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The Tent Life

The Tent Life
September 1, 2019
Passage: Proverbs 25:6-7, Luke 14:1, 7-14. Hebrews 13:1-8, Psalm 112
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Former Bishop of Eastern Oregon William Spofford was known for
many things, including riding a Harley all over his geographically vast
diocese. My favorite Bishop Spofford story is that he camped out in a tent
during House of Bishops meetings in the 1960s because he objected to the
cost of the hotel and banquet facilities to which the Bishops were
accustomed. This protest was a disruption for the hotel (on whose front lawn
he pitched his tent) but also for hotel guests who may have found their sense
of place ruffled by their brother bishop.

This morning’s gospel is about disrupting one’s place. This is a
familiar text to most of us—yet another banquet scene from the Gospel of
Luke. So much of Luke’s gospel happens at table…Luke describes ten
separate meals in the course of his telling of the Jesus story; meal-time is
almost always a teaching moment. I think we can be reassured from reading
the gospel that community meals are important. There is much feasting in
the Kingdom of God.

This should be comforting to us here at St. Paul’s. Our Holy Eucharistic
feast is at the center of who we are, the focus of most of our collective
attention and resources. Every time we hear Jesus preach about food and
drink, I hope we’re thinking of the transformation, here at this table, of the
ordinary daily stuff of bread and wine into a foretaste of the heavenly
banquet. And what a banquet that will be! If we have any say in the matter,
the heavenly banquet will be adorned with lovely flowers and exquisite
icons, tasteful everything, and accompanied with the kind of heavenly music
we are blessed to hear each Sunday in this place.

All true. And yet. None of the stories of Jesus at dinner parties, least of
all today’s gospel, are intended to make us reassured or comfortable, . For a
guest to choose the lowest place at the table would have been unheard of in
the Roman social world—as disturbing as a bishop choosing to sleep in a tent
during a House of Bishops meeting. As strange as if I said to some of you: you
always sit there….why don’t you go sit back there? Or you, who are here for the
first time…come to the very front pew, why don’t you?

(I have been know to say, when asked about my path toward the
priesthood, that I wanted to know that I could sit in the same place each
Sunday ☺)

It’s ironic that Sunday morning church may be the place where many
of us have the least tolerance for discomfort and the strongest attachments. I
think it’s safe to say that in the world of the Gospel, any discomfort we feel is
probably intentional.

I admit to my share of discomfort in the past month as our own little
mini “tent city” on 1st Avenue sprang up and almost as quickly disappeared.
When people are living in tents on our sidewalk, our responses and mixed
feelings are likely too close for comfort. When our faith is challenged by such
poverty and destitution and systemic brokenness in our face and we can’t fix
it and don’t like it, we are actually being faithful. To ignore what we see with
no discomfort would be to be like those dinner guests holding onto their
place at the honored end of the table.

People from St. Paul’s and a few people from the neighborhood came
to talk to me about their discomfort. People want to do something, or—more
likely—they want someone else to do something. Generally—and I think we
all have this—the discomfort is a complicated mix of feeling uncomfortable
being so close to such poverty and misery, not wanting to look, and, most of
all, a deep longing to be a “good Christian” and feeling, when face to face with
the depths of others’ needs, like we somehow fall short. How can we have all
these conflicting feelings about the poor, and still be faithful disciples?

When we have this kind of inner conflict we are in good company. We
are having the same experience as the dinner guests in today’s gospel. When
we are uncomfortable—discomfited—we are being good students of the
master who actually wants us to squirm. In David Epstein’s book, Range, I
recently came across the words “Frustration is not a sign you are not
learning, but ease is.” We could probably say the same thing about discomfort
and comfort.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes evocatively about the
necessity, in the Christian life, of certain kinds of discomfort . Remember
those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them; those who are
being tortured as though you yourselves were being tortured. Perhaps if they
were writing today the author of the Letter to the Hebrews would have asked
us to remember those who sleep in tents on the sidewalk as though you were
with them; those who are destitute of all but their drug addiction as though
you, too, were destitute.

I have a priest friend who spent an entire Lent sleeping in a tent.
Admittedly, he lived on a farm rather than in the city, but it was nonetheless
meaningful for him to experience that thin membrane between his own
comfort and the wider world. He did this in solidarity with the homeless
people he served in his parish. I also wonder whether getting out of his four
walls made him more certain—because of that thin tent—not only of the
evils of economic injustice but also of the kingdom just within our reach.

In the Jewish tradition, the faithful celebrate the season of Sukkot by
sleeping in tents to recollect their own experience of living in the wilderness.
In this tradition the tent symbolizes two things: the tent symbolizes God’s
care for God’s people in the wilderness, and the tent also symbolizes the
frailty and transience of all life.

As we prepare ourselves for God’s disruptive in-breaking into our
lives I hope that we can carry with us our certainty of God’s kingdom and our
awareness of that frailty and transience of all life, that we might give up our
place, and that our hearts may continue to be broken open and made tender
toward our neighbors and ourselves.