In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
We have all given a dinner party at some point in our lives. It can be either a fancy affair, or actually quite simple: either a long list of guests requiring the most byzantine grid for table seating, or a few close friends sharing take-out and a few bottles of wine. But, if you’re anything like me, dinner parties can be a source of great stress. I worry about the menu, and the right wine, and the table setting, and what conversation topics may or may not be off-limits. To say nothing about having to clean the house before the guests arrive! Then, of course, there’s always the big clean-up after. We may enjoy hosting dinner parties, but we do have to admit that they can be a bit of a pain—even a big pain, sometimes.
What I suspect most of us would definitely not want to do at a dinner party, however, is to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” In fact, do we really think they are appropriate guests? It sounds like the perfect recipe for a disastrous evening, doesn’t it?
You see, I could do one of two things with this sermon. I could stand here and give you a bunch of pious platitudes, a very real and facile temptation for preachers everywhere. I could talk about the Christian virtue of radical hospitality, about inclusiveness and acceptance, or about the last being first. But let’s admit it, which one of us, deep down, really wants to be last? We’d much rather be first. Moreover, we only want certain types of people at our dinner parties. We know who’s in and who’s out, and we generally like it that way. We may not want to admit it, but that’s how we think and, sadly, how we behave. That’s why injustice exists in our world.
The other thing I could do with this sermon is what I have just done. Tell it like it is. Admit to myself and to you that, yes, we certainly do want the place of honour, we do want to be first in line, and we don’t want “those” people at our social affairs. They disturb things, they smell, they don’t talk right, whatever. It’s sad, but true. Not quite what Jesus had in mind, is it? So then, where’s the problem? How can we honestly respond to what Jesus is calling us to do in today’s readings?
Well, the first thing we have to acknowledge is that what Jesus had in mind is hard, damn hard. On the other hand, that never stopped Jesus from expecting it of us. Consider what he was doing in his own time and place. He was criticizing the correct social order—worse, he was upsetting the table hierarchy; taking people to task for their bad manners. No one likes that, and I’m sure his hosts also did not. It’s never easy for an in-group to open itself up to those on the outside. It’s never easy for us to admit that our need for acceptance and inclusion so often comes at the expense of others. It’s hard to be honest about our self-centredness. It’s tough admitting that we are not as good as we like to think we are. It’s far easier to take refuge in the dangerous banalities of universal love and good Christian altruism.
Secondly, we are fooling ourselves if we think that we can meet those high expectations of Jesus simply on the basis of our good intentions. Because we know full well that we won’t, and that we so often fall short. Good intentions can only carry us so far. We cannot and will not do it alone. We need help. We need God’s help. That’s what St. Augustine, and Martin Luther, and Thomas Cranmer, and countless other Christian theologians have been telling us for centuries. In a world where good feelings and positive psychological feedback are the order of the day, it’s not a message that we like to hear. We think it’s too negative, too guilt-ridden. But it’s not; it’s actually quite hopeful. It frees us from having to carry the burden of our own human imperfection. Jesus has already redeemed that imperfection; we need no longer fret about it. We know we are capable of doing good. That’s what we call grace.
Now, I suspect some of you are sitting there asking yourselves: what’s become of Donald? Has he suddenly turned “Lutheran” on us, talking of human imperfection and redemption and other such dark and austere theological truths? OK, full disclosure: I always was a bit of a Luther enthusiast, and I think now that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 is almost upon us, we need to revisit and affirm the central insight of Luther’s theological legacy, for it is an important part of our own faith heritage. And it’s actually quite simple. We are fallen creatures. There’s no dishonour to be had in that. We have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus. And that is the very source of our freedom. It means we can meet Jesus’ expectations. It means we need no longer feel guilty about failure.
About a month ago, I was visiting Berlin, and I decided to take a day-trip to Wittenberg, Luther’s home town: the place where he lived and taught for most of his life, and where he is buried. In the church of St. Mary, the “mother church” of the Reformation where Luther actually preached, there is an amazing altarpiece by the painter Lucas Cranach simply entitled The Reformation Triptych. One of its panels shows Luther preaching to a mixed congregation consisting of various types of persons, but also his wife and children. Smack in the middle, between Luther and the congregation, stands a large figure of the crucified Christ. At first glance, the composition seems awkward, but the theological message is quite unequivocal: here then is the centre; there is only this one mediator; there is only this one person who, through his own death, has made it possible for us to live a genuinely good Christian life. So long as we know and fully accept this core truth, we need not worry about the rest. We can then respond, in full confidence, to the challenge Jesus has put to us.
And what a challenge it is! In today’s gospel, we are summoned to be humble, and considerate, and self-effacing, and hospitable, and totally welcoming of others, regardless of who they are. Amazingly enough, it gets even better—or worse, depending on your point of view—in the letter to the Hebrews. Here, we are expected to be hospitable once again, to fraternize with prisoners, to have perfect marriages, to stay away from money and to be content with our lot, to revere our religious leaders (ahem!), to always do good, and basically to play well with others. On the surface, this reads like a sure recipe for failure because we know full well that we will never, ever be and do all those things. Still, these are the expectations. These are the demands God puts to us.
We also know, of course, that such demands, as challenging and unrealistic as they may seem initially, are fundamentally necessary and ultimately for our own good and that of others. It’s not because something is difficult that it should not be required. That’s an important lesson we all learn as we are growing up. But one lesson that we perhaps neglect at our own peril, and that of others, is that we are not completely self-sufficient beings; that we are limited and flawed. Let me be crystal clear. This is not me preaching the usual negative and disparaging dribble about sinful human nature, though there is some essential truth to that condition. Yes, we are sinners, and therefore imperfect. But we are redeemed sinners. And that is precisely what makes all the difference. That is why we can honestly claim to strive for Christian perfection. That is why we can be radically hospitable, and hope to have perfect marriages and relationships, and perhaps even learn to play well with others and invite them to our dinner parties, regardless of who they are. We know that, even if we fail, as we most assuredly will, we are not any less cherished by God. So let’s not kid ourselves. God does not call us to be flawless or naively utopic about our wonderful sense of empathy, but only to be honest with ourselves. Through the saving work of Jesus, God has taken care of all the rest. In that we should learn to rejoice. We should and can strive to do what Jesus asks of us. Just as I suspect good old Martin Luther did.