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Archive for August 30th, 2010

Eating Bread in the Kingdom of God

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  What follows is the sermon from the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“Eating Bread in the Kingdom of God”

Luke 14: 1, 7-15

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

August 29th, 2010

A good dinner party is difficult to pull off.  The host bears most of the burden.  He or she needs to make sure the food is good and the drinks don’t run low.  He or she also has the responsibility of keeping the conversation going among the guests who may or may not know each other.  You don’t want the conversation to run dry because quiet moments are deathly moments at a dinner party.  So a good host will keep things lively and keep things going.  But the guests also bear responsibility for the party’s success.  A good guest will mingle, engage others in polite conversation, and avoid topics that might get heavy or too controversial.  A good guest knows the unspoken rules, knows what he or she is supposed to do and not do, and follows those rules to a tee.

So keeping in mind how difficult a dinner party is to pull off, and keeping in mind that the guest bears a lot of the responsibility, why on earth would anyone ever invite Jesus over for dinner?  Jesus, of all dinner guests, really had a knack for creating awkward social moments.  In this week’s text, for instance, Jesus was invited to the home of a Pharisee whom I imagine had no idea what he was in for.  Jesus sat back and observed for a while as the guests did what guests do at a party in 1st century Palestine, they jockeyed for the best, most honorable seats (that’s where the good wine was served, after all).  And the host did what hosts do, he welcomed all the elite whom he hoped would reciprocate with invitations and introductions.  So Jesus observed all of this for a while…until he decided it was time for a “parable” or a much-needed lesson on what he believed was good party etiquette.  I imagine the room got very quiet as Jesus broke all the unspoken rules and began to speak.

When you are invited to a wedding banquet, Jesus said, do not sit down at the place of honor.  Sit down at the lowest place, so your host may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’  And when you give a dinner, do not invite your friends, or your family, or your well-to-do neighbors.  Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Who invited this guy?  I imagine the guests mumbling under their breath as their host busied himself in shame.  Words of truth don’t go over very well when all you’re trying to do is have a good time.

Did Jesus ever relax?  Did he ever go off-duty and just have a good time?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I imagine it was hard for this Messiah-in-the-making to ever really cut loose knowing that his every word, his every action would be so timeless.  And Jesus’ words here, in the Gospel of Luke, are timeless.  They were not just meant for those Pharisees and dinner guests on that one unfortunate Sabbath evening.  They were meant for all of us and for all of those who are in search of the Kingdom of God.

Through Luke’s storytelling, Jesus’ goal here was not to create an awkward social moment, but a timeless vision of what God’s banquet, God’s feast, God’s Kingdom is to be like.  It’s a place where the humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled.  It’s a place where you and your friends and your family members rub shoulders with the poor, and the sick, and the lame.  It’s a place where seats of honor are not reserved nor highly sought because all are equally held in the love and grace that extends from the table.

We need to be reminded of this vision.  We need someone willing to stand up and make a scene about this Good News-God ordained-party-for-all.  We need Jesus to tell us this story again.  So that’s what Jesus does.  Time after time after time in our scriptures he reminds us of what God’s Kingdom is like.  Apparently he thinks we might forget; that we might lose the vision; that we might miss the point.  And our human history affirms that Jesus is right.

Flannery O’Connor was a native of Georgia, a devout Roman Catholic, and a genius writer.  Her stories frequently shed light on the fears and prejudices we human beings hold as she artfully contrasted such human sins with the mystery of divine grace.  This is what she accomplished in her short story entitled, “Revelation.”

“Revelation” opens in a doctor’s waiting room where Ruby Turpin is waiting with her husband, Claud. As she often does, Mrs. Turpin passes the time by categorizing the other waiting-room inhabitants by class—there were “white trash” people, middle class people (like herself), and so forth. The story takes place in the segregated South, so there are no black people in this doctor’s waiting room, but Mrs. Turpin is happy to judge them, too.

She identifies a pleasant-looking woman as one of her own class, and they begin an idle conversation that centers first on their possessions and eventually on their disapproval of civil rights demonstrators. They conclude that it would be a good idea to send all black people back to Africa. During this conversation, the other woman’s daughter, Mary Grace, an obese college student with severe acne, has been making faces directly at Mrs. Turpin. At last Mary Grace cracks entirely, throws her book on Human Development at Mrs. Turpin, and then physically attacks her. When Mary Grace has been subdued, Mrs. Turpin begins to think that the crazy girl has a message for her, and when she moves closer, Mary Grace calls her a warthog and tells her to go back to hell where she came from. [1]

Well, Mrs. Turpin is deeply shaken by this attack and by the message her attacker had for her. Later on, at home, while hosing down the hogs, she grows indignant, and then furious, as she questions God about why God sent her such a message when there was plenty of “trash” in the room to receive it. ‘Go on,” she yells at God, “call me a hog!  Call me a wart hog from hell.  Put that bottom rail on top.  There’ll still be a top and a bottom!”  Mrs. Turpin’s fury shook her and she continued to roar in anger at God.

Then…the color of Mrs. Turpin’s world suddenly began to change.  “A red glow settled all around the hogs and she lifted her gaze to the horizon.  There was a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of highway, into the descending dusk.  A visionary light settled in her eyes and she saw a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.  Upon this bridge to heaven was a vast horde of souls.  There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black people in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.  And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom Mrs. Turpin recognized at once as those who, like herself, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.  She leaned forward to observe them closer.  These people like her were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.  They alone were on key.  Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that their virtues were being burned away.  Mrs. Turpin lowered her head and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead.  In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.”[2]

The vision of God’s Kingdom as a place for all, a place where the humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled, a place where seats of honor are not reserved nor highly sought because all are equally held in the love and grace that extends from the table, is an immobilizing vision.  It is a vision that stops us in our tracks, a vision that calls us to account, a vision that challenges us to see ourselves and those who are different from us as equally held and equally loved in the Kingdom of God.  This vision is invaluable.  We are in need of this vision.  We are in need of this vision of God’s Kingdom for all.

In a day when we are currently debating how to be sensitive to the families and victims of September 11th while also honoring the dignity, the religious freedom, and the rights of Muslims living in that community who are in need of a place to pray, we are in need of this vision of God’s Kingdom for all.

In a day when our politicians are wrestling with the complexities of our immigration laws, and in a day when the state of Arizona has made it illegal for Christians in that state to love and serve their neighbor, we are in need of this vision of God’s Kingdom for all.

In a day when ageism, and classism, and racism, and sexism, and xenophobia, and homophobia still determine the contours of our life, our culture, our world, we are in need of this vision of God’s Kingdom for all.

In a day when we are careful to follow all the unspoken rules, and to host a good party, and to be good and polite guests at the table, we are need of.…Jesus…to bring things to a halt, to speak words of truth, to break up that which needs to be broken up, and to replace it with a new and better ideal, with a new and better table, with a new and better party meant for all of God’s children.

I imagine Jesus created a really awkward social moment over dinner at the Pharisee’s house.  I imagine a lot of the guests and perhaps even the host didn’t appreciate the way Jesus ruined their fun.  But, interestingly enough, one of the guests didn’t seem to mind at all.  One of the guests really seemed to get Jesus and get what he was trying to tell them.  One of the guests caught Jesus’ vision for himself and said aloud for all to hear, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!”

As we gather around our Lord’s Table today, may we be such a guest.  May we be the ones to catch Jesus’ vision and celebrate it aloud saying for all to hear, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!”

Now to the God who offers us this bread, and this Kingdom, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

.


[1] Ann D. Garbett. “Revelation.” Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition. Salem Press, 2007. eNotes.com. 2006. 27 Aug, 2010 <http://www.enotes.com/revelation-salem/
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[2] Flannery O’Connor, “Everything That Rises Must Converge: Revelation” in O’Connor: Collected Works, The Library of America, New York, NY, 1988, pgs. 653-654.

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