God of all power and might, increase in us true religion.
Increase in us true religion. The R-word. Religion. The word everybody loves to hate. I’m spiritual, not religious. Have you ever heard that? Have you ever said it? We live in a spiritual but not religious universe, a universe where the good news is that more and more people acknowledge the spirit as an important part of who they are. That’s the good news. The bad news is that over time—especially the past 800 years or so—religion has gotten a bad name.
Religion is associated with structures that degrade our humanity, structures that abuse hierarchy and power in order to shame people into thinking they are bad people, that they must submit to that same power and hierarchy in order to get good. Religion has gotten a bad name because it is associated with expressions of personal piety that sometimes come across as personal superiority. We all know people like this. Religion has gotten a bad name because of what writer Brian McLaren calls “the gospel of sin management.” By this he means the teaching that says the whole purpose of following Jesus is to be sure that we keep out of hell.
I have a few things to say in defense of religion. The word religion comes from the same root as the word “rule,” as in, a ruler, something you measure with. People in monastic traditions talk about a rule of life. Such a rule is a guide, like a yardstick, alongside which we can structure of our day, our week, and our lives. Anyone can have a rule of life—you don’t have to be a monk. A rule of life is especially good for someone like me who otherwise might have very little self-discipline.
I follow—to the best of my human ability—a rule of life that says I will pray the daily office from the book of common prayer, I’ll part-take in the Holy Eucharist every Sunday and on major feasts, I’ll make a sacramental confession in Advent and Lent, I’ll always be engaged in some form of study, and that when my paycheck arrives, the first check I write is to my church for ten percent of the amount of the check. This rule, this religion, is necessary not because I’m such a spiritual person, but because I’m so human. Without some kind of rule of life, I’d be out there fighting my way to the head of the table every single time.
Religion—which I loosely define as practices we undertake to keep ourselves in line with God’s great love for us—is all about how we behave in relationship to our brothers and sisters in the world around us. And this is what today’s gospel is all about.
Today’s gospel uses Jesus’ very favorite setting to teach us about true religion: a dinner party. How we eat and drink, and with whom, has always been a huge matter of concern to the people of God throughout the vast sweep of history. There is Eve’s first bite of the forbidden fruit. There is Abraham’s hospitality to his holy visitors. There are the hundreds of dietary laws set down in the book of Leviticus. There is Jesus, eating and drinking with sinners and outcasts. And there are the earliest Jewish Christians who spent most of the first century worrying about whether they could share meals with Gentile Christians and still be faithful to the God of their ancestors.
Of all the evangelists, Luke pays particular attention to this issue: hospitality and sharing meals was as much a part of Jewish life in first century Palestine as it is in our lives today. Luke describes ten separate meals in his version of the story of Jesus. Mealtime was Jesus’ teaching moment. In today’s Gospel, Jesus has something to say to dinner guests, and something to say to dinner hosts.
To the guests he says: stop jockeying for position, and take the lowest place. You are not in charge of your station in life. In God’s eyes, everyone is equal. Your job is to humble yourself.
In this, as in so much, Jesus turns the social order on its head, and challenges any assumptions we may have about our place in the world. Few of us ever let go of these assumptions completely.
Jesus has something to say to dinner hosts. When you have a dinner party, do not invite the usual suspects: friends, family, neighbors. Invite the uninvited. In the Gospel, the uninvited are the poor, the maimed, the outcast. In Acts, the uninvited are the Gentiles, the foreigner. Jesus included among his inner circle of followers people who would not normally be on anyone’s guest list. This tells us something about the kind of community to which God calls us.
It is only by sitting at the lowest place at the table that we learn that God’s love has nothing to do with our rank or station in life. It is only by inviting the uninvited into our fellowship that we learn that God’s love does not recognize the divisions that we see.
All of Jesus’ dinner party stories have as much to say to religious institutions as they do to individuals. As a parish, what ought our true religion be when it comes to table manners? What is our corporate rule of life when it comes to where we sit and whom we invite? What might the lowest place at the table look like at St. David’s? Who are the uninvited that we need to invite into our midst?
It is of course no coincidence that Jesus’ last gift to us was at table. He took bread, gave thanks, broke the bread, and shared it, and asked us to do the same. Our table ritual of bread and wine is at the heart of all that we do. As we prepare for this ancient religious dinner party, let us give thanks for God’s undiscriminating love, and let us celebrate.