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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 1, 2013

Hospitality, Humility and Jesus’ Promise

Psalm 138; Luke 14:1, 7-14

             In 1988, Penny Marshall directed the blockbuster hit movie, Big.  It tells the story of twelve-year-old Josh Baskin, who gets kicked off a ride at an amusement park because he isn’t tall enough.  He sees a fortunetelling machine called Zoltar Speaks, puts his money in it and tells Zoltar he “wishes to be big.”  He then notices that Zoltar Speaks isn’t even plugged in, but Zoltar suddenly comes to life and tells him his wish will be granted.  The next morning Josh wakes up, still a twelve-year-old boy, but now living in a fully grown adult body.  The movie is delightful for all kinds of reasons, but one of my all-time favorite scenes involves the eating of food.  Josh is in line to get food at a party, wearing a ridiculous-looking powder blue tuxedo, and he comes upon baby corn at the salad bar.  He has never seen it before, looks at it, and then begins to eat it like you would eat a full-sized ear of corn.  I laughed until I cried the first time I saw it, and years later, watching it again, knowing in advance what Josh would do, I laughed again.

             Of course, it is funny because we all know how “not funny” it is to be at a dinner party and not know what you are supposed to do, or to do exactly the wrong thing.  Then, it’s embarrassing, and it makes you want to hide under the table.  It is enough to make you feel like a child all over again!  We all grew up sitting at family tables, and of course, all kinds of manners, memories and mores are learned in the sharing of meals, no matter what culture is sitting at table.  Jesus in Luke’s Gospel does a whole lot of teaching and preaching while sitting at tables, a word in Greek called trapeza, a verbal concept implying reclining around a table to eat.  In Luke 7 Jesus is met by a woman who was a sinner, who weeps when she sees Jesus and washes His feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, all in the home and at the table of a Pharisee.  In Luke 11, again at table in the home of a Pharisee, Jesus tells them they are like cups that have been washed on the outside, but inside they are “full of greed and wickedness.”  In Luke 22 Jesus gathers in the upper room and institutes at the Last Supper what we call still the Lord’s Supper.  And in Luke 24, it is not until Jesus breaks bread at table with Cleopas and his companion that “their eyes are open” and they finally recognize Him.

             A whole lot of life happens when people gather at tables to break bread and to share a meal.  At our meal this morning in Luke 14, Jesus noticed “how the guests chose the places of honor,” and it prompts from Him a parable.  It really is something of a bit of wisdom for how you sit at the table of life.  Don’t take the best seat in the house, but take the lowest, the least seat of honor, Jesus is saying.  Because if you overreach, the host may say to you, “Give this person your place,” and you will be disgraced, embarrassed, humiliated.

             Jesus is offering a word of wisdom on the virtue of humility.  “For those who would learn God’s ways,” said Saint Augustine, “humility is the first thing, humility is the second, humility is the third.”  I had a dear friend, actually the father of a fellow Presbyterian minister, named Harry McConnell.  Harry liked to tell people that he had written his first book entitled, Humility and How I Attained It.  “I wrote because I am the humblest guy I know,” he like to say.  Of course, you know that those who know themselves best esteem themselves least.  “Humility is nothing else but a true knowledge and awareness of oneself as one really is,” teaches The Cloud of Unknowing, an early Christian book of wisdom.  Life humbles us all, of course, if we are capable of being honest with ourselves.  T.S. Eliot was right when he said, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility.”

             Pride not only puffs us up, it makes us look like old fools.  I had a dear friend in my last church named Patsy Correll who told me once after a funeral, “Todd, don’t ever let yourself get a big head.  There is nothing more pitiful than an old man with a big ego!”  Actually, it is one of the great blessings of walking as close to Jesus as you possibly can, and one of the great gifts that worship gives.  Philips Brooks, a huge man physically, said, “The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you what the real smallness of your greatness is.”  Standing anywhere close to Jesus, or anywhere in sight of His cross, it is hard to be anything other than humbled.  Humility: Don’t leave church without it!

             So Jesus begins with the guests, then He turns to the host and says, “You ought to draw up a different guest list the next time you give a party.”  Do not invite your friends or your family or your rich, important neighbors.  They may invite you in return, and you will be simply scratching their backs so they can scratch yours.  “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”  They cannot repay you (and that is good!).  For you will be repaid at the resurrection!

             Jesus starts with a word on humility, then He turns to hospitality.  Hospitality is utterly central to a life that is shaped by Jesus.  Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with tax collectors, the most hated of people in first century Palestine.  Hospitality is really a form of worship.  And I have said it before: There is no true hospitality without someone taking the role of a servant.  Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves.”  What is central to Jesus cannot be peripheral to us.

             As we seek to grow into the church God is calling us to be, our Session and Board of Deacons have adopted a vision statement that says that we will be a multi-generational church where each generation honors the other, and where “our life will be marked increasingly by gratitude, hospitality and generosity.”  Grateful people want to be hospitable.  Having been welcomed by God, they want to extend that welcome to others.

             Jesus is telling us here something important: Hospitality is not about giving so you can get back – it is not about tit for tat, or endless social maneuvering.  It is not about calculation or currying favor.  Hospitality starts with the recognition that you are invited to the table where Jesus Himself is the host.  In Jesus, the Holy One became the Generous One, and invited us.  I sit at Jesus’ table only by His grace, and so do you.  I do not deserve a place at His table.  But Jesus invites me anyway.  This is something important to know about God and about yourself.  I come to this party by grace, because Jesus, knowing what a chronic, repeater sinner that I am, invited me anyway.  Karl Barth says that “in its pastoral work, the Christian community sets aside distinctions in society between rich and poor, color and class.”  Barth says the church “would be mortally sick if it were to identify itself with a class or color.”  The Church, Jesus’ Church, invites, includes, embraces and welcomes everyone, especially at this table.  Groucho Marx said once that “I would never join a club that would accept me as a member.”  Well, the Church is a club called to invite and welcome everyone, for everyone needs to receive “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

             Actually, Jesus is looking ahead to another banquet when He offers this teaching: That great eschatological banquet at the end of all time when Jesus will be the great host and “men and women will come from east and west, and north and south, and sit at table in the Kingdom of God.”

             I was called to Westminster Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina in the early 1980’s.  We were set then in a changing neighborhood, and more and more of our members drove from faraway places to come to church, while the neighborhoods around the church grew more and more diverse.  I was just thirty, and arrived from New Jersey never having lived in the South before, but eager to make it home.  About a year later, our music director asked a young black high school student to come and play his trumpet in church.  His mother, named Doris, came that Sunday, and she told me later she knew that first day that she had found her church.  (We had a lot of young academics in that congregation who could be terrible snobs, but not to a black person, and they went out of their way to welcome the Haskins.)  But I knew that not everyone was whistling Dixie about the Haskins family coming to church.  So I went to visit them in their home, and I felt like I needed to be honest with them.  I said, “You really are an answer to my prayer for Westminster.  And I know that a lot of folks have been incredibly kind to you on Sundays.  But I need to be honest that not all our members are all that happy about your coming.”  Doris looked at me and smiled and said, “Child, do you think we were born yesterday?”  I smiled back and tried to choke back my tears.

             So that Sunday, I asked Doris and John and John Jr. to rise in church, introducing them as new members.  A fellow named J.B. sat in what he called Amen Corner, and said out loud to anyone who could hear, “I just don’t think it’s right.  I think they ought to go to their own churches.”  And Janet Quarles, a lovely, charming Southern lady in her eighties, who was a woman who reminded me a whole lot of Andromedia Noel, turned around, and with a smile said, “J.B., hush up!  What are you going to do when you get to heaven?”

             Humility, hospitality and the promise of Jesus.  Are you ready to hear it?  Tom Gillespie used to say, “Jesus was Truth with a capital T, and in the singular.”  “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

                                                                                     Amen.

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