Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.
For a helpful summary of the situation in Syria, click here.
To help the Syrian refugees, click here.
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow! Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force, Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation, Into the school where the scholar is studying, Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride, Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, plowing his field or gathering his grain, So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.
Walt Whitman wrote those words in the fall of 1861, just after the United States had embarked on the odyssey of carnage that was the American Civil War. At that point, most Americans assumed that the war would last a few months at the most; Union partisans thought that the rebels would lay down their arms as soon as they went into battle, while Confederates were persuaded that their cause, which they felt was so righteous, would lead them to speedy victory. During the fall of 1861, the war seemed distant; Americans felt that the war couldn’t touch their daily lives. In fact, well-to-do Americans often packed picnics and watched battles as if they were spectator sports. Young men rushed to enlist, afraid that the action would be over before they got to the battlefield. We now know that the war dragged on for four long years and took the lives of 600,000 young Americans, but during the fall of 1861, few could fathom the profound impact the war would have on the lives of every single person in this country. Walt Whitman was one of the few who did understand how much the war would change the very soul of America. In the poem he published during those early days of the war, he described the ominous and inescapable drums of war, avowing that no place was safe from their incessant pounding: not the school or the bridal suite or the farm or the church. During the heady first months of the war, Whitman was one of the first to make it clear that no one could avoid the inexorable march of war, that no one could escape those terrible drums.
Over the past week, the drums of war have been beating once again. Last Saturday, we saw the horrifying images of people in Syria who had been killed with chemical weapons. The footage was eerie; it looked like the many bombing attacks that we have seen on television, except there was no blood. Our hearts broke as we watched parents try to revive children who seemed to have drowned without any water. Many months ago, our leaders averred that the use of chemical weapons was the “red line” for US involvement in the Syrian civil war that has been raging for the past two years. This week, dozens of news outlets have explored what US involvement would look like, and we’ve heard about possibilities ranging from airstrikes to arming the rebel soldiers. Even after commemorating the work of the modern prophet of nonviolence on Wednesday, the President warned the Assad regime about the likelihood of violent US attacks. It has been a week in which the whirring of those terrible drums of war has become louder and more distinct, a week in which it seems that our country is marching inexorably to war.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable that doesn’t seem to deal with anything as earth shattering as the imminence of war. In fact, there are elements of this parable that seem downright petty. After all, if you are really worried about where you sit at a wedding banquet, you probably need to reorient your priorities. It’s intriguing to me that, in this parable, Jesus plays not on our compassion or our righteous indignation or our desire to be loved by God. Instead, he plays on our sense of embarrassment: “You wouldn’t want to be asked to move to another seat at the table in front of everybody, would you?” Jesus tells this parable with the assumption that no one likes to be embarrassed in front of their friends. And so, on one level, the instructions that Jesus gives in this story are just good advice for any social situation. When you come to a party, make sure you sit a less honorable place, make sure you sit in a spot that is below your station, so that you can be exalted in front of everyone, so that everyone can be impressed with you.
There is, however, another, much more profound level to this parable. This level requires us to enter the story as a guest. In this scenario, we arrive at the home of the host, pleased to be invited to a cool party, pleased to have the opportunity to rub elbows with some of the prominent members of the community. But as we enter the house, dripping with self-satisfaction, we notice that the other people who have been invited are not terribly prominent. In fact, most of the people who have been invited don’t seem to travel in the same circles that we do. Perhaps we’re here on the wrong night, or more likely, perhaps all of these people are gatecrashers. We make our way to the host, who is having a conversation with one of these ruffians. Without acknowledging this person who is obviously not supposed to be here, we say hello to the host, who greets us, and then turns back to the other person! Doesn’t she know who we are! Why would she snub us in favor of this person who is so obviously below our station? You can see what’s going on here. Our expectation is that we will be treated better because of who we are, but the host makes it clear to us that we are as worthy of her attention as everyone else in the room. The opposite scenario is also true. Say we’ve been invited to a party, but we are convinced that the invitation is a mistake. These people would never want to spend time with us: they’re too hip, they’re too educated, they’re too wealthy. Nevertheless, since we’re afraid of being considered rude, we put on our best suit (which is a little threadbare) and head to the party, planning to stand in the corner and keep as quiet as possible. When we enter the house, however, the host immediately walks over and greets us, telling us that she’d like us to sit with her for dinner. Though our expectation is that we will not be treated as well as everyone else, the host makes it clear that we are as worthy of her attention as everyone else in the room. In other words, this parable is not about how to behave properly in social situations, it is about realizing that regardless of who we are, regardless of where we come from, we are all equal before God, that “places of honor” are irrelevant in God’s kingdom, that we are all worthy of God’s grace and love.
As the drums of war continue to sound, as our country seems to be marching inexorably toward war in Syria, it would be easy for us to judge those people involved in the civil war. It would be easy for us to view the rebels as hapless victims crying out for the United States to ride in on a white horse and save the day. It would be easy for us to view Assad and his regime as callous brutes whose only objective is to destroy innocent life. It would be easy for us to adopt this simplistic understanding of the situation, but then we would be falling into the very trap that Jesus describes in the parable we heard today. We would be making judgments about the fundamental worthiness of the people involved in this horrific conflict. Jesus calls us to view those in this situation not as victims who deserve our pity or as thugs who deserve our condemnation; Jesus calls us to view them as people, to acknowledge the inescapable complexity of this situation and not assume that the only option we have is to start raining death from the skies. I’m not suggesting that the United States does nothing in response to the carnage in Syria, but there may be non-military options that can make an enormous difference in the lives of those who have been affected by this terrible war. During the course of the conflict, over two million people have fled Syria and are currently in refugee camps throughout the region. The UN High Commission on Refugees has estimated that it needs 5 billion dollars to meet the basic needs of these Syrian refugees; so far the US has provided $195 million. Before we intervene militarily, perhaps we can reach out from our abundance to those who fled Syria. Perhaps this is the way we can acknowledge that those who are struggling in those refugee camps are as worthy of our attention as anyone else, that they are all equal before God.
Now, it may be that I am being naïve, that this is a world in which the only way to stop humanitarian crises is with a show of military strength. But I hope for peace for one very tangible reason: I have seen it manifested in the community called the Church. At its best, the Church reveals that peace of God which passes understanding, that peace which the world cannot give, that peace which transcends all of the conflicts that plague humanity. And there is no example of this peace more powerful than the Eucharist. Every Sunday, we gather in this place and we live out the truth that Jesus reveals in the parable we heard this morning. Every Sunday, we participate in Holy Communion regardless of who we are or where we have come from. Every Sunday, we share the Eucharist with one another regardless of our political views, regardless of our feelings about Syria, regardless of whether we even get along. And by doing so, by receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in this place, we affirm the fundamental truth that through Jesus Christ, all people have been made worthy of God’s grace and love. Everywhere that Christians celebrate the Eucharist, whether beneath the soaring arches of Heavenly Rest or behind darkened windows in a Syrian basement, is an outpost of that kingdom where no sword is drawn. When we participate in the Eucharist, we are exalted to that place where the Prince of Peace reigns. And it’s no accident that our Communion liturgy often includes these words: “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; grant us your peace.” In the coming days, I pray we will remember these words, and that by God’s grace, they will drown out even the drums of war.