The Place of Peace

The Place of Peace

Sermon by Douglas Olds (all rights reserved)

August 29, 2010

St. Luke Presbyterian Church, San Rafael, California

Lectionary Texts: Psalm 81: 1, 10-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Hymn after Sermon, PH #239: How Happy is Each Child of God

Final Hymn, PH #274: O God of Earth and Space, vv. 1, 3, 4

One evening, about 25 years ago, I found myself seated at a table with a man my age who later became one of those celebrity chefs on TV’s Food Channel. We were sitting in his yet-to-open restaurant in New York City, and our group was splitting the communal costs of a dinner that he prepared.

Baby Wild Arugula Salad with Parmigiano and Manodori Vinegar

Gnocchi with oxtails

Grilled Skate with lemon butter

The wine was a Barolo from the late 1970s:

The color of garnet stone with orange hues in the halo around the rim: it was full, wide and velvety with a finish that hinted of vanilla.

One of the women at our table had an empty glass, so I took the bottle and poured her a glass of wine. Well, my chef acquaintance took offense—great offense—and neck bulging, face red, he dressed me down with vigor.

“I’ll pour the wine, do you understand!

You’ve got no business pouring the wine!”

Well, I was stunned, as we were splitting all the costs of the meal, and our chef was now shaming me for an effrontery I did not intend. He was spitting out a demand for an honored place at the table that I had denied him.

To this day, I still don’t fully recognize the codes and conduct of those social gatherings of what we call high society: those groups of the “set apart.” I tend to shun them, or if I attend, I shyly spy on those complex social codes embedded in the mixing of guests and their claims to differential respect. Many of us probably have the same perplexity and shyness at these events, and if you don’t you have my respect. These codes of social behavior in high culture settings are the kind of things that Jesus was observing at the chief of the Pharisee’s house one Sabbath. Now this is important, that those jockeying for pride of seating and place were embodying a Pharisee’s Sabbath ethic, and Jesus as you know was bringing a message of the Sabbath ethic of God:

· it is good to heal on the Sabbath,

· the Reign of God is the Sabbath banquet,

· the resurrection of the just was the eternal Sabbath of peace.

Jesus warns his disciples in today’s reading to take care how one chooses a seat at a Sabbath banquet:

for you may be shamed if someone of more prominence arrives to take your place at the table.

Better to take the last place of lowest prominence and be rewarded by the host with the petition to come forward.

In such a case, your movement forward gives you glory in front of all.

Now is Jesus giving us a lesson in social etiquette? So that we may be more comfortable in settings with those who consider themselves our social superiors (or those we consider theirs)? Or is his a message of the end-time banquet, the final Sabbath feast where our Lord comes and welcomes us with a “Well done, faithful servant”? I think both of these events fit the lesson, as Jesus’ messages have application for all times, for the everyday and for the eternal.

But I think that Jesus is also proposing an ethic for what fits the everyday Sabbath--for what fits his disciples’ longing for peace and shalom in their day and age.

For in that day and age, Jesus and his disciples were confronted by an honor/shame culture that could be deadly when one’s sense of honor was assaulted.

While my chef friend was enraged, I didn’t fear for my life.

But in the social context that Jesus lived and breathed, one’s sense of self could indeed turn murderous if honor could not be quickly restored to the man who is shamed.

Jesus is offering us an existential lesson to live in peace and wholeness: by living in such a way that keeps urges in ourselves and others from turning violent and disrupting the Sabbath peace of the day. The Pharisees at that dinner were, to Jesus’ reckoning, engaging in plays of power and prominence that did not promote the Sabbath they authentically and achingly longed for.

Dining with Pharisees was an affair structured on the place each member claimed to hold in God’s esteem. In descending order of holiness, then, the table was taken up first by Levites, then Israelites, converts, men with damaged private organs: in other words, prominence of holiness and God’s favor was accorded by Pharisees first to slaves of the Temple, then to bastards and then to eunuchs.[1]

To claim a seat at a Pharisee’s table was to claim a relative place in God’s favor. Jesus, though, uses the Greek word for such a setting in God’s presence that suggests a marriage feast: gamous. All were honored at a festival that celebrated and promoted God’s fertility. Two families would be attendant at such a feast to displace presumption and honor peaceful social relations between families and their itinerants.

Jesus is claiming that feasts such as the Pharisees put on are not hierarchical evaluations of merits before God (for God does not need the merits of any person)

but rather a purely human affair that should have been concerned with building shalom.

When social relations are out of kilter and honor and shame are called into question, these are inherently human concerns with human solutions.

Security of person is dependent in those dangerous times on the simple choices one makes where and with whom to dine, how to honor those who are God’s favored and those who are self-favored. Therefore, Jesus proposes in our reading, make friends with the dishonored—it is less dangerous than to make friends with those who consider themselves the just and righteous. Shalom builds from table fellowship with the blind, the handicapped, the prostitute and tax collector—all those we consider beneath us or less whole than us. The Pharisees were scandalized by this Sabbath ethic of Jesus. He socialized with them all, even the Pharisees. It was the Pharisee’s clear sense of social order in a festival setting that Jesus warns will be overturned in the Sabbath resurrection of the just.

To put this another way, the ancient Pharisees were people who ordered time and society in a way that demonstrated their views of holiness and cleanliness. Minute details of how one may avoid ritual contamination by improper food handling and association with outsiders were manifold, and the Pharisees could not see that this detailed ordering constituted not rest and wholeness of Sabbath living, but energy sapping, society warping order that is not beautiful to God, the creator of all creatures. The Pharisees took it upon themselves to order the Sabbath in a way that Jesus implies is not attendant to the sovereignty of God to bring about spontaneous relationships. Unclean, common, polluted, and taboo were human categories of power and privilege that did not accord with the radical egalitarianism that Jesus promoted.

My acquaintance the chef was demanding the honor of first place at the table that evening 20 years ago, and his sense of violated honor suggests that he considered himself to be “set apart,” the conceptual basis for the Hebrew word Pharisee. I was something less than a Pharisee. I was not set apart. And he was quite right, in the context of his restaurant culture. He was promoting a culture of fine cuisine, and in this he was set apart, meaning set above in the service of a putatively higher good than simple table fellowship. If I may suggest, the chef exchanged shalom for an idol.

I believe that the message of the Prophets, Jesus, and apostles is that simple and equal table fellowship is exemplary in the quest for God’s realized reign on Earth.

God promises to feed us with the best, so that super chefs are, like all human efforts, not necessary to the eternal banquet that God is preparing for us. With that knowledge, I can choose my seat at the least honored human position, for I have this to look forward to, from the conclusion to Psalm 81: “I will feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I will satisfy you.” With this prospect, then, choose the Place of Peace, not human honors--for God is glorified by the peace that allows all of God’s creatures to flourish, not by the human self-honoring that claims a favored relationship with God. It is that claim that leads to frustration and violence. The claim is intrinsically counter to shalom.//

Let us take some time in silence to pray in advance of our hymn, “How happy is each child of God, who walks within God’s ways…, May you and your descendents know Forever God’s Shalom.”

[1] J. Patrick Mullen (2004), Dining with Pharisees. Interfaces. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, p. 31.