A few weeks ago I was in conversation with a man who had recently lost a spouse. He told me that, in his experience, grief can lead a person to think less clearly than they otherwise would. He gave an example: One day he was on his computer, he said, when all of a sudden a message popped up that said his computer was locked and he wouldn’t be able to use it. The message said that he needed to send in $300 in order to get it unlocked. If he didn’t, the message warned, he might be arrested and put in prison.
Now, none of this makes sense to me—and in retrospect, it doesn’t make sense to him—but he was grieving, not thinking clearly and he sent in the money. Now, this guy is financially secure; he doesn’t have a worry in the world about money. But if he could stumble into something like this when he’s well off, what might he do if he were poor? What if he had lost a loved one, but on top of that had all kinds of money worries? How much more stress, how much more likely to make a bad financial decision?
In Friday’s Seattle Times there was an article that made just this point. A recent study shows that financial stress actually makes people stupid. The IQ of people under financial stress literally, actually drops because of their stress and they end up making bad financial decisions. This study is helpful because there are those who say that poverty is the fault of those who are poor. “If they’d only work harder…” “If they’d only try harder…” But no, here is research to suggest that poor people aren’t the problem; poverty is the problem!
Our Scriptures would back that up. In today’s second reading the author of Hebrews warns his readers: Keep your lives free from the love of money. Now, if I were to ask how many of us this morning “love” money, I suspect that few of us would raise our hands. Love money? Not me! But when the Bible uses the word “love” it hardly ever refers to a warm, emotional feeling. The word “love” in the Bible is almost always about relationships. What is our relationship to wealth and possessions? How do those things shape our attitudes and beliefs?
Our Christian Scriptures do not blame the poor for their lot in life. There is little in the Bible to support the idea that we are to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” No, the Bible is clear. The burden is on those who have power and resources to live in a way that reflects the teachings and example of Jesus. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, says the author of Hebrews. In today’s Psalm, those who have wealth are to be generous in lending; they are to give freely to the poor.
But Jesus ups the ante in today’s reading from Luke. He’s invited to the house of a man who enjoys considerable wealth and power. It’s a wonder that Jesus ever received a second dinner invitation because on this occasion, first he criticizes the guests for claiming too much honor for themselves, and he ends by telling his host he’d done it all wrong: When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors…but when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind—people who can’t repay you.
You see what he’s saying here. The society we live in teaches us to expect our relationships to be an exchange of goods and services. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” It’s the “good-old-boy” network. Or, “I’ll give you something to keep you indebted to me.” Even church- going folk can be seduced into this way of thinking. Offerings can become not something freely and generously given to the glory of God; they can become little more than an investment by shareholders who expect something in return, or, club dues that guarantee certain privileges. You see? While it’s true that poverty can make people stupid, it’s just as true and maybe more true that wealth can make people stupid. And we don’t need scientific research to prove that point. Pick up a newspaper or turn on your computer to see how the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, a source of outrage for anyone who has pledged allegiance to Jesus Christ.
Be generous. Give freely, our readings remind us. But wealth can make people stupid, and with devastating consequences. It’s possible, for example, for a person of means to make donations to charities one day, and the next day that same person can vote for leaders and policies that protect and enrich the wealthy and powerful. On this Sunday after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we remember a more faithful response. When you give a luncheon or a dinner, says Jesus, do not invite your friends or relatives or rich neighbors. Do not serve your self-interest.
Poverty can make people stupid. Wealth can make people even more stupid. The fact is, all of us find ourselves caught in this net, even if we think of ourselves as neither rich nor poor. We, too, are tempted to chase after what’s safe and comfortable and protects our self-interest. So what are we to do?
Today’s gospel reading deserves to be read and re-read, studied and prayed over again and again because it’s all about hospitality, and hospitality is at the heart of Christian faith. Notice the word “invite” shows up seven times. When we think of hospitality we’re likely to think of providing food and drink to guests, but our readings go deeper than that: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, says Hebrews. Jesus says, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or family or rich people…”
You may wonder how that applies to us as a congregation. Well, when you provide shelter to people in need, you are providing hospitality to the stranger; you are faithful. When you provide space for Alcoholics Anonymous, or seven weeks of free lunches for neighborhood children, you are providing hospitality to the stranger; you are faithful.
But why do we do this as a church? Couldn’t a social service organization do just as much–or more? They can, and they do—but you know what, Christians provide gracious hospitality not just because of the need of those who are served. What we do as a church community shapes us into people of hospitality who extend hospitality the rest of the week and through the rest of our lives. This is our practice. What we do as a community shapes our attitudes and actions. In response to the countless opportunities that arise every day, we gradually move from fear and self- interest to courageous and joyful generosity.
It starts here, at a table. Jesus used the occasion of a banquet to make his point about hospitality as a lifestyle. In a few minutes we will gather around this table for our weekly banquet. It is at this table that all are welcome. The gracious hospitality of God is for us, week after week, for one and for all. It is for young and old, rich and poor, black and yellow and white and red and brown, for gay and straight, for abled and disabled. We are strangers to God who are fed by God. We who are fed in turn extend hospitality to those outside our comfortable circle of family and friends, outside the circle of those who might benefit us. This is the hospitality of Jesus Christ. As we practice this hospitality we may become a little less stupid, a little less worried about what we think we don’t have, a little less attached to our money and material things. It may that over time we become more like the gracious host who first served us! AMEN