the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 14. 1, 7-14
Faith isn’t about manners, it’s about love!

I don’t remember, now, who said it. Or why it was said. It was first year at seminary, that much I know. But I remember the words – as they say – like it was yesterday. “What your generation of pastors,” a professor told us, “What your generation of pastors will give the church are your tears.” That was forty years ago and, even then, the leaders of the church read the handwriting on the wall. Attendance shrinking. Offerings drying up. Congregations closing. Ministries laid to rest. And we would be the ones to grieve, to mourn the loss.

There was a time, not that long ago, when church was a family thing. Centering neighborhoods. Anchoring communities. But, back in the Seventies, it began slipping away. First to disappear were the youth. We told ourselves, it had always been that way. That they’d come back. They didn’t. Neither did their children. Or their children’s children.

We wanted to change things. Tried to change things. To become more attractive, more appealing. We said different prayers. Sang different songs. Read different bibles. We, even, cushioned pews. But, no matter what we did, the church kept shrinking. Eventually, we spoke in terms of death, of dying. It’s one thing to read about walking through the valley of the shadow. It’s another to, actually, do it! And so, here we are, forty years, two generations, later … Twenty-five-or-so people, huddled together in a fellowship hall that they used to be theirs. A fellowship hall that belongs to someone else.

What your generations of pastors will give the church are your tears.

But I have to tell you, I don’t cry, anymore! And I’m, no longer, afraid of what lies ahead! Because somewhere along the way, I’ve come to see that the church isn’t dying; it’s, simply, being born! Being born, again! And the reason is right here in today’s gospel reading! More often than not, we read this passage as if it was advice from Emily Post. Good manners. Proper etiquette. But that’s “practical godliness” talking. Popular religion. But there’s more to it than that! Jesus goes to the house of a leader of the Pharisees. To a wedding banquet. And it’s all about honor. Privilege! Prestige! And Jesus tells a parable. Of course, we read it more as a fable, than a parable. The moral of the story? It’s better to take a lower seat and be honored than to take a higher one and be disgraced!. Truth is, Jesus doesn’t care about that! What concerns him isn’t where anyone sits. It’s the people who don’t get in the door! The people who aren’t at the table! The poor! The crippled! The lame! The blind! It’s not a matter of humbling or exalting. It’s turning the world upside-down! It goes back to Mary’s song at the beginning of the story! Lifting up the lowly and pulling the mighty down from their thrones! Filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty!

And that is something that for generations, for centuries, the church, god’s very own, have never done. In fact, we’ve done just the opposite. We’ve lifted up the mighty! We’ve fed the rich! At best, we’ve ignored the hungry, the poor. At worst, we’ve shamed them. Shamed them for their poverty. And now? Well, we’re paying the price. We sowed the wind. This is the whirlwind! “It isn’t that Christianity has been tried and found lacking,” said GK Chesterton, “it’s that it’s never been tried!”

Listen to the verses just after the parable. Listen to the advice Jesus gives his host. “When you give a luncheon or 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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” The poor. The crippled. The lame. The blind. Not the high and mighty. Not the rich and famous. Invite those who are nothing. Invite those who have nothing. The church isn’t dying, it’s being born again! We’re not here for those who don’t need, for those who don’t want, what we have to offer! We’re here for those who have no one else! We’re here for the beggars just like us! And that vision, that dream, is, finally, breaking through all the clutter!

It began almost two hundred years ago, when the Lutheran church here in America ordained the son of slaves – the son of people enslaved! It continued fifty years ago, with the decision to ordain women. It was sustained ten years ago when we decided, not just to accept LGBTQ persons into our midst, but to entrust to them the ministry of word and sacrament! That’s the reason for selling the building! The reason for becoming a sanctuary denomination! In the name of god, we, too, are hosting a banquet and we’re learning who to invite! In doing that, we’re becoming church! Church we haven’t been for a long, long time! When you give a luncheon or a dinner, Jesus says, invite the people you’ve never thought of having! The ones beyond the windows, outside the walls, on the outside looking in.

What your generations of pastors will give the church are your tears.

But what our professor never told us – back there, at seminary – was that if we endured, if we hung on long enough, we would see a church pregnant with life. Conceived by the spirit. Born … born of us! We’re becoming a place, a people, we have never been before. Not just a place, a people, who welcome, who accept, who tolerate, people who might stumble through our door. But a people, a place … Where the forgotten come to mind! Where the ignored are celebrated! Where the unwanted are claimed as god’s very own!

Truth is, it’s a long journey. “A venture of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown!” But we can now imagine what lies over the nest hill! What awaits us around the next turn! God is bringing us out of the tomb. God’s raising us up from the ashes. And we are becoming something we never thought we’d be. And Jesus says, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor and the crippled and the lame and the blind.” We hear the words and we say, “Yes, Lord! Yes, it shall be so!”