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Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA September 1, 2013.

15th Sunday after Pentecost; Year C (RCL): Jeremiah 2:4-13; Ps.81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

       A Facebook friend of mine posted just yesterday that she was tired of doing people favors and cutting them slack without getting anything in return. I responded by saying, "Oh honey, do we have a Gospel lesson for you this Sunday! Come to church!" This is a funny thing about our electronic social media. You never know when a gospel message will hit!

       In another example, I think it’s rare that a week goes by without one of my Facebook friends posting something about the number of hours of their life that they’ll never get back after surviving time in one of the seven circles of hell known as the DMV. Whether you move from a church rectory on Seminary Road to a house on Davis Avenue, both being in Alexandria, or you must consolidate two households from Pelham, NY and Potomac, MD into a new home in Northern Virginia, You. Must. Go. Through. The. D. M. V. And you will wait in line.

       It is a part of our culture that we must stand in line and wait. If we have money to deposit or a check to be cashed, if we want to buy tickets for a movie, a show, or a sporting event, if we need to pay respects to the bereaved at the funeral home, or are eager to offer congratulations to the bride and groom and their new families, we stand ... and wait ... in line. It’s only fair, and for most of us, it is what it is.

       Now that I think about it, the DMV, although irritating nonetheless, has that sneaky system to mask how long you must wait so you don’t know exactly when your number will come up. I haven’t figured out exactly how that system works, but once you fear you’ll never be called, then your number comes up. B-243 now being helped at Window 7. B-243 now being helped at Window 7.

       Sometimes however, waiting in line isn't fair. Sometimes people will cheat. Chrissie will tell you this is a pet peeve of mine. Some of them cut in.

       Just last Friday, a minivan that had suffered a gasoline spill out here in the left hand lane on Quaker before the Janneys Lane/Seminary Road intersection, and gummed up traffic for a while. I was returning to the church, was waiting, and watched how dutiful drivers, seeing the issue ahead began pulling into the right hand lane to continue down Quaker Lane. Yet a number of cars (too many in my own mind) continued in the left hand lane all the way down to the stoppage, with some drivers then using their turn signal, and others not, pushing to get ahead of those waiting in the longer line.

Sometimes those who of us who are at the end of the line feel like the “least of these” that St. Matthew refers to, that we are forgotten, that we truly are the last, even though we are waiting patiently, being considerate, doing what is right.  

       In the Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus tells a parable about pride and humility, and hospitality and grace. He has been invited to share the Sabbath meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees, who is something of a big deal in both religious and social circles.

       It’s curious to understand why upright religious folks keep inviting Jesus to their dinner parties, because Jesus always seems to stir up trouble while in their midst. At one dinner gathering in a different Pharisee’s house, a disheveled, disreputable woman crashes the party, throws herself at Jesus’ feet, and begins to weep. The host of the part is appalled and gets very upset, yet Jesus believes that she has done something beautiful in honoring Him.

       Today, as we hear Jesus is invited into the home of the Pharisees’ leader for a meal; you just know there’s going to be an issue of some sort. Jesus arrives, makes some small talk with the house help, and then watches carefully how guests begin to jockey for position with one other for positions of honor. We all recognize the delicate skirmish which ensues when folks try to get the good seats next to really important people. Just like people trying to improve their position in traffic.

       Jesus watches this a while, and then he tells his parable, calling to question the pretentious conduct of all the guests. He says, “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; ... 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. ... Go and sit 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.”

       Then Jesus utters that great saying, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

       Here’s the surprise: Jesus comes to stand at the back of the line with us, far behind the forgotten of society, far behind the unimportant, far away from the VIPs. And then He calls us all to turn around. With Jesus, what had been the back of the line is now the front. Jesus isn't about being fair. Jesus changes things for us. It is what it is.

       Before he leaves the party, Jesus also tells his host, ‘Next time you offer nice table fellowship, don’t invite your rich friends and your pleasant neighbors, so that they might return the favor someday and invite you to one of their lovely parties. Rather, open your doors and welcome to your table the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized. Then you will be blessed, because they can’t repay you, for you will be rewarded at the rising of the righteous. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

       Jesus makes an appeal for hosts to mimic God’s gracious and generous hospitality to the poor and broken. That’s the kind of hospitality that the author of Hebrews calls Christians to demonstrate in the world. Hospitality to the strangers that come into our lives.

       Those same strangers could be angels, for many times we entertain angels unaware. Like the strangers, the angels that Abraham greeted at the oaks of Mamre. Abraham greets three visitors and invites them to stop and stay. Stay and wash your feet. Stay and eat these cakes we prepare for you. Stay and feast on this lamb we set before you. Stay and rest before you continue on your way.

       Abraham expected nothing in return. Hospitality in that nomad culture was a given. Even then, there was a practice of ‘paying it forward.’

       But Abraham and Sarah did receive something in return: A promise. A promise that when the strangers return, the now barren Sarah will have borne her own child. The first of that promise of God’s children that would ultimately number more than the stars in heaven or grains of sand on the desert.

       To being Invited and to be Inviting to others seems to say something about the nature of the Church. For it is by God's Grace through Holy Baptism that we have been invited to and take our place at the banquet table of the Lord. And, when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, humility and mutual love continues among us, then the Church can be more inviting still.

       What would it look like if we hosted a community banquet here at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill for those in our broader neighborhood who don’t usually get invited: the homeless, young people, the elderly, the unemployed, single mothers, and the poor, the disenfranchised and the marginalized. How creative and realistic might our conversations be with our guests? What might it mean, truly, in our context to be a blessing to those who, as Jesus said, “Cannot repay you?”

       I've preached before about how the technological advances of connectivity and availability, coupled with the generational "disconnects" that can accompany these new gadgets and toys, have had an impact on our social nature. The heritage of passing down wise, honored, time-tested virtues and values is in danger of becoming a lost art. Sharing virtues such as humility, respect for elders, the art of hospitality, servanthood, and making peace, and let's throw in good old-fashioned common sense, can get lost in the missteps and miscommunications that follow generational shifts in both focus and attitude. It seems to me that our focus today is on improving this technology of connectivity without enhancing our actual ability to communicate or improving just being in communion with one another. How do we retrieve our social graces?

       We can begin by focusing on the Gospel message. Jesus took time to not only pass along long-lasting, time-tested, and still prudent wisdom; he also raised up the incredibly gracious and life-giving values of the kingdom of God. For the humility it takes to seek the lowest place at the grand event, or the spirit of hospitality it requires to set a banquet for the "least of these," are some examples of the radical-yet-relational compassion that we followers of Jesus Christ are called to share.

       Jesus always reaches across boundaries to bridge gaps, and seeks to heal completely the wounds of heart, mind, body and soul. Christ is the embodied Word of God, inviting us to imitate the faith and to walk the talk. Let us strive as the Body of Christ, the Church, this church, Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, to be the hands and feet of Jesus. May we walk ever so humbly with our God and share the generous abundant goodness the Lord has showered upon us. Whether it is online through Facebook or other social media, or in line while at the DMV, or somewhere stuck on the road in traffic, be blessed and share that blessing with others. May our hands carry Christ’s Love into the World.