A sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Cyrus Gomez on Unsplash.]
I have to admit that I have never found today’s gospel reading terribly inspiring.
I mean, I can absolutely get on board with the message of offering hospitality and welcome to those whom society usually excludes…
and I’m good with the exhortation to NOT try to push ourselves forward and grab all the glory.
But I get really uncomfortable with the way Jesus goes about getting this message across.
It’s like… he’s sort of given up on people following his teachings for the right reasons and just decided to appeal to their basest motivations.
Don’t push yourself forward… because you might end up getting publicly shamed. Go for false modesty instead, so that you can coerce a gratifying ego boost out of your host.
And don’t just show hospitality to be people who can invite you back… that’s small potatoes! Go for the big reward, be generous to impress God instead. I PROMISE, it will be worth it!
Who even IS this? When did Jesus become a smarmy televangelist trying to sell people on how the life of faith was a good investment?
This is NOT what I expect to hear from Jesus. It’s not what I WANT to hear.
I want Jesus to take on the whole transactional model of social relationships, not acquiesce to it.
I want him to just reject the whole premise that the way we treat each other is supposed to be based on some complicated calculus of what we can get from each other and each person’s relative worthiness and unworthiness.
Except, maybe a part of me DOES want to hear the sales pitch. Maybe all of us do, a little bit. Because… it’s what we’re used to. It’s the way we are used to functioning. By force of habit and societal norms, our ears are tuned to hear a message of “here’s what you have to do to come out on top.”
This came home to me during the last session of adult Bible Study that I led as the Family Camp Chaplain at Crossroads last week.
The Bible story for the day was the Parable of the Sower – the symbolic tale Jesus tells about a farmer indiscriminately scattering seed that falls in all kinds of inauspicious places in addition to the “good soil” where the seed can actually sprout and produce fruit.
As the group talked through our interpretations of the parable, it was clear that many of the participants had only ever heard this parable as an exhortation to “be good soil”… to make sure that they were doing all the right things and avoiding all the wrong things to earn God’s favor.
In other words, they were hearing the teaching as a “worthiness” parable.
Now, I’m big on teaching that there is never only ONE way to interpret a parable.
Parables are designed to invite us to discover new truths by examining an apparently familiar story from multiple angles.
So, I have to admit that there might be SOME valid ways to hear this parable as an exhortation to cultivate in our own lives the qualities of good soil.
But parables are also designed to violate our expectations, and that’s where the core teaching is generally hidden. In the case of THIS parable, spoken to an AGRARIAN society, the shock is in the carelessness with which the farmer spreads his seeds in all kinds of unlikely places.
It’s an image of unearned generosity, where the “worthiness” of the soil, it’s likelihood of producing a crop, seems irrelevant to the farmer’s willingness to share his seeds.
And that’s why that Bible study – and the instinctive way that so many people saw the parable as a straight-forward message about being “worthy” – is relevant to today’s gospel.
Because today’s gospel, like the parable, presents a powerful teaching about generosity;
but it’s being taught to people who are used to operating by a system of worthiness.
And, apparently, Jesus knows his audience.
Most of the meal scenes that we get in the gospels feature Jesus with the less-image-conscious members of his society: tax collectors and sinners; or crowds of peasants; or his own closest friends.
But this scene takes place in the house of “a leader of the Pharisees,” where, moreover, “they were watching him closely.”
This is not a group that is already open to learning from Jesus. They are more likely to be looking for a slip-up than a lesson.
They aren’t just going to take Jesus’ word for it that their whole system for understanding how the world works is flawed.
So, Jesus finds a way to show them the error of their ways even within their whole system for understanding how the world works:
They want to operate according to complicated systems of honor and pay-back and who-deserves-what? FINE! Even in THAT system, it’s still better to treat others with grace and generosity.
Even if he can’t change their hearts, maybe Jesus can get them to change their behavior.
But here’s the thing… I think I know my audience too:
And you all are NOT a group of Pharisees looking for how to avoid Jesus’ teaching and authority.
You are a community who have the open hearts to be inspired by something deeper than self-interest.
So, I want to offer you a teaching on generosity that does NOT appeal to the base motives of self-promotion and eternal reward.
I want to share the fruit of that adult Bible Study at Crossroads, after we had wrestled with the parable, and the example of extravagant generosity, and the idea that God maybe isn’t so worried about us proving that we’ve earned our chance to grow.
At the end of our study, I asked the participants to reflect on the idea of generosity in an unconventional way – by using senses and images to try to capture what the experience of giving and receiving generosity actually feels like.
And I used their responses to put together a collaborative poem (inspired by the poem Breathing Peace by Christina Norcross)
With gratitude for that inspiration, and for the thoughtful, sincere siblings in Christ who shared in creating this vision, this is the message I hope you can hear about Jesus’s longing for his people to live lives of generosity:
If generosity was something we could hold in our hands…
It would feel like someone else’s hand held in mine.
Or like the arms of a toddler greeting me with a welcoming hug…like the shape of love, close enough to touch.
It would feel light so we could easily lift up our hands to offer it to others.
But we could still feel it’s reassuring weight…
like a bouquet of flowers ;
like a gift chosen and wrapped with care;
like a bowl of stew prepared by a loving family member;
like enough coins to buy you a cup of coffee and talk with you while you drink it;
like the trust of your hands gripping mine in a moment of need;
It would hold all the power of a planet rotating among the stars spinning out a gravitation force field of love.
And we could divide it into many parts and still have enough for ourselves.
If generosity was something we could breathe,
It might be cool and refreshing, like mint.
Or else warm, and comforting, like the scent rising off fresh apple pie or bread hot from the oven.
It might remind us of home, like the smell of a simmering meal, or the melting of beeswax candles.
Or, it might call us outside…
to fill our lungs with crisp mountain air, or the fresh inhale of a wide open landscape.
We could breathe it in like sunshine, or the magic of campfires, or like a riot of colors dancing through the air all around us.
It would fill our lungs with life like a deep breath in the forest.
And it would smell like whatever reminds us of times and places when we have felt welcomed, secure, understood, and affirmed.
If generosity was something we could taste…
It would taste like umami - flavorful and savory.
And it would also be sweet and fresh -
like honey crisp apples,
and wild honey dripping from the comb,
and fresh, wild berries picked on a trail.
It would be bountiful, like an over-flowing cornucopia,
And it would call us to try new things like an international meal.
But it would also remind us of the simple joy of a glass of cold, clear water.
It would be flavored with the taste of homemade anything:
or warm pita bread,
or mulled hot apple cider,
or a cup of tea at a friend’s house.
It would taste like love, baked in a pie.
And we would want to share the recipe.
If generosity was something we could walk to…
There would be a welcome mat,
and the people we love would be there (and also our dogs).
We could walk there without any pain.
We could tell others about the trip so that they would want to take the journey too.
The path would guide us through God’s generous creation.
It would be a paradise of grassy meadows, dancing waterfalls, and sheltering trees.
It would be a sunlit clearing in a dark wood with comfortable places to sit and rest.
It would bring us to the water, where we would walk barefoot on soft sand, relishing the gentle tug of the incoming tide.
Wherever we walked, we would travel the road with Jesus,
and it would lead us home.
Let it be so. Thanks be to God