Proper 17C: A Place at the Table

Banquet TableFIRST LESSON:  Jeremiah 2: 4-13

Read the passage from Jeremiah

So, this is part of the “plucking up and plowing down” that we read of last week, apparently.  The second chapter of Jeremiah starts by going back to the time of the Exodus out of Egypt, when God idyllically delivered God’s people from bondage.  But here, God is sort of cross-examining Israel, asking them what exactly went wrong. At first reading, it sounds like the ancestors wandered away from God.  But, reading on, it is clear that they found nothing wrong with God.  The ancestors are being held out as faithful witnesses for God for more recent generations.

These ancestors did not need to ask “Where was God”, because their faith remained in God even through places of wilderness and darkness.  Eventually, God did bring Israel into the “land of plenty”.  But those recent generations who settled in the Promised Land, with everything for which to give thanks, did not respond with thanks.  Instead, they defiled the land and did not seek God.  They stupidly refused what God offered them and were foolish enough to ask where God was when God was right there all along.

Now remember that this is set in the context of the Sinai covenant, a mutual covenant between God and Israel.  But Israel has defaulted on its obligations.  They did not listen to the stories that they were supposed to remember, the stories of the God that led their ancestors out of the wilderness so that the current generation could have what it has.  Even the priests have forgotten the story, the ones who are supposed to lead the remembering.  There is a sharp contrast here between life that is “worthy” and life that is “worthless” (i.e. empty or vain).  Israel has exchanged the practices that construct a God-given life of true worth for a flimsy human structure based on questionable political alliances and religious compromises.  They had, rather, spent their days “keeping up with” those around them and had forgotten what it meant to participate in God’s redeeming work.

Walter Brueggemann has observed that what they had not spoken was the story of who they were as the people of God. They became worthless in serving worthless gods because they had not recounted the story of God’s actions in their history in creating them as a people. Several passages in the Torah instruct the people to retell the story of God’s deliverance in the Exodus to their children. In fact, those instructions are often cast as answers to questions: “When your children ask in time to come . . . then you shall tell them . . .” Even today, in modern Jewish Passover services that celebrate this event as the defining moment of God’s revelation to his people, the story of the exodus begins with a child asking questions.  Instead, they had chosen to turn away from the God who gave them the Promised Land.

The point is that part of being faithful witnesses is to ask the right questions.  That was the problem.  The people and even the religious leaders had quit asking questions.  They had quit asking, as generations before them had done, the question “Where is God?”  Where is God in my life?  Where is God in my family?  Where is God in my work?  Where is God in what I desire?  Where is God in every aspect of my being?  Perhaps we have the same problem.  After all, do we talk more about God or about what we do (or should do) to deserve God or find God or be with God?  This is a call to return, to return to the God who created us, who walks with us, and who continually and forever compels us to be better than we are, to be the one that God calls us to be.  Maybe our biggest problem is that we, like those who came before us about whom the prophet Jeremiah writes, are so sure of ourselves that we have quit listening, that we have quit asking questions of God and waiting for a response.  Or maybe something in our theology tells us that we must act like we’re sure, act like we’re faithful, and never question.

I think that when people find out that you went to seminary, they assume that you have all the answers.  Sorry, I guess I missed the class with all the answers!  The truth is, seminary doesn’t give you answers; it rather teaches you how to ask the questions.  And what you come to know is that faith is not about knowing; it’s more about trusting God enough to not need all the answers.  It’s about asking, always asking the questions so that God can respond in the way that God does.  And it’s about believing that somewhere in the depths of our questions and our confusions is an ever-present God who is God not just over the right answers but all of life itself.

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What for you is the distinction between a life of “worth” and a life of “worthlessness”?
  • What is so important about telling these stories and passing them along?
  • How does this passage speak to us today?
  • Where is God….?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Read the passage from Hebrews

The author of Hebrews, in concluding this treatise (not really a letter), offers guidance regarding the shared life in the Christian community. As members of that community, people of faith are expected to “show hospitality to strangers”, to extol mutual love in these early faith communities. Inns existed, but because they were frequented by prostitutes and bandits, travelers generally stayed with other persons of faith.  They took care of each other.  This probably refers to the love within these communities rather than a broader love of all humanity.  In other words, this was a love of brothers and sisters in Christ.  Perhaps you will entertain “angels”, as Abraham did at Mamre: he looked after three men who were either angels or God himself.

This hospitality is one way that this love becomes real.  And taking care of each other providing havens of safety was the way that the Gospel would be spread.

The writer is also concerned that infidelity and greed can corrupt community life, so those should be avoided. God will look after your needs. (The quotation is God’s words to Joshua, after Moses died.) Emulate the way of life of your past “leaders”, now deceased. Jesus is always the same; the “word of God” that they spoke continues. Be “strengthened” by God’s gift of love, not merely law. Being a believer may involve persecution and even martyrdom; remember and share Jesus’ suffering. Focus on eternal life, not earthly. Offer the “sacrifice” of thanksgiving, made in faith. Lead an exemplary life of faith so your present “leaders” can be proud of you.

Most of us want to live a good life and be good persons.  This passage exhorts us to not neglect to do good and to share what we have.  Sacrifices such as this, according to the writer, are pleasing to God.  The claim here is that one cannot do good alone, but only in the context of this faith community of mutual love.  For this writer, this meant practicing fidelity and sharing one’s resources with each other.  To the writer of Hebrews, worship cannot be real unless it is in the context of doing good and sharing with one another.  After all, we never know who we are welcoming and we never know who we are turning away.  And, truth be told, they are all children of God.  It is through our love and compassion of each other—of all of us–that we truly praise God.  And it is through sharing ourselves with one another, being part of one another, that we know who God is.  Remember, do this in remembrance of me.  It is in that remembering that we receive life.

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does hospitality mean to you?
  • What do you think of the idea of worship as doing good and sharing with others?
  • What would this message mean for our 21st century community?
  • How do we usually look at faith communities as compared to the depiction in this passage?
  • In what ways is our definition of hospitality different from this depiction in this passage?

 

 

GOSPEL:  Luke 14:1, 7-14

Read the Gospel passage

Here Jesus is not just eating with the unmentionables but with the Pharisees, those who are the leaders in the community. To imagine this we must assume that Jesus must have given the impression that he was an acceptable guest, ie. that he observed Torah strictly. Either Luke is making something up here or he is reflecting what was likely to have been the case: Jesus’ greatest conflicts were with those closest to him: the Pharisees. Why? Probably because they felt betrayed by his behavior. He was observant of Torah but in a radically different way. Still, at least Luke believed his manner of observance still made him acceptable to some leading Pharisees.

Here, we are also confronted by another ‘law’. It is not written law, but rather cultural law and was widely held. Meals are too easily obtained by most of us for us to appreciate their major role in the ancient world. Group meals, whether wedding banquets or communal meals, were an important community event. Jesus is present at such a meal, according to Luke, when he makes these comments.

Among the ‘rules’ for common meals of this kind we often find correct order of seating. There is a place for the most important and the least important and everyone in between. Some groups made a special point of reviewing the pecking order of seating every year. It was a huge thing in first century Palestine.  It is reflected in most meals mentioned in the gospels. Disciples reclining beside Jesus would have a special place. John’s gospel puts the disciple whom Jesus loved into such intimate proximity with Jesus. He lay down with his head close to Jesus’ chest according to John 13:23. Jesus had a corresponding position with God before the incarnation according to John 1:18.

We may smile at those people who always insist on sitting in the same pews or seats in church. But in the ancient world, place was guarded by most even more jealously. Society was strongly hierarchical. There was a place on the ladder. For many it was a matter of survival to make sure they either stayed where they were or climbed higher. Position was not just a matter of individual achievement. It was a community value. It was in some sense given by the group. Your value was inseparable from what others thought about you. Most to be feared was to lose your place, to be embarrassed, to be publicly humiliated by having to take a lower place. Losing face could not be shrugged off as easily as for many of us who have grown up in a strongly individualistic culture. Losing face was almost like losing one’s life.

But here, Jesus instructs the would-be go-getter to avoid putting oneself in the position where a demotion might occur. It is better to play it safe and be shifted up a notch than the reverse.  But the Pharisees were the “good” people of the day.  They were the ones who did everything right, who were always righteous followers of God.

The “banquet” is the clue.  In New Testament theology, it is often used to imply the Reign of God in its fullness.  All are invited, but there are not assigned seats.  We cannot work our way into the banquet or work our way up the table.  In fact, we are to include in our tables the poor, the lame, the disenfranchised, and those on the margins.  And, in true Jesus fashion, we’re supposed to give them our seat and not expect anything in return.  Our seat at the banquet is not the clue to who we are; it is whether or not, like Jesus, we will respond with, “come, sit next to me.”

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does this passage say about hospitality?
  • Where do you see yourself in this passage?
  • Who’s on your guest list?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Humanity did not invent God, but developed faith to meet a God who is already there. (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Hospitality invites to prayer before it checks credentials, welcomes to the table before administering the entrance exam. (Patrick Henry)

What do I mean “open to God?”  I mean…a courageous and confident hospitality expressed in all directions…I mean an openness which is in the deepest sense a creative and dynamic receptivity—the ability to receive, to accept, to become. (Samuel H. Miller)

 

 

Closing

Let us be bread blessed by the Lord, broken and shared, life for the world.

Let us be wine, love freely poured.  Let us be one in the Lord. Amen.

(“Let Us Be Bread”, Thomas Porter, The Faith We Sing # 2260)

 

 

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