A Sermon on Luke 14

As has become custom on this blog, I am including a transcript of the sermon I preached this past Sunday (September 1st, 2013).  The gospel passage that this centered from was the lectionary appointed one, Luke 14:1, 7-14.  Without further adieu here it is:

A Sermon for September 1, 2013  (Lectionary 22/Pentecost 15C); Gospel of Luke 14:1, 7-14

The past two Saturdays, Allison and I have had the privilege of being involved in two different weddings, in two different states.  Two weeks ago we were at my uncle’s wedding in Texas, and then last Saturday we were at our friend Kim’s wedding in Washington.  We did a fair amount of traveling, but that’s another story.  I mention the weddings though because they create interesting images given today’s texts.

Focusing on the gospel, like last week’s lesson we have a story taking place on the Sabbath.  In verses 2-6, the portion that I did not read we have another healing on the Sabbath, except this time it was a man being healed instead of a woman.  This healing is then followed by the story and parable told at a gathering around a meal at a Pharisee’s house on a Sabbath.  If you can recall the last time I preached back in July, it was about Martha and Mary, and Jesus’s lesson and speech was somewhat of a rebuke of his host, Martha.  Well today’s message is perhaps even more biting of a rebuke of his fellow dinner partners and their host.

First, Jesus rebukes the practice of sitting in a high place of honor at a wedding banquet.  He again paints a picture of the need and importance to humble oneself.  By now you know this phrase by heart, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  This is the idea Luke has now made overly and abundantly clear.  Jesus says as much in verse 11, when he says that “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  I think we as Lutherans understand this though pretty well.  We are generally fairly unassuming, and certainly only a few of us have large egos.  Though from time to time, I know about myself that I start getting far too big of a head, like today’s reflection from Proverbs cautions us not to over-inflate ourselves.  But the problem with this gospel passage for me and Lutherans is that it sometimes crosses the line into works righteousness.  That means the idea that the things we do save us, not God.

When we have a passage like this, calling us to be humble, we can seemingly justify our timidity and quiet. We can justify almost not talking about our faith because we don’t want to go talking about ourselves.  Perhaps this is also why so many Lutherans generally sit in the back instead of the front of the sanctuary, like going to a wedding.  You know we don’t want to get too close. Somebody more important might come.  Perhaps all of you in the back are just waiting for an invitation to come up closer.  Well, here’s your chance. There is room in front!  Come on down!

Back to the gospel, Jesus then turns to the host, or at least the one who invited him.  Jesus says “do not invite your friends, brothers, relatives, or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return and you would be repaid.” Instead he says one should, “invite the poor, crippled, lame, and the blind.”  This might seem strange or surprising to us.  How many of us honestly go out of our way to invite the outcast and marginalized to a social gathering or meal in our own home?  For the Pharisees hearing this message, it would be even more challenging and odd.  These are the people because of the rules, a “good Pharisee would consider not only unworthy but religiously unclean.”[1] Because of this reversal, Jesus is rejecting both social and religious norms.  He is being his counter-cultural self again.  Jesus is telling his host to “invite not the worthy… (not the) ‘worthy poor,’ but the unworthy, irreligious, sinful poor.”[2] The invitation which Jesus gives has no bounds or limits.  Jesus invites all, and calls us to invite all- especially those who we might not know, or might know but find hard to invite or love.

Why are we to show such an all-inclusive invitation though?  On the practical side, it may well be because it’s the nice, right, and decent thing to do.  It may be because we are called to love and serve our neighbor.  But you know something, this passage and a few others in the gospels have deeper claims to make.  In verse 14 we hear that if one does invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind, those that cannot repay you, “you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  It echoes Proverbs 19, in that “whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.”  So therefore, the need to welcome and show love to a neighbor, no matter their perspectives, experiences, and places in society is in fact tied to the promise of eternal life.

When I was in college, I fell in love with a particular early church father, Saint John Chrysostom.  Chrysostom died in the year 407.  But the reason why I loved reading his work so much was that no other theologian and church leader that I have ever read did a better job of cutting through both religion and economics to the heart of the matter about money, wealth, privilege, and hospitality.  I like Chrysostom, and I really think he was right when he said that “not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.”[3]  Let that thought linger a little, “we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.” Basically, Chrysostom wrote that not to help the poor is theft and a crime, and Martin Luther himself would later go so far to say that not to help the poor in need is indeed murder.[4]

It’s this understanding that really makes me disturbed when I see stories in the news that seem so against common sense and an understanding of the common good, let alone falling flat in response to today’s gospel messages.  Today we live in a world, for example, where in Columbia, South Carolina homelessness is effectively a crime, in an effort to remove poverty from the city.  In neighboring North Carolina you could legally be arrested for simply handing out food to the homeless unless you pay for an $800 daily permit.  I admit, I am simplifying these situations, but you know what, there is no justification that can be made which keeps us from serving those in need.  Jesus had to stand up to the religious elite when defending healing on the Sabbath.  It was against custom, and against the common interpretations of religious law.  Likewise, we are called to serve and invite, even when it may not be easy for us to do so, and perhaps not even safe.

In today’s gospel, verse 13 echoes Luke 12:33, where Jesus makes the point of giving alms.  The religious leaders and rabbis taught and preached that “anyone who gives to the poor lends to God. That is the point Jesus is making.”[5] Like today’s passage from Hebrews reiterates, “do not neglect to do good and share what you have,”[6] do not neglect to show love and hospitality.[7] Or as today’s Psalm 112 calls for, “give freely to the poor,” be generous in lending and do this all with compassion and justice. [8]

There is a need though to unpack all of this, and a caution which needs to be made.  Yes, we are called to show compassion, hospitality, and love.  But these acts aren’t good works in themselves, as some might interpret.  We don’t do them to store up for ourselves a better place in heaven.  That is what some people think that this means, and Luther of course would write plenty of grievances about this whole concept and indulgences.

Elsewhere on the thought spectrum, others think that what they have is theirs, and it’s God continuing to bless them because “God helps those who help themselves.” Well, the Bible never told us this, and it actually didn’t originate as a saying until the year 1698 by Algernon Sydney,[9] and later was widely quoted by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1757. [10] No matter the source, this was a good 1000+ years after the Bible as we know it was written and established.

No, counter to these possibilities, as Chrysostom argued, and Jesus seems to reiterate throughout Luke, what we have is meant for others. What we have has been entrusted to us by God.  Some of us are fortunate to be entrusted with money and wealth.  Some of us are fortunate to be entrusted with a little less money, but perhaps other gifts and talents. What we have, is meant to be shared and given back.  God entrusts what we have to us for a reason, to help and serve the Lord.

This is built from an idea that God calls us to work with God in bringing about God’s work and mission in the world.  God can work without us, but God chooses to work with us.  So it is important that we acknowledge this and trust that in what we do, God may be, whether we know it or not, doing some work through us.  This might be like in the smile to a stranger, helping someone who hit a deer and is sitting on the side of the road, or being with someone who just got some scary news from a doctor.   Or, this could be when we simply do good by treating our neighbors, employees, co-workers, customers, and teachers with honesty and respect.

Looking ahead, next week is rally day.  The ministries kick into high gear for the school year, as they do among most other congregations.  Next week is also something special.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the ELCA, a denomination of which we are part, will be celebrating “God’s Work, Our Hands” Day.  It is recognizing the 25th anniversary of the denomination.  It also recognizes that we are called and part of something bigger than ourselves.  We are part of God’s work and mission in the world.  How we are a part of this is unique for each person, but it involves us, our hands, our feet, our eyes, our hearts, our minds, our souls… As the song goes, “All that we have, and all that we are…”

We have been entrusted with these to do something.  We do these things out of our hope and trust in the promise.  We serve out of the joy of the resurrection.  We invite and welcome all, no matter where they are on their journeys- no matter what their political viewpoints, social standing, health situations, challenges, sexual orientations or identities.  We don’t do this because it’s just right; we do so because that is what we believe that Jesus calls us to do.  We don’t exclude, because Jesus did not exclude.  His invitation and welcome went far past any social or religious boundary.  In fact, as far as I can discern from the gospels, wherever there was a barrier or boundary, Jesus was generally on the other side of the barrier.  He met people where they were at, bringing them the reality of the Good News simply by meeting and acknowledging them, no matter their challenges or brokenness, like us.

The funny thing is, Jesus still meets people where they are at, and will continue to do so. He didn’t just do it like as portrayed in today’s passage; he does it today and will do it tomorrow.  The passage in Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.”[11]  Jesus is constant.  Things are made new. We are made new as is everything in Christ.[12] But Jesus is constant, and so is the promise of life found in Him.

So what can I say then about this passage for us in our lives today? What can I say to all of us laborers on this Labor Day weekend?[13]  As Jesus invites you, come and invite others.  Come to the banquet feast for it is ready, and tell others about it.  As Jesus did, and I believe still does, go and do likewise.  Invite, love, and give of yourself without strings attached. It’s not easy, and I know I come up short.  But it’s a challenge and a calling, one we have all been given in our different spots of life.  The promise is that God as we understand through Christ is there with us, leading us and supporting us.  So, good and faithful servants- go and do likewise.  Amen.  Come Lord, Jesus.

[1] Justo Gonzalez, Luke, (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 180.

[2] Justo Gonzalez, Luke, 180.

[3] St. John Chrystosom, On Wealth and Poverty, (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 55.

[4] Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, in his explanation of the Fifth Commandment, found in The Book of Concord.

[5] The Lutheran Study Bible, pages 1725 and 1729.

[6] Hebrews 13:16, NRSV.

[7] From the larger passage appointed by the lectionary, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, NRSV.

[8] Psalm 112.

[9] Found in an article entitled, “Discourses Concerning Government.”

[11] Hebrews 13:8, NRSV.

[12] 2 Corinthians 5:17, NRSV.

[13] The significance of Labor Day, can be read about in more depth at:  http://www.dol.gov/opa/aboutdol/laborday.htm.

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