Luke Chapter 14
Blogger Sam Eaton recently wrote an article about the lack of millennials in the church. He is not the first; you can find a thousand perspectives on the internet today on what he points out as a painful reality. According to a recent study:
- Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe attending a church is important or worthwhile (an all-time low).
- 59 percent of millennials (22- to 35-year-olds) raised in a church have dropped out.
- 35 percent of millennials have an anti-church stance, believing the church does more harm than good.
- Millennials are the least likely age group of anyone to attend church (by far).
It doesn’t look good for the home team. The Long 20’s group in our church recently studied this article, asking what that looks like in our own congregation. Eaton issues 12 sobering conclusions as to how we got here as a Church. Today, one of them stands out to me. He says it bluntly: “Helping the poor isn’t a priority.”
He goes on to suggest that young people, and really people of all ages who are rejecting the Church, see that so many of our congregations simply don’t take care of the poor. Those on the outside of the Church aren’t dumb. They read the Bible and know what Jesus says about the poor. And they see a disconnect with what is happening inside of so many churches. He quotes David Platt from his book Radical: “If our lives do not reflect radical compassion for the poor, there is reason to wonder if Christ is in us at all.”
In short, if we as a congregation are not enacting the words of Jesus and caring for the poor, we can continue to see those outside the church finding something else to do on Sunday mornings, and not finding their way to our doors. And I’m not talking about a handful of people in the church doing all of the work when it comes to missions and caring ministries. I am talking about a wholesale, engaged, fully committed congregation who believes that caring for the least of these is a core part of our identity.
So don’t even talk to me about how we need to get more people in the pews until you have signed up for Family Promise, LINK, food pantry, Justice Matters, or all of the above. Because, according to Eaton and the studies, until you do, you are the reason why people see the Church as hypocritical and uncaring. And until you are ready to make a difference, you won’t ever see a difference in our attendance, our giving, or our participation. We can talk about being a welcoming church. We can put it as our first of four W’s on the top of our newsletter. We can brag until we are blue in the face about how friendly we are to everyone. But if we are not caring for the poor, those who we want to visit, attend, join, and partner with us, will laugh at our hypocrisy as they drive past us.
But let’s not take Sam Eaton’s word for it. How about we take Jesus at his word?
The passage I read this morning is a part of a longer scene in the 14th chapter of Luke. The chapter takes place at the home of a well-to-do Pharisee, and involves a large social gathering. Within the chapter, there are four sections that all work together to reveal Jesus’ radical social ethic as he teaches those at the party what he is all about.
First, Jesus heals a man with dropsy. We usually call this edema, or an excess swelling in the body. Jesus heals this man even though it is the Sabbath – and makes his hosts and guests uncomfortable as he presses the point about why he would do such a thing.
Second, Jesus watches the guests jockey for social position. Where you sat at the table mattered, and in order to be seen in higher social standing, you wanted to sit in places of honor at the head of the table, and not places of dishonor. But Jesus saw the guests jockeying for position and told them that they should not push to get to the head of the table, but to the back of the room, the end of the table.
Third, he turns to the host, who has obviously invited the socially worthy and upstanding. And he says, “when you throw a party, don’t invite the well-to-do, but the down and out – the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Don’t care so much about your social standing! Care for the least of these as a matter of a way of life, an expectation.”
Now, by this point in the chapter, just about everyone in the room has become uncomfortable. Jesus has taken aim at the host, the guests, and the religious fanatics that judge him for healing on the Sabbath.
But he is not done, yet. A guest tries to smooth things over with a cliché about the end times, and Jesus just uses it to tell a story that demonstrates this radical ethic.
Once again, Jesus makes the point that one must care for the down and out. We as readers get hung up on the role of the guests and the flimsy excuses that they offer. But Jesus doesn’t really judge them. His point is aimed at the host. It is the host who is not living by this social ethic of caring for the down and out, of including the excluded, of serving the poor. The host is the one who has done what Jesus has just preached NOT to do, and invited his friends and the upper crust of the community. Jesus’ point in the story is that the host should have started with the social outsiders – the poor, the blind, the homeless who aren’t even allowed inside of the city gates, and have to be compelled to come in because they don’t want to get in trouble. It is the host and his growing wisdom and inclusivity that is at the heart of the message that Jesus is proclaiming. By the end of the story, he gets it. And Jesus hopes that those who hear the story do, too.
Now, this is usually the point in the sermon where I say something like, “Jesus commands us to do the hard work of caring for the poor. It is difficult. It is self-sacrificing. It is complex.” And I believe that those things are true. However, that is not what Jesus says here. In fact, I think he is saying something completely different. Look at these four vignettes together and you see a pattern emerging.
The Spiritual Leadership Team first highlighted this, as we explored a part of this passage on Wednesday night this week as a part of an Ignatian prayer exercise. A couple of people made the point that Jesus didn’t sound like he was telling people to take up their cross or sacrifice themselves for the good of others. In fact, it almost sounds like pragmatic advice, something akin to “How to win friends and influence people.” As if he isn’t appealing to their sense of obligation, but their sense of self-interest. Jesus seems to be telling everyone at this party that they should be inclusive, humble, and considerate, because it works! And the alternative doesn’t. In each of these four vignettes, he appeals to their self-interest:
- Why heal this man on the Sabbath? “If your son falls in a hole on the Sabbath, would you leave him there because it takes work to pull him out? Or would you save him? Of course, I will heal this man.”
- He tells the guests that they should start by humbling themselves and sitting at the socially low part of the table. Because it is the right thing to do? No, so that they will get invited up to the front!
- Then he tells the host not to invite just his friends, but the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Because it’s the right thing to do? No, because if he does, he will get rewarded in the long run.
- And now, in today’s passage, it almost sounds as if Jesus was saying, “if you invite the upper crust and the social ladder climbers, you are going to end up alone at an empty table. Exclusivity fails! Instead, invite the outsiders because it will guarantee and full house and a rip-roaring party!”
In short, you will be better off in the long run if you live by this social ethic. Considering others above yourself and your social needs…works. In other words, Jesus seems to be saying “live according to this social ethic that I am teaching you, so that you will have a better life.” There was an overriding social ethic at the time that suggested that in order for some to be happy and satisfied, others needed to be put down and oppressed. But Jesus’ social ethic proclaimed the opposite: that if we bring others up, offer support and show love, care for the most oppressed, then all of us will reap the benefits! Helping the poor helps the poor…and it helps those helping the poor. It doesn’t meant that it won’t be challenging or complex to care for the “least of these.” But I think that Jesus’ point is that it is better than the alternative: Exclusivity and self-centeredness and looking down your nose at the poor will, according to Jesus, lead to a life that is empty and hopeless, and a lot of days sitting embarrassed and alone at the table wondering where all your fake friends went off to. But, the life of inclusivity and love, of service and humility, is really the best way to live!
I don’t know about you, but it feels a little weird saying things like this.
I’m supposed to tell you that you should care for the poor because you ought to.
I’m supposed to tell you that you should serve the least of these just because you should.
I’m supposed to tell you that you should be welcoming and inclusive because it’s the right thing to do.
But, one, psychologists tell us that it won’t have much impact if I tell you that, because guilt and obligation usually doesn’t motivate for long.
And then, more importantly, I don’t need to! Jesus didn’t either. He said do these things because it is not just better for them…it is better for you!
- It is better for your bodies and your minds: Studies show that doing things for the least of these lowers your tension, strengthens your immune system, helps you gain empathy, gives you more joy and happiness.
- It is better for our communities: the affordable housing research we have done shows that when communities make affordable housing a priority, it helps the schools, the hospitals, and lifts the whole housing market.
- It is better for churches: Eaton and others suggest that the less we care about the poor, the less people will bother to show up on our front door.
It feels self-serving to say it this way, but Jesus did. Living by this social ethic really is the best way to live! Even if you are completely self-centered and doing it for your own good, serve others. Care for the outsider. Practice humility. Like Jesus preached, it really is the best way to live! But if these studies and scientists sound too secular, listen to the spiritual explanation of this passage given by Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell in their book Divine Dance:
“In unhealthy religion, we’ve felt this pathological need to make everybody the same; church has become more and more an exclusionary institution instead of this great banquet feast where Jesus invites in ‘sinners,’ outcasts, the marginalized, and the ne’er-do-wells….We don’t want ‘those people’ in here with us. Maybe send some money or some missionaries ‘over there’ to them, but please don’t bring them here, with us!”
But, he says, what is at the heart of that rejection of other and judgment of the outsider is that we don’t truly understand that every person is a child of God. Including those that the world pushes to the margins. When the Church is able to open our eyes to the fact that all accepted by God, it changes our nature, as well. Again, Rohr and Morrell:
“This might well be the essence of the spiritual journey for all of us – to accept that we are accepted and go and live likewise….We’re all united to God, but only some of us know it. Most of us deny it and doubt it…God does not love you because you are good. God loves you because God is good.”
In other words, the practical answer to why there aren’t more people in the pews might just be that we don’t fully and totally accept them, because deep down, we don’t really accept that we are worthy of being here either.
“God does not love you because you are good. God loves you because God is good.” Rohr writes that it will take the rest of our lives to internalize this. But as we do, incrementally and slowly, it will make us healthier and happier people. It will make us a more inviting and charismatic and attractive church. And it will spread this radical social ethic of Jesus like a virus across the world, changing and transforming our culture and the world into the place of abundant life that Christ came to offer us. May we know that love deep within our souls today.
Margaret Crain tells the story of the First United Methodist Church of Evanston, Illinois. In 1952, it was the largest Methodist Church in the United States, but by 1990, it had shrunk to a few hundred people. Water damaged the walls and classrooms were largely unused. The pews were filled with almost exclusively Anglo faces, and many of them were anxious about the future of the church.
But that was before 1998, when the youth group began visiting the mountains of Appalachia on yearly mission trips to one of the most economically depressed areas of the country. Year after year, they chose to make mission a cornerstone of their church’s identity. On these trips, the young people began to look for what they called “God moments,” along the way. Eventually, they realized that those experiences on their trips could be translated into their context back home. Over time, it became clear that their experiences on these mission trips were having an impact on the lives of the youth group members, and on the whole church. Members of the congregation name this dynamic as something that has transformed their congregation. And it started having an impact on the congregation. They began to see people different from them as God’s children, too, and eventually they grew to become much more diverse as a congregation, especially in the youth group. The congregation that once wrung its hands over what the future would bring now see themselves as a vital part of God’s work in Evanston and beyond. They learned what it meant to look beyond their own anxiety and care for the needs of others. And it transformed their congregation in significant ways. They learned what it meant to live that abundant life, and they found God at work in surprising and profound ways.