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Where is the Lord (in the banquet hall)?: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, August 28, 2022:
Jeremiah 2:4-13
Luke 14:1, 7-14

I remember one very hot and exhausting evening probably around ten years ago, I was part of a small group that had just helped friends with a move — or not even close friends, somewhere between an acquaintance and friend, and now, one of them is a colleague — anyway, we had just spent a few hours moving most of the stuff from their house into a U-Haul truck; they were moving out of town. It will always stick out, because they had a filing cabinet that I think was the heaviest thing I’ve ever lifted, and it was terrifying bringing it up the stairs.

So we finally finished, the sun had gone down, we were dirty and sweaty, and one of them nicely suggested we have some drinks. She listed a variety of things, and ended by describing a particularly unique pop or juice can that they’d gotten from probably a gourmet food store. My ideal was to just go home, but I wanted to be nice and not run off as soon as we’d finished, so I said “sure, that last thing sounds neat,” I quickly drank it (I was thirsty), crushed the can, and was ready to go.

Just then, the father of one of the hosts, who’d been helping with the move, came out to where we were, saw the can, and immediately groaned that he’d been gazing at that drink the whole week he’d been visiting. All the other cans were drunk by other family members, but someone had said they’d save that can for him. And there I was, not quite acquaintance… not quite friend… didn’t want to be there… and I’d had the audacity to take it and chug it. And there wasn’t much I could say or do, other than just stand there and be embarrassed.

I think, too, more recently (and briefly), about a wedding I officiated. I’m not particularly close to the couple (not quite cousins, not quite friends…). But it ended up going well, and I got to know them better through it. And during the reception the mother of the groom, clearly happy with the ceremony, was really complimentary, and insisted that we take one of the centrepieces home; a big glass bowl or vase or something. We didn’t really want to drag this heavy thing home, but we said “yes, sure” and took it. And on our way out, another person stopped us, said that the centrepieces weren’t supposed to be given away to anyone, and it felt like we were being accused of stealing (something we didn’t want, at a wedding I’d just performed). We eventually weaseled our way out of there, but it was another mortifying moment.

So, in some way, I (and probably all of us) can relate to the scene that Jesus describes: the shame and awkwardness of the host saying to you “‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.” They say that in Jesus’s time, meals like this were typically enjoyed while reclining around low tables, much closer to the ground than we’re used to. Swapping places involved knees cracking, and then inconveniencing and squeezing by everyone around you. Maybe a bit like a sports game or the theatre, where everyone in the row has to get up for that one person in need of the bathroom.

The thing for us to keep in mind, though, is that Jesus isn’t here just teaching etiquette, to his original audience, or to us, though his teachings might also work on that level. Primarily, he’s teaching about and hinting at one of his favourite topics, the Kingdom (or Reign) of God. We don’t get it in the lectionary, but he follows these sayings up with a parable about a banquet. So in all of this he’s using everyday examples to help us to wake up to this supernatural reality, but one that also “comes near” or is already “among us,” in that there’s a continuity between the “on earth, as in heaven.” Salvation, in other words, begins in the here and now. It involves our stuff, our selves, our relationships, and our neighbours.

To bring in the Old Testament reading, it’s interesting to note that one of God’s issues with the people is not just that the people “went wrong” but that they stopped asking “where is the Lord?” The One who once acted in history — why is there now a disconnect between what is and what used to be and should be??? The name “Israel,” you might have heard, is connected to the story of Jacob, who wrestled the divine being in the middle of the night. The name means “contends with God,” wrestles with God. So we wrestle with questions and struggles and frustrations that are not signs of the lack of faith, but are part of the life of faithful wrestling with the God that is simultaneously very much here, and yet still has us waiting; a God who confounds our expectations. And Jesus’s teachings and parables are designed to help us enter into that wrestling, by sitting with the counterintuitive wisdom, or by playing with surprising or scandalous scenarios and characters. What he’s saying here today is that the ways of the world (or the human heart) are not necessarily the ways of the Kingdom of God. So if we are puffed up, or looking for status or reward in this life, watch out, because the God who is coming, and the God who acted in history, in saving people from life in Egypt, has designs for a grand re-ordering of things. Because things are not as they should be. Though sometimes we do experience a taste of things, when there is a continuity between earth and heaven. And of course when we think of that bridging of heaven and earth, we think of Jesus. But also his mother, who at the beginning of this Gospel sang about this grand reordering of all things: about the God who scatters the proud and lifts up the humble.

Hopefully we are being shaped by the ethics of the Reign of God in our coming together as Church, with the sort of banquet at the centre of our gathering. And hopefully we have eyes to see the God who is present (and broken) in the simplicity of that meal, both on the altar, and in our neighbour.

One of the early issues of the Church, and informing some of St. Paul’s teaching on the eucharist was division in the Corinthian church; it’s in First Corinthians 11. It appears that there were some coming to communion hungry — it was their meal. But also, there were people, so well off, that they seem to have partied before ‘going to church,’ and so they arrived drunk. Paul’s likely not writing about abstract theories of the eucharist, but dealing with a very practical, what we’d call ‘pastoral’ matter of factionalism and classism. So when he instructs people to “discern the Body” of Christ, he might be talking about the bread on the table, but I’m quite sure he’s talking about the people gathered around it.

To this day we wrestle with the disconnect between our vision, our hope, and the reality of our flaws and frailty, even in the life of the Church. Martin Luther King, Jr., and several others around the same time, talked about “the most segregated hour” in the week being Sunday mornings when churches met. (I’m glad that this is not the case with our particular church community.)

Dorothy Day wrote that “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know [God] in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore.”*

And yet a contemporary of hers, Thomas Merton, critiqued his former denomination (Anglicanism) as being a “class religion” that people appreciated no more earnestly than they did tea parties, cricket, and pipe-smoking. (He’d later, though, repent of this conclusion.) In our own day the Anglican Communion has become significantly more diverse, and I think less tied to class and empire. And yet this new reality, for all its blessings, also brings slightly different challenges of factionalism.

So we live in this difficult in-between state of God’s Reign shining through, and yet leaving us wanting more. God, to our frustration, makes use of the materials close at hand — including people. And sometimes there’s nothing harder to deal with than other people. Nevertheless, you can’t throw a banquet for just one. So may we have eyes to see God’s saving presence at work amongst us. And to keep asking: “Where is the Lord?”

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/13/dorothy-days-radical-faith