Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Philadelphia or Bust

Scripture heard on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost included Proverbs 25:6-7; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; and Luke 14:1, 7-14

“Philadelphia.” This is the Greek word that appears at the opening of our 2nd lesson, “Let mutual love continue.” Philadelphia, love of the brethren (in its old translation). We need something roomier now: love of the brotherhood and sisterhood that we have in Jesus Christ.

“Mutual love” sounds a little calculating: You love me and I’ll love you. Eugene Peterson in “The Message” gives us, “Stay on good terms with each other, held together by love.” There’s still something transactional about “staying on good terms,” but I like the awareness that this staying power isn’t all up to us. Holding us together is a costly and generous love.

How costly and how generous is the point of the Gospel, the Good News. Unconditional, is the Gospel answer: love that cannot be earned or bought, love that must give itself fully. Such love is the subject of both our New Testament portions today.

Writing to a struggling church, the apostle who wrote to the Hebrews encourages what might be called fellow-feeling (another term we wish sounded roomier, to include the more empathic 51% of our population). We get the point: try walking in the other person’s sandals. For instance, pray for prisoners by imagining yourself locked in that same cell. Pray for torture victims by letting yourself visualize and feel their suffering.

In both instances it’s worth noticing that, in those days, this would not have meant praying for strangers. When this letter was written and read, Christians were being sent to prison and tortured just for being Christians. Prejudice worked its destructive way against the followers of Jesus, judging them to be dangerous to the nation, blaming them for putting the homeland at risk, seeing them as conspirators wanting to change the culture, outsiders with their own allegiances. Rather the way some Christians are treating Muslims, two thousand years later, here in America.

The prisoners and the tortured mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews were fellow members of that struggling church. That bond of mutual love, philadelphia, held together both the imprisoned and the free in one brotherhood, sisterhood, and the apostle who writes this letter urges the free members to refuse to let prison walls shut out that brotherly, sisterly love. Imagine yourselves there, he says (with some irony, because they all could be before long); and now, in your freedom, practice fearless compassion as you sit next to the imprisoned and the tortured, in your mind’s eye and your heart’s imagining, and so pray from there, like that. Be part of philadelphia, mutual love, the unconditional love that holds the community together.

Luke’s Gospel brings us teachings of Jesus that answer the question, “How shall we do that?”, from another perspective, that of table fellowship. By his behavior at a Sabbath meal in a Pharisee’s home, and by his parable about a hypothetical wedding banquet, Jesus teaches the meaning of honor. In the Pharisee’s home, Jesus notices how the guests are colliding at the places of honor, presumably the seats nearest the host. To sit next to the President at a White House state dinner is a big deal indeed.

What’s ironic in this social occasion is that all the Pharisees are watching him closely. They’ve heard that he performs miracles, and they intend to see one. At the same time, he is observing them, how they play bumper cars getting at those choice seats. The miracle he has for them today is not what they expect. He wants to heal and convert their egos.

And to do it, he asks them to imagine a wedding banquet, a grander affair than the Sabbath meal before them. It’s no accident that he picks a wedding banquet. In the language of parables, a wedding banquet represents the coming Kingdom of God.

In that kingdom, all relationships are made right. Justice shapes all in that kingdom, where it will be revealed that God has fearless compassion for the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the abused, and the oppressed. In the world as it is, the first are first and the last are last. In the kingdom as it shall be, things are different.

To that end, Jesus coaches his hearers—and not the Pharisees only, but also his own ragtag army of disciples who frequently fight among themselves over who is greatest—Jesus coaches his hearers to learn the ways of the kingdom of God.

Go and sit down in the lowest place, Jesus teaches. Then it may be that the host will come and invite you to sit nearer the head table, who knows? But if not, it is still good for you to sit in the lowest place by your own choice. So much better, says Jesus, appealing to their egos, than being told by your host, “I’m sorry, but you’re sitting in my mother-in-law’s seat, and you must move.” And by then, the only seat left in the well-packed pecking order would be way out on the back porch.

Does this explain why Episcopalians cluster more at the back of the church than in the front?

If what he teaches about a wedding feast were applied to our Sunday gathering—and why should it not, since the eucharist can be described as the wedding banquet hosted by God to honor his Son whose love for the Church is like the love of a bridegroom for his bride?— what might he want to teach us, as we choose where to go when we enter this banquet hall?

It’s natural that we should choose a seat that honors our own needs and comfort. When we’ve done that once, we may just keep coming back to that same seat (that’s very Episcopal, isn’t it?). But might Jesus teach a different way of entering the banquet hall? Might he invite you to look around to see who you feel drawn to sit with? I don’t know that that’s what he might say… who knows? I do know that this mutual love has a togethering purpose. Where we place ourselves can serve that purpose.

I wonder if he might say, “Wherever you choose to sit, be thoughtful of others. Move to the center of a pew, to welcome others around you without their having to climb over you. In that small way, remember that you are a host to the stranger, the visitor who may come to your pew. Set the tone by whatever gesture of welcome and respect that may honor the others around you.

I don’t know if that’s what he might say. Who knows?

But we do know that he teaches us to choose the lowest place.

Were those Pharisees (and am I? and are you?) ready to imagine where that would take them? They were guests, and they heard his parable refer to guests. But the lowest place at a banquet is at the door, washing the feet of the invited. And in the kitchen, cleaning the pots. And in and out through those swinging doors, busing dishes and waiting on tables.

Later in Luke, we will hear Jesus ask, “Who would you rather be: the one who eats the dinner or the one who serves the dinner? You’d rather eat and be served, right? But I’ve taken my place among you as the one who serves… Now I confer on you the royal authority my Father conferred on me…”

The royal, divine, authority to serve. In that passage late in Luke, Jesus tells his Church that he has conferred on us this Godly power to serve so we can eat and drink at his table in his kingdom and be strengthened to take up responsibilities among the congregations of God’s people. We are fed so that we may feed.

There is set for each of us a place at the head table. This one offers just a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. And the place is set for us here so that we may be strengthened to take the lowest place elsewhere, in the world, where we live.

You’re raising a child? Helping to raise a grandchild? You sometimes sit in lowest places.

You’re the caregiver to a spouse, a parent, a neighbor, multi-tasking to keep on your head all the hats you must wear? You are familiar with lowest places.

Are you working on your marriage, or a friendship, at real cost to yourself? You know what low places are, including those where forgiveness is needed.

You’re volunteering to help, organize, lead other people? You get what it is to serve.

And in recessionary times, you’re in a workplace having to do more with less, having to support colleagues without necessarily getting much support? Daily, you’re rising to the challenge of serving a brotherhood, sisterhood.

Mutual love, love of the brethren, philadelphia, faces deep challenges in our nation and our world. Togethering love must exceed the bitter divisiveness at work in our society. Before we attempt to export democracy, a bold, costly, and generous love must disarm the viruses that afflict us, heal the prejudices and phobias that aim to defeat brotherhood, sisterhood.

As we have it in Jesus Christ, that brotherhood-sisterhood is unconditional.

As we have it in the package of Christianity, that potential togetherness is broken and splintered by narrow thinking and tribal fears—as is sadly true of all the world’s religions.

We must practice our Christianity in full expectation that what we hear in the Letter to the Hebrews is true: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” and in full desire that his unconditional love bring forth in us and in our world philadelphia, togethering love.