The Heavenly Banquet

banquet-on-purple-table-cloth-levin-rodriguez

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 17
August 28, 2016
The Rev. Glenn Chalmers
St. Paul’s Within the Walls

It has been a real pleasure to be with this summer as your Rector was on sabbatical.  St. Paul’s is a remarkable place and its been an honor to spend this time with you.

It seems very fitting that we have this particular Gospel lesson from Luke on this last Sunday in August.  Jesus presents us with the image of a great banquet, a great feast.

Now that brings to mind two things.  One is the troubling reminder that I have spent far too much time this summer feasting on pasta, pizza, and gelato.  I face a serious course of exercise when I get back to New York.  The second and far more important thing is that this Gospel lesson says so much about the ministry of St. Paul’s in Rome.

As Fr. Austin returns, as the restoration work of our beautiful mosaics are completed, and as you prepare for the visit of the Presiding Bishop in October, I hope this Gospel serves as confirmation of the ministry you share together in this special place.

The focus of Jesus’ parable about the great banquet was less on the menu and more on the guest list.

In describing who should be invited, Jesus once again talks of building bridges, not walls; talks about including those whom it would be so easy for us to forget; who challenges us to go far beyond our comfort zone.

“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…”

In the Kingdom of God, all are invited to the table.  In the Kingdom of God, the social pecking order is reversed – turned upside down.  In the seating arrangements, it will be the least among us at the head of the table.  We hear again the familiar words of Jesus- as we do so often in the Gospels -“all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Author and activist Dorothy Day, who launched the Catholic Worker movement, once wrote, “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.”  If we think – really think – about this statement we can’t help but begin to grasp the heart of our faith. God is love and compassion.  As people of God, God’s priorities are to be our own.  And that is reflected in our own guest list and in our own seating arrangements.

These words of Jesus spoken so long ago still retain the capacity to trouble us.  As it was with those Pharisees and disciples, we are challenged to move well beyond the social norms and customs that mark our lives.  We are to intentionally make God’s invitation list our own.

This is far easier to say that to do.  How do our actions and our priorities reflect those of God?  How do we live into this parable and shake up our own guest lists and seating arrangements.  How do we – in Dorothy Day’s words – learn to love those whom we find difficult to love?

Our biases, our inclination to gravitate towards those who confirm to our own perspectives, reinforce our own likes and dislikes, are many.

I am reminded of one Sunday at a very fashionable Episcopal Church. The dignified Rector climbed the steps to a beautifully carved oak pulpit and began to preach.

After a few lines, a man seated in the third pew rose and yelled: “AMEN!”

Again – after a few minutes – a loud ALLELUIA came from the same direction.  Exasperated the priest looked down at the man and said, “Sir, please stop it.  I can’t concentrate with all your interruptions.”

“I can’t help it,” the man said, “I’ve got religion!”

“Well,” said the Rector, “you didn’t get it here!”

Welcoming someone who is clearly different from us presents challenges.

This is something that this congregation knows and knows well.  St. Paul’s noteworthy front door is itself a statement on unity among differences; reflecting a desire that ‘all shall be one.’  Here we worship is a very diverse community.  We reflect remarkable differences in cultures, races, perspectives, and religious backgrounds.  Here we welcome over 200 refugees every weekday, offering a safe and sacred place where all are welcome.

This summer, the ministry of St. Paul’s was featured in the New York Times.  In a story told by one of our refugees for whom home is right here.

He managed to make his way from Afghanistan to Norway before ending up here.  In his own words, he related his story:

As I was hanging my clothes, I saw my neighbor down in his driveway. He was just coming home from work, and he looked up and saw me. And then he was shouting. “You people, you come here and ruin our country!” he yelled. “Norway is peaceful, and now you’re destroying it! Go home. Make your own country crap. Leave ours alone!”

Actually, he said a lot worse than that. He kept shouting and shouting. But I stayed quiet. I just went on hanging my clothes. My hands were shaking.

I went inside, sat with my roommates and told them what he said. We kept watching the television, scared and upset, wondering what would happen. Back in Kabul, I had a good life, family, friends, a community. I had published a book on the Taliban, condemning terrorism. That made me visible, a target. A gang kidnapped me, held me ransom, beat and tortured me. I escaped, and we went to the police. They arrested some of my kidnappers.

But the threats kept coming. The gang found my home. They killed my father, my brothers and my sisters. My mother and I fled. We moved in with some friends. But it wasn’t safe for me to stay in Afghanistan. So I went to Norway to apply for asylum.

I was glad to have an apartment and roommates from home. But no one knew us in Kongsberg.

Suddenly, all…changed. There had been another (terrorist) attack, on an island outside Oslo. A man shot more than 60 people, many of them children. They were saying it was the same man responsible for the bombing. A name came on the screen— a Norwegian name. He had surrendered and confessed…

Then there was a knock on the door. We didn’t know if we should answer. But we thought, No, it’s O.K. They know it wasn’t a Muslim who did these attacks. I opened the door.

It was my neighbor. He was speaking very quickly, apologizing, telling me how ashamed he was for what he’d said. He was crying. This big, pale, redheaded Norwegian man who worked in an office and sometimes on his car on the weekends, he had tears all down his face. He hugged me. ..Whatever I needed, he told me, he would try to help…

Rakeen is now among the refugees who come here to St. Paul’s as his journey continues.

Today’s Gospel lesson is very clear:  God’s heavenly banquet is open to all.  As people of God, we live into that truth by embracing those who are different than us.  Especially among those we love the least.

The community of St. Paul’s is good preparation for what is to come.   For if we expect that everyone at God’s banquet will look and live and believe just like us, we will be very disappointed.

Amen.

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