Sermon for September 1, 2019

Howard K Smith was the chief anchorman for ABC news in the 1960’s. As a well-known journalist he was often the one who interviewed famous people including Presidents of the U.S. However none of the famous people he interviewed made any impression on his young children—after all they were busy being kids. On a family vacation they visited Disneyland. They went on rides, ate sugary food, and in short took in as much of the park as they could. Then they met a celebrity: Mickey Mouse. The person in the Mickey costume squeaked “It’s Howard K. Smith”. His five-year old daughter looked in surprised wonder at her father: she beamed with pride because Mickey Mouse recognized her dad. In his biography Howard K Smith thought about this episode. His daughter admired him because of a cartoon character, and he confessed he enjoyed the admiration! But then he thought how would it sound if his daughter went throughout the neighborhood bragging about her dad because of Mickey Mouse. In truth we all wish to be honored and admired but how shallow that can be if we seek such recognition based on what others may think of us or the clothes we wear, the car we drive or other status symbols.  Howard K Smith would say “How Mickey Mouse is that!” He wrote that he wanted his children’s admiration based on the life he lived, a life concerned for the needs of others.

In the gospel we heard of Jesus enjoying a Sabbath Day meal. The invitation came from a religious leader and the text said ‘they watched him closely”. In the gospel of Luke Jesus caused scandal during mealtimes. On one occasion the religious people at the dinner were shocked that Jesus did not wash his hands before dinner. This criticism had nothing to do with hygiene. It was about Jesus’ neglect of purity regulations. Jesus responded with what could be called a rebuke, accusing his critics of being hypocrite with their concern for looking pure yet forgetting the heart of their faith, practicing justice and the love of God. At another dinner Jesus caused a huge scandal by allowing a woman, an uninvited guest, to anoint his feet with ointment, and to bathe them with her tears. Apparently the host felt the woman was of questionable character and could not figure out why Jesus would allow her to touch him. Jesus replied she was showing much love because she was forgiven. It is a wonder anyone would dare to ask Jesus to come to dinner; nevertheless all the eyes in the home were focused on him. But Jesus was also watching them.

Jesus noticed the guests choosing the seats of honor. This must have been an important banquet not just for the menu but also the opportunity to show just how important you were. In a time before Social media where you can boast about yourself, seats closest to the head table would be a way to show-off your status. So Jesus felt a parable coming on: be careful where you sit at such auspicious occasions. What if you picked a seat closest to the head table only to be escorted further back since you took someone else’s seat, someone more distinguished than you. You would suffer embarrassing disgrace. In a culture called “honor-shame” your chances for community advancement could be ruined. It would be far better to sit in the back row. When the host noticed he would come for all to see and say, “No, no, this will not do, come and follow me to a seat up higher on the status circuit.” You would then beam with honor. Jesus’ parable sounded like good advice for social behavior. Jesus would quote the proverb: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus did not come into the world to teach social graces but to make clear the grace of God. When Jesus heard his own disciples arguing about their greatness and status, Jesus said, ‘look at the world, and how people like to push others around because they think they are more important, popular, or powerful. At a banquet who is greater, the one at the head table or the one who serves. The obvious answers are the ones at the head table, but I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus is the grace of God in the flesh; Jesus is the love of God in the flesh; and he made it clear by his teaching that he is one who came to serve. Shortly after making that clear to his disciples he would be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and appear before Pontius Pilate, and be condemned to be crucified. Even on the cross Jesus served praying for those who were killing him, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He told the repentant bandit crucified next to him who had asked to be saved, saying “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus, we confess, is at the right hand of God, yet in Holy Communion, the banquet of grace, Jesus is busy serving us. In the breaking and sharing of the bread he reveals himself as risen from the dead and with us always. Jesus welcomes all to his Communion table without reservation:  you don’t need a reservation for we come as we are; there is no regard of status or reputation. Jesus welcomes all; Jesus accepts all; Jesus attracts all to come and receive the full course: “my body, my blood, given and shed for you for the entire forgiveness of sins, come and eat; come and drink.

With faith refreshed and sins forgiven, what sort of people are we to be; what sore of church are we to be? Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your relatives, or rich neighbors, 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. Oh, and by the way, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” If people were expecting shocking statements from Jesus, he did not disappoint. Jesus turned the tables completely over with regard to social relations, honor, and recognition. Certainly the blind, crippled and lame were to be subjects of your charity but Jesus went much further: invite them to be full equals, guests of honor at your parties. The tables are turned as well about repayment. It is very human to think about payback and keeping score. I don’t mean revenge, but if I invite you I expect to be on your guest list too. But as followers of the Savior who came to serve, we welcome those who cannot pay. Even in the church there is the temptation and tendency to honor those who can pay, either with talents or treasures. But what about those who cannot pay, are they forgotten?

I and others have been preparing meals for the homeless shelter, Frederick Place in Rhinelander. It is a matter of faith because the residents cannot literally repay. Or do they? Many times I have been humbled which is an important lesson.  For me, just as important as preparing a meal is eating the meal with the residents. Food is served buffet style—fill your plate and then find your place at the dining room table. Usually I am last in line, but more than once I discovered that the residents wait for me to sit with them. This was more than manners, but they waited for me to come and say grace. I am not blessing food, but blessing us in our togetherness. Here are people who are experiencing a stressful time, and they long for blessing.  They need to hear something like we heard in the reading from Hebrews today, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”

I think there is repayment this side of eternal life. If we busy ourselves with worldly standards to gain importance and popularity, we end up disappointed. We can become resentful, envious, and joyless. But listen to Jesus, and be guided by his Word. Invite the poor; befriend the unpopular and unwanted, remembering grace always goes against the grain. But you will be blessed by blessing others with your care and concern. Yes, this can be challenging but again, the lesson from Hebrew reminds us of God’s promise: “I will never leave or forsake you.” And at the resurrection of the righteous you will be repaid. Already Jesus has arranged a treasure in heaven to be kept for you. This is a treasure only God can give,  a welcome at the banquet of eternal life. There is nothing “Mickey Mouse” about that!