Humble Hospitality — A Homily for Pentecost 15

I was invited to step in to the chaplain’s role this morning at the beautiful retirement community owned and operated by our denomination here in Santa Barbara. My mother and my mother-in-law both reside there, in Heritage Court, the Assisted Living unit for people living with memory and cognitive loss. About 65 people came to worship in their beautiful, small chapel today, many of them using walkers and/or canes, some sitting in wheel chairs. It’s a wonderful mix of people, average age about 85, I think.

But preaching on hospitality in such a setting proved to be a bit of a challenge,
especially using the text before us in the lectionary for this week.

Throughout the text of this 12 minute homily, I’ve inserted pictures from a variety of family and church settings where we endeavored to practice a bit of what Jesus teaches us in these short stories from Luke 14. Some are from our daughter’s wedding two years ago, some are from Christmas celebrations and some are from our church’s participation in a Thanksgiving meal for foreign students, a wonderful time of good food and fellowship (and a little acting out of the original Thanksgiving story). I am still learning about the kind of hospitality Jesus describes in this passage and perhaps that last, all-church event, most nearly ‘matches’ what this lesson is about.

Humble Hospitality
Luke 14: 1, 7-14, Hebrews 13:1-8,
Proverbs 25:5-6
preached by Diana R.G. Trautwein
at the Samarkand Chapel
September 1, 2013

Our gospel lesson this morning comes from the 14th chapter of Luke’s gospel. It begins with verse 1 and then jumps to a small parable that Jesus tells between verses 7 and 14. Please, hear the word of the Lord for this Sunday:

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.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “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; 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.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.For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

All three of our texts for today have something to say about hospitality, about how to behave well at a dinner party. The proverb, the words in Hebrews and, of course, today’s gospel lesson.

And speaking of that gospel lesson . . . that Jesus – he is always stirring things up, isn’t he? Here he is, invited to the home of an important religious leader – at a time when all those religious leaders were watching him closely – and what does he do?

Well, he strides right into that dining room, and he takes a look around. I mean, he REALLY takes a look around.

And what does he see?

He sees that all the guests are trying to squeeze their way into the most valued seats at the table. All of them wanting to be seen as important, worthy of honor, an insider and not an outsider.

Can you relate?

Sometimes, it’s nice to have the best seat in the house, isn’t it? It feels good to be appreciated, to be honored.

And this was a time and a place when honor was really, really important. And shame was something to be avoided at all costs. And shame at the dinner table? Well, that was very high on the list of things NOT to do.

Have you ever noticed how many times Luke mentions eating in his gospel? Almost every chapter in the book mentions a table, an item of food, a banquet of some sort. Apparently, eating was a big deal for Luke. And table manners were a big deal, too.

This little story sits in the beginning of one of the longest teaching sections in this book. Chapters 14-17 are called ‘the travel narrative’ by some scholars. In them, Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem and he is slowly finding his way there.

In each of these four chapters, time after time, Luke takes the opportunity to tell us the heart and center of the message of Jesus. And time after time, Luke chooses to convey that message in and around table etiquette, in and around feasting together.

So the setting for this small story is really not surprising when you take a look at the whole scope of the gospel of Luke. Jesus is going out to dinner, and Jesus never misses a teaching opportunity.

That first verse in our reading warns us that Jesus is already in trouble, that he’s being observed with care.

His response?

To observe right back. And to talk about what he sees, and to take what he sees and to build Kingdom Truth around it. Verse 7 begins with these words, “When he noticed. . .” Jesus was noticing, he was paying attention. His eyes were open, his heart was open, and he truly saw what was happening around him. And Jesus does what he always seems to do: he tells those dinner guests a story, a story with a lesson, with some clear instruction. And then he tells a related story to the host, too.

That little verse that Joe read for us from Proverbs just a minute ago, remember?

Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence,
and do not claim a place among his great men;
it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,”
than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.

As we read Jesus’ words to the guests, it almost sounds like he is doing a little bit of biblical interpretation for the friends gathering around the banquet table that evening. His words are very, very similar to the old proverb. Maybe we could boil down his message to the guests to just a couple of simple words: be real. Be yourself. Don’t try to be someone you’re not, and don’t assume that you deserve more honor than anyone else in the room. This is a Jesus-style lesson about humility, true humility, not false humility.

One of my very favorite authors and preachers is a man named Frederick Buechner, and I like what he has to say on this subject:

Humility is often confused with the gentlemanly self-deprecation of saying you’re not much of a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship.

If you really aren’t much of a bridge player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly. This kind of humility is a form of low comedy.

True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else.

[Humility] is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.

Don’t jump for the high seat, in other words, just take the low one. If you get a ‘promotion,’ great! If not, you’re still in a good place. Don’t think more highly of yourself than you should – be honest, be careful, be real.

So. The guests are admonished to develop the gift of humility in Jesus’ little teaching moment. What about the host? What about the big Kahuna, the leader of the pack, the guy who wanted to keep such a close eye on Jesus that he invited him over for dinner?

Well, Jesus’ words to this man are a little bit more difficult, don’t you think? In fact, I think they pretty much go against every natural tendency we have!

Don’t invite people who can invite you back, says Jesus. Do invite the folks on the margins, not the rich guys, not the popular guys, not the people in the center. Go for the ones on the edges.

Sigh.

This feels awfully familiar, doesn’t it? If you’ve read the New Testament at all, this idea, this counter-cultural, unnatural, upside down kind of thinking is just all over the place, isn’t it? To the dinner guests it was this little nugget: “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

That one is tough enough — learn humility and live humility.

But to the host?

To the host, Jesus pretty much re-defines the whole concept of hospitality, and that little lesson feels a lot more difficult to me.

When I think about being hospitable, I think about welcoming family and friends, maybe someone new who’s coming to church or a new neighbor. I don’t generally think about the people who are really on the edges of things.

And what Jesus is describing here? Well it’s definitely the edges. “The poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. . .” Each category outside the center of things in first century Palestine. Definitely not folks on anyone’s guest list.

These were the ones who are not welcome. Anywhere. And these are the people who, in a culture that was so strongly centered around honor and shame, would be the shame-bearers. These are the people who would never be honored guests anywhere.

It’s true that we who live in 21st century USA don’t live in a shame/honor culture that looks like the culture Jesus lived in. We keep our shame more hidden, less obvious. In Palestinian culture, everyone knew where the lines were drawn.

So Jesus says – ignore the lines! Invite everybody into the center! In my house, in my kingdom, there is no shame. There is only honor, honor of the best kind imaginable.

I wonder. In this day, in this culture? Where can we find parallels?

This has been a week of remembering the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Fifty years ago, he helped us re-draw some of those lines of shame didn’t he? Standing on the mall in our nation’s capital, he preached eloquently of his dream for a color-blind culture. And he built that dream directly on the words of Jesus, words like these in the 14th chapter of Luke’s gospel.

Yet we still live in a racially and ethnically and even a financially divided world, don’t we? I’m not just asking you, my friends here at the Samarkand, I’m asking ME, too. I live in one of the most expensive suburbs in the entire nation and it is far from balanced. It is far from welcoming the outsider.

So what does this teaching mean for me? What does it mean for you?

Maybe it starts with how we think about those who are outside our circles. And then, maybe it moves to how we talk about others, and then to what we will listen to other people say about others. Maybe it means being intentional about cultivating the fruits of the Spirit, about practicing humble hospitality wherever and whenever we can.

For you, it might mean things like this: inviting someone new to sit with you for a meal; sharing your row in chapel with people you don’t know well. Maybe even sitting someplace new in chapel from week to week so that others will more easily find a place.

Surely it means continuing to ask God for a humble spirit, continuing to practice love in the small things, continuing to reach out to others around you with grace and warmth.

My mom is a fairly new resident in Heritage Court and she sometimes struggles to remember people’s names. But I’ve gotta tell you, she never forgets to reach out and say, ‘hello.’ She never forgets to introduce me to whomever is nearby. She never forgets to ask people how they’re doing. My mom practices humble hospitality as she is able, even at this stage of her life.

I think maybe it begins by not seeing anyone as an outsider, by refusing to set up edges, by acknowledging the shared humanity of every person we meet, wherever we are, whenever we can.

So, as you head out to lunch today, smile at someone you don’t usually smile at. Introduce yourself to someone new. Let others take the seat you want in the dining room.

Small steps.

I think Jesus calls us to the ministry of small steps: hospitality offered in humility, and centered in gratitude.

Small steps.

Amen.

If anyone is curious about the amazingly joyous wedding we recently celebrated in our family, after several years of sadness and loss, you can see/read more about it here, here, and here. 

Joining this with Michelle, Jen, And & Laura this week.

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Comments

  1. The simple things that your mom does … introducing those around her … is something I value, as well.

    You have me thinking about removing lines and barriers and thinking outside of the box in how I use my home to offer hospitality.

    Fondly,
    Glenda

    • You are clearly one who is gifted with hospitality, Glenda. It shines out of every word you write, every picture you post. And I’m trying to think a bit more outside the box, too, my friend.

  2. Wow…that was quite a challenge to preach on that particular passage in that setting, Diana, but you did so beautifully.

    “I think maybe it begins by not seeing anyone as an outsider…” That’s the key, isn’t it? And we do have to be intentional in our efforts – something I need to be better at.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Yeah, it was a little tough! And I think that mindset is key – and no matter our age or stage, that is something we can always, with the help of Grace, be working on. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. enjoyed your lesson on hospitality.

    i’ve always found practicing hospitality to be a great way to ready my heart for God’s presence, as well… as it involves setting me aside to make another comfortable and welcome.

    visiting this labor day from Ann’s… and glad i popped by.

    • Thanks, Richelle. I don’t usually link up sermons or homilies anywhere, but decided to give it a try this week. Appreciate your reading it.

  4. I was so caught up in your photographs that I had to go back and read the words. I’m so thankful I did. I think I will be taking small steps…

  5. This challenged me today, my friend—-oh, I love people but there are more than food tables where we might desire to sit in the choice seat but need to take the lesser place and wait to see what the Host does, trust Him, be happy with those at the table who “play a good hand.” I have been learning a lot about stepping forward and then stepping back—regardless of where I am (forward or back), I want to reach out with love and acceptance of others. Thanks for the encouragement you shared from God’s Word today.

    • Thanks so much for coming by and commenting, Dea. You’re so right – there are times for both stepping forward and back. Learning what to do when takes practice and discernment.

  6. Thanks for sharing this with the beautiful pictures. The layout on the tables are so inviting.

  7. Thank you, Diana, for bringing humility up close for us to examine, and then strive to emulate. I love this statement that sums up our aspirations concisely: “continuing to ask God for a humble spirit, continuing to practice love in the small things, continuing to reach out to others around you with grace and warmth.”

    Oh, yes, Lord. Thank you for your lessons in humility, thank you for showing us the small deeds that will make a big difference in a person’s life, and thank you for your grace and warmth which we can share with others.

  8. I long to hear Jesus say, come daughter and sit by me!

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