Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The King's Beggars

A Meditation on Luke 14:1, 7-14 ~ Jesus insists that people of faith embrace humility, generosity, even meekness.  And he suggests we invite the poor, the crippled and the invisible to our banquets.


I’m imagining that it’s thirty, forty minutes before sundown on a Friday evening. All over town, the faithful are ‘running between the suns’ – that’s how the old sages used to describe the last moments before Sabbath sundown. They’ve got places to go, the last few details to put in place. And they’re ‘running between the suns.’ And Jesus too wandering up a dusty road to the Pharisee’s house. For the Sabbath.

And you know what it’s like – thirty, forty minutes before a summer sunset. The sky ripening from a shiny summer blue into something like a purple plum, something dark and sweet. Moment to moment, the royal sun plays at the edges of hedges, at the tops of trees, at the far horizon. Moment to moment, shadows shift and reconfigure. Almost – sunset. You can almost feel the earth’s rotation; you can almost ride the daily round into night. ‘Running between the suns.’

And I imagine that’s what’s happening – as maybe a dozen guests scramble up the road to the Pharisee’s house. The sky ripening; the light fading; life turning. Jews like to say that the Sabbath is like “a temple in time.” She invites reflection, gratitude, praise. Jesus and the others welcome her coming: a sweet reminder of the Creator’s creativity – and care. Earth is good. Life is shared. All is well. And now is the time to bless, bless, bless. The Sabbath is a sign of abundance, grace, the world as it’s meant to be.

And yet. And yet, Jesus arrives to find guests – jockeying for the very best seats, for places of honor, for the levers of control. Not the world as it’s meant to be, but the worried world – as it is.  Who knows what they’re after? Maybe times are tough and they’re eying seats closest to the town’s biggest employers. Maybe their kids are in trouble and they’re looking for a word with the judge. Or maybe some other kind of vulnerability drives them: they want to be seen –with the proud and powerful; they want to feel beautiful –in the company of the popular; they ache within for any kind of affirmation. Who knows? Whatever it is, they’re missing the point. And there’s this scrum for the places of honor, for the best seats in the house.

And you’ve got to hand it to Jesus: he never misses an opportunity, never passes on a chance to stir things up. And you remember how that goes. “When you’re invited by someone to a wedding banquet,” he says, “don’t sit down at the place of honor…but go and sit at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you’ll be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” And all this is, of course, prelude to the teaching, to the köan that comes next: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

It’s Jesus, right, at his enigmatic, edgy best. He loves teaching and preaching and even agitating his friends around tables. And here, he’s got a chance to shake them up a bit. Because table fellowship is Jesus’ favorite metaphor for the kingdom or the kin-dom of God. He uses every chance he gets – and every table he sets – to paint the picture. There’s enough bread and enough wine and enough love to go around. Children will come from east and west, north and south – to eat together, to feed one another in God’s kingdom.

But you can’t get there – jockeying for the best seats. And you can’t get there – pushing through the crowd to the places of honor. That’s the message this Sabbath sundown. There’s a different road, there’s another way.

And the way to God’s table tips the world - yours and mine - upside down: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus at his edgy best.

Now let’s be clear that this is not, absolutely N-O-T, not about where you sit. It’s not about pews and chairs, it’s not about circles and squares. And Jesus isn’t saying you win some kind of churchy door prize for sitting in the back row every week. So let’s just lay that reading aside.

And while we’re at it, let’s be clear that it’s not, N-O-T, not about going around with a miserable, wretched opinion of yourself – as if what Jesus wants most of all is for each of us to feel like a complete and useless idiot. The kind of humility Jesus cultivates in you and in me has nothing to do with self-hatred and misery. And Hafiz has it right: “Turn your back on those who would imprison your wondrous spirit with deceit and lies.” Jesus’ teaching has nothing to do with self-hatred and misery. So let’s lay that reading aside as well.


So here’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking Jesus understands the anxiety that drives so much human posturing, so much scrambling, so much grasping and grabbing day to day. I’m thinking Jesus gets us, and I’m thinking he loves us enough to call us on our crap. You know how it goes: “I worry that I’m invisible or ineffective; and that anxiety eats away at my spirit. So I scramble to be seen, to be important, to be a player. Or maybe I agonize around all the variables I can’t control – my future, my savings, my friends and their moods. So I just grab what I can; I act like I know what I’m doing. The anxiety’s killing me; so I bury it and try not to think too much.” Behind all that posturing, all that scrambling, Jesus sees anxiety, fear. And he loves us enough to call us on it.

After all, we’re welcoming the Sabbath. That’s what this is all about. This table. This feast. This sacrament. This kingdom. God creates and spins and weaves and provides. Earth is good when life is shared. And all is well in the arms of God. Jesus teaches abundance and grace and fearlessness. We’re welcoming the Sabbath. So it’s time, time again to lay down these heavy loads, to lay down these troublesome burdens, to lay aside these suffocating anxieties. All is well in the arms of God. Lay them down. Lay them down.

And then, and then, we step in from the dusty roads and simply and gratefully receive all that God has to give. Sabbath. We don’t have to jockey for the best seats. We don’t have to elbow our way to the places of honor. We don’t have to maneuver or manipulate or miss what’s going on. Sabbath. There’s enough bread, enough wine for all of us, for all the world. Sabbath. There’s enough love, enough work, enough purpose to engage and honor every one of our lives. Sabbath.

So humility is the kind of faith that believes in grace as pure gift, sheer gift. Here’s the Good News: you are blessed, and you can be a blessing. Humility is the kind of love that doesn’t have to calculate gain and loss, the kind of love that doesn’t have to county victories and defeats. You are blessed, and you can be a blessing. On your way to the table today, Jesus suggests that you lay aside the anxieties that cling to your spirit. Only you know what they are. But they don’t define you. They don’t limit or mark you forever. So lay them aside. Lay your burdens down. And place your hand, simply, in God’s.


But that’s not all.

Just to be sure, just to be sure that we don’t miss his point, Jesus turns to his host and ups the ante. He turns up the heat. I mean, talk about a fearless teacher. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner,” he says, “don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your sisters or your rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you’d be repaid. But when you give a banquet,” he says, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And that will be blessing enough. And that will be blessing enough. All the blessing you’ll ever need.”

It turns out that humility is the kind of love that invites all kinds of guests without measuring their upside. It’s the kind of hospitality that sees in the poor and the forgotten and the invisible the radiant faces of God. The teacher takes your hand in his, and together you welcome the Sabbath. Together you break bread with the brokenhearted and the wounded. Together you give birth to a new kind of church. There is no first or last. There is no master or slave. There is no rich or poor. There is only the circle, the circle of love and grace, the circle of the Sabbath. And that circle, friends, is our one true home.

This may sound strange coming from me: but it really doesn’t matter whether we sit in pews or chairs in this wonderful place. We could do this either way. What matters is the courage and humility we nurture in one another every Sunday Sabbath. Will we lay down our burdens and lay aside our fears – and grab hold only of the hand of God? Will we walk the lonely streets of our city inviting the poor, the forgotten, the invisible to join us, to feast at our side? Will we join the circle that has no beginning, no end, and make our home in the unbroken circle of love? Is that the church we want? Because that’s really all that matters to Jesus.

“Come,” says Hafiz, “come join the honest company/of the King’s beggars – / those gamblers, scoundrels/ And divine clowns/ And those astonishing fair courtesans/ Who need Divine Love every night.” Friends, let us be those gamblers and scoundrels. Let us be divine clowns and the King’s beggars. For Jesus’ sake. And for the world’s. Amen.