Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sermon: Be a Blessing

Luke 14:1, 7-14
Be A Blessing
James Sledge                                                                   September 1, 2013

In an article on today’s gospel, Emilie Townes, American Baptist pastor and professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, recalls something she heard many times as child from her grandmother. “I just want to be a blessing. That’s all I want for my life, is to be a blessing to others.”[1] Dr. Townes relates how her understanding of what “blessing” means developed as she grew up, evolving from a simplistic notion of rewards given to good little boys and girls to a complex, nuanced, difficult, and deeply theological understanding.
If you are familiar with Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, you may already have some appreciation for the complex and difficult nature of blessing. “Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry now… Blessed are you who weep now… Blessed are you when people hate you…” And there is a corresponding list of woes or curses for those who are rich, full, laughing, and spoken well of by others. 
When I first read those words from Dr. Townes’ grandmother, I immediately thought of a moment from my time in seminary. I don’t know if this happens with other people, but sometimes when I experience a powerful moment of insight or discovery, it becomes a vivid memory that stays with me. And I have one of those connected to the topic of blessing.
It came in my introductory class on the Old Testament. Our assignment was to translate God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12. If you looked it up in your pew Bible you would find this.  Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
It was a passage I knew well, and so I was surprised to find that the Hebrew had something very different from the words I knew. Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so be a blessing. “Be a blessing.” It was an imperative command, just like the command, “Go,” a command that Dr. Townes grandmother had somehow taken up as her own.

These thoughts on being a blessing bounced around in my head as I considered this story of Jesus at a Sabbath banquet. It starts off in mundane enough fashion. Jesus notices guests taking the best seats for themselves, and he reminds them of banquet etiquette. There’s nothing really earth shaking here. It sounds like a number of proverbs. Proverbs 25 says, Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.
No doubt some at the banquet nodded in agreement as Jesus played the wise rabbi and dispensed this well-known piece of wisdom. But Jesus was up to something bigger. Banquet etiquette was simply an opening to talk about the ways of God’s kingdom, God’s new day, and about our call to be a blessing by living out the ways of this new day now.
In the verses immediately after our passage, Jesus tells these same banquet guests a parable about a Great Banquet. It is clearly a metaphor for God’s kingdom, and the quest list also includes the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind that Jesus tells his host to invite.
Hospitality and table fellowship were a crucial part of the culture in Jesus’ day. Wedding banquets and dinner parties were the primary social events. Such events had much greater social importance and significance than similar events in our day, but the process for coming up with the guest list seems not to have changed much. People tended to invite friends, relative, people they wanted to impress, people who had invited them, and so on.
But the ways of God’s new day are vastly different. Conventional guest lists tend to conform to the status quo, tend to perpetuate the insider/outsider boundaries of a society. And so those who want to live by the ways of God’s new day must act differently. To be a blessing, Jesus says, here’s who you should invite to share your table.
 This issue of table fellowship is crucial for Luke’s gospel and its companion book, Acts. The risen Jesus is made known in the breaking of the bread, and his new community welcomes those once thought to be outsiders and not on the guest list.
One of the wonderful things about the Welcome Table ministry here at FCPC is that, at least for a moment, it embodies Jesus’ new guest list. The inversion is striking to see; people more accustomed to being served are bussing tables, cooking, and serving people often relegated to second class status.
In our denomination’s foundational documents there is a classic statement known as the Great Ends of the Church. The last of these six ends or purposes is “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” I sometimes think that kingdom is nowhere more visible here at than it is at Welcome Table, which is why I am thrilled that we are expanding it to twice a month, even though this puts a tremendous strain on an insufficient Welcome Table budget and on our volunteer base.
There’s a different sort of Welcome Table here in the sanctuary today. Granted it is more of a symbolic meal, but it is supposed to be very similar to the Wednesday Welcome Table. It’s easy for that similarity to get lost, for this meal to become part of our worship and something done for us, the members of this congregation. But this is a table of blessing, one that is supposed make the kingdom visible. Here Jesus is the host, and he serves us. But he also expects us to invite others, to expand the guest list beyond those who are like us or who can help us. Here we are to embody the alternative community that Jesus came to proclaim.
Whoever you are, however it is you find yourself here today, Jesus welcomes you and invites you to the table. Jesus feeds all who are hungry, nourishing us with God’s grace. And having fed us at the Welcome Table, Jesus calls us to be a blessing, to live and worship in ways that show the world what God’s Welcome Table looks like.

All praise and glory to the one who gave himself to be a blessing for us, and who calls us to follow him and be a blessing, too.

[1] Emilie M. Townes in Taylor, Barbara Brown; Bartlett, David (2010-04-12). Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C Volume 4 (Kindle Location 909). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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