Sunday, August 29, 2010

Today's Sermon: Luke 14:1,7-14 “Hosts”

Why would Jesus go to eat dinner at the home of a Pharisee? We know that he didn’t think very much of the way that the Pharisees were teaching religion, and they didn’t think very much of him in return.

Nevertheless, Jesus went. To a dinner that was bound to be an uncomfortable one, because, of course, they would be watching everything he did to see what a bad person he was. He knew this, but he went anyway. And he didn’t shy away from using it as a teachable moment, to share some ideas about what he thought was important.

Now, the gospel of Luke is full of stories that are set at meals or at banquets. They’re usually uncomfortable meals for one reason or another. Sometimes, they’re meals in stories or parables that Jesus made up to make a point. Sometimes they’re real events in Jesus’ life, at least as the evangelist who is telling the story portrays them. But there is always a teachable moment, when Jesus takes the quotidian event – a group of people sitting around a table eating a meal – and turns it into something else.

And this little passage from the Gospel is no different.

Jesus knows he is walking into a tense situation. Haven’t we all gone to a dinner party at one point or another in our lives with people that we don’t care for, or who hold some power over us in our lives, or who have treated us with less than kindness? Haven’t we had that feeling in the pit of our stomach that means if it turns bad again, we’re going to have to still sit there and smile one of those artificial smiles while our stomach is churning with acid, and just survive it until we can go home and brew a cup of tea and say “why did I go to that stupid dinner?”

I don’t know if Jesus suffered any acid indigestion after one of those dinners, but I’m sure it wasn’t particularly pleasant for him.

But even as Jesus goes into the party knowing he is being watched closely, he, too, is watching closely. He decides to address a part of what he observes – how people are choosing up seats – with a little parable of instruction. Simple wisdom: if you take a favored seat and the host moves you lower down the table, you’ll be embarrassed, so save yourself the embarrassment by seating yourself in a humbler seat. Then the host might even move you up to a more favored place. At worst, you’re not embarrassed. At best, you look really modest and you get all sorts of positive attention when the host moves you up to a better spot.

Now, if you’re one of those who have been jockeying for the best seat around the Pharisee’s table that evening, this little lesson might be a bit embarrassing to you, but you can’t really say anything, because Jesus hasn’t said directly to you, “Why are you making a fool over yourself about where you sit?” And when Jesus says, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” it’s just generalized enough that you might be thinking – very quietly and only to yourself – “wait a minute…did he just insult me?”

Very subtle, our Jesus.

But then he continues with another bit of teaching. This one sounds pretty strange to the Pharisees, and particularly the fellow who invited Jesus to dinner, because he was doing it as much for political jockeying as for anything else. For that matter, it sounds strange to us, because we live in a world where entertaining each other is both pleasure and a kind of social responsibility. We are invited to a friend’s for dinner, and shortly afterwards we invite them to our house to return the favor. It’s the way we live together and it is a lovely thing.

But Jesus suggests that we NOT invite our friends and neighbors, that we host a meal for those who cannot return the favor. Jesus doesn’t want us inviting folks over who we like, or because we feel obligated, or because we expect that they will feel obligated in return. He wants us to invite the very people who cannot return the favor. The crippled, the lame, the blind. The very people that the Pharisee wouldn’t invite to his home because those people were the ritually unclean. A Pharisee would never eat with someone like that, either in his own home or in the dwelling of “those people.”

There’s the challenge, then. Can we be host to people whom we wouldn’t ordinarily invite to our table? Whom will we host?

Ahhhh, host….an interesting word. It means, of course, the person who offers hospitality.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about hospitality:

“The word hospitality derives from the Latin hospes, which is formed from hostis, which originally meant to have power. The meaning of "host" can be literally read as "lord of strangers." hostire means equalize or compensate…

The Greek concept of sacred hospitality is illustrated in the story of Telemachus and Nestor. When Telemachus arrived to visit Nestor, Nestor was unaware that his guest was the son of his old comrade Odysseus. Nonetheless, Nestor welcomes Telemachus and his party lavishly, thus demonstrating the relationship between hostis, "stranger," and hostire, "equalize," and how the two combine in the concept of hospitality.

Later, one of Nestor's sons slept on a bed close by Telemachus to take care that he should not suffer any harm. Nestor also put a chariot and horses at Telemachus' disposal so that he could travel the land route from Pylos to Sparta rapidly, and set his son Pisistratus as the charioteer. These illustrate the two other elements of ancient Greek hospitality, protection and guidance.

Based on the story above and its current meaning, hospitality is about compensating/equalizing a stranger to the host, making him feel protected and taken care of, and at the end of his hosting, guiding him to his next destination.”

The Greeks were not alone in this approach to hospitality, of course. In the Middle East, it has always been a cultural norm – a necessity in a place where water and food are in very short supply – to provide hospitality to the stranger who comes to your door. Thus, it forms the core of so many stories in the Old Testament, from Abraham at the oaks of Mamre to Lot and the three strangers he protects from the hostile crowd, to Elijah being fed by the poor widow who had almost nothing in her food stores.

So Jesus tells this parable, he is not introducing an entirely alien concept of what hospitality means – this is a core value to the people of Israel.

Why does he tell the story, then?

I suspect it has much to do with his mission, to rebuild the relationship between God and God’s people. As the people have forgotten what it really means to live as God would have them live – as they have become so wrapped up in following the laws that they have forgotten the relationship – they have forgotten their desert nomad roots. They have forgotten the true nature of hospitality, as they have forgotten the true nature of loving God. Jesus is reminding them of what it is truly all about.

In a way, Jesus is taking back their understanding of what a host is to the way it was originally meant to be.

He explains what a host is – someone who welcomes the stranger, offering food and drink without expecting anything in return.

How interesting, then, that we use that same word “host” to denote the bread that is served at the communion table, the body of Christ which is served to us as the members of the Body of Christ! The two forms of the word “host” are related, of course, but in this form, it comes from the Latin hostia, meaning “sacrificial victim.” And we know that Jesus was the sacrificial victim, offering himself to redeem us. But he also is the ultimate host – in the sense of hospitality - at the meal which we are about to celebrate. He has followed that Greek concept I mentioned earlier, equalizing himself and all of us, all of us who are strangers, to provide sustenance, protection and guidance. He is both the one who invites us to the meal and the one who is the feast.

In our own lives, we have had moments where we have had the experience of this kind of hospitality.

When I was very small, perhaps four years old, my parents and I went to one of those intimidating dinners like Jesus going to eat with a Pharisee. It was at the home of my father’s aunt and uncle. Great-Uncle Joe and Great-Aunt Anna. They were elderly, very proper, and they had an apartment full of breakable objects. They had never had any children, so they didn’t have a clue about child-proofing the apartment. Everywhere you looked was something that was incredibly interesting to a curious and clumsy four year old, something that was a cause of incredible stress to my poor mother. And Great-Aunt Anna was a stickler for proper table manners…another cause of stress to my mother. Although she trained me well, I WAS only four. One never knew when I would behave perfectly, or whether I’d suddenly turn into a clumsy and boorish little monkey.

Well, we came to the beautifully set dinner table, and Great-Aunt Anna’s maid, Ethel – yes, of course she had a maid - brought out the first course. Grapefruit halves. A lovely small Limoges plate with a half a grapefruit on it, with a sterling silver spoon set alongside it. Now I looked at it and smiled. I knew what grapefruit was. We had it at our house regularly. So I picked up my spoon and began to dig in. But wait! No! My mother had always segmented the grapefruit so I could easily take out a segment at a time. This grapefruit had not been segmented. My mother, sitting to my left, sensed me stiffen up. But not wanting to seem like she was commenting on the preparation of the grapefruit, she simply worked on her own half. I was as stubborn as the grapefruit, and dug in with my little spoon again and again, getting a bit of the pulp onto the spoon, but nothing like the whole segment I was used to. And cradled in the half-circle of the fruit was a whole lot of delicious grapefruit juice. I was hungry – meals at their house always started much later than at our house – and I wanted that grapefruit juice. So I dealt with it in my own inimitable four year old way. I picked up the grapefruit half, lifted it over my head, and squeezed the juice into my mouth. My mother’s deep quick intake of breath told me I had done something wrong, but the table was silent. Stunned by my faux pas. This was certainly not what Emily Post suggested for the eating of grapefruit. I looked up. They were all looking at me. I knew I was in trouble.

And then, Great Uncle Joe, who had a voice like a Victorian Shakespearean actor, suddenly leaned back and laughed. A loud guffaw. “That’s the way to do it, Mibi!” And Great-Aunt Anna tittered, and my mother looked down at her plate, breathing a silent prayer of thanksgiving, and my father took anther sip of his Scotch. And I knew somehow, that I had been given a reprieve. That they were willing to be hospitable, to accept me in all my strange four-year-old simplicity. They were willing to be my hosts in the way that Jesus suggested that we be hosts. And in that moment I was fed not only grapefruit, but love.

Because that’s what true hospitality is. Jesus teaches us that unless we are willing to love the people we host enough to put ourselves completely at their service, unless we are willing to provide sustenance however they need it, without an expectation of a return, simply because we are meant to love them, we aren’t doing what Jesus did for us.

Jesus was and is the ultimate host, in every sense of the word. We will be reminded of that in a few minutes when we continue with the Liturgy of the Table. His act of love is what saves us. Our act of love might, in a much smaller way, save another stranger down the road. May the bread – the host – that we consume in this holy meal give us the courage to do that.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Today's Sermon: Luke 13:1-17 “I Don’t Roll on Shabbos”

My friend John M was about to begin work on his doctorate in mathematics at Columbia University many years ago – the very school where Wren B will begin her doctorate very soon and the very school where my own daughter StrongOpinions is studying – and he discovered the big surprise about going to school in New York. Finding housing is very hard and very expensive.

John also needed to augment his scholarships by working, and that was a challenge, because jobs that allow you ample time to study and do research and think big thoughts are hard to come by.

After a frustrating search, he finally found the one job that was absolutely perfect for him, and it even came with housing!

He was a goy.

No, not a guy, a goy. A Shabbos goy. The Yiddish word “goy” refers to a non-Jew. And John was most definitely a non-Jew. Tall, blonde, blue-eyed, from Texas, he was about as goy-ish as they come. A cradle Episcopalian. And he was a Shabbos goy. A non-Jew who was a helper to observant Jews so that they might keep the Sabbath.

He was hired by the orthodox Jewish dormitory on campus to be the one who – on the Sabbath – turned on and off the lights, answered the doorbell, turned on and off the oven, answered the phone, and generally did all the things that the good men of that dormitory were forbidden to do on the Sabbath by Jewish law. All the things that might be labeled “work” or that might involve touching machinery of any type.

It was, frankly, a sweet gig. He got a nice room, a small salary, great food, no wild parties to disturb his studies, and he only had to work for one twenty-four hour period a week, except during the High Holy Days, which required that he do a bit more than a single days’ work per week.

John wasn’t the only person who did this. There is a long tradition of Shabbos goys, some of whom might surprise you. Colin Powell, Mario Cuomo, and even Elvis Presley served as Shabbos goys for their neighbors who were Jewish!

I tell you this story not to suggest that Wren or my daughter go look for a job as a goy in New York – they’re shiksas, not goys – only guys are goys, so they wouldn’t qualify – but to explain a little bit about what the Sabbath really means, because to understand today’s Gospel, you’ve got to understand what the Sabbath really meant to the Jews of Jesus’ time.

Sabbath is, of course, the remembrance of the seventh day in the creation story, when it is written that God rested after his labors creating the Heaven and Earth (Gen 1:1-2:3). In the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, it is said it also commemorates the release of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, and it gives a foretaste of “Olam Haba,” or the time when the Messiah will come. In Jewish law, Sabbath runs from sundown on Friday until when the first three stars appear in the sky on Saturday sunset. It is considered a time for family and God, with festive meals and services in the synagogue. To preserve that time for these things, there are 39 melakhot, or prohibited activities:

Ploughing earth, sowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing wool, beating wool, dyeing wool, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing stitches, tearing, trapping, slaughtering, flaying, tanning, scraping hide, marking hides, cutting hide to shape, writing two or more letters, erasing two or more letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, putting the finishing touch on an object and transporting an object between the private domain and the public domain, or for a distance of 4 cubits within the public domain.

Now most folks don’t do many of these things any more – many of us don’t even write two or more letters – we text or type them! But all of the laws that were in place in Jesus’ time, and even in the present day for Orthodox or Conservative Jews, are derived from this list of prohibitions. And the ultimate punishment for desecration of the Sabbath is stoning – the most extreme punishment in Jewish law.

The Sabbath is a big deal.

Another story that will give you an insight into what Jewish law and Sabbath meant is to look at the cult classic film, “The Big Lebowski.” Great movie – Jeff Bridges plays a very laid-back guy called “The Dude” who seems to have no visible means of support but is a pretty darned good bowler. One of his sidekicks is Walter, played by John Goodman, who is just as intense as the Dude is mellow. A key event in the story occurs on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Walter reacts, characteristically, very intensely. A dialogue between them runs something like this:

Walter Sobchak: Here we are, it's shabbas, the sabbath, which I'm allowed to break only if it's a matter of life or death...
The Dude: Will you come off it, Walter? You're not even Jewish, man.
Walter Sobchak: What are you talkin' about?
The Dude: Man, you're Polish Catholic...
Walter Sobchak: What are you talking about? I converted when I married Cynthia! Come on, Dude!
The Dude: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah...
Walter Sobchak: And you know this!
The Dude: Yeah, and five years ago you were divorced.
Walter Sobchak: So what are you saying? When you get divorced you turn in your library card? You get a new license? You stop being Jewish?
The Dude: It's all a part of your sick Cynthia thing, man. Taking care of her dog. Going to her synagogue. You're living in the past.
Walter Sobchak: Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax...
[shouting] You're right I'm living in the past!

Walter is stating very clearly what Sabbath means: it is an ancient tradition, a beautiful one, to cease all work for one day. To honor God, to honor our families, to honor ourselves. We stop, and nothing should get in the way of that. It is sacred. That is certainly how the Pharisees, those men who were so zealous for the law, feel about it.

And when Jesus heals the poor woman who was crippled and bent over – it sounds like she had terrible arthritis or severe scoliosis, doesn’t it? – and he does it on the Sabbath, you can understand why the Pharisees, those keepers of the law, were so horrified. NOTHING is supposed to happen on the Sabbath. A complete and conscious cessation of work. As Walter said in another memorable moment in “The Big Lebowski, “Saturday, Donny, is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. That means that I don't work, I don't drive a car, I don't ***** ride in a car, I don't handle money, I don't turn on the oven, and I sure **** don't **** roll!”

When he says “roll”, Walter is talking about bowling. I’m not sure which of the 39 melakhot bowling falls under, but Walter is very clear that bowling is another of the prohibited activities, just as the Pharisees are sure that healing is one of the prohibited activities. They see Jesus’ act as a terrible violation of the sanctity of the Sabbath.

Jesus, of course, sees it differently.

For Jesus, the need of the woman outweighs the need of the law. He sees the law as fulfilling a purpose: to honor God and to honor family and to honor our own need for a break. But he also sees his work, the healing of the crippled woman, as fulfilling the prime purpose of honoring God by caring for one of god’s children. Remember how I mentioned that the siddur says that one of the purposes of the Sabbath is to remember the Israelites being freed from enslavement by the Egyptians? Jesus points out that this crippled woman has been enslaved by her illness, and that she deserves to be freed from it as the Israelites deserved to be freed from the Egyptians. As Jesus tells them, it is entirely consistent with the spirit of the Sabbath for him to do this work of healing, just as it is consistent for any of them to provide water for their flocks on the Sabbath. Once again, he is saying to the Pharisees that they have made the law their gospel, rather than making the gospel their law.

But what does this mean to us, in these days when there seems to be no Sabbath rest?

First, we do need a Sabbath rest. We do need a time to honor God, to refresh ourselves, to enjoy our family. But we also need to recognize that sometimes the need to honor God takes different forms. For me as your priest, it means that I often go home and take a Sunday afternoon nap – many of us clergy do. But if there is someone who is unable to come to church or who is hospitalized, I may go visit them and bring them the sacraments. For you it may mean you take a dinner over to a neighbor who has been ill, or you may phone someone who you’ve been worried about, just to check in. We offer God’s love and honor God’s love. We don’t stop doing it on the Sabbath.

The Pharisees got it wrong. The faithful practice of religion should not get in the way of doing good for those in need. We don’t need to be Shabbos goys to help our neighbors on the Sabbath. We don’t need rules to tell us how we should be of help, or to whom we should be of help. Jesus has shown us the way. He has healed those who were untouchables, he has dined with outcasts, he has taught those who were considered the enemy. And he has done it on the Sabbath as much as he has done it on the other days of the week, because the work of God is love, and love knows no calendar, no rule.

Sabbath: we can use it to sit at home and read the Sunday papers and eat a sweet roll. We can use it to go bowling with our kids, even. But we first and foremost use it to honor God. We use it to do the work of God, in prayer, in service, in love. Love knows no calendar and no rule but itself.

Go love one another, whatever the day, in whatever way necessary. You know what to do.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Today's Sermon: Luke 12:49-56 “Righteous Fire”

Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that Jesus was a spineless Goody Two-Shoes.

Maybe it was all those pictures was saw in Sunday school when we were children…the Jesus with the nice white robe, curly light brown hair and sparkly blue eyes with the little lamb curving around his shoulders. The Jesus smiling gently as he touched a group of little children who were dressed remarkably like what children in 1958 or 1948 or 1938 were wearing. The Jesus of the soft words and the soft hands.

We thought Jesus was someone who would always turn the other cheek.

We may have interpreted that as a sign that Jesus was always sort of…well, you know…SOFT. Wimpy, even.

We were wrong.

Think about Jesus’ mission. His task was to fix the broken relationship between God and God’s people, the one that had gotten lost in the morass of rules and laws that the Pharisees were talking about.

That’s not work for a weak person. That’s hard work.

Broken relationships are like broken porcelain teacups – it takes skill and patience and a whole lot of the right kind of glue, plus a little bit of force in the right direction, to mend them. You can’t just put the pile of shards on the table and wish them back into wholeness.

Therapists who work with couples whose relationships are broken know this. It’s a slow process, rebuilding relationships. You’ve got to figure out the whole story, and get the two parties not just to vent, but to really hear each other and understand what happened. Sometimes one partner will tell their version of what happened, and the other partner simply says “No, that’s not right. There he goes, embellishing again!” and the first person says “She always dismisses what I have to say,” and then they’re off to the races once again. And in the midst of this exploration of relationship, occasionally a therapist will have to say hard words to get the parties to really pay attention to what is going on. “She will not trust you if you promise you’ll never take another drink, because you’ve promised that before and broken the promise. Only time will make her trust you again.” “He doesn’t believe that you will open up to him and be warm, because all he’s heard from you is criticism.”

It’s a form of professional tough love, I would imagine, using strong words, hard words, when you’re working on trying to mend a broken relationship. It’s hard to listen to if you’re on the receiving end, but sometimes it’s necessary.

And in today’s Gospel, Jesus is delivering some of that divine tough love. He isn’t sugar-coating it. He isn’t patting the disciples on the head and saying “there, there, now, it will all be okay in the end.”

No, he is saying, “Look, we’re running out of time here. I’m running out of time, and you still don’t quite get what I’m talking about. This new way that I’m preaching will set the established order on its ear. Folks will end up fighting over it. You cannot fundamentally change the way you see the world and expect that it will all go nicely and smoothly. It will not be heaven on earth.”

And as if they haven’t already been shaken up by these words, he calls them hypocrites. Says they can see which way the wind blows but cannot see the coming storm.

Now I don’t know about you, but if my preacher said things like that to me, I’d be nervous and perturbed! If I thought my preacher was supposed to be teaching me and comforting me and patting me on the head, I’d be out looking for a new preacher right about now.

Jesus knew that what he was talking about would cause disputes. Why? Because it meant change, and even in bad times, we don’t like change. We like the status quo, for better or for worse, because we know how to deal with it. And Jesus was most definitely talking about changing the status quo.

Here’s Jesus’ recipe for living in a healthy relationship with God: love God. Love the wonderful world that God has given us and show it by taking care of it. Live lightly on the land. Don’t love money, or power, or status. Don’t love having the right kind of car, or living in the right kind of neighborhood. Love your neighbor. Love that neighbor whether or not his skin is the same color as yours, whether or not she speaks with an accent, whether or not she belongs to the same church as you, whether or not he belongs to the same political party as you. Love the neighbor who lives next door, and love the neighbor who lives in China or Afghanistan or Chile or Nigeria.

Now imagine how that recipe sounds to you if you are a disciple, if you are hearing those words directly from Jesus’ lips. You’ve been under the thumb of the Romans your whole life, taxed until you have nothing left to give. You’ve watched your religious leaders get co-opted by the Roman Empire, and they haven’t necessarily had your interests at heart. You’ve had to make offerings at the temple, but you couldn’t use the regular coins you had, since they had the picture of the emperor on them, so you had to exchange them for temple coin, and of course that cost money. You couldn’t bring one of your own birds to offer, you had to buy one at the temple stalls, and they were expensive. You’ve got this firebrand teacher here now, and he’s been telling you that the old ways are no good, that you need to do things in a new way to please God. And a lot of what he says means that you’ll get treated a lot better than you have if everybody does these things. And now he is talking about bringing down fire! Now he’s talking! Can he mean that we should revolt against the empire? Will he lead us in such a revolt?

Well, no.

You and I, we know how the story goes, and we know that Jesus is not leading a revolution in the political sense. He is talking about something wonderful and new in the heavenly kingdom, and the work we have to do to be a part of that heavenly kingdom, the hard work of relationship with God.

The sad news is that, time and time again, human beings do precisely what Jesus predicts. Father against son, son against father, mother against daughter…nation against nation. Church leader against church leader. Discord, battle, schism. Jesus tells us it will happen again and again until Jesus’ work is completed.

Our humanity leads us to believe that we know best, that we are the ones who are right, that those who disagree with us are wrong. Sometimes we have seen horrors in history when leaders have convinced people that others are so wrong that they must be cast out or subjugated. The Holocaust. Genocide in Rwanda, and in Sudan. And yes, even here, in this country at its founding, in the enslavement of African people to work the fields.

And the saddest part of each of those horrors is that people saw which way the wind was blowing. They could predict the weather. But they couldn’t predict the current time. Jesus’ message is simple, but we human beings twist it to our own ends, for reasons of power, or politics, or money. We allow ourselves to ignore the deepest meaning of the message as the venal and the power-hungry even dare to twist the Gospel to try and make us believe that it is right to cause harm to God’s creation and to our neighbors, wherever they may be.

This is not a new story. Since the beginning of time, human beings have battled to have dominion over each other or over the earth, claiming that religion gave them that right. And none of those battles have brought the kingdom of God a single inch closer to us.

So we remember Jesus’ righteous fury today in this Gospel, an impatience with our unwillingness to hear what he has to say to us, his frustration that we choose to only see and hear what is comfortable to us, and we ask ourselves: “can I open my ears and my heart to hear the WHOLE Gospel, not just the parts that I can easily accept?”

If we are not asking ourselves that question, we are not his followers, we are mere pretenders. And if we are asking ourselves that question, what are we going to do about it?