UMCOR Sunday – March 22, 2020

Spoiler Alert #4: Hospitality Calls for Humility”
Luke 14.7-24 – the Great Banquet
Sunday, March 22, 2020 (Fourth Sunday of Lent)
Reverend Sara L. Isbell

GREETING:
CLICK HERE to view Pastor Sara’s Video Greeting

Good morning, Church! Welcome to worship at Wesley United Methodist Church in Bloomington IL.  I’m Pastor Sara Isbell, and I’m glad you’ve tuned in to join us this morning. Like most other churches, Wesley is practicing “social distance” but “spiritual closeness” during the Coronavirus outbreak and the spreading of COVID-19.  We are worshiping together from home, praying together from home, checking in with each other at home by phone, online and through social media.  If you would like to connect with Wesley Church, and practice spiritual closeness with us, please continue to check this website www.wesley-umc.com or send us an email at connect@wesley-umc.com.  We’d love to send you our daily devotions, update you on ministry opportunities and outreach to the community, and hold you in prayer. And if you are able to support our ministries financially, we encourage you to do so by giving through our website or mailing in your check.

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March 22, 2020:
CLICK HERE to view Today’s Video Greeting

Today is Sunday, March 22, and we are about halfway through the season of Lent.  This year Pastor Justin and I have been preaching from the gospel of Luke, using a series we’re calling, “Spoiler Alert!”  The idea behind Spoiler Alert is to tie together these gospel stories, mostly about invitation and hospitality, with books and movies that you can read or watch and discuss with family and friends.  We had no idea when we planned this series, that people would be spending so much time at home, and would potentially have plenty of time to read and watch films with their families – but it’s worked out pretty well.  And “Spoiler Alert” is, of course a terrific title for a series that culminates in Easter morning, when God pulled off the most amazing surprise-ending plot-twist…. But I’m not going to spoil it for you yet.  You’ll just have to join us on Easter.

(We begin our worship by lighting a candle… deep breath… and prayer)

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CHILDREN’S SERMON:

CLICK HERE to view the Children’s Video Sermon

I’m going to start with a bit of a children’s sermon, because some you listening have littles with you this morning, and they’re important at Wesley Church, too.  So let me ask the children worshiping with us today: Can you show me the table where you eat your meals?  I’ll wait right here while you get up and go point out the place where you usually sit.  Where is your chair?

Oh, that’s wonderful.  I’m glad you have a special place to sit when it’s time to eat.  I wonder, do you always sit in that same place, or do you sometimes switch around with other members of the family?  I know in my house it seems like we always sit in the same seats, every day, every meal, and nobody ever moves around very much unless there is a special guest in the house, and then somebody might have to give up their seat for the guest.  Has that ever happened to you?

Is there ever a “Kids’ table” at your house at dinner time?  When I was growing up and we went to visit my grandma and grandpa for holidays, sometimes there were so many people that we didn’t all fit at one table, and so the kids all sat together at a smaller table on that side of the room, while the grownups sat at the bigger table at this side of the room.  Does that ever happen at your house? Do you like the kids’ table?  Maybe some of my cousins didn’t like having to sit at the kids’ table; they thought they were missing something.  But I always liked sitting at the kids’ table, because there was a lot more laughing going on there than at the grownups’ table. Sometimes there was silliness, and sometimes there were spills, and sometimes we just laughed for no reason at all.

But whether we sat at the grownup table or the kids’ table, the fact that we got to sit at the table at all meant that we were part of this family, and we were going to get fed.  I liked being at the table when I was growing up.  We told stories; we shared the sad and happy moments of our day, and we always prayed together.  Can we pray together before we move on with the sermon?  Maybe you’ll want to stay and hear the bible story, or maybe you would like to do a special favor and go set the table for lunch so everybody in your house has a place to sit, while the grownups stay and listen to the sermon.

Let’s pray: Thank you God, for the table at mealtime. Thank you for the food we get to eat, and the conversations we get to have, and thank you for the people we get to share meals with.  And thank you, God, that we have a special place at your table, and that we know we belong.  Amen.

Now for the bible story.

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SCRIPTURE
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Luke 14.7-24 – the Great Banquet
CLICK HERE to view Sara’s Video Sermon

Today’s scripture comes from the gospel of Luke chapter 14:  the Parable of the Banquet.  It’s kind of a long passage: half is a story-of-Jesus, half is a story-about-Jesus.  In other words, part of the parable he “tells”; the other part he “does.”  But both halves are about hospitality and humility and how it is that people sit at the Table together.  I’ll read the first part first; it’s from Luke 14.7-15.  You can read it with me if you want, if you have a bible at home or a bible app on your phone.  The scene takes place at the home of one of the Pharisees.  Jesus has been invited to dinner – possibly as an honored guest, but more likely in order that the Pharisees can watch him to see if he makes any mistakes.  The story begins as Jesus enters the dining room and looks around.

7 When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. 8‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

12 He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ 15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’

May God add a blessing to our understanding and living out of the Word.

So, the scripture is about hosting a meal – but not just any meal.  It’s about hosting a big dinner party. A large gathering of people who are invited to come together and sit, side-by-side at a huge table and break the bread and pass the serving bowls and share the food.  That’s what I thought the sermon would be about, too, when I wrote the first outline, about a week and a half ago. But oh, what a difference a week makes.  Now, suddenly, talking about large groups of people getting together for dinner, and breaking bread together sounds completely out of place, doesn’t it?  Like a strange custom from a different place and time.  That’s just not something we are doing these days.

But the words of Jesus are always relevant and always wise.  You just have to get below the surface to see what he’s really teaching.  So in today’s passage, he’s not talking about food so much as about hospitality and humility – values which are every bit as relevant today as they were two weeks ago, or two thousand years.

Let me start with Humility

The word “humility” comes from the Latin word humus, meaning “ground”; it means to be grounded, lowly, modest.  It means not thinking of yourself as higher, more important, more favored, than anybody else.  Jesus uses the dinner party as an opportunity to teach about humility, starting from the moment he enters the dining room and, Luke says, “saw how the guests chose the places of honor.” It might help us to know that first century Middle-Eastern seating arrangements were a really big deal – they were a statement of status with relationship to the host. Sitting at the head of the table meant you were the guest of honor; sitting at the foot of the table meant you were among the last invited.  Your physical distance from the host at the table indicated your relative importance to the master of the house.

Jesus says to the dinner guests who are jockeying for position, even if you believe you’re the guest of honor here, don’t presume.  It would be very awkward to seat yourself up at the front of the room, only to be asked in a hushed tone to please move down the row.  Seat yourself at the far end, Jesus advises, humble yourself, and then if you were meant to be elevated, someone will come and tell you to move up – and you will be honored.

I was at a clergy meeting a few months ago at which the bishop was speaking.  And I know the bishop pretty well; we serve on committees together, and I even have his cell phone number if I really need it.  So you know, he and I are pretty good buds.  And at the close of the meeting, when he had finished his presentation, he said, “Sara, would you come up here and offer a closing prayer? And you know, I’m always willing to offer the closing prayer, but really I was thinking how cool it was of him to invite me, out of all those clergy, some of whom have a lot more years, and a lot more experience than I, but still, you know, the bishop and I are buds.  So I smiled and stood up and straightened my jacket, and started up toward the podium – and then realized he wasn’t looking at me – there’s another pastor named Sara who was sitting over there, and she was the one he invited.  And so then I had to turn around and go back and sit down with all my colleagues watching – Justin was even there, too – and I felt really embarrassed.  Presumption isn’t a virtue.  Humility is.

And so is Hospitality.  We know what that word means, too: “hospitality” means inviting others in and sharing what you have – hospitality is an act of grace.  But when you invite, Jesus says, extend that grace beyond the people who have already received it, and reach out to somebody who hasn’t.

I’ve been really interested as we’ve worked on this Spoiler Alert series, in the story of P.T. Barnum, founder of the “Barnum & Bailey Circus,” the man known as, “The Greatest Showman on Earth.”  Barnum was from humble beginnings, but nobody who knew him would accuse him of “humility.”  His sideshow productions and performances featuring unusual people – “curiosities,” he called them – exploited their oddities but really turned the spotlight on himself.  Like the Pharisees, we might say he was full of “mixed motives.”

And yet, some would say he gave outcast and marginalized people a place on the stage, a moment in the sun, brought them out from the shadows and made them stars.  In the 1870’s, when “diversity” as a value wasn’t even on the national radar, Barnum gave his performers a name, income, a career, community, maybe even, in a sense, a family.  He extended hospitality to those who had not received it before.

So what about us, and what about today?  This Corona-crisis season we are in right now can bring out one of two responses in us.  We can hunker down and circle the wagons and protect what’s ours and stock up on what we need for ourselves … or we can look around us and think of others whose needs may be greater than our own, and find ways to offer hospitality and help.

  • For example, it’s always fun to bring cookies to a neighbor who you know will refill the cookie tin and send it back with something even better inside. But Jesus says, send the cookies to somebody who doesn’t even know how to bake, who doesn’t have a working oven.  Send the cookies to somebody who’s hungry.
  • It’s fun to order a package to surprise somebody you love, and have it delivered to their door; maybe they’ll do it back for you. But Jesus says, send that delivery to somebody who can’t do it back for you – somebody who really needs what you have the ability to provide.
  • It’s fun to call somebody on the phone who always has a good story or a funny joke, somebody who lifts your spirits and makes you glad you called. But Jesus says, call somebody who needs to talk because there’s nothing particularly funny or uplifting going on in their life right now and they really need a friend.

Jesus’ lesson in this morning’s gospel reading has everything to do with the situation we’re in today.  If you are in a position to help somebody else, especially somebody else who can’t pay you back, don’t wait to be asked; just do it.

13When you give a banquet [Jesus says], invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

The Pharisees, who had invited Jesus to dinner – again, likely for some mixed motives – struggle with Jesus’ teaching.  Their focus is not so much on hospitality and humility, but holiness and purity.  They want to invite people who are righteous, responsible, and whose goodness God has rewarded with prosperity.  That’s safer, easier, and protects their reputations.   One of the dinner guests pushes back a little bit to Jesus’ instructions, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!,” he calls out.  In other words, let’s not privilege the poor, Rabbi.  Let’s not show favoritism to the fallen or condone the contaminated.  Blessed is anyone who deserves a place at the table of the Lord, who is worthy to eat bread in the heavenly kingdom! I imagine Jesus just looking at him for several long, uncomfortable seconds, thinking, that’s not what I meant at all.  True hospitality does favor the fallen and the unfortunate.  What keeps a person from the table is pride.  And so he tells this parable – the part-two of today’s scripture.

16Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” 18But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” 19Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” 20Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” 21So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” 22And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” 23Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” ’

So this is the story of a man who gave a great dinner for his rich friends; set the table, put out the appetizers, poured the wine, and then sent his servants to collect all the guests.  But all his important friends, it turns out, were too important to set aside time for this dinner.  One by one, Jesus says, they all began to make excuses.

I have purchased a field, a yoke of oxen, I’m a newly married manPlease accept my regrets, but I’m too busy for your dinner. Deeply disappointed, the host sends out a new round of invitations.

Jesus is telling the Pharisees who are so confident in their own righteousness and so scornful of people on the margins, that their pride and self-centeredness endangers their relationship with the God who created everybody: righteous and unrighteous alike, rich and poor, church member and atheist, and loves them all the same.  By choosing their own pride and privilege over answering the call of the Host, the Pharisees are missing nothing less than the wedding feast of the Lamb.  They are walking away from the kingdom of God.

What does that say to us today, in this era of national crisis and community anxiety?  Well, it says that –

  • We need to take care of our own families but also take care of those who don’t have families
  • We need to make sure we have the food we need, but not hoard it away from others
  • We need to be thinking about who is the most vulnerable in our community and find ways to help them – because in God’s eyes, their needs and our needs are the same.

I’ve been really touched and impressed by the way our community has prioritized the needs of the most humble among us: showed real hospitality to those who sometimes don’t even get a seat at the table.  I want to offer a shout-out today to:

  • Food pantries like Eastview and Salvation Army increasing their efforts to provide for people whose jobs are affected by closures
  • All the different organizations, like Boys & Girls clubs and Healthy in a Hurry, who are pulling together to Feed BloNo kids, sending out food trucks to fill the gap left by cancelled school lunches
  • The YMCA, who is offering emergency childcare for medical and emergency personnel
  • Home Sweet Home Mission, providing free sack lunches for anyone who needs one.
  • Wesley Distribution Ministry, which handed out over 200 bags of paper towels, diapers, toilet paper and other supplies including food boxes, through our drive-through yesterday

You can find out about these efforts, and help fund them, at the new website BNPrepared.org.  It’s about hospitality and humility and deciding that if I deserve protection and care, others do, too.

Wesley Church will be coordinating efforts to protect and care for folks within our own church family and around our community who need extra care during this trying time.  If you’d like to help out, or if there’s something we can do to help you out, send us an email at connect@wesley-umc.com, and let us know how we can help.

It’s a matter of deciding that if Jesus would welcome somebody to the table, we will, too, whether it helps or hurts our own reputation.  If Jesus would help them, we should, too, if we’re able.  Hospitality calls for humility.  And crises call for compassion.

Let’s pray: O God of extravagant hospitality and amazing grace, thank you for watching over your people during this difficult time. Thank you for providing us blessings enough to share.  May we share your love with humility, after the example of Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.

So glad to be part of a hospitable, humble, kind and compassionate church.  God bless you, Wesley.  Take care of yourselves, take care of others, see you next week.
Pastor Sara Isbell

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