11th Sunday after Trinity
Readings: Sirach 10. 12-18; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13. 1-8, 15-16; Luke 14. 1, 7-14 (view all)
Amy, Evie and I have just returned from a really lovely couple of weeks in Italy, including a wonderful couple of days in Florence. We stayed in an amazing, historic hotel right in the centre of the city with a wonderfully decorated room (it’s the first time I’ve ever taken a photo of a hotel bathroom ceiling!)
Something you always worry about when abroad is the hospitality that you will receive, especially when struggling with a language barrier. But the welcome and the hospitality we received in Florence was amazing, and made our visit to the city something really special.
‘All are welcome’ — words we sang a few moments ago in the modern hymn, ‘Let us build a house’, by Marty Haugen. But words which are very often much easier to say or sing than they are to live and practice.
So, as we reflect on this morning’s readings, how can we practice welcoming hospitality to others, especially those who are different from us? How can we truly ‘welcome all’?
In our gospel reading, Jesus is invited to a dinner party at the house of a local dignitary — one of the leaders of the Pharisees. And it’s here, as they observe Jesus and Jesus observes them, that he challenges them about the quality of their hospitality and their welcome.
Where they have become obsessed with position and status, Jesus challenges them to practice hospitality which is characterised instead by humility and service. And where they have limited their welcome to those they have deemed ‘worthy’, Jesus challenges them to welcome ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind’ — those who couldn’t ever afford to repay the favour.
Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.
At the heart of Jesus’ challenge is the observation that, for these guests, their relationships have become conditional on the reward they bring. Rather than an informal gathering of friends, you can imagine this as the kind of tense, competitive dinner where the great, the good, and those aspiring to be like them, are all vying for position and status.
Rather than truly loving relationships, instead this set of relationships around the table has been reduced to a set of transactions — with each person trying to improve their place, and the host trying to earn favour from their guests.
And in today’s transactional, consumerist culture, this caution is more relevant than ever. In our lives, it can be so easy for our hospitality, our community, our friendships, to be reduced to consumerist transactions — conditional on the potential return, whether this is an increase in status, in popularity or in opportunity.
I certainly find this trap so easy to fall into in my own life.
I can find myself subtly managing which friends to invest in based on those I need or want to get something out of, rather than those who might need my care and support. I can find myself engineering my facebook profile, so that it shows only the best bits of my life, but none of the worst, and competing for my posts to get the most ‘likes’.
And in the life of the Church, we can easily fall into the same approach, saying to ourselves, ‘Well, we’re not likely to see them on a Sunday, so why bother?’
But God’s way, the way of Christ’s kingdom, is about unconditional love and welcome, about hospitality offered to those who could never pay it back. It’s about giving without ever expecting to receive in return, about emptying ourselves rather than increasing our status.
This is the picture of God’s upside-down kingdom which we find in our reading from Hebrews as well as our first reading from the Wisdom of Sirach. This is a rare, but valuable, opportunity in the Sunday lectionary to get a glimpse of one of the books of the Apocrypha, outside of the normal historic canon of scripture.
As the author writes, echoing the words of Mary’s Magnificat, ‘The Lord overthrows the thrones of rules, and enthrones the lowly in their place. The Lord plucks up the roots of nations, and plants the humble in their place.’
The way of the kingdom is the way of humble service and sacrifice. A kingdom where the poor and the marginalised, those in need — those who are reduced to sleeping in tents in the high street, those who are elderly and isolated at home, those who those who feel they are stuck in impossible situations — these are the people Jesus tells us should be invited to our banquet.
And these are the people who are lifted up to the places of honour in the wedding feast of Christ’s kingdom.
Let us build a house where love is found
in water, wine and wheat:
a banquet hall on holy ground
where peace and justice meet.
As Christ offers to us an unconditional welcome to his kingdom feast, and models to us the way of humble service and sacrifice, so we too are called to model that same hospitality to others.
So, how can we truly welcome all in our lives and our life as a Church? Will we model inclusion, celebrating the diversity in our community, and providing for those will additional needs? Will we model true love and care within our church family, visiting those who might be isolated or lonely, and supporting those going through difficult times?
And, in a world that models transactional friendship, will we pursue real, caring relationships amongst our friends, family, neighbours and colleagues?
Because as we are invited to the Lord’s table this morning, Christ welcomes us too into a whole new way of being.
We are welcomed to acknowledge our failings and our brokenness, and set free to try again. We are welcomed to set aside our need for security and status, and nourished and sustained with the bread of life.
We are welcomed into love without limit, and empowered to extend that same unconditional love to others. All are welcomed by God, in order that in turn in our lives we may welcome all.
Let us build a house where all are named,
their songs and visions heard
and loved and treasured, taught and claimed
as words within the Word.