Sunday, August 29, 2010

Fourteenth after Pentecost

RCL-1 Proper 17C
Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16;Luke 14 :1, 7-14

Grace to you and peace on this Sunday morning. Not the last Sunday of the summer, as we have technically almost still a month to go, but the last Sunday of our St. Andrew’s summer schedule, with our services returning to the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. pattern next week. An early sign and anticipation and foretaste of the fall season to come, like those few days of cooler weather we had this past week.

The refreshment of a season of new beginning. Family vacations pretty much over. Schools back in session. Round Up Sunday here at St. Andrew’s in just a couple of weeks. Always a good energy at this time of year, I think. Certainly with prayers that the season ahead can be for us all a time of a “fresh start.” Which is always good. Don’t know if we necessarily want to think back to the resolutions we may have made for ourselves at the beginning of the new year. But certainly this can be a moment like that. To think about how we are living. Our values, priorities. Our good habits and bad habits. Who we are now. And the kind of people we want to be. The fresh start of a new season just ahead.

Both the New Testament readings appointed for us this morning may be helpful as we begin to think about these things.

In the letter to the Hebrews there is almost this recipe, a critical passage always in the evolution of Christian ethical theology--a description in a few pastoral sentences of what Christian life and truly human life might look like. Not exactly rocket science. In the famous New Testament reading from the fourth chapter of First John we are told, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God, [his essential character and nature] and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” Here in Hebrews this morning that gets unfolded a bit for us—what that love looks like in action.

Hospitality to the stranger. Prayer and care and actually identification with the prisoner, and by extension all those who either because of their own actions or as a consequence of events beyond their control are oppressed and suffering. Not that we judge them, but that we remember them. Think about what it would be like to be in their shoes, and then act in relationship to them as we would in their situation want others to act toward us. Respect and honor the marriage relationship, the character of the family. Avoid this grasping after money, this obsession with material things. It doesn’t say don’t work hard and don’t enjoy the fruit of your labor, but it does say, learn to be content. A state of mind. A state of soul. Let go of the agitation that somehow “just a little more” is necessary before I can be at peace. Respect those in authority. That doesn’t mean follow blindly. But respect them. Our elders. Our mentors. Those who have been placed in positions of authority and responsibility—even those of the opposite political party. Where they are faithful, imitate their faithfulness; where they seem to be unfaithful, surround them with your affectionate prayer. Remember God, and give him praise for every day and every blessing. When you can see what it is, do the right thing, even if it’s not to our personal benefit. And this, from the “Everything I need to know I learned in Kindergarten”--share. Share.

My grandmother had these recipe cards, and on so many of them there would be simply a list of ingredients, with the notation: place in hot oven, cook until done.

In the reading from St. Luke we have these two little parables, I think Jesus here pointing us in the same direction as the Letter to the Hebrews.

These banquets such a critical social custom in the ancient Middle East—and I think in the modern Middle East as well. An institution designed to reflect and reinforce the values of the wider society. If you know who you are, then you know where you’re supposed to sit. That’s the background of the first parable. And if you know who you are, you know who you’re supposed to invite to your daughter’s wedding. I’m not quite sure how to unpack all the apparatus around these two stories, but the central image is the same in both stories, which is that when we live with God’s values, the values and hierarchies of this world get all jumbled up. The last are first and the first last.

We gain status not by how high we sit at the table, but by how low. Which is backwards. We will be honored most not by the wealth and grandeur of our friends, but by their poverty and social disgrace. It’s all jumbled up.

My friend, the wonderful Biblical scholar and teacher, Dr. Kenneth Bailey, reminds us in his books and his lectures that the gospel is always cruciform. Which is to say that it presents to us both directly and often in deep patterns of indirection and metaphor, the message and power of the Cross. Which is, in his words, the healing of our broken humanity and our broken world through the unexpected demonstration of costly love.

We come nearer to a communion with Jesus and his Cross, I believe, to a personal appropriation of the grace he makes possible for us, as we wrestle in our own lives with what I think we can only understand what we have this morning as countercultural and I might even say unnatural. Supernatural. The unexpected demonstration of costly love.

The call to a life of holiness and peace, self-giving generosity, fidelity, compassion. Certainly unnatural to this fallen world. The upside down ethic of the Prayer of St. Francis. The upside-down ladder of success: filling ourselves up by emptying ourselves out.

A world out of order. You only have to read the papers. And what it takes to bring it back into order begins here. In the back of our minds on a summer Sunday morning, at the beginning of a new season. A time of reflection, setting priorities, thinking about goals, about what changes there need to be in our lives, what new directions. To say Dr. Bailey's line once more this morning. The unexpected demonstration of costly love.

Bruce Robison

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