Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the 14th chapter.

Glory to you, O Lord. 

1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 

7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 "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; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, "Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 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. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." 12 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a 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. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

The gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week we heard that Jesus interpreted the law about the Sabbath.  He taught us that people are more important than the rules and that grace is always more important than the law.  This week’s reading from Hebrews continues the same theme. Grace is God’s gift to us.  Grace is the lens through which we read the law. We can interpret every law by asking if it shows that we love our neighbors as ourselves. 

The tradition of the church says that perhaps either Paul or Apollos wrote the book of Hebrews.  This book is more like an extended sermon than a letter. The author quotes the Old Testament frequently and compares God’s new activity in Jesus Christ with God’s activity long ago with Israel. The writer lays out the demands of discipleship and describes the comforts that come with following Christ. 

And, isn’t that what a sermon does?  We look at God’s activity long ago in Jesus Christ to help us see how God is active and working in our lives now.  

The author of Hebrews writes:

“Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it… Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” 

The command to show hospitality to strangers appears many, many times in the Old Testament.

Exodus 12:49 says, “there shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.”

Exodus 23:9 says, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:33-4 says, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

Interestingly, the word that is translated as stranger or alien in many English Bibles is literally translated as “guest” in Hebrew.  It is sometimes translated as “sojourner,” meaning someone who is traveling through a foreign land. That means something a little different to us doesn’t it?  What if we thought of all strangers as our guests?  What if we remember that we are all travelers through this land?  

Most of you have traveled to a foreign country.  Even if you haven’t been overseas, you know what hospitality looks like and how it feels when you are welcomed somewhere that’s not your home.  

You know what lack of hospitality looks like, too. You show up to your hotel tired and find that they lost your reservations. Or your luggage didn’t make it on the plane. Minor inconveniences, to be sure, but you still remember what it feels like to be treated with something less than kindness. 

Lack of hospitality isn’t just an individual problem, though.  Whole nations can and do treat the people of other nations as if they were somehow not humans created in the image of our loving God.

This past month marked the 400th anniversary of the first ship of enslaved African people to arrive on this continent. The first European settlers came to Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.  It only took them 12 years to bring slaves over. 

You might remember that I am from Virginia. This is the history of my people. I recently looked up some of my ancestors online and read the census records.  I already knew that my father’s side of the family owned slaves.  I had thought that my mother’s side was not well-to-do enough, but I was wrong.  

I am personally appalled that my ancestors owned other people.  And even worse, that they sometimes used scripture to justify their horrible behavior.  I cannot imagine that I would ever do that and I don’t believe that any of you would either. 

Racism is America’s original sin, and everyone, no matter their race, still suffers the ill effects that have passed down the generations. But the sin of thinking that my ethnic group is somehow better than yours is not unique or new to our country.  The Hebrew people were forced into slavery in Egypt, not 400 years ago, but approximately four thousand years ago, because a new king arose who didn’t know their history and saw an economic opportunity.

Even at a smaller local level, we humans show our weaknesses - our insecurities and our greed, by putting ourselves in a higher place than our neighbors.  Our neighbors might be a different skin color, or speak a different language, or just live on the other side of the tracks. 

Discipleship calls on us to remember that all people are created in the image of our loving God and that no one is better than anyone else.   Discipleship is hard because it’s far easier to show hospitality to people who look like us, act like us, and share our customs. 

Jesus speaks clearly that the people we think are the least in society - the ones who don’t work for a living, the ones who don’t have any money, the ones who are sick - they are the ones we should be hanging out with. They are the ones who should be first in line to receive our hospitality. 

Discipleship is hard.  Following Jesus means you have to hang out with the people he hangs out with.  Some of them look and act a lot like us.  Many of them don’t.  When this concerns me and makes me anxious, I try to remind myself of some very good news.  

There are comforts that come from following Jesus. My childhood Sunday school books had a picture of a white Jesus with light brown hair and green eyes, looking down lovingly at little children. I have green eyes and used to have light brown hair.  The guy in the picture could literally be my brother.  And although that picture made me gave me comfort as a child, the historical Jesus didn’t really look like that. 

One of my seminary classmates, Niveen Sarras, is from Palestine. She grew up in Bethlehem where her family still lives and where her uncle is a shepherd outside of the city.  For real. She used to always tell people that if they wanted to know what Jesus looked like, they should imagine he looked like her brother. Brown skin, long nose, dark hair, and dark brown eyes.  

It is good news and it brings comfort to me and to you that Jesus would have looked like Niveen’s brother. Because that means he hangs out with people who look different from him, people who look like us. It means that when we are strangers, he welcomes us as his guests.

Jesus shows us what generosity looks like. He is both host and guest at the meal.  He takes the lowest place at the table and invites us to enjoy the greatest feast there is.  He prepares the finest wine and bread.  He gives us all we need for strength each day. He forgives us when we do the things we shouldn’t and when we fail to do the things we should. 

And when, with God’s help and grace, you show hospitality to strangers, and entertain the angels, when you share what you have, Jesus says to you, “What you have done is pleasing to God.  You are blessed.”