Prv 25: 6-7; Ps 112; Heb 13: q-8, 15-16; LUKE 14: 1, 7-14
Graft in our hearts the love of your Name & bring forth in us the fruit of good works thru IX our Lord. AMEN
Have you been following the accounts of the Fast Food Workers around the country, even in the Common, picketing for higher wages, and striking at their work sites? These men and women are paid the legal “minimum wage,” but it is not, in fact, a living wage. That’s true especially in cities where housing for the poor requires long commutes at the cost of time and money, and especially in rural areas where people have no public transportation and so are required to drive, and especially in suburban areas where there is little housing for the poor and less transportation. That would be everywhere, but for different cost reasons. Fast Food Workers, unlike other restaurant workers, receive no tips, so in cafés and diners, as well as in modest family restaurants, even when people receive only minimum wage, they take home more than that, (at least in theory.)
Similarly, we’re being bombarded with reasons that no one wants the Affordable Care Act to go into full use. Some of those same arguments have assaulted us with reasons that more children don’t need to be guaranteed medical care— or for that matter, early childhood education, and on and on. Last week on NPR—and I couldn’t find the quotation nor a histogram, nor the actual precise number—I heard the isolated statement that the US now has the biggest percent of the intransigent poor since the Gilded Age. I also read last week that shelters must be adapted increasingly for more women, and more women with children. It all points to a widening of the gap between haves and have-nots, and a shrinking of the middle class, that backbone of our culture, our context, and our society.
“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” “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, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” This is not exactly our social context, nor our party-giving set of considerations. I do remember a friend who lived in Israel saying, that when they were first there, they would invite co-workers to dinner, and couldn’t understand why people didn’t accept, but instead invited them to coffee houses. My friend figured out pretty quickly that people could not reciprocate with dinner, and so they were modeling ways for her to have those friendly non-work conversation opportunities. Simply showing American largesse and inviting people to dinner, made too much social awkwardness, so coffee houses it was.
We wrestle with these realities, the social inequities, the social awkwardnesses, and ways, either to make those conditions better, or at least not to contribute to their getting worse; it’s hard. I’d guess when Jesus went to the Pharisees’ house for dinner, it was challenging and awkward too. He watched where everyone chose to sit, either up higher and closer to the host, or lower down. When he commented, though, he told a parable and said, “When you give a luncheon of a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return and you would be repaid.” Part of any social idea of inviting people to dinner is just within that description, an idea of reciprocating with friends and relatives, neither inviting our über bosses nor the other extreme end of our social circles. (Julia Child used to comment sadly that no one EVER invited her to dinner— would you have cooked for her?) Anyone hearing Jesus say this would have been perplexed. If you’re giving a Labor Day, last cookout of summer, are you inviting the Governor, Bishop, or President of Harvard, or the person who pumps gas for you, the cleaner of this building, or one of those picketing on the Common? His comment must have sounded not so much outrageous, but humorous, with an “Ah c’mon, not really” response being expected.
Instead Jesus says, “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, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” It occurs to us that Jesus is not writing Miss Manners etiquette for his group, and the scope of his comment isn’t about dinner parties. Instead it’s about God’s welcome to all, not by political rank, not by wealth, but by demonstrating that there are no people so down and out as to be unwelcome—in fact they’re among the last to be first, in that formulation of the first being last and last being first. No one is excluded from G*d’s bountiful table, G*’d’s eternal welcome. However, it must have sounded ironic, wry, or almost absurd.
Hear Kathleen Norris’s poem, “Luke 14: A Commentary”
“He is there, like Clouseau,
at the odd moment,
just right: when he climbs
out of the fish pond
into which he has spectacularly
fallen, and says condescendingly
to his hosts, the owners
of the estate: “I fail
where others succeed.” You know
this is truth. You know
he’ll solve the mystery,
as he is, the last
of the great detectives.
He’ll blend again into the scenery, and
more than once, be taken
for the gardener. “Come
now,” he says, taking us
for all we’re worth: “sit
in the low place.”
Why not? We ask, so easy
To fall for a man
Who makes us laugh. “Invite those
you do not know, people
you’d hardly notice.” He puts
us on, we put him on; another
of his jokes. “There’s
room,” he says. The meal is
salty, but delicious. Charlie
Chaplin put it this way: “I want you to play
the role of Jesus. I look the part.
I’m a Jew.
And I’m a comedian.”
Norris captures the back and forth feelings we go through with this Gospel. Only though, I think when we get away from the Pharisees’ table and our own, and towards this Eucharist table, with its heavenly feast, do we hear what we’re called to do, and feel less threatened, but much more challenged.
Churches respond to this call to invite the down and out with feeding programs and with being genuinely hospitable to strangers in our midst, even those straight off the streets, at both this table and at our coffee hours. The St. Paul’s people are afraid we’ll be less welcoming to all of them, because some of them are closer to the streets than are most of us. I think it’ll work out fine, especially if we’re as welcome, as we are, some academic, tech-y, and not just like them. It’s a reminder to me that on our feasts at Christmas and the Vigil, we urge Saturday/Sunday’s Bread folk to join us, and our own sometime guests, for those bountiful meals, without alcohol. We are offering the best we have for all, and we know that some of those guests struggle with alcohol and to offer them alcohol, on this side of the Jordan, is an act of unkindness, not a glimpse of the heavenly banquet. We don’t expect any repayment or return, we’re offering to all whatever we can, to foreshadow what we’re all promised. What do we do about the strikers on the Common? Change the laws; raise the minimum wage; guarantee food stamps for a wider range, invite them to the banquet, as we are able in our way, political, social, pastoral, just as we are. We hold that vision of the invitation for all, knowing we can neither earn our way, nor lose it. We may wait longer having had so much already, but as we work to insure earthly banquets for all here, we’ll be closer to all, and so nearer the last made first. All are welcome here, always, and at that promised eternal feast: Good News. AMEN.
© Katharine C. Black, St. John’s Boston, 1 September 2013