You’re Invited!

Dr. Dorothee Benz

October 31, 2010

Clinton Ave. UMC, Kingston

Luke 14:12-24

Let me begin by saying that I am honored and delighted to be here worshipping with you today. Thank you for inviting me.

I’m not a professional preacher or a minister or anything like that. (You’ve been warned.) I work for the labor movement, fighting for workers’ rights and economic justice. Specifically, my job is communications and public relations. There’s a rule in communications, which is that in order to get your message across you have to repeat it multiple times. That’s why, for instance, you see the same commercial 20 times during a football game – repetition is the key to getting people to remember your point.

That’s why I love this scripture – because Jesus makes the same point twice in it. First he tells us when you throw a party, invite the poor and the outcast. Then he tells us a parable where the point is that God invites the poor and the outcast. The Gospel writer, Luke, wanted to make sure we got the message. In fact, the same point is made a third time in the verses just before the ones we read. So as a professional PR person, I really relate to Luke – he’s doing his job as a communicator.

The first part of this scripture is really very straightforward: Jesus says when you have a lunch or dinner, make sure you invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.

There are two things historically we need to know about these words to get their full meaning.

The first is that in Jesus’s day sharing a meal, inviting someone into your home, showing hospitality were really important values in his culture. There were no restaurants, no fast food, no supermarkets – if someone needed a meal, the only way to get it was if someone else invited them into their home. The Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, is full of stories about hospitality, letting us know that following God means offering hospitality to our fellow human beings.

The second thing to note about what Jesus says here is who he says should be invited: the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Jesus lived in a society with a lot of social hierarchy, where rich people enjoyed privileges that they considered too good for the poor; they looked down on the poor as less than, and it was considered scandalous for the rich to eat with the poor. But Jesus says to his host, who we know from earlier in the chapter is a well-connected religious leader: invite the poor to your dinner.

In Jesus’s time, if you were disabled or sick – crippled, blind, lame, for instance – that meant you had no way to earn a living (there was no Israelites with Disabilities Act…). It meant you were poor and generally that you had to beg for food. People also thought of disease as a sign that you had done something wrong, you had sinned to bring it on yourself; if you were blind or paralyzed or had leprosy, it was seen as your fault in some way. So being disabled or sick meant that you were not only poor and destitute, dependent on the charity of others; it also meant you were marginalized and ostracized.

Come to think of it, a lot of that is still true. If you get sick or disabled and you can’t go to work, you lose your job. If you don’t have insurance, you can’t afford health care. You may end up having to decide between paying the rent and paying for your medications; you may end up homeless. It’s also true that as a society, we often still blame people for their misfortunes. If you have diabetes, people will judge you for not eating right or being overweight; high blood pressure, you shouldn’t eat so much salt; if you have AIDS, they will say you it’s your fault because you used drugs or had sex with the wrong person. The truth is in America in 2010, all too often, serious illness or a bad accident still mean poverty and marginalization.

But here’s the really great thing about Jesus for those who are down and out and want to be his followers: All those people shunned and cast out by the rest of society? Jesus says c’mon in! You are invited. The hospitality he offers and the hospitality he is telling others they need to offer is hospitality to the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed. What he’s saying here in this scripture is incredibly radical: the guests that need to be invited are not the well-off, well-connected and well-heeled members of society – no, it’s the most desperate and outcast members of society that he’s telling us are to be the honored guests at lunch and dinner. It’s not just hospitality; it’s radical hospitality.

Jesus lived what he preached in these verses. The Gospels are full of stories of him shocking so-called respectable people by having dinner with so-called less respectable people. He eats with the outcast; he feeds to poor. He also heals the sick. He does something no one was supposed to do; he not only heals lepers, he touches them.

Jesus’s ministry is concrete and comprehensive. It’s about food, healing, the needs of the body. So if we want to be his followers, we have to do the same. We have to be about feeding the poor, housing the homeless, providing health care to the sick. I know that you all do that here at Clinton Avenue already with your soup kitchen and your presence in the community.

But Jesus is about more than taking care of people’s physical needs. He is also about lifting up the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed and saying that they are as good as, as worthy as the rich and the respectable. He deliberately seeks out people who in his day were shunned – he talks to Samaritans, he invites children to come to him, he makes women part of his ministry – again and again, he challenges every social boundary. Every time someone defined a certain kind of person as less than, Jesus erases that boundary and says “to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

This is exactly what the second part of today’s Gospel lesson is about. In the parable Jesus tells here, everyone that the host originally invites turns down the invitation; they all have an excuse about why they can’t come. So then the host turns around and invites everybody. He tells his slave, go invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, go out into the streets and invite everyone. As in the first part of the scripture, the focus here is on all the people on the margins of society. There are now the honored guests.

This is a parable. The host in this story is God. God welcomes in all the poor and the oppressed. Just as importantly, at the end of the story, after all the respectable people do not heed God’s invitation, the host – God – says “none of those who were [originally] invited will taste my dinner.” It’s a little harsh, isn’t it? But the point is if we want to be with God, if we want to follow Jesus, if we want to be at the dinner party, we have got to answer when God calls. We can’t just send an excuse and say we were busy.

So what is God calling us to do? The answer is pretty clear in this scripture, thanks to Luke’s communication skills and his use of repetition to drive home the point. We are called to welcome everybody, to practice radical hospitality, and that means especially to welcome and defend the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed.

There are so many people in our society who fall in that category, and our job is to embrace them all, but my job here this morning is to lift up one particular group of people that Jesus calls us to welcome and that is lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, or LGBT people as we say for short.

Gay people are just born that way. Like me. We are made in God’s image, like everybody else, and God made us gay.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, but there is still a lot of prejudice against LGBT people in our society. In most cities and states, we can be legally discriminated against – fired or evicted, for instance, just for being gay. In most states, including New York, we cannot get married. There are religious leaders who condemn us, politicians who denounce us, and institutions like the Boy Scouts and the Army that we are not allowed to serve in openly.

Our schools are hostile, dangerous places for young LGBT people. Nine out of 10 LGBT kids are harassed or assaulted at school. Last month, six gay teenagers, some of them only in middle school, killed themselves after relentless bullying by other kids. In the school yard, “faggot” is still the worst thing kids can think to call each other.

Meanwhile, violence against LGBT people is on the rise. Thousands of us are assaulted every year, and in 2008 (the last year for which there are official statistics) 28 people were murdered just for being gay or transgender. A few weeks ago in New York City, three men were abducted and tortured and sexually assaulted for hours simply because they are gay.

I am certain that if Jesus were here today having one of his meals with the poor and the oppressed, LGBT people would be invited to the table with him. And if we want to follow Jesus’s example, we need to invite them and welcome them, too.

Prejudice against gay people isn’t news, but here’s something that you may not know: Our own church, the United Methodist Church, discriminates against gay people. I don’t mean Clinton Avenue, I mean the larger denomination that you and I belong to. The Methodist church does not allow gays and lesbians to become ministers or to get married; and it allows pastors to deny us membership in the church simply because we’re gay.

That’s messed up. There’s no other way to say it. It’s wrong. It runs against everything Jesus taught us and everything he calls us to do in terms of welcoming and defending the outcast.

But there is good news: There is a movement within the United Methodist Church to change that, to get rid of the discrimination and to make sure that all churches truly welcome all people. It’s called the reconciling movement. To reconcile, according to Webster’s dictionary, means to restore friendship or harmony, to bring things back into harmony. The reconciling movement in the United Methodist Church is all about bringing the church back in harmony with the Gospel, about healing the wounds of LGBT people that are caused by the church’s discrimination.

I’m here today because I’m part of that movement, and I’m here to ask you to become part of it, too.

My friend Charlotte (wave) and I are part of a group called Methodists in New Directions – MIND for short. We are the reconciling organization for this area. We have 500 members and we are working to change the church in many different ways. I want to tell you about two of them.

First, together with a whole bunch of other organizations we are sponsoring a conference on hate crimes on November 20. It’s called My Brother’s Keeper: People of Faith Confront Hate Crimes and it’s going to be in New York City. It’s about what we as Christians can and must do to help end violence against people who are attacked simply because of who they are. That includes LGBT people, but it also includes immigrants and people of color; it means people who are victims because of their religion, their ethnicity, their race, their sexual orientation, their gender expression, their economic status, their disability – all victims. We are about ending violence against all of God’s children, about defending all these vulnerable groups.

It’s November 20, and I hope you will join us there.

Second, MIND works with local congregations to encourage them to join the movement and become reconciling churches. Becoming a reconciling church means deciding you’re going to dissent from the United Methodist Church’s policies of discrimination, that you are going to welcome everybody, and you are going to work to defend ALL those that Jesus invited in that are excluded by the church. It means proclaiming it out loud so everyone knows: WE WELCOME LGBT PEOPLE.

So, Clinton Avenue, will you join the movement and become a reconciling church? Are you ready to extend your radical hospitality to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people?

Think of it as an invitation to a great dinner party…an invitation from God…an invitation you don’t want to say you were too busy to accept.