On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely…. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 1, 7-14)
Last week Ollie gave a great sermon about prejudice and how by making ourselves feel special – we can end up organizing our lives in ways that help us avoid the pain of truth and lose sight of our common humanity – of the ties that bind us together in this life.
When I read it I was struck by the themes that it shared with what I had hoped to talk about a bit this morning.
You see- I knew that this coming week is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and so matters of race and prejudice have been on my mind a lot lately – and especially heightened by all that has been in the news of late – with the Trayvon Martin murder in Florida, the stunning verdict in the Zimmerman trial and the killing just this week of a student in Kansas.
So I’ve been reading and listening to interviews and researching and thinking about where we are on this very difficult issue in this country for a few weeks now.
And my hope – because I’m a bit of a perfectionist, was to write a really terrific sermon – one that would knock it out of the park – one that folks might take home with them well into the next-week -Tuesday even.
But, the more I thought of it and of all that Ollie had already said so eloquently –I decided that I really just wanted to add my voice to his in the hope that perhaps we might consider continuing this conversation together, opening ourselves to struggle beyond the squirmy place he mentioned last week.
So here goes.
My mind over these past few weeks has been teetering back and forth between images from the past and present day concerns.
I was just 7 when the march happened but I remember pretty clearly how talk of it gripped the adults in my house – how much time Huntley and Brinkley spent on events occurring across the country –Memories of watching the news with my parents, full of reports and pictures of black people blasted by water hoses and lines of police ready to arrest.
On the other hand, and perhaps since it is the last week before the new school year I’ve been thinking a lot about the students I tutor at Esperanza in Lawrence (which for those of you who may not know is an Episcopal middle school for girls, 99% of whom are Latina) and how I might answer their questions about how much has really changed since that day 50 years ago this Wednesday…
I think I’d have to tell them in all honesty that the results are worse than mixed.
Consider just a few quick examples:
At the time of the March the focus of which was on Jobs and Freedom – unemployment among African Americans and other people of color was 10% — today it is over 13% in many of our cities it is much higher than that. We also know that whites with fewer qualifications and less education are 4 times more likely to be hired than a more qualified black or Hispanic job applicant (even whites just coming out of prison have greater success getting the job when competing against black applicants who have never even been arrested).
In 2013 with all of the advances of medical technology available in the richest country in the world, African American mothers are still twice as likely to have low birth weight babies- which is the leading cause of infant mortality –and not only is that true – we know that college and graduate educated Black women have a higher rate of infant mortality than white women who never finished High School.
While the rate of marijuana use among whites, African Americans and Latinos is nearly exactly the same, people of color are 4 times more likely to be arrested and jailed for such charges.
I could go on and on but you get my point.
So what’s to be done? And why should well meaning, hard working, generous, faithful white people care about those kinds of numbers – aside of course from our baptismal covenant that requires us to do justice in the world? Why?
Certainly not because of guilt or a sense of shame–but rather because of what Jesus asks of us in our reading this morning.
In his parable about the great banquet he not only asks us to be humble – he’s sending us a message about not being so attached to our comforts – not being so comfortable with our entitlements. He’s saying don’t be so certain of your own welcome – leave room for others, be considerate in how you judge your own rank and that of those around you –
Don’t be so quick to assume you are better than the guy next to you, that you are special.
Fifty years after one of the most daring and courageous assemblies of citizens, black and brown and white together –in our nation’s capital – we still struggle so with the burdens of prejudice. We still find ourselves faced with the kinds of statistics I just quoted that undermine our confidence that things can change – its so tempting to want to organize our lives and our view away from the pain of those truths – to tell ourselves that slavery was far in the past and we had nothing to do with it – to look at the murder of a black teenager coming home with candy as somehow his fault.
Its not only tempting to look away from these realities – we’ve become pretty good as a culture at responding with silence – race and prejudice are just not topics we want to talk about -so denial has become a national coping mechanism.
We may declare that we live in a post racial America – pointing to an African American President as proof that we are done with this – no more segregated water fountains –legal sanctions against discrimination in housing and employment – but those overt and intentional types of prejudice have been replaced by modern forms that are unintentional, systemic and hidden.
Just saying it ain’t so doesn’t make it go away – our reluctance to claim the privileges we receive when our skin is white –whether we asked for them or not – that reluctance doesn’t make those privileges any less real.
In fact – maybe that initial reaction we can feel of defensiveness and guilt – are clues – important clues to something Jesus is trying to tell us in the reading today – maybe they point to our resistance to some truth we aren’t comfortable hearing.
When I picture myself at the banquet Jesus describes -I can feel the “But, but – “ forming on my own lips as he says – don’t march right up to the better seats – and while what he has asked sinks in a bit more, I can still see myself looking around to make sure others aren’t getting the seat I had picked out for myself—before finally realizing that he is saying “it is not yours to decide” – nor is it yours to remove yourself – or set yourself apart from others – your brethren – from my beloved
And he ends his parable about humility Jesus kicks it up a notch – with the direction to give without counting the cost – to do without assuming the payback – without anticipating what we will get in return, without expecting anything.
He ‘s just finished telling us the importance of humility and he adds – a request that we love courageously – that we make ourselves vulnerable – and stop expecting guarantees.
He’s saying that only spending time with those who can repay us isn’t generosity at all its another reinforcement of his point that we are all one – that there is no one special among us that we each one of us, no matter our race or rank need that kind of unconditional love.
And here’s the best part of all – he not only asks these things of us he seems to think we’re capable of them.
I’m pretty sure that means that despair is not an option – denial and silence are not the way we are going to get through this struggle over race and prejudice, and any shame or guilt or defensiveness we encounter along the way can’t deter us from the work we have before us –
Besides, he thinks we can do it.