The Rev. Matthew I. Potts preaches from the pulpit on First-Year Sunday. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Divinity
(The following is a transcript of the service audio)
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight oh Lord. Our strength and our Redeemer, amen. So we have this lesson from the gospel of Luke this morning from Luke 14. For those of you who don't know we share our lessons, I didn't choose these lessons for today. We share them with lots of churches, many Protestant churches share the same readings every Sunday. It often corresponds to the readings that Roman Catholics are reading. We share these lessons with Christians throughout the world and we reflect upon them together and so that's why I'm opening the year. That's why we are opening the year with this lament from the prophet Jeremiah and with this teaching from Jesus from the gospel of Luke. I have to confess the Luke passage is not my favorite. It seems a little bit strategic or sort of how to win friends and influence people sort of thing.
Jesus says, when you go to a dinner don't take the nicest seat take the worst seat so you can get the nicest seat. The point, at least the lesson here is about how to get your reward. Humility in this passage is in service to getting what you wanted in the first place, which is for everyone to look at you and marvel at about how honorable you are and that's true. The second part of the passage as well, you will get your reward. Don't worry if things are rough now, you will get your reward as long as you suffer them humbly, as long as you accept them with grace and humility and it's possible I'm being too hard on this gospel passage. We can take it sort of like an Aesop's fable. It's a little fable with the lesson and the lesson is in general be humble and that's fine, but there are implications to taking it that way.
I was talking to my wife Colette about this lesson and about the first part about deciding where you're going to sit and she said quite wisely it's a good thing Rosa Parks didn't take that advice. I don't think of Jesus as Ms. Manners, I think Jesus has a deeper message. A more radical questioning of what it means to be honored, what it means to stand up for those who are dishonored and I don't see it in this passage and that frustrates me. So what am I going to do here? One of the things that happens when we share lectionary text with all these other churches is the passage is given to us and also we get these two paragraphs. These two paragraphs of teaching which are abstracted from the rest of the gospel and I think when we abstract these two paragraphs of teaching from the rest of the gospel the lesson in them becomes quite abstract and maybe frustrating and disappointing.
So allow me please to provide some narrative context for what is going on in this scene when Jesus gives this teaching. Jesus has been taken to dinner by some religious leaders, folks like me with fancy robes and theological training and they take him to dinner and they want to do what people with fancy robes and theological training do when they go to dinner, they want to talk about moral teaching. They want to talk about the detail, the minutia of morals and theology and ethics and what happens is while they're sitting down to dinner. This is in verses two through six, they immediately proceed... The passage we read. "While they are sitting down to dinner, a man comes in." And the New Testament says that the man has dropsy. It's the Greek word means swelling like retaining water. This could cover a manner of ailments. It's hard to know what this man actually had, but we know that he was in pain. We know that he was impaired and he comes to Jesus and asks for healing at this fancy dinner and it's a Sabbath.
Jesus turns to the religious leaders and poses the fancy theological question, is it right for me to heal this man or not on this day? And they are silent and then Jesus heals him. The Greek word here is really great, when he heals him it says he set him free. Jesus sets this man free and his host and all the other people who are hosting Jesus at the dinner, they remain silent and the man leaves and then Jesus starts teaching them about who to invite to dinner. Just to make things absolutely clear they are at dinner. This is not an abstract poser, not a theological concept or problem that Jesus has dreamed up. The person that he is talking about has just been in their presence. The other religious leaders, fancy folks in robes and with theological training, their silence what that indicates is not the failure of their thinking it's the failure of their hospitality. It's not that they didn't have the right answer, it's that they did not extend the invitation. This is not an abstraction, this is a concretion, this is real.
The person Jesus is talking about was right in front of them and when Jesus turns to his host and says, do you know who you need to invite to dinner? He's not imagining theoretical people out in the world, he's naming the man who just walked out of their presence. Jesus performs this healing and I think we with our modern sensibilities might find this sort of healing incredulous or difficult to believe. But it's important to say that in Jesus's time works of power like this were not necessarily uncommon, they were rare. Jesus would've been signified by this act as something special, but what's unique would've set him apart here is the social miracle not the physical one. Other healers could heal people with dropsy in Jesus's day. Jesus said, "Invite him back in because he belongs at dinner with us. He is the one for whom we should be throwing this feast. He belongs." Why are you quiet? Fancy robes and theological education this is what we do and I've been naming this stuff because it's really easy.
It would be really easy to project this upon some religious leaders of the past or some religious communities of the past and say that is not our problem. That is not our fault, that is not our issue in our or our church today but we love abstractions. People like me in fancy robes with lots of theological training. I'll tell you there is no more graceful way to let yourself off the moral hook than to write a subtle theological essay about something or to preach an emphatic sermon about it or to listen to an emphatic sermon about it. Because loving your neighbor is not something you do in the abstract. Loving your neighbor is not a principle. You either love your neighbor and by neighbor I mean the person next to you in the pew, the person you walked by when you came into this church, the person who reached out to you for help. You either love that person or you don't.
It is real, it is a real command, a real demand and however much people like me like to abstract it in the essays and sermons the demand, the person is there next to us. I think this is the danger. It's the danger that frustrates me when I hear this passage, these teachings abstracted from the narrative frame. It's the danger of taking this like an easy moral lesson, be humble, invite others. Jesus' criticism here, his teaching here is more pointed and more direct and it is pointed directly at his listeners and it's pointed directly at us. We also are his listeners and we also have turned someone away. Our response to this lesson should not be to come up with some abstract rule. It should be to ask ourselves the literal concrete question, who is missing? Who is not here in this church this morning? Whom have we excluded? Whom have we ignored? Who have we wounded and harmed? Who doesn't feel welcome walking into a Christian Church or this Christian Church?
As some of you may know a little under two weeks ago our president. President Bacow sent an email to the Harvard community informing us that several members of our community, LGBTQ brothers and sisters and siblings here at the university had been directly and indirectly targeted with violence here. That's alarming enough, but what's more alarming for me standing in this pulpit is that the rationale for the violence that was promised upon these our classmates and colleagues was a Christian rationale. They invoked Christian scripture to justify the violence they promised. Today at 1:30 out on the porch Anna, our student program coordinator, and the ministry staff and other chaplains here at Harvard — we are going to be trying to show some love out on the steps at 1:30 in solidarity with our queer brothers and sisters and siblings here at Harvard. Join us if you would like to show love as well, but this threat, this awful threat, this violent threat continues a trend this summer in our country. Where if you've been paying attention to the news we have heard Christian pastors around this country use scripture to justify the public murder of queer people, repugnant stuff.
Earlier in the summer in June, 31 white nationalists were arrested just before they tried to riot a pride celebration in Idaho. And this trend this summer's trend we all know is part of a longer and deeper trend within Christian theology and tradition. It belongs to us and it is shameful. Who doesn't feel safe coming into this church? I can imagine some folks who don't feel safe coming into this church and it's not just queer folks. I want this church, I want our community to be a community for all people. But this university was founded by white Europeans, by Puritans and as we know from the legacy of slavery report that came out in the spring, this university was built upon the forced labor and the enslavement of others and if you come back to church next week and I hope you will you'll hear me preach upon the letter to Philemon in which Paul says, "Altogether not enough in condemning slavery." This is part of our history as Christians too.
We can think about these things and embrace these big historical trends which are part of our history and part of what we repent when we come here and repent and part of what we try to transform when we proclaim that Christ is transforming the creation. But it's also smaller, it's day to day, it's not just the big historical things. Who did you walk past when you came into this church? People sleeping outside, sleeping rough on the plaza or in Harvard square. Do those folks feel loved by us? Do they feel welcome coming into this space? There's a patch of grass and a $40 billion endowment between us and them and that is our problem not theirs. Don't get me wrong I love this church. I love our return to this church, I love you who are joining us for the first time today. I love the familiar faces that I see in this space. Again, it is wonderful to see you here. You are a sight for sore eyes after a hard summer.
We begin this year regathering in this beautiful church, reuniting with friends and with colleagues and with newcomers, new students, new staff and I am glad. Deeply, deeply, glad, and deeply, deeply thankful that you have joined us here today. It is a blessing indeed. But this church, this church full of you, this sight for sore eyes is also a sign and a reminder of those who could not walk into this space today. Of all those the church has failed, all those we have sent out or ignored or silenced. All those we have harmed instead of harbored. The religious leaders in this morning's lesson, they welcome Jesus. Good for them, but that is not enough. Accepting Jesus into your heart is not enough because Jesus' heart is with all the people that we have turned away. Where Jesus goes I pray that we will follow.