuming he owns the sheep, is well-to-do. He has not made silly economic choices. Wouldn’t you take the loss of one sheep rather than risk the safety of the other ninety-nine? Apparently not in God’s economy.
The lost sheep is found. The shepherd “lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” Really? If I had lost something on the job, then found it, I would keep it to myself, a little embarrassed by my mishap. Not in this story. The guy wants to throw a party.
If this story isn’t quite enough, Jesus tells another. What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? O.K. Here, at least, the other coins are not going to wander off. Furthermore, the coins are valuable, worth about a day’s wages. We are not talking a missing penny here. Her behavior in searching seems justified for that kind of money. But then, she, too, “calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” Again, a party. Not something I would do. Again, I would be a little embarrassed that I had lost the coin in the first place. I would not be anxious to admit it. A couple of years ago I bought a roll of stamps, not an insignificant purchase. I knew I bought them but two days later, I could not find them. I really hate to lose stuff, so I looked and looked, and finally located them on a book shelf where I never typically put stuff. I remember getting distracted by the phone or something and setting them down in a safe place. This is the first I’ve told anyone. Sorry, I did not have a party.
Of course, maybe the woman in the story needed to tell her neighbors, really needed to explain herself, I mean all those lights and noises coming from her place last after dark, at strange hours. Do you think the neighbors will buy the lost coin story?
These are “where have you been?” stories. They are about joy. One commentator on these texts wrote that in these stories “the joy of finding the lost is as extravagant as concern for the lost is excessive” (Discipleship Study Bible). So why is Jesus telling these wonderfully rich and humorous stories? Some of the religious leaders of the time were critical of Jesus. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Where have you been, Jesus, hanging out with the losers and the outcasts I bet!
Jesus responds to their sarcasm and bitter criticism with these lovely stories, and then makes a serious connection. “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” This extravagant joy, this odd happiness, this is God. That economically challenged shepherd, this is God. That kind of wacky neighbor lady looking for her coin, this is God.
Here is how theologian and preacher Frederick Buechner describes what’s going on in these stories and in the gospel. God is the comic shepherd who gets more of a kick out of that one lost sheep once he finds it again than out of the ninety and nine who had the good sense not to get lost in the first place. God is the eccentric host who, when the country-club crowd all turn out to have other things more important to do than come live it up with him, goes out into the skid rows and soup kitchens and charity wards and brings home a freak show. The man with no legs who sells shoelaces at the corner. The old woman in the moth-eaten fur coat who makes her daily rounds of the garbage cans. The old wino with his pint in a brown paper bag. The pusher, the whore, the village idiot who stands at the blinker light waving his hand as cars go by. They are seated at the damask-laid table in the great hall. The candles are lit and the champagne glasses filled. At a sign from the host, musicians in their gallery strike up “Amazing Grace.” If you have to explain it, don’t bother. (Telling the Truth)
Is Buechner a little over the top, not any more than Jesus in his stories.
This is God’s attitude toward us. “Where have you been?” spoken with arms extended and gesturing a welcome. Where have you been for so long, I’ve missed you, been saving a place just for you.
This is God’s stance toward us, always searching. If we wander away, God turns on all the lights, sweeps under all the furniture, dusts in all the corners, until we are found.
This is God’s stance toward us, joy – wild, extravagant joy. God’s “Where have you been?” is not “Where have you been?” – glaring with arms crossed, but “Where have you been?” – welcoming with a joyful voice.
God welcomes us, embraces us, joyously, extravagantly. Revel in this wild welcoming God.
Then, and there is a “then,” then remember that we want to reflect that hospitality, that joyous welcome in our life together as this church.
We are a place that says we “welcomes all people.” These stories are about welcoming. We are a place that says we are “guided by the teachings and unconditional love of Jesus.” These stories are what that looks life. We want, here, to “be inspired to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.” Disciples of Jesus Christ extend God’s welcome widely and wildly, to all, no exceptions.
If we take these stories seriously, our welcome here should be an active welcome. We cannot just wait for folks to show up, though when they do, we need to welcome them welcome all. Active welcoming is reaching out, inviting others to the party. Yes, we believe God’s Spirit moves in people’s lives to bring them here, but you may be the occasion for God to bring someone here.
Maybe even think of it this way. We want this to be a place where we each hear God say, in a warm, welcoming way, “Where Have You Been?” We want to hear those extravagantly joyful words in our own hearts. I hope you do. Then, consider this. You may help someone else hear God’s welcoming voice in their own life. It’s an idea as wild as these stories Jesus tells.
Where have you been? It’s great to see you. Welcome back. Welcome others. Amen.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Gospel According to Phil

Sermon preached September 8, 2013

Texts: Philemon 1-22

Lucille Ball Museum Jamestown, NY

Garfield Memorial Cleveland

Henry Ford Museum Dearborn, MI

Henry Ford Museum

It is an old bit of humor in sitcoms, persons showing their vacation pictures to barely interested friends, inflicting their vacation pictures on others. The technology has changed over the years – slides, home movies, videos. Now you can just show others on your phone, and typically that is much briefer.
The New Testament letter of Paul to Philemon seems a bit like we are peering in on someone’s home videos, eavesdropping on some personal conversation. “One thing more – prepare a guest room for me.” I bet you won’t see any signs at football games this weekend with that Scripture verse cited or quoted. Because it seems so specific, and because it is such a brief letter, it is probably Paul’s most neglected writing in the New Testament. Can this letter still speak to us? I suppose I could say “no” and let us all go home really early. But that would not be honest. I think the letter of Philemon can speak to us, and speak powerfully. I think there is a Gospel According to Phil.
To let this letter speak requires some work. We need to know both the story in the letter and the social and historical context which helps us understand the story better.
The basic story line is this: Onesimus is a slave whom Paul has met in prison. Onesimus has run away from his master, Philemon, and, probably stolen something when he left. Philemon is a person of some standing, wealthy enough to have a slave or slaves. He is also a prominent Christian, one who has come to faith because of the work of Paul and one whose house probably serves as the site of a house church. In their encounter, Onesimus, under the teaching of Paul, becomes a Christian. Paul is writing to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, urging Philemon to take Onesimus back, and to see him as not simply a slave but also as a brother in Christ. Paul also offers to make restitution for anything that Onesimus has stolen.
Perhaps another reason this book has become so neglected is that the topic of immediate concern has become so foreign to us – slavery. How can we even think of someone as a prominent Christian and a slaveholder? Unfortunately, it wasn’t that long ago that slavery was an enormous debate in the Christian community, and this letter may have been used to make the case that Christians could, in fact, keep slaves. Thankfully, we have moved beyond that argument.
Some understanding, though, of slavery in the time of this letter is important to help us understand the letter better and see how it might speak to us today. The Roman Empire was a highly stratified society. At the top of the ladder in an area would have been Roman officials appointed to administer the area politically, militarily or financially. Then you would have had the local privileged class – privileged by heredity or money – the small landowners, the shop owners, the crafts people. Next would have been the freedmen and freedwomen, former slaves who had been released or who had purchased their freedom. At the bottom of the social pyramid were the slaves – an immense number of them who provided a crucial economic benefit to the Empire. One might become a slave in a number of ways: a prisoner taken in war, kidnapping, through debt, children born into slavery. There were different kinds of slaves. The most burdensome form of slavery was to be slave labor – manual labor, construction, rowing ships. Household slaves, on the other hand, might have lived more like household servants in the homes of wealthy persons (butlers, nannies). Some slaves were well-educated and might serve as administrators or household tutors. This may have given them the opportunity to earn money and hence, eventually, purchase their freedom. We don’t know the specific situation of Onesimus.
History lessons may be right behind home videos in exciting people’s energy! Sorry about that, but it is necessary work if this book is to speak to us.
Knowing all this, we can still be disappointed that Paul does not more forcefully tell Philemon that slavery is incompatible with Christian faith. Instead, Paul asks that Philemon receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” Yes, the language is ambiguous, but Paul does not seem to be challenging the institution of slavery, at least not in this letter. In the other writings of Paul, we find principles which Christians used to finally say that slavery was not compatible with Christianity. Owing people and being Christian do not fit together. Holding sway over people, while they remain unfree, does not fit with being a follower of Jesus.
Though he does not challenge slavery, Paul is digging deep into Philemon’s daily life, and here this letter can speak to us. One clear message of this letter is that Christian faith, to be a follower of Jesus, to live in God’s Spirit, is something that has an impact and touches all of life, not just the special or extraordinary. The heart of Christian spirituality is not mountaintop experiences of rapture, though they may come. The heart of Christian spirituality is not only comfort when we are hurting or in despair, though this matters a lot. The heart of Christian spirituality is how we live our lives day in and day out. In Jesus, all of life is brought into the light of love. That’s the Gospel According to Phil.
We frequently hear the phrase “spiritual but not religious.” People say they are spiritual but not religious. Part of this is a legitimate criticism of the church, telling us that people see too great a distance between Sunday morning language and Monday to Saturday living. We need to take that seriously. I love how Paul sets up part of his argument to Philemon. “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” We share our faith effectively when what we say has something to do with what we do. We can’t just talk about love, we need to love.
At the same time as I take seriously the critique offered in the phrase “spiritual but not religious,” I would pose a return challenge. Does that stance sometimes amount to seeing spirituality as so private that it is reduced to inner feelings and the inner life alone, without trying to make spirituality something that has an impact on all of life? Is this distinction a means of avoiding the messiness of an actual community of people working on their spiritual journeys together?
Christian spirituality, following Jesus, life in the Spirit is meant to reach into every facet of our lives. To be sure, an important part of Christian spirituality involves practices, “spiritual practices” – prayer, meditation, contemplation, worship, scripture reading, service, giving. These remain important, but for Christians, spiritual practices are always in the service of making all life different. We don’t just pray then go about our merry way, we pray in order to be made different. We pray so that we might become more like the one to whom we pray. We pray for a better world and work to make the world better. Christian spirituality, following Jesus, life in the Spirit is bringing the whole of our lives into the light of love – our everyday, ordinary, quotidian lives - - - to use the phrase from Romans 12:1 in The Message: our sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking around lives. No part of our lives is exempt from the light of love, and that is both amazing, and a little disconcerting. Let me briefly plunge a little deeper, get a little more specific.
One of the issues in Philemon is an economic issue. Philemon’s economic situation involved having Onesimus in his household. Following Jesus, life in the Spirit, asks us some hard economic questions. What does love require in a country where 17.6 million households have trouble feeding their family members, where 46 million of our fellow citizens do not know where there next meal is coming from (Thurday’s newspaper)?
Following Jesus, life in the Spirit, asks us some difficult questions about the world political situation. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We are on the verge of bombing Syria. If the evidence is true, the Syrian government heinously and criminally used chemical weapons against its own citizens. Does peacemaking mean never engaging in war, no matter how much others may be suffering? But will dropping bombs help secure a more just resolution of issues and create conditions for more peacefulness in the world, or will anti-Americanism simply be more inflamed? The answers are not easy. Love requires that we think deeply, but following Jesus does not seem to leave us the option of not thinking about this at all, or of thinking that war and peace have nothing to do with life in the Spirit.
Christian spirituality, following Jesus, life in the Spirit asks us to consider in every area of our lives – what does love require? What will genuinely witness to God’s love in Jesus? Christian spirituality, following Jesus, life in the Spirit is not just about doing the right thing, though it is about that, it is about becoming different kind of people. Paul finally wants for Philemon that he will act lovingly from his heart.
As strange as this letter is, and as problematic as it can be, it speaks to us. It speaks to me. How do I live as a follower of Jesus as a husband, a father, a friend, a pastor, a citizen, an inhabitant of planet earth? What does love require? There are even more themes that we will leave untouched – the power of persuasion, the importance of second chances – there is a lot there for us parents and friends.
The Gospel According to Phil is about a love that seeks to transform the whole of our lives. It can be a demanding love, but first it is an accepting and forgiving love, a love that refreshes hearts. “Grace to you and peace.” Always, grace and peace for the journey. Amen.

Friday, September 6, 2013

All Y'All

Sermon preached September 1, 2013

Texts: Hebrews 13:1-2; Luke 14:1, 7-14

O.K. So it’s becoming a little bit of a cliché’ that I start my sermons with music, but there are worse things, so here goes:

The Moody Blues, “Lovely To See You Again”

Lovely to see you again, my friend. And it is lovely to see you all. Think for a moment about a time or times when you felt welcomed – warmly, joyously. At their best, class reunions have some of that, and they are especially fun when you are welcomed by someone you never thought really even knew who you were in high school. Family reunions have even more of that feeling of welcome. One of my fond memories from my college days was attending a big family reunion in Rice Lake Wisconsin. It was where my grandmother was from, and her mother was still living. We rented part of the fairgrounds because of the size of the group. It was a lot of fun. I know I have mentioned that the community of Rice Lake was a special place for me growing up because of the warm welcome given by my relatives.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Jesus: “When you give a luncheon or 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.”
I am kind of thinking that Jesus would not have made a good professional party planner. What kind of lousy guest list is this?
Of course, that’s not really what Jesus is talking about. He’s not saying we shouldn’t have dinner with friends or relatives. He is reminding us, with a bit of humor, of how deep, how radical sacred hospitality is. Hospitality means more than being nice. Hospitality means more than simply being cordial or polite. Christian hospitality, rooted in our own experience of being welcomed by God reaches out to embrace strangers and the strange.
In her book Christianity for the Rest of Us, in its chapter on hospitality, Diana Butler Bass writes: Although hospitality takes many forms, from the kiss of peace bestowed by a Goth teenager on an elderly woman, to offering bread to a stranger and thanking a homeless person for coming to breakfast, the core practice remains the same: Christian people, themselves wayfarers, welcome strangers into the heart of God’s transformative love. (87) Hospitality – welcoming others into the heart of God’s transformative love, welcoming because we are loved.
When we lived in Texas, we heard a lot of “y’all.” “Y’all want to go for a coke” – which meant any kind of soft drink – you never said “pop” in Texas. But “y’all could mean just one other person. Someone might ask you – “y’all want to get a cup of coffee?” To make it clear that someone was taking about a group, you sometimes would hear “all y’all.” “All y’all want to go to the game tonight?” All y’all was an inclusive term. It is a great way to speak of Christian hospitality. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it. When you give a luncheon or 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. All y’all.
Hospitality has to do with inclusion. It has to do with making space, warm and welcoming space. Jesus links it with humility in the gospel for this morning. 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,’ 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.
To the first scenario Jesus describes, we might simply say “awkward.” But do we take a lower place just in hopes of getting a better one? Is that what humility is all about? Seems a recipe for disappointment. Again, I think Jesus is using a little humor to make a point, contrasting the humility with humiliation. Humility is being comfortable enough with oneself that you don’t need to find the place of honor.
I really like what Robert Emmons writes about humility. Humility is the realistic appraisal of one’s strengths and weaknesses – neither overestimating nor underestimating them. To be humble is not to have a low opinion of oneself, it is to have an accurate opinion of oneself. It is the ability to keep one’s talents and accomplishments in perspective, to have a sense of self-acceptance, and understanding of one’s imperfections, and to be free from arrogance and low self-esteem. (The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns, 171)
Hospitality and humility are interconnected. Recognizing strengths and limitations, we recognize that it helps to make room for another, for more, for different, for change. Humility is recognizing simultaneously that we are loved deeply and wildly by God, and that God isn’t finished with us yet. There is always room to grow and we grow by welcoming the new, the unfamiliar.
Quickly I want to make some of this general discussion more concrete by suggesting how profound the idea of Christian hospitality can be across various areas of our lives.
Hospitality, welcome, all y’all, can be extended to ourselves, and should be. We need to extend hospitality toward ourselves. Positive change often happens not when we feel completely crummy about ourselves, but when we have enough care for ourselves that we want to change for the better. The therapist Tara Brach writes, “when we practice Radical Acceptance, we begin with the fears and wounds of our life and discover that our heart of compassion widens endlessly” (Radical Acceptance, 4). Even in twelve-step programs, which often talk about hitting bottom before you want to change, there is that sense that you are worth the effort to change, relying on a higher power.
Another kind of inner hospitality that we need to practice is to make space for new ideas, welcome space for new ways of looking at our faith, our lives, our world. Spiritual growth, as I talked about last week, has something to do with continuing to learn and grow and mature.
Christian hospitality, sacred hospitality speaks to our wider world. Fifty years ago this month, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and reminded us that our nation was falling short in the area of hospitality. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned.
In a sense, civil rights is about hospitality, about welcome, about making space. The struggle of women to be heard and empowered is, in a sense, about hospitality, about welcome, about making space. On this pride weekend, gay rights can be seen as being about hospitality, about welcome, about making space. Hospitality does not prescribe particular policies, but when we leave it out of our thinking about our social community, we are not thinking with our best Christian minds. As our nation grapples with immigration policy, hospitality should not be left out of the equation. It does not prescribe particular policies, but if we neglect it when we think about immigration reform, we are not thinking about immigration reform with our best Christian minds.
If there is a place where hospitality, where welcoming, where making space should be most evident it should be in our life together as this Christian community of faith, this Jesus community. “Through hospitality, Christians imitate God’s welcome,” Diana Butler Bass reminds us (82). As a church community we should always be making space for people who are trying to make space in their lives for more of God’s Spirit, God’s welcoming love. Butler Bass goes on to write [quoting Henri Nouwen]: Hospitality is the “creation of a free space” where strangers become friends. “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” (79) I will be saying more about the church as an “all y’all” place in a couple of weeks.
Hospitality is not always easy. Opening our arms and hearts wide means that persons and ideas, both strange and wonderful, may arrive. Hospitality, welcoming, making space, is, however, our calling from God who welcomes us warmly, joyously, as warmly, joyously and wildly as a father welcomes a long-lost son in another story Jesus told. By making open, welcoming space in our lives, in our world, in our church, angels in disguise may just arrive. That’s good news for all y’all. Amen.