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Sunday, August 28, 2016 | 8:00 a.m.

A Humble Feast

Matt Helms
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1–8
Luke 14:1, 7–14

As you grow up, always tell the truth, do no harm to others,
and don’t think you are the most important being on earth.
Rich or poor, you then can look anyone in the eye and say,
“I’m probably no better than you, but I’m certainly your equal.”

Harper Lee

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to serve as staff chaplain for one of the many visiting youth groups that come through Fourth Church as a part of our Urban Youth Mission program every summer. Urban Youth Mission was started a few years back as a way to give youth groups from all across the country an opportunity to come to Chicago and volunteer with local charity and outreach organizations, experiencing some of the many ways that these groups—including many of Fourth Church’s own programs—are seeking to improve the lives of those whom our city often forgets.

This year we experimented with having a staff member lead the groups in a morning devotional here at the church before they left for their day of work—oftentimes using a particular scripture passage and having the kids participate in an exercise related to it. The final devotion of the week in which I was the staff chaplain was based on our second lesson from Luke today: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus says, “and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” “When you give a dinner, do not invite your friends or relatives or rich neighbors; invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” It felt like a great passage to sum up the week—a reminder that Christ is always calling us to reframe whom we see as being a part of our community, and it would serve as an invitation for them to participate in a similar sort of work in their hometowns, too.

After reading the passage, I had the kids and leaders engage in an exercise in which they were to imagine themselves as arranging a dinner party at their home church. Seated at the head seat would be their pastor, and the seats to the left and right of the pastor were the places of honor—the place where the most important guests should go. Many of the kids then received cards that would indicate various jobs, roles, or identities: “Teacher” or “Mayor” or “Chief of Police.” As new jobs and roles were added, the kids had to decide if this new addition was more important than either of the guests who were already seated at the places of honor. The “Chief of Police” unseated the “Teacher.” A “U.S. Senator” unseated the “Chief of Surgery,” and so on. We went through about twenty different jobs or roles, and after we were finished, the two guests who ended up seated next to their home pastor in our hypothetical game were “the C.E.O. of a Fortune 500 company” and “a billionaire investor.” While I’m sure that their church’s stewardship committee would have been happy, I admit I was surprised that the two positions most closely related to money were given the two most prestigious places over governors, mayors, or senators.

As we sat to unpack the results of the exercise, the kids made their argument: if this was a dinner for the church, wouldn’t the best thing be to try to get as much funding for its programs as possible? All of the social outreach and programs that churches and charities run are based on their ability to procure funding, which then allows them to do more good and help more people in the community. It is, of course, a compelling argument and is very much based in the reality of what it takes to keep ministries and charities running. “What should I do if I actually found myself in that scenario?” I found myself wondering. “What should any of us do when faced with this choice, balancing these words from Jesus about the need to open our tables with the reality of still providing for everyone at it?”

This dilemma is not new and is certainly not hypothetical; in fact, it was something that the church wrestled with even in its earliest days. The texts that both of our scripture passages come from today, the Gospel of Luke and the letter to the Hebrews, were both likely written around forty to fifty years after Jesus’ death, a full generation removed from the initial spread of Christianity led by Paul, Peter, and others. Although Christians had come to fall under suspicion by the Roman Empire under Nero’s time as emperor and the subsequent years would see persecution, being a Christian in the first century was not looked down upon, and many house churches had wealthy benefactors who were able to provide for the needs of the community. This dynamic was likely even taking place during the time of Paul, as the author of Luke later writes in Acts about Paul converting a woman named Lydia who was a dealer in purple cloth. While not sounding particularly noteworthy, hints in the text suggest that she was actually someone of wealth and influence in her community, hosting Paul and Silas within her household and providing for their and their followers well-being.

It was to this context, in which many of the earliest Christian communities were being challenged by a tension between the importance of those with money and power and addressing the needs of the whole community, that both Luke and Hebrews were written. Luke, more so than any of the other Gospels, stresses the idea that God’s salvation is for all while also stressing a radical equality for all those who follow Christ. The reversal-of-fortune language—such as “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”—is seen throughout both Luke and Acts, and it likely is in direct reference to the economic and social disparity present amongst many Christians as the movement began to spread out from Israel across the Roman Empire. And Hebrews clearly maintains a similar ethic, urging its readers to let mutual love continue, to show hospitality to strangers, remember those who are in prison, and live lives that are free from the love of money. These words have challenged Christians over the centuries and continue to challenge us today, setting our own task as a wealthy, downtown church in sharp focus.

Our congregation, like those from the earliest days of the church and beyond, has always been wrestling with the role that money, influence, and power play while always desiring to be attending to the needs of the community. Although you wouldn’t know it by looking at the buildings surrounding the church today, when this sanctuary was built just over 100 years ago the entire area was a fairly undeveloped part of the city called Pine Street, a place where the church could wholeheartedly engage directly with the economic and social disparities present within the city. Later, as the area around the church began to be built up while the neighborhood of Cabrini-Green one mile west began to struggle, the church began to engage in outreach programs, many of which, like the Tutoring program and the Social Service Center, still exist today. Yet despite this desire to be actively engaged in our community and the communities surrounding us, issues of wealth and privilege continued to be a part of this congregation as well. Many of you know that there was once a time when pews in the sanctuary could be rented by wealthy families, and anyone else who tried to sit in these areas would be escorted out by ushers wearing white gloves and morning coats. Thankfully that practice was done away with many years ago, but like those earliest Christian communities, albeit with a whole new set of considerations, we still continue to wrestle with passages like these from Luke and Hebrews and feel a sense of unease and uncertainty if we start to examine ourselves too closely. Do we, like the game those Urban Youth Mission participants played, favor the rich at our tables? Are we properly living out our call from Christ, who asked his followers to be seated at the lowest place at the table and to invite the poor and blind to dine with us at our tables? We may not be renting pews anymore, but we know too that we probably have a long way to go before we can truly proclaim that we treat all those who enter through our doors as equal, letting go of all that prevents us from seeing each of our neighbors as God’s beloved children, no more and no less.

It is for that reason, amongst many others, that our weekly celebration around the Communion table at this 8:00 service is so important: in the Communion meal, a humble feast in which one bread and one cup are shared, we are being reminded that all of us are equal as a part of Christ’s body and that we should let go of all that alienates us from one another outside of these walls. We see a glimpse of God’s kingdom in which divisions are no more, and we renew ourselves once again to work for a world in which that would indeed be true. In Paul’s first letter to the church community in Corinth, a letter directed at a community in which those with resources were not sharing with those who did not, Paul powerfully advocates for the need to put aside all inequality at the Communion table and for all to share in the same feast regardless of their status in the world. The table is a symbol of God’s reordering of the world, a reordering that we might never achieve but might ever be striving for—a world in which all are considered equal and all are known as children of God.

Our country today continues to struggle with inequality on many fronts, but the sharply widening gap between rich and poor perhaps best highlights the need for us as a church to wrestle once again with how we engage in this serious problem in a manner that reflects the love that Jesus shows when he invites the least expected to his table, that reflects Paul’s demand for inequality to be put aside. In this year alone our Elam Davies Social Service Center has seen more than 1,000 new guests come through our doors needing assistance, and our Sunday Night Suppers are routinely full. The great writer C.S. Lewis once wrote that “while Christians may think that what they most want is to possess life’s beauty, that is not their deepest hope. The most ardent hope and desire is to share in the beauty—to participate in the beauty and goodness of life.” And as the poet George Herbert once wrote, “There is no greater sign of holiness than the procuring and rejoicing in another’s good.” In doing so, we will indeed ‘let mutual love continue,” just as the author of Hebrews writes, and we will proclaim the vision set by Christ as host at the Communion table, where all are indeed one.

Just as our congregation decided to move from the old center of the city and share what they had in this part of town on Pine Street 100 years ago, and just as our congregation decided to invest in an area just one mile west of the church and share what they had with the residents there 50 years ago, so too our congregation is being called to decide how we are to address the growing needs of our day. So, friends, how might we as a community try to live out this message? What practices are we being called to let go of, and what practices are we being called to pick up, in order that we might work for a world that acknowledges that all are God’s children and all are equal in God’s sight? There won’t be any easy answers to the questions that we face, but we hope that all of our responses try to hold the vision found around the Communion table—the one where there are no places of honor and everyone comes as one of Christ’s guests. May it indeed be so. Amen.