Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Hospitality: according to Jesus or according to Hyacinth Buckét?: a sermon (Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14)

In our gospel lesson, Jesus went to the home of a leading Pharisee to eat a meal on the Sabbath.  This in itself may be startling to anyone who was taught the old (and highly misleading) Christian stereotype that the Pharisees were ultra-conservative, “fundamentalist” wowsers who were implacable opponents of Jesus.  Obviously in this case, Jesus had a sufficiently good relationship with a leading Pharisee to be invited to dine with him on the most significant day of the week.

Anyway, on this occasion, Jesus saw his fellow-guests trying to finesse the seating plan, choosing for themselves those seats which were, as the British used to say, “above the salt”.  In response to this, Jesus said a few things about human behaviour whenever we are either the guest or the host at a dinner-party, comments which go far beyond mere table manners.

In regard to being someone’s guest, Jesus said:

When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, 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 honoured 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.

As well, in regard to being someone’s host, Jesus said:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, 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.

Much of this is echoed in our lesson from Hebrews, where we are challenged:  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

All this is the direct opposite of the philosophy of hospitality that we see represented in that well-known television hostess Hyacinth Buckét.  Hyacinth was known for her elegant entertaining, particularly her “candlelight suppers”. 

Hyacinth Buckét was never one, however, for inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”.  Instead she always invited the notable individuals in her community – the elite, the crème de la crème - to attend her “candlelight suppers”:  particularly anyone who was in any way titled.  And, if someone titled wasn’t available, the mayor or the local MP would do, or else a retired military or naval officer, or – if all else fails – the vicar.

And, whenever Hyacinth was invited to any function, she could be counted on to try to wangle a far more advantageous position in the seating arrangements than she was originally allocated.

Back to our lesson, however, nothing of what Jesus said here is about cultivating the artificial humility which is very easy to find among many religious people.  You know what I mean, the continuous breast-beating (“I’m sinful. … I’m bad. … I’m horrible.”) which is far-too-common among many religious people.  It’s one reason why unhealthily low, and often dangerously low, levels of self-esteem are often found among religious people.  Jesus wasn’t trying here to encourage his followers to compete with each other in the humility derby or the low self-esteem stakes.  (“Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, I’m humbler than you are!”)

Instead, Jesus was doing something far more positive.  He was encouraging his disciples, both then and now, to view ourselves as being linked with all humanity, with people of all sorts and conditions, and to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to our celebrations, not out of any sense of condescension, or of superiority, or even of “outreach”, but because they are all part of the same basic humanity of which we are part. 

This is an important thing for us to note on a day which many Christian churches observe as Refugees Sunday.  All people are part of the same basic humanity as each other, even when politicians try to tell us we’re not.

In a sense, there are two ways to give and to receive hospitality:
  • There’s the Hyacinth Buckét style of hospitality.  Hospitality is given and received in order to promote oneself and one’s own self-interest.
  • Then there’s the Jesus style of hospitality.  Hospitality is given and received in celebration that we’re all part of the same basic humanity as each other.

The feast we shall share today is all about this Jesus style of hosptiality. 
  • The single most Christian thing that we as Christians do when we worship God is to share food. 
  • When we celebrate this sacrament of Holy Communion, we affirm that Christ gives himself to us most profoundly when we eat and drink in community.
  • In the Uniting Church, we celebrate an open communion.  All are welcome and encouraged to participate.  There are no barriers.  In this way, we try – however imperfectly - to reflect the example of the great hospitality of Jesus.

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.