Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Honest Wealth, Dishonest Wealth

Scripture for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost includes Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; I Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

Could it be that the cardinal sin is squandering what belongs to God? That appears to be the message Luke wants to send home with us—drive home to us—in this parable he presents.

This one reminds us of other parables Luke has sent our way, as the Gospel writer remembers and reassembles the pithy, puzzling, potent little stories Jesus uses to wake us up to ourselves and to God.

Remember the rich fool who built more barns to warehouse his crops, thinking he had retirement all figured out, only to find he couldn’t count on the actuarial tables when God turned the tables and required his soul?

Remember the prodigal son who couldn’t wait to get out of Dodge, leave behind the demands of farm and family, hit the party circuit and let the good times roll?

Today’s parable is cut of the same cloth. Each of those earlier stories hinges on a moment of urgent interior decision. “I know what I’ll do,” says the rich fool: “I’ll build larger barns to hoard all that my wealth keeps spinning off, so I can keep it.”

“I know what I’ll do,” figures the prodigal son who stinks from the pig-sty he has been reduced to calling home: “I’ll go home, make good with Dad, and resume my old life.”

“I know what I’ll do,” the dishonest manager concludes as he sizes up the mess he’s in now that the owner has reviewed the audit: “I’ll make the rounds of my master’s debtors before they hear I’ve been sacked, and I’ll reduce their debts. That will leave everyone scratching his head wondering what to make of it, but I’ll be welcomed in those debtors’ houses as the one who saved them a bundle.”

It’s hard to find much that’s commendable in any of these urgent decisions. Each is driven by anxiety: the rich fool has crops that need storing before they spoil, the prodigal son desperately needs to find a better way than running away, the dishonest manager is fired with no prospect of a good recommendation. These are all crossroad moments of crisis, aren’t they? The solutions these three fellows find suggest that, left to our own devices, we have a certain instinct to take care of ourselves… but God wants us to aim higher.

All these parables contribute to the sense Luke expresses: wealth is dishonest. Wealth is dishonest if it persuades its owner that it belongs to him or her. That mirage of belonging deceives us into forgetting that whatever creative abundance we experience comes to us more as God’s gift than as our own accomplishment or deserving. Much more.

The old Hymnal has in it an old hymn that declares a timeless truth caught by the words of John Greenleaf Whittier: “All things are thine; no gift have we, Lord of all gifts, to offer thee; and hence with grateful hearts today thine own before thy feet we lay.” There is where a spiritual practice of stewardship begins: by declaring God’s ownership of all creation, including all creativity, we reconsider who owns what we call wealth, insist that it must be God, but realize also that material wealth doesn’t deserve to be high in the list of assets that matter to God or to us. Just high enough to be useful, high enough (and here I’m quoting our opening poem) “to spend as currency of love and life in making strangers friends”…high enough to “lavish, spread, fling” wide to serve God who is “prodigal with justice, peace, and love.”

Yes, the cardinal sin is to squander what belongs to God—except on what matters high to God. Then why so many parables about money and wealth? Perhaps because, as Eugene Peterson puts it his version of Luke in The Message, “If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; If you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things. If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store? No worker can serve two bosses: He’ll either hate the first and love the second or adore the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and the Bank.”

In other words, our financial stewardship is at the entry-level to our full practice of stewarding the riches of life given to us by God. We all need to remember that, when October rolls round and we find ourselves face to face with a pledge card from the church for the new year. That will be about a lot more than funding the budget needs of this parish. It will be about our interior encounter with anxiety and faith. It will be about listening to God’s encouragement to aim higher than that certain instinct to take good care of ourselves. It will be about the subtle dishonesties of wealth and poverty, having and not having. It will be about taking the prerequisite course in order to build the skills needed to take the electives, and among those skills are trust, gratitude, courage, generosity, and ingenuity.

Michael Hudson has his tongue in his cheek when he opens his poem by asking, “How would we use the wealth of God if it were ours today?”

It is ours today. Justice, peace, and love get named by the poet for the short list of God’s wealth assets. It’s easy to grow a longer list:

Imagination (which we squander when we keep doing the same old things that haven’t done much good in the past, but we keep wishing they would, and they’re so familiar)…

Freedom (which we squander when we are silent in the face of injustice, hatred, and violence)…

Ingenuity (increasingly squandered by deadlocked politicians and the special interests that paralyze our nation from tackling what we desperately need to reform)…

Vitality (squandered when we make choices that isolate people from community, deprive people of what best feeds them, or further toxify the world around us)…

Compassion (squanderable in every choice not to notice, not to count, not to care, not to include, not to invite)…

And wisdom, which to squander we have only to stop listening, stop paying attention.

That is still a mighty short list of the wealth that belongs to God, and is ours by God’s gift. I’ll bet you can add to it. In fact, this Gospel urges you to do that.

And I believe Luke tells so many stories about the lowest and poorest form of wealth precisely because he knows that the fullblown kingdom of God has come near to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This nearness sets us at a critical crossroad where urgent choices are to be made, choices by which we take humble part in the gracious dynamic of that kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. Our choices position us to be among the wealth assets of God… or not.

I hear Luke telling Jesus’s stories like this one today to motivate the honesty, the ingenuity, the imagination, the vitality, the compassion of believers. If non-believers find clever ways to accomplish the agenda of this world, it is for believers to exceed such shrewdness with creative ways to bring on earth the grace of heaven—in Hudson’s words, “in partnership with God.. trusted to waste, to lavish, spread, fling far too wide the riches of God’s grace.”

Thomas Friedman wrote recently about touring General Electric’s huge research lab in Niskayuna. He found there what he expects we would find at the research centers of most global companies where scientists and engineers from dozens of nationalities are using broad-based out-of-the-box collaboration to push out the boundaries of medical, manufacturing, and material sciences—let me quote Friedman: In these places, “optimal is the norm and every day begins by people asking, ‘What world are we living in, and how do we thrive in that world?’”

Well, we who by baptism are citizens of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, whom we know and love and serve as the way, the truth, and the life, whose Spirit feeds and leads us, forms and informs us… What if we learn to ask daily, “What world are we living in, and how do we help the kingdom of God thrive in that world?”

There is how not to squander the wealth of a day, the new day we are given as pure gift with each sunrise. If we all are asking these questions, unity will dispel anxiety. And our daily living will become an art form that releases into this world more energy than it consumes.

And won’t that be a miracle, many times over?

(Thomas Friedman’s piece “When Complexity Is Free” appeared in the September 15th issue of The New York Times. Michael Hudson’s meditation on Luke 16:1-13 appears in his book “Songs for the Cycle”, Church Publishing Incorporated, 2004.)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Four Birmingham Girls

Scripture for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost includes Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; I Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Across the nation this weekend, congregations are holding in precious memory four young girls who lost their lives in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, by a domestic terrorist, aided by his cell group of Ku Klux Klansmen. It was a crude bomb, many sticks of dynamite with a timing device, stashed under the steps of the church, near the basement.

At the moment of detonation, twenty-six children were walking into the basement assembly room to prepare for worship on the theme, “The Love That Forgives.” Four girls were killed, the other twenty-two were injured. The bomb exploded at 10:22 a.m.

At that moment this morning, our tower bell will be tolled four times. Whatever it is we’re doing at that moment will be interrupted by the friendly familiar sound of church bells around us, meant to remind us of the horrifying, unthinkable destruction that interrupted worship there that morning. The explosion blew a hole in the church’s rear wall, destroyed the back steps, and shattered all but one stained-glass window—one that shows Christ leading a group of children.

In the terms of today’s Gospel, here were four lost lambs, each of them laid on the Good Shepherd’s shoulders to be brought home, but not to their homes and their families in Birmingham, and not rejoicing.

In the terms of Luke’s Gospel, these girls were lost because so many righteous persons felt they needed no repentance. Racial hatred in the white community, aimed at blacks, seeped down from the top: Governor George Wallace, a week before the bombing, told The New York Times that to stop integration, Alabama needed a “few first-class funerals.” He was dead wrong.

The loss of those sweet girls marked a turning point in the United States’ civil rights movement and contributed to support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As insidious as was the evil that destroyed these girls, even more incisive was the resulting awareness that, to quote Dr. King, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Slowly but dramatically, the righteous who needed no repentance discovered that they did.

In Cynthia Levinson’s book about the Birmingham Children’s March, she tells the story of Charles Morgan, Jr. “The day after the church bombing, (this white lawyer) gave a talk to a club for young white Birmingham businessmen. He told them, ‘The death of those four little girls was your fault as it was the guy who made the bomb… Most of all, blame all who looked the other way. Every person in this community who has in any way contributed to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb. We are a mass of intolerance and bigotry.’ Five weeks later, deluged by death threats after these remarks, Morgan and his family left Birmingham for good.”

It was no accident that the Klan targeted 16th Street Baptist Church. It had been a rallying point for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963, and was where the students who were arrested during that year’s Children’s Crusade were trained. The church was used as a meeting place for civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth.

Tensions escalated when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress on Racial Equality became involved in a campaign in Birmingham to register African Americans to vote. And during that spring, civil rights demonstrations succeeded in persuading city business leaders to integrate public facilities in the city. The Klan saw but refused to read the handwriting on the wall.

But the tenacious grasp of Jim Crow showed itself in the travesty of Alabama’s legal system that ensued. A witness identified the fellow who placed the bomb at the church, but the suspect was charged with possessing a box of 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit, and received a hundred-dollar fine and a six month jail sentence. Other suspects were named, but not prosecuted. No federal charges were filed.

The case was reopened in 1971, when a new Attorney General of Alabama requested the FBI files on the case and discovered that the agency had accumulated evidence against the named suspects that had not been revealed to the state prosecutors by order of J. Edgar Hoover.

The seemingly forgotten case was finally brought to court in 1977, when the chief suspect was sentenced to life imprisonment; he died in prison in 1985.

It wasn’t until May of 2000 that attention returned to three additional Klansmen. One was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. A second died without being charged. The third had his trial delayed two year because he was found to be mentally incompetent, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison where he died in 2004.

At the funeral for three of the girls (one family chose to have a separate service), Dr. King spoke about life being “as hard as crucible steel.” Eight thousand mourners attended, including eight hundred clergy of all races. No officials from the City of Birmingham came.

In the arts, Spike Lee directed the 1997 documentary “4 Little Girls”. Langston Hughes wrote the poem “Birmingham Sunday”. Novelist Sena Jeter Naslund wrote “Four Spirits”, later adapted as a play.

The people of Wales raised money to rebuild the 16th Street Church, and gave a stained glass window depicting a black man, arms outstretched, reminiscent of the crucified Jesus.

And on May 24 of this year, President Obama signed a bill awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. The medal was given to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to display and lend to other museums.

A number of musicians have told the girls’ story in song: Bruce Springsteen, Phil Ochs, Kate Campbell, John Coltrane, Nina Simone. Perhaps the most famous is Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday”, sung by his sister in law, Joan Baez. In just a few moments we’ll hear this song, sung by Celia Twomey.

I think we’ll want to keep some silence after that song. Then I’ve prepared a responsive reflection to serve as our Prayers of the People today. It’s printed on a half sheet insert (see below). It’s constructed of quotations from the writings of Martin Luther King, and has some brief silences built into it.

(Much of the content above comes from the Wikipedia entry for “Four Birmingham Girls”.)

The Prayers of the People today take the form of a responsive reflection. Quotations from the writings of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are woven into the lines of both leader and people. Where you see three sets of dashes, these mark opportunities to pause and to listen to what has just been said.

Leader: Holy God, we hold in our memory four little girls whose violent deaths fifty years
ago showed us that human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…

People: every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and

Leader: Their deaths in the Sunday School of Birmingham’s 16th Street
Baptist Church convinced us that he who passively accepts evil is as much involved
in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.

People: He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

Leader: Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

People: In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence
of our friends.
--- --- ---

Leader: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair serve
us as Sunday school teachers today. One of their lessons is that we must develop
and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive
is devoid of the power to love.

People: There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we
discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.

Leader: Darkness cannot drive out darkness;

People: only light can do that.

Leader: Hate cannot drive out hate;

People: only love can do that.

Leader: I have decided to stick with love.

People: Hate is too great a burden to bear.
--- --- ---

Leader: Compassionate God, we hold these four little girls in memory, and we grieve.
We must accept finite disappointment…

People: but never lose infinite hope.

Leader: Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism
or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.

People: We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together
as fools.

Leader: I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless
midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brother-
hood can never become a reality…

People: I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

--- --- ---
Dr. King’s quotations appear on www.brainyquotes.com and were arranged in this format by
The Rev. Peter Elvin for the Four Girls Jubilee observance.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Syria: America's Response?

Scripture for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost includes Jeremiah 18:1-11;Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Before I’d had a chance to read these propers, I’d been wondering how we would move from Gospel to sermon, given the preoccupying subject hanging overhead: America’s response to Syria. There’s barely a need for segue from this portion of Luke, where kings wage war with kings, but not before considering the cost. Who could have expected the Revised Common Lectionary to provide such a platform today?

What does need noticing is the rather puzzling summary teaching, insisting that no one can become a disciple of Jesus without giving up what he or she clings to. Including, it seems, the expected primacy of one’s own nuclear family and the status quo of the settled life.

Equally deserving of attention is what our therefore empty hands are free for, and that is carrying the cross of Christ.

Before we are done with this sermon, we will need to consider whether these themes of giving up what we naturally cling to, and carrying the cross of Christ, help us see what is at stake in our engagement with Syria’s civil war.

Engagement with any country’s civil war, especially any country in the Middle East, can be a fool’s errand, especially if it’s done with the assumption that any state or head of state outside the war zone can influence the outcome. In his news analysis last Sunday, David Sanger wrote, “No United States intervention would alter the long-term balance of power in the Syrian civil war. That was the bitter lesson of the Iraq and Afghan wars for Mr. Obama: any American president who thinks that, by dint of force or example, he can change the nature of societies is bound for a comeuppance…

“Thus Mr. Obama’s insistence that any action in Syria has to be divorced from the civil war that has torn the country to shreds. Instead, the president wants to fight on territory more directly linked to American interests: the notion that once weapons of mass destruction are used in ordinary conflict, the potential for disaster—for America, and certainly for its allies and partners on Syria’s borders—rises dramatically.”

“What is the source of our first suffering?” This foundational question, asked by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, was answered by the poet Seamus Heaney: “It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak.” Our first suffering lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. Unless we speak up, unless we pursue what Heaney called “the silent things within us,” tyrants and tyrannies go unnamed, unopposed, and dangerous.

“It matters if nothing is done,” insisted Secretary of State John Kerry, “not least because of the signal it sends to the Iranians, the North Koreans and others who are measuring Mr. Obama’s willingness to enforce other red lines on far worse weapons.”

And so, says Sanger, our President identifies a policy explainable to a war-weary America, and announces a way to exercise his “light footprint” strategy, fighting from a distance with drones and cyberweapons and one-time “shock and awe” missile strikes that are designed to not get us mired in another Middle East nightmare.

How convinced are you that bombing selected targets in Syria will get us anywhere good? Will it be a symbolic use of power that Syrian President Assad can hijack simply by surviving and so look all the stronger to his constituents and his allies?

Will a “light footprint” intervention send the right message while keeping us out of Syria’s civil war, or will our act of war catapult this internal fratricide onto a world stage? And might that describe the objectives of Middle Eastern militarists who would love to see the United States drawn in, bankrupted, and isolated—in high drama, for all the world to see?

It is never the wrong moment to ask, What would Jesus do? In this season commemorating the power of peaceful protest, what would Dr. King do?

But let’s get the tenses right. What did they do? Neither of them inflicted violence. Both of them absorbed it in their own lives.

And another change in tense is important: What does Jesus do? There is no light footprint in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ: he comes to stay. And he deals with our realities, accompanies human beings as they deal with their realities. While we’re not likely to imagine him condoning violence, he doesn’t seem shy illustrating his teaching about his kingdom by asserting that a king’s command must marshal enough readiness and enough support to accomplish the king’s purpose.

It is no accident that in the history of redemption neither Jesus of Nazareth nor Martin Luther King was given an earthly kingdom to rule. Theirs is a kingdom in but not of this world, a gracious arrangement that frees them to give us all that we treasure about them. It is Barack Obama who occupies the Oval Office, and sits in the situation room of the White House as Commander in Chief.

He has made his decision, and now calls upon an enormously dysfunctional Congress to ratify that decision. I assume he does this to flush out into the open and resolve once and for all questions about the authority and funding necessary to bomb Syria.

So he turns to the legislative branch of government and urges them to debate. He knows that this opens the door to counter-proposals that would amend the action he has decided on. When the houses of Congress debate, they have on the table before them legislation, and at least in theory the purpose of debate is to perfect the resolution before them, making a law or an action fit the realities, the exigencies, that govern how those legislators perceive the world.

Columnist Thomas Friedman has a two-part counter-proposal: First, increase the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army, including the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons it has long sought. Second, put Assad, his family, and his Cabinet and military on notice that they will be brought before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, and cause them to consider a future in which their only international travel will be to North Korea and Russia. Friedman calls his proposal “Arm and shame.”

Here is his argument: “A limited… cruise missile attack meets (President) Obama’s need to preserve his credibility. But it also risks changing the subject from Assad’s behavior to ours and—rather than empowering the rebels to act and enlisting the world to act—could make us owners of this story in ways that we do not want. ‘Arm and shame’ is how we best help the decent forces in Syria, deter further use of poison gas, isolate Assad and put real pressure on him or others around him to cut a deal. Is it perfect? No, but perfect is not on the menu in Syria.”

In a similar spirit, another syndicated columnist ends his recent piece, “May God bless—and, if necessary, forgive—the United States of America.”

There’s humble acknowledgement that any military option—launching the weapons or shipping the weapons—appeals to us as being what Jesus would do, or what Dr. King would do.

Let’s go back to the teaching we’re given today. No one can become a disciple of Jesus without giving up what he or she clings to. Including, it seems, the expected primacy of one’s own nuclear family and the status quo of the settled life. And what our empty hands are free for is carrying the cross of Christ.

In our face-off with Assad’s Syria, are we called to give up something we cling to? Surely not our contempt for the use of weapons of mass destruction, and surely not our commitment to preventing their use. For some, perhaps for many, it may be a newly-honed isolationism that must be given up. For some, perhaps for many, we may need to give up the fear of making a mistake in the calculus of the Middle East (where every option appears to be a mistake), and pray that at least we make a creative mistake, surrendering our distaste for ambiguity and praying for courage to see and make the best choice from among those few which our real world presents. A certain sacrifice of certainty may be the shape of the cross we must carry.

As Congress returns from its August recess, we will be challenged to give up our bleak pessimism about our democratic institutions and dare expect them to function on our behalf, and on our behalf as global citizens who recognize the urgent value of international law in creating what essayist Ross Douthat calls “a stable, rule-based, multilateral world order.”

He says that President Obama must remind us that, even with the mistakes that have been made, his predecessors have bequeathed him “a world that—no matter what the headlines suggest—is more at peace than at any point in human history… a world with fewer invasions, fewer war crimes, fewer massacres than in the past. And if we want to keep it that way, there has to be a price for crossing lines.”

Now, this week, the Congress—and, indirectly, we the people—must discern what lines we ourselves must, or must not, cross, and why. To imagine that there will not be a price to pay for doing so (for doing either) is neither realistic nor in touch with the Gospel call to be open to truth, including hard truth. But gracious also is truth that makes us free to confide not in our own pretended strength, but in the strength of God (the only true superpower in our universe), free to allow the reshaping of our obedience on the spinning wheel of history where God the potter reforms, reworks spoiled vessels to new purpose.

I will never forget the Christmas when the camel, a recumbent camel made of plaster of Paris many decades before, fell and shattered into a hundred pieces. And there, in the largest chunk, was a perfectly recognizable angel, kneeling. It hadn’t met the maker’s mark, but rather than waste it he built upon it a magnificent camel.

We want to be on the side of the angels. It may be our calling to be the camel.

By the very nature of debate, we will feel divided in the days ahead, perhaps broken and shattered. We must pray for grace to find our greater unity, not a conformity of opinion but a comprehension of truth and justice and love and mercy, and carry that unity into our thinking, our conversations, and our actions, and be bound together by its thick strength.

(The several op ed pieces cited here—and Francis X. Clines’ reflection on Seamus Heaney-- appeared in the September 1st Sunday Review section of The New York Times.)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

You Host the Banquet

Scripture for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost includes Jeremiah 2:4-13; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

When you are invited to a banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host, and your host comes and says to you, “Give this person your place.”

Oooh…. Not a good thing to happen to you.

Academic communities (at least those with long histories) once upon a time had formal dining halls, refectories, and at one end, raised on a dais, would stand the high table. My seminary had one when I arrived at Chelsea Square in 1969. Faculty members and graduate fellows sat at it—well, some faculty, older professors mostly, while the younger sat at student tables. Even though we were all graduate students, if you weren’t a graduate fellow you wouldn’t make the mistake of trying to sit at the high table.

Unwittingly, I came close to that experience at another place and another time. It was during a retreat at a monastery in the early 1980s, before moving here. There was still a lot of formality and antiquity around that refectory, including a high table—though it wasn’t elevated, so perhaps it’s better to call it a head table, where the Superior of the order sat, and where he called the shots as to who else sat there with him. Though meals were often in silence, with a brother reading aloud from an edifying book, this evening may have been a feast day when conversation was allowed; and the Superior had his agenda, prompting him to say to one guest and another, So-and-so, sit here—ensuring that a strategic conversation could take place, with him.

I entered the room and went to the central space among the tables. The Superior was there, greeting guests, so I went to him and after saying hello I stepped to one side while he continued being the host. Then I heard him say, “Peter, come and sit at my table.” I was surprised to hear that, but obediently I went to the remaining chair at that table; whereupon the Superior looked at me and asked, “Why are you sitting there?” The Peter he had in mind was standing to his other side.

To be honest, I can’t recall exactly how this played out, except that I felt just like Jesus foretold in his parable: disgraced. I may have voluntarily relocated to another table (that “lowest place” Jesus mentions) or it may be that the Superior, after making a humorless hash out of this little snag in his plans, may have officiously urged me to stay put (they’d find another chair somewhere). What I do remember is that there was no conversation whatsoever in the little cluster of people I got cloistered with at that meal. If it was the head table, the head was turned in one direction only.

What I’ve remembered from that evening is my relief at leaving that room.

It could be that Father Superior was giving much-needed pastoral care to the guests within his orbit. It could be that he was greasing the gears of creating friends of the monastery. It could be that he was indulging his own desire for conversation with like-minded people he already knew and enjoyed. All three possibilities are entirely natural and commendable.

But the words of Hebrews chapter 13 do not come rolling to mind as I recall my experience of that meal. “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The injunction is actually to put yourself in the sandals of your guest. Just as caring for prisoners requires of us an empathy “as though (we) were in prison with them,” so meeting and hosting strangers calls for that same power and skill and blessing of empathy, feeling-with the other.

Do you think of your coming to church as an opportunity to be obedient to this call to practice mutual love? Blessed are those who do, and blessed are the strangers whom they greet and befriend and share what they themselves already have: a familiarity with this remarkable community of people, a respect and affection for the foot soldiers in this ragtag army of disciples, a place in the life and mission of St. John’s, given to us by God, to be done for God and by the Spirit of God.

What might happen if we learned to think of ourselves as hosts of this banquet? Would we let anyone who comes to our house a stranger remain one for long? If you imagined having your own head table—the people you will give your attention to today—will you welcome to your circle today at least one or two people who you don’t yet know?

Believe me, I know the objections.

I’m an introvert. I never know what to say. Give them a warm greeting. Give them your name, let them give you theirs. Trust where it goes next. Have a simple conversation. If they’re new, thank them for coming. If you’ve just discovered they’re 8:00ers who overslept, or 10:00ers with their golf clubs in the back seat, say it’s good to get better acquainted.

I’m wiped out, weary, and am here to get my tank refilled. And maybe what has you on fumes is all the hosting and caring that you do at work, at home, as a volunteer… But what comes to you here comes through doors and windows of your soul that you open. And did you catch the prophet Jeremiah’s sharp words for people who dig out cisterns for themselves, only to find they’re too cracked to hold water? By contrast, he reminds us that the living God is to be met in encountering the fresh and the new, that God is a fountain of living water to be splashed around in, not a commodity measured by the cupful but a deep freely flowing wellspring.

And perhaps the most intimate objection: I’m afraid. What if my approach is rejected? And what if the stranger I’m facing is noticeably different from me? (Doesn’t fear always get us focusing on differences?) I’m old—what do I have in common with a first-year at college? Or, as we heard Jeremiah express his fear last Sunday, I am only a child—what do I bring?

So we need that coaching from Hebrews: imagine yourself in the sandals of the stranger you face. You’re afraid? And he or she is not?

And the very otherness of experience and viewpoint and opportunity is the treasure revealed when the banquet we host is blessed with such variety as Jesus values for his guest list: the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. These are essential, he says, for his banquet. And we should be afraid of difference?

What will happen if we all believe ourselves, and behave as, hosts at this banquet?

More and more people will believe that they belong at this table, and that, unlike any high or head table, this one has no limit as to who has a seat, who belongs.

No one will fear feeling alone at coffee hour.

Circles of people in conversations will never close but always be open to draw in one more person, always one more person.

No one will fall into the gulf between the announcement of a parish picnic and the enjoyment of a parish picnic.

People will more quickly find their next calling to serve, their next adventure in ministry, and the grace to do it encouraged, supported, and blessed.