This is the message that I presented for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 2 September 2001, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 2: 4 – 13; Hebrews 13: 1 – 9, 15 – 16, and Luke14: 1, 7 – 14.
It was that great existentialist philosopher, Yogi Berra, who reportedly said that "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." There are times when we are faced with a decision when that seems to be the best solution. The scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share." For we as Christians, discipleship itself is a something that must transcend the confines of time and space, so that the love of Christ is always made tangible in a busy and often cruel world. Individually we are invited to live our lives in such a way that we resist the clutter of things and money that so easily can skew our perspective of what is right and good according to God.
Over the next eight weeks, as we conclude the season of the church known as ordinary time and prepare for the season of Advent, we will be reminded by Jeremiah and the Psalms, by Paul in his letter to Timothy and the writer of Hebrews, and by Luke that our most important work is to magnify the presence of God wherever and whenever possible in the world. As I said last week, to be a witness doesn’t require that we hit people over the head with scripture but rather that we show others, our family, our friends, our co-workers and strangers that we worship the one true God.
It is possible and most likely probable that we are not up to the task, even though, as the Psalms say in Psalm 139: 14, we "are fearfully and wonderfully made" by a generous and loving God. We are assured that to be a true disciple all we have to do is care for the world as God does. With both persistent prayer (Luke 18: 6 – 7) and a steadfast faith (2 Timothy 3: 14), we can find the ways to love the prisoner, welcome the stranger (Hebrews 13: 1- 3), give to others abundantly, and rejoice when they cannot repay us. (Luke 14: 14)
We will also be reminded that the commitment to the gospel is an absolute one; only those free of possession can accept it. (Luke 14: 33) The best way to resist the pull of possessions is by sharing all that we have, and doing so with joy; in the words of the Mother Teresa, "It is not how much you give, but with how much love you give it." Our ability to give, and to do so with joy and love, will sufficiently betray our allegiance, not to any worldly leader or thing, but to the Holy One who has called us into being.
The scriptures this week specifically speak of how we live our lives. The Christian faith is not simply a decision we can give only passing notice. In being Christian, we become open to the possibilities of God’s power in our lives. The call to be a disciple of Christ is not done solely to agree with some theological point but to transform our life through new relationships and new priorities. The passages from Hebrew deal with how faith can impact on specific areas of our lives.
The most important relationship, of course, is the one between the Redeemer and the redeemed. The relationship with Christ overflows into our relationship with others. In the first three verses of Hebrews 13, the writer notes that our relationships with others are of ultimate significance.
We are to love one another as brothers. True love of others involves affirmation as well as confrontation. As Christ said, when we love each other in Christian love, the world will know that we are His disciples. And Christian love extends beyond those with whom we share the same faith. The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the countless times where the stranger was an angel. How we treat strangers is a mark of our faith as well.
Verse 3 in the passage from Hebrews today notes that we are to treat the imprisoned as fellow prisoners and the mistreated as fellow sufferers. This means that we are to identify with the bondage and suffering of those around us. Christ’s ministry was set forth in Luke 4: 18 as a fulfillment of the prophecy to set the captive free and heal the broken hearted. His purpose is the purpose of his followers, and it has not changed; we are still to be setting people free and healing their suffering. This passage should also remind us that the first mission of the John Wesley was to minister to those imprisoned in England.
The treatment of strangers and those less fortunate than us was the topic of the Gospel reading for today. Jesus had come as a guest for dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees. It should be noted that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were not as bad as one might think. They were highly respected merchants with a heart for God. In some regards, Jesus was most readily identified with them, rather than with the Sadducees.
It is clear from the words of Jesus that he had never studied under Dale Carnegie. He was not there to win friends or influence people. At the dinner, Jesus noticed how subtly but surely people made their way to the places of honor in the home. They were good people and they wanted to be recognized for their good work.
But Jesus saw it differently. More is at stake in this passage than a lesson in etiquette. This is, after all, a parable.
People’s actions reveal their hearts. The Pharisees saw themselves as more important than others. In the eyes of the Son of Man, that is a serious charge. Jesus calls for humility among religious leaders, not blowing their own horns and announcing their own importance.
I am sure that some of the people who were there must have looked at their friends and their host and wondered, "Who invited this guy?" It was one of those awkward moments that we have all encountered in a meeting or at a dinner. One of those moments that we hope will go away quickly.
But Jesus continued by questioning the motives of his host. This is clearly not something you would do if you wish to eat at this place again. Jesus asked, "Why did you invite only the beautiful people of the town? Where are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind? Why are they not considered important enough to invite for dinner?"
Those are clearly, at least to those at that dinner and perhaps to many today, silly questions. Good upstanding people know that there are standards to be upheld, reputations to consider. Besides this was a Sabbath dinner.
And that was the point that Jesus wanted to make. Because this was a Sabbath dinner, it was the perfect time to invite all of God’s children — the poor, those who were not able to invite you back; the crippled and the lame, those who may have to be carried into the room; the blind, those who have to be led.
Luke makes increasingly clear that those who were religious may be the blind ones. They can’t see nor can they hear what Jesus is saying about the kingdom of God and how one enters into it. They assume that it is the powerful who will inherit the earth, not the meek and that the meek must be stepped on in the process. Jesus reminded the religious leaders, as he reminds us today, that they should see themselves more as servants than as rulers.
It was Jeremiah who told us that "You are what you worship." While we may confess one faith, the object of our true devotion will be revealed in our everyday actions and in the things that we devote most of our time and energy. And when our hearts are devoted to anything but God, we betray not only God but also ourselves.
Jeremiah was not the first to remind the Israelites why their kingdom would fall. As in the narrative in 2 Kings 17, verse 15 of today’s reading states, "They went after false idols and became false." It is as if to say worship well, acknowledging God and God’s will, and you will grow in faith and knowledge and love of God and god’s children; worship and serve other gods — whether they be gods of gold, positions of power, or lusts of the flesh — worship falsely, and you will become false.
One writer noted that though more than 2,000 years have passed this passage was first read, little had changed; if anything, we now have more access to a greater variety of useless things. The idols are different in name and shape, but their effect is still the same. Lifeless objects bring only death, never life.
God’s lament is also a statement of God’s love. "What did I do so wrong," God asks in verse 4, "that you would act so wrongly." Interestingly enough, it was God’s grace that was the occasion for sin. We make the choice as to the God’s we worship. In the end, we are always given the freedom to choose between God and not-God.
In the Psalms we read that the one who "fears the Lord and greatly delights in commands" rejoices, for "his posterity shall be mighty upon the earth." (Psalm 112: 1 – 2) The choice to "fear" (which can also be translated as "revere") the Lord has never been easy one to make nor is it an easy one to maintain. But God promises that "I will never forsake you nor abandon you." (Hebrews 13: 5)
The decision to be a Christian, the decision to walk with Jesus, is not one taken lightly. Clearly, there are other paths that one can take. Each day we stand at the crossroads, like Jeremiah in Jeremiah 6: 16
Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk it in, and you will find rest for your souls.
The Israelites who heard Jeremiah choose to walk other paths. Jesus reaffirms the rewards of choosing the goodness that God asks of us. When our generosity and mercy have no bounds towards "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind … blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you." (Luke 14: 13 – 14) We are most pleased when our generosity (like God’s) is not repayable.
We stand today at the crossroads. Perhaps it is not a crossroad or intersection on a road somewhere but it is a crossroads in our own path of life. The question must be which way to go; what road shall we take? The invitation is made to choose the path of Christ.