Sermon for Sunday, August 28th, 2016 || Proper 17, Year C || Sirach 10: 12-18; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16; Luke 14: 1, 7-14 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
At first glance this morning’s gospel sounds more like a first century version of “Miss Manner’s Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior” than it does Holy Scripture. Jesus warns us against the presumption of snagging the best seat at the dinner table just in case, God forbid, it’s already been saved for someone else. How humiliating would that be? Instead, Jesus instructs, one should pick a less important place for oneself because then it’s a win-win. At best you may be asked to move up in the pecking order, but if not, well, at least you’re not publicly humiliated by having to step down a notch.
But don’t be fooled by the surface meaning of this parable. There’s more here than meets the eye. We know this, because Luke gives us three important hints about the almost menacing context in which Jesus does this particular bit of teaching: The first hint is that he’s at a leader of the Pharisees house; the second is that it’s the Sabbath; and the third is that Luke makes a point of telling us that “they” –the Pharisees– are watching Jesus closely. None of which is good.
But Jesus is watching them too. Jesus notices how they all jockey for the honored positions at the table, and he very intentionally chooses that moment in which to tell what he himself identifies as a parable. It’s important that Jesus identifies this story as a parable, because while on the surface it could pass as good enough advice on social etiquette, parables never stop at the surface. They’re never meant to be taken literally.
So imagine the audacious courage it took for Jesus to watch all of these important power-brokers subtly-or not so subtly –try to maneuver their way into the honored spots closest to their host, and then to use their bad behavior as a sermon illustration. Ouch!
What Jesus is really trying to teach these men—and us– is incredibly radical. What Jesus is really teaching us is about the Kingdom of God that he’s come to inaugurate—not in some pie in the sky life in the hereafter but here and now. Life in which everything is upside down and the rich are poor and the poor are rich, the first are last and the last are first, the exalted are humbled and the humble are exalted.
This is a parable about what life here on earth needs to look like in order to become the Kingdom of God Jesus died proclaiming: Life where everyone is so clear about how unconditionally God loves them that who sits where, who has the most toys, who knows who, and who gets paid what, just doesn’t matter. Life where everyone is so clear about the abundance of God’s blessings that welcoming everyone to the table, leveling the playing field, and freely sharing our resources with those who have less than we do is experienced not as a threat, but as a source of joy and an expression of thanksgiving.
Fifty-three years ago today more than 250,000 people from all walks of life gathered at the March on Washington to stand against racism and to demand civil and economic rights for African Americans. It was 53 years ago today that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave what came to be known as his “I Have a Dream” speech…53 years ago today that Dr. King, referring to the Emancipation Proclamation, said:
“One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”
“So,” Dr. King said, “we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.” A shameful condition.
Now, it’s true that many great strides have been made in this country. We’ve come a long, long way. But it is also true that too many shameful conditions persist.
Forty-seven million Americans are living in poverty. And the poverty rate among African Americans is more than twice that of Whites. Right here in our backyard in Suffolk County—which includes all of Boston, Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop—the poverty rate is way above the national average at a whopping 21.5 percent–including 37,000 children under the age of 18. Thirty-seven thousand children, within 30 miles of us, living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
There is something terribly, terribly wrong with this picture. Are we so busy jockeying for our place at the table, or defending the place we already have, that we don’t even see the hungry faces outside? How is it that the mere 30 miles between those poverty-stricken children and us feels more like 30,000 miles?
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner,” Jesus tells his host, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors… But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed…”
But who’s inviting those 47 million Americans who are living in poverty to the table? Who’s willing to take a lesser seat at the table to make room for the poor of Suffolk County?
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus says at the launch of his ministry, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus commissioned each of us, at our baptism, to do this work–this work of healing the shameful conditions in our midst and witnessing to the power of God’s love. By reaching out to those in need. By leveling the playing field. By sharing our resources, with joy and gratitude. Because the Kingdom of God is the place where everyone has a seat at the table—and all the seats are seats of honor.
One way for us to be a part of this Kingdom-building work is through our partnership with St. Stephen’s Church, Boston. Those of you who have participated in the B-SAFE program—the Bishops Summer Academic and Fun Enrichment Program –have had a taste of what this is like. For five-weeks every summer, St. Stephen’s Boston offers a full-day program for young people from first grade through high school in six Boston area neighborhoods. The vast majority of B-SAFE’s kids live in public housing, and at or below the poverty level.
At B-SAFE they get programs in reading, writing and math; visual and performing art workshops; science activities; recreational activities; and field trips. They get a healthy breakfast, a healthy lunch, and an end of day snack.
During the academic year, the B-READY program takes over. The youngest kids get one-on-one homework help, tutoring in math and reading, supplemental science, art, music and technology, and enrichment programming. They get physical fitness activities and a hot, nutritious meal each day–for many of them, the only hot meal they’ll get.
Middle school teens also get leadership training, and meet in single-gender groups that help them develop healthy self-images and habits.
And High School teens get academic and emotional support, life skills and leadership training, college and career prep, even job training. They have twice-weekly Academic Nights for homework help, tutoring and academic enrichment; they learn test-taking strategies, get help with essay and resume writing, learn about personal finances, obtaining financial aid, and developing interview skills.
My prayer is that this year we will have the will to strengthen our partnership with St. Stephen’s Boston by helping more of these kids living in poverty find the seats of honor they deserve at the table. There are opportunities to volunteer daily, weekly or on an occasional Friday. We can work with children of all ages, depending on our comfort level, and do anything from being a reading buddy for a little one or tutor or mentor to a high school kid.
These kids are less than thirty miles away from us. They need us, and more important, we need them. Because the Kingdom of God Jesus died proclaiming truly is a world where everyone is clear enough about how unconditionally God loves them– that who sits where, who has the most toys, who knows who, and who gets paid what, doesn’t matter any more. It’s a world where everyone is clear enough about the abundance of God’s blessings, that welcoming everyone to the table, leveling the playing field, and freely sharing our resources with those living in poverty is experienced not as a threat or a sacrifice, but as a source of joy and an expression of thanksgiving. The Kingdom of God is a world that is not some pie in the sky life in the hereafter, but real life right here and right now. All we have to do is choose to live it. But we do have to choose. Amen.