The Good Life

Proper 17C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). Like a parent sending their child off into the world, the book of Hebrews hands us hard-won wisdom wrung from the sweat of our forebears in faith. ‘Remember those in prison and those being tortured as though you were being tortured. Honor your marriage vows. Be content with what you have (vs. 3-5).

A lot of parents today are less certain. Overwhelmingly, they say they just want their kids to be happy. As words to live by, ‘whatever makes you happy,’ turns out to be sort of empty and confusing. After all, what does that mean? We need a more reliable star to steer by if we are really to live the good life endowed to us by our creator.

Hebrews offers more concrete guidance.  ‘Avoid the love of money; do good and share what you have’ (vs. 5 & 16). The good life consists in something fundamentally different than anything you can accumulate through give and take. Tell me, can you write a receipt for the value of love, or mercy?  How do you put a price on family, friendship, partnership, or marriage? These fruits cannot be harvested from relationships which are merely transactional. These spring naturally from love and trust. The old ones what you to know: The dignity of every human life grows from the unmerited, unearned, unwarranted, undeserved love of God.

We hear these words and treasure them.  Perhaps, we honor them in a few private relationships. Enter Jesus to set us straight.  Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them.  The strange little story about Jesus at a banquet from our gospel today is an opportunity for us to catch yet another a glimpse of the life God intends –the humble life.  Like always, it is a vision of life that is both too strange and too wonderful.

“The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations, and plants the humble in their place” (Sirach 10:15). “When we dare to gather at Jesus’s table, we are actively protesting the culture of upward mobility and competitiveness that surrounds us. There’s nothing easy or straightforward about this; it requires hard work over a long period of time.  To eat and drink with God is to live in tension with the pecking orders that define our boardrooms, our college admissions committees, our church politics, and our presidential elections, and that can be tiring.  But it’s what we’re called to do — to humble ourselves and place our hope in a radically different kingdom” (Debi Thomas, Places of Honor, Journey with Jesus, 8/25/19).

We must admit the history of Western culture is not known for humility –but for arrogance. Confidence in the superiority of western culture, science, and civilization led generations of white Europeans to take, steal, and plunder the highest place at every table. Yet, grace strips away our arrogant and worldly way of thinking like paint thinner. From beneath the soot and sediment the original stamp of the Imago Dei, the image of God, is revealed in you and our neighbors.

The good life is lived with honor, equity, and joy among neighbors.  Maybe that’s why Jesus attended so many parties, feasts, and banquets. He was a popular dinner guest but not a very polite one. Mealtime scenes with Jesus end in provocations, insults, and/or scandal. A woman of dubious reputation caressed his feet under the table.  He interrupts the meal to heal sick people on the Sabbath. His hosts complain he ate with dirty hands, shared his table with riffraff, and drank more than his enemies considered respectable. We tend to forget this today. Jesus doesn’t put up with any baloney.

The kingdom of God to which you and I are invited today is like a good party, the good life. There is always room for one more to be seated at the table of grace. “Today we could say that God is inviting people to leave their gang fights and come to a party, to leave their workaholism and rat race and come to a party, to leave their loneliness and isolation and join the party, to leave their exclusive parties (political ones, for example, which win elections by dividing electorates) and join one inclusive party of a different sort, to stop fighting or complaining or hating or competing and instead start partying and celebrating the goodness and love of God.” (Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything, pages 144-46. In Ch. 16)

The 14th Century German mystic theologian and philosopher, Meister Eckhardt, said it—the humble person is one “who is watered with grace.”  Shout it from the rooftops. Tell all our children. Share it with all who will listen, humility is the source of mutual love and hospitality that gives life to the life we read about today in the book of Hebrews.  Because they were humble and ready for joyful service our forebears in faith served angels without knowing it.

According to Jesus, our behavior at the table matters—not whether you know the difference between a dinner fork and a salad fork—but where we sit speaks volumes. The people whom we welcome reveals the stuff of our souls. We get more advice. Favor those who cannot repay you. Prefer the poor. Choose obscurity. Here in God’s world, nothing is merely ordinary. In the realm of God, the ragged strangers at our doorstep may be angels. You are inwardly filled with God’s glory. Welcome each other as you would wish to be welcomed and we will be on our way to a life well lived-together.