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Sermon – 9/19/04
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 14:  1-14

The text today comes from the fourteenth chapter from the gospel of Luke:

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 might come to you and say to you give this person your place and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.  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 invited him ‘When you give a luncheon or 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 and the crippled and 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'.

Rob Coles is a child psychologist at Harvard University and is very highly regarded, a respected man in his field for his opinion and writings and the like, and you wouldn’t know it by his demeanor.  He learned a critical lesson as a student preparing for his career when he met Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Workers Movement.  You may be familiar with that, the Catholic Workers Movement was an effort to reach out to people in inner cities, to the poor and the homeless and to be the voice of the voiceless.  Here in Eugene there’s a Catholic Worker home that is dedicated to helping young women, especially pregnant teenagers.  In any case, my favorite image of Dorothy Day is a poster.  I don’t have it, I wish I did, but I see this picture of Dorothy Day in her eighties, seated, and it was at some kind of protest for the rights of farm workers in California during the days of a boycott there, and standing, looming large above her, over her, are these two big burly Sheriff’s, who are there to protect the peace and the law, from the “threat” of this little frail grandmother.  Such was the power of Dorothy Day.  At any rate, Coles decided that he wanted to meet this modern day saint.  By the way, as I understand it, the Catholic Church has begun the process to officially declare her a saint.  And so he went to a shelter where she was working, and he was taken to a room with two women in conversation.  He immediately recognized Dorothy from her pictures, the other woman he took to be a client of the home – her clothes were torn and dirty.  Her speech was slurred, her eyes were red.  Dorothy took no notice of the visitor as she continued to engage this other woman in what seemed to be a meaningless conversation, interspersed with drunken rambling and irrational ranting.  Coles waited impatiently for his opportunity to meet and talk with the famous woman, and he wondered how long would this hopeless charade of a conversation continue?  Finally, after the drunken woman had calmed down and a thick silence followed, Dorothy said “would you mind an interruption?”.  Then she turned and went over to Mr. Coles and said to him:  “Are you waiting to talk to one of us?”  As if maybe he was there to talk to the drunken woman.  And Coles says with those 3 words, she had cut through the layers of self importance and a lifetime of bourgeoisie privilege. 

It’s easy, frighteningly easy, to think of ourselves as more important than someone less fortunate.  Surely you must be here to talk to me.  Studs Terkel, author and radio broadcaster in Chicago, who was known as the voice of the working poor, tells the story of helping a woman get her unemployment after she had been laid off.  After spending 2 days in the unemployment office waiting in line after line only to be told she was waiting in the wrong place, she had the wrong papers, she had the wrong form, brought the wrong materials with her, she finally sought out Terkel, who has studied law but had not become a lawyer.  He did know how to dress like one.  He went out and got himself a suit and a suitcase, went with her to the unemployment office, never said a word.  Just stood behind her, looking over her shoulder, catching the eye of the bureaucrat, who would look at him rather nervously and shuffle through some papers, and low & behold, within an hour they had processed her claim and she had received her unemployment.  

Doctor David Hilpicker, Director of Joseph’s House, a home for homeless men who are living with AIDS and HIV in Washington D.C., spoke at the Church of the Savior there, and he said this:  “I’ve been working as a physician with poor people since I first entered rural practice almost 20 years ago.  Working in the inner city of Washington over the past 11 years, I’m familiar with the long history of poverty in our country and the more recent abandonment of the poor by our society.  But returning from Finland, I’m aware of something still newer in the country, something that has been building imperceptibly for several years – a change in our national consciousness which chills my soul.  We are no longer satisfied simply to ignore the plight of the poor, we must also punish them for their poverty.  Our society, I believe, is beginning to see the poor as less than human and to hate them”.

Is it true?  I hope it is not, I fear it is.  The prophet Jeremiah, lamenting over the destruction of Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E., cries out:  “Is there no balm in Gilead?”, in the old King James, and the more modern:  “Is there no medicine in Gilead?  Why has the health of my poor people not been restored?”  Traditionally, there are two answers given to that question.  The first, that there is no suffering without a cause.  Therefore the poor, the oppressed, must be suffering because of some sin, because of a lifestyle, because of poor choices that they made.  It is something that they brought upon themselves.  Or, that God hears the cries of those who suffer and will restore their fortunes in the next life if not one day soon.  

But Jesus offers a 3rd possibility in this passage this morning.  That the suffering of the unfortunate reflects neither on the sins of the sufferer nor on the actions of God but rather that such suffering reflects on us, and our failure to include them.  He turns the expectation of the judgment day upside down.  Instead of the poor, you see, who are vindicated in the end, it will be those that shared their wealth with the poor with no expectation in return.  The reign of God, says Jesus, is where dinner invitations are based on means, rather than making connections and winning friends.  The reign of God is when you don’t have to make yourself important because you know your worth, because you have felt it in the community of God, and the community of love.  The reign of God is where rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Muslim, all can sit at the table together in common fellowship.  Norman Pittinger, says to be in heaven is not be removed form the world, but to know the profound reality of divine working in the world. 

I arrived last night for the Interfaith service of prayer and reflection, as I was listening on the radio and the Ducks were 20 points behind.  But they were staging a comeback.  And it was with great reluctance that I left the radio in order to come in and check on things here.  I just want you to understand the sacrifices that I make for my church J.  But I did.  And I came in, and a Native American group—drummers—had begun drumming early, preparing this space for the worship service.  Their picture is on the front of the community section of the paper this morning.  And there was just this incredible energy you could feel – as soon as you walked in it just felt like being in Autzen stadium.  And I felt the power of that, and was uplifted by that, and for a moment totally forgot the game.  And then I went back to my office to check on the score, I mean to get my robe for the service, and coincidentally just happened to hear that the Ducks had caught up and were only 6 points behind, and they had gotten possession of the ball, and were headed toward the end zone.  I went back with great confidence.  Well, the drumming had to come to an end.  So did the Ducks.  And I later discovered it was about at the same time, you see.  That the kick went right, wide, and that pass was intercepted, and I thought to myself 'oh my goodness', if they had only continued the drumming for 5 more minutes, we would have made it!  

Now, I say that in jest of course, but on this I am deadly serious:  I will match the power of the 500 people who were gathered here for that service for the 50,000 gathered in Autzen stadium anytime, anyplace.  It was incredible.  When we opened the house of God to all people, including not only people of different faiths but of different class and status, race and language, age and ability, there is incredible power that gives me tremendous hope for the future of our world.  

To be the church means that we are not called to model ourselves after the world out there, but to model ourselves after the reign of God, here.  And that means that we are to include those with no thought of what they can do for us, what they will give back to us.  It means not making ourselves more important than others—seeing in every person a child of God.  It means being an example for others, a light for the world.  It means seeking justice, not charity, for the disadvantaged and the poor.  It means being the voice for the voiceless, giving sight to the sightless, restoring heart to the heartless.  It means speaking truth to power, and hope to terror, and peace to violence.  It means returning good for evil, love for hate, forgiveness for wrong.  It means, people of God, not just living lives of individual morality and goodness, but creating here, a community in this time and place, where the reign of God is visible, tangible, real and present to our world.  A true banquet, a feast of God, where we are blessed not by what we would see, but by what we give, and who, we serve.  

The time has come to send out the invitations and to prepare the meal that the community of God, the body of Christ, will be living and working among us again.  May it be.

 


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