Sermon
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
“Christ’s Guest List”
August 28, 2016
Rev. Rosemary McMahan

Last Sunday at Fellowship Camp, I used the same text from Hebrews we heard this morning as part of my message about hospitality—not just any kind of hospitality but something called “radical” hospitality. That term comes from a book entitled The Five Habits of Fruitful Congregations, by Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase. In his book, the Bishop outlines five essential, ongoing practices for congregations that want to grow and bear fruit. Those practices are radical hospitality; passionate worship; intentional faith development; risk-taking mission and service; and extravagant generosity. What is telling about each of these practices is the adjective attached to it. Listen again to them. Radical. Passionate. Intentional. Risk-taking. Extravagant. These adjectives also describe the ministry and witness of Jesus Christ, which, I believe, is the Bishop’s point. It isn’t that we do these particular things as a church and as disciples; the importance lies in how we do them.

In our passage from Luke today, we find some actions and some conversation that could be called “radical.”  The leader of the Pharisees himself invites Jesus, the wandering, unlicensed rabbi, to his home where he and his prestigious guests can keep Jesus under surveillance. The twist is that while they are watching Jesus, Jesus is also noticing them.

Jesus, however, is no model guest. Upon his arrival, he first heals a sick man—on the Sabbath, of course, because what could be more radical—before educating guests not his own about where and how they should be seated. Then he goes on to instruct his host about whom the host should have put on his guest list, not friends and relatives, the people this Pharisee would, of course, be comfortable with, but rather the outsiders and untouchables, the unwanted and the sinners. At this point, Jesus’ host must have regretted inviting Jesus at all. So what are we to make of this unusual dinner?

Jesus is not, of course, offering advice from Emily Post or Miss Manners. Nor is he schooling these guests and the host about how to play the prestige game more shrewdly. Instead, Jesus, as usual, pays more attention to people than to religious rules, as he notices who sits where, who is serving whom, and who is missing before correcting those present. In doing so, Jesus points out to those gathered that honor is not gained by seizing prominence or by the glitter of guest lists. Honor must be given. The first standard offers the reward of social position, which was important in Jesus’ society where prestige depended on how one ate, with whom one ate, and where one ate. But the second standard that consists of humility and inclusion offers the reward of God’s favor, the only honor that really matters.

This text invites us, as both a congregation and as individual disciples, to ask ourselves what it is that we notice. What is it that catches our attention? Is it the size of our congregation, the financial statement, and what influential names are on our membership role? Or are we looking at others with what Presbyterian preacher Stan Ott calls “Jesus’ eyes”? Do we notice, and then reach out to, strangers? Are we sharing what we have with those who have less? Do we bother with the person standing alone? Are we aware of those who are missing? Who and what dictates our own guest lists? And then comes the essential question:  What are we doing in light of what we see?

I have a true story to share, one which doesn’t happen around a dinner table but that does illustrate what it takes to look at others with “Jesus’ eyes” and to put someone unexpected on Christ’s guest list. A dozen years ago, perhaps even a bit longer, our son was a student at Auburn. His best friend, Wade, from high school was also attending Auburn. Wade was a tall, gangly young man with an infectious smile, and he and Joseph had several “adventures” together in their teenage years.

One night after a long day of classes and work, Wade went home to his trailer where he lived with another college friend. He and his roommate started to wrestle to let off some steam, as guys will do. Wade’s roommate caught him in a throat hold, all in play and completely unaware, as Wade and his family also were until after the autopsy, that Wade had a weakened aorta which collapsed under the weight of his friend’s arm. At 19, Wade dropped dead, and his friend, also 19, was charged with manslaughter. Two families’ lives were changed that night.

That story is tragic enough, but Wade was his widowed mother’s only son. His father had also died suddenly from an allergic reaction to a bee sting when Wade was a little boy. One might think that Wade’s mother had every right to demand an eye for an eye, a young life for a young life, to hold onto blame, self-pity, and resentment, and to cut this classmate out of her life forever. She could have pressed for a trial; she could have injured the roommate’s school career and perhaps his life. But instead, she put him on her heart’s guest list and invited him in.

This grieving mother defended the young man. She refused to press charges. All legal action was dropped. Then, she added him to another guest list when she invited him to be a pall bearer with our son. She invited him into the privileged and grieving group of young men who were also Wade’s friends. The most amazing sight of radical hospitality I have ever witnessed was when I saw the roommate break down beside the hearse at Maple Hill Cemetery, and I watched Wade’s mother go the extra mile to wrap him in her arms while he wept. She chose to notice this young man, as Jesus would, and to demonstrate on that week day who it was she worshipped on Sunday mornings. This kind of love, this kind of compassion, and this kind of humility are what Jesus asks of all of us.

This morning’s scriptures are about overturning the practices and standards that society expects in order to bring into reality the topsy-turvy, radical, intentional, risk-taking, passionate, and extravagant kingdom that Jesus proclaims is near.  We are called to look at our guest lists—the guest lists of our hearts, of our lives, of our homes, of our church, of our social circles—and not only examine who is on those lists, but be honest about who is not. Who is the potential guest we are called to forgive?  Who is the potential guest we are called to treat with dignity?  Who is the potential guest waiting to be recognized as worthy?  Who is the potential guest seeking the embrace not only of our arms, but of Christ’s?  And are we willing to extend an invitation?

After all, as Jesus once pointed out, it isn’t very hard to love those who love us in return. Even sinners do that. The Good News is that the radical love Christ has for us is enough for us to extend that love to others.

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