Proper 17C, 2019
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Kelly
Last week I shared a memory of that old movie The African Queen as an anecdote to Biblical stories of perseverance (and liminal places). This morning, I want to share a story from another favorite movie. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it or not. I will tell the story within the story.
I have often used this movie for teaching and preaching about Lent. But today we have a theme of hospitality so it came to mind.
The film is Chocolat which was released late in 2000. It stars Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche and takes place in 1959, in a fictional quaint village in which the center of town is still the church.
The character played by Binoche, Vianne is a free spirited vagrant of sorts who seems to follow the wind from town to town. She shows up in this little town on a windy night. Within days, she opens an unusual chocolate shop, right across the square from the church. She has a clairvoyant ability to perceive her customers' desires and satisfy them with just the right confection and she coaxes the villagers to abandon themselves to temptation. This story unfolds just as Lent begins.
The local leadership of the village is rigid about morals and the keeping of religious rules, especially fasting during Lent. And everyone in the entire town attends services every Sunday. Except Vianne. She instead tempts them with chocolate and so you can imagine the rest of the conflict of the story.
And you can see why this is fodder for a lenten sermon. But there is a subplot that I want to tell you about. A minor character is an aging grandmother played by Judi Dench. She is grumpy and complains a lot about her ailments. The lead character realizes that there is a chasm between Judi Dench and her daughter. The daughter will not allow the grandmother to spend time with her bright and lovely 10-year-old grandson.
So, the protagonist, Vianne, intervenes and successfully instigates reconciliation in this family. This proves she is not, after all, the devil.
Near the climax of the film Judi Dench decides to hold a dinner party in her back yard. It is a beautiful night. Vianne cooks a meal that is unbelievably delicious. The guests are from all sides of the conflict in the story, and unlikely invitation list. But they come together anyway, to a long table under the stars and are transformed by this meal. They enjoy the delight of the food and atmosphere of a perfect evening. And then they all go off into the night which is like a fairy tale of mystical and joyous frivolity. A night such as that of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream when passions run high. There are fireworks, and coupling and fights and secrets and veritable running through the forest in full celebration of all the joys and delights that life holds.
But meanwhile, Judi Dench’s character, having been helped by her doting grandson back into the house and into her favorite chair by the fire, falls asleep to not wake. Everyone leaves her alone to enjoy their youth and splendor. She dies peacefully and happy. It is exactly what she wanted.
I share this image for a couple of reasons. The theme of hospitality is involved in this depiction of giving your own farewell a dinner party. But also depicted here are the themes of joy and delight in God’s creation. And the reconciliation of relationships. And the dangers of a rigid and doctrinal organized religion.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is having dinner with a religious leader. Not just dinner but a Sabbath meal and not just any Jew but a respectable Pharisee. This is unusual compared to his frequent act of dining with sinners. He uses this gathering as a teaching moment, however. This is not unusual.
The setting of a communal meal is significant here. In Luke’s narrative, meals are symbolic of the anticipated coming of God’s Kingdom - a foretaste of the Messianic banquet. In the verses omitted from today’s reading, Jesus helps a moan with dropsy. He justifies his actions by asking who among them would not rescue livestock from a ditch even on the Sabbath.
This dinner takes place right after the story we studied last Sunday of Jesus healing a woman who had been bent over for 18 years - on the Sabbath. I remarked then how silly it seems for these religious leaders to focus on the letter of the law when a miracle has happened.
This week, at this teaching moment over the Sabbath meal, Jesus tells a parable about the preferred seating at a wedding banquet. He follows this with more teachings to further illustrate his point about the radical hospitality of God’s Kingdom. In God’s realm, worldly social conditions are turned upside down.
Palestinian feasts were arranged so that guests declined in groups of three. The position in the middle was the most favored place and was reserved for those with the most power, wealth, or social status. If a more eminent person arrived later, often the one in the highest place would be asked to step down.
So Jesus advises that it is better to sit at a less prestigious place at the table with the possibility of being asked to go higher. In a lower place, the worst that can happen is that one would remain in the same seat or be asked to move up to one befitting true importance.
Then he advises his hosts about who should be invited to dinner. When one sets out a banquet, it should not be for social equals or rich neighbors who will invite you in return. Instead, invite the poor, the maimed, and the blind, who cannot reciprocate. Through this will come blessings, and “you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
That’s what I like about the story of that Judi Dench character who throws a banquet of reconciliation and celebration, invites a strange mix of people and hires the best caterer then quietly slips away into her right reward.
But there is another point to this story. This is not about getting into heaven. Here Jesus models for us how to treat each other, how to be hospitable, how to be merciful to the less fortunate, the sick, the marginalized.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews builds on these words of Jesus by giving examples of the “mutual love” the community is to exemplify. Such love manifests humility in which the needs of others are not less important than our own.
One aspect of this radical, unfailing love is to “show hospitality to strangers” who may in fact be embodiments of God’s presence.
This can be compared to a story from the 18th chapter of Genesis, which is not in our readings today but you must remember it. It is the story of when the Lord told Abraham that Sarah would bear a child in her old age. Sarah was eaves dropping on that conversation and she laughed. And the Lord heard her laugh and called her out on it when she denied laughing and said to Sarah, essentially, “No, really, I’m not kidding!” And this promise came to be.
But that story is set during a dinner party in which three strangers showed up unannounced and Abraham set out his best banquet for their guests. The icon image on the front of your bulletin tells this story.
This is a 15th century Russian icon. Icons are said to be “written” not painted. This is because they tell a story. In this icon you can see Abraham and Sarah’s house in the background and seated around a table are the three strangers who visited Abraham in this story from Genesis of which I have just reminded you. These strangers were later understood as messengers, otherwise called angels. (This is indicated in the next chapter.) That is why they have wings.
But the icon is full of symbolism and is interpreted as an icon of not just the three strangers who visited Abraham. They were later interpreted, and it is believed intended by the original artist as a depiction also of the Holy Trinity. At the time the icon was “written,” the Holy Trinity was understood as the embodiment of spiritual unity, peace, harmony, mutual love and humility.
And here they are at dinner together.
The right angel symbolizes God the Father. If you’ll notice though, each angel seems both male and female in some way and so they fit the contemporary notion of “gender neutral.”
Anyway, the Father blesses the cup, yet his hand is painted in a distance, as if he passes the cup to the central angel. The central angel represents Jesus who in turn blesses the cup as well and accepts it with a bow toward the Holy Spirit. There are different interpretations, however as to which angel depicts which person of the Holy Trinity and yet, to me, each person of the Trinity is seen in each angel. They are one.
This is the ultimate image of Christian hospitality, the heavenly banquet. And, yes, we are all invited to that banquet in due time. In the mean time, we are called to offer hospitality to strangers, all strangers; those in need, the hungry, the destitute, the sick and the lonely.
How are we doing with that call? Surely the list of our good works is significant. But I ask you to consider this question: Is there some other way you can practice hospitality in this world, at this time? Can you quiet your busy-ness and listen prayerfully for God’s nudges for you to do something new, different, maybe even easier and more enjoyable - like hosting a party?
A year before his death in 1924, the great novelist Franz Kafka had a very unusual experience. He was strolling through the Steglitz park in Berlin and he came upon a young girl crying and heartbroken. She told him she had lost her doll.
Kafka offered to help look for the doll and prepared to meet her the next day at the same place.
He was unable to find the doll so he composed a letter which was fictitiously "written" by the lost doll. And when they met again he read this letter to the little girl. It said, “Please do not cry, I have gone on a trip to see the world. I'm going to write to you about my adventures …"
This was the beginning of many letters. He and the girl agreed to meet often and whenever they met he read these carefully composed letters of imaginary adventures about the beloved doll. The girl was comforted. When the meetings came to an end, Kafka gave her a new doll. She obviously looked different from the original doll. An attached letter explained why. It said, in the doll’s words, ”My trips, they have changed me …"
Many years later, the now grown-up girl found a letter tucked into an unnoticed crack inside the wrist of the doll. In short, it said: "Every thing you love is very likely to be lost, but in the end, love will return in a different way.”
We have so many opportunities to show hospitality to strangers. What gets in our way? What fear has been driven between us and our creative urges to care in such a way as Kafka did? What holds us back from truly following those nudges of the Spirit to show hospitality to strangers?
I for one hope that we can work on this invitation to not only dine at the heavenly banquet but to offer hospitality on earth to the needy, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”