Sunday, September 26, 2010

Entertaining Angels Unawares: Sermon by University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan

I am not preaching today, so I thought I would bring you the sermon by Dr. Teresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia, who preached at St. Paul's on August 29, our Convocation Sunday. She gave us much to think and pray about; her office sent us a copy of her sermon last week, and so I bring it to you today. The lessons she used that day were Sirach 10:12-18, Psalm 112, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, and Luke 14:1, 7-14. Here is her sermon:

Entertaining Angels Unawares
Sunday, August 29, 201010:00 a.m.
St. Paul’s Memorial Church
By Dr. Teresa Sullivan
President of the University of Virginia

Good morning. I’m pleased to be with you this Sunday at St. Paul’s. I was here last winter to help celebrate your 100th anniversary. I’m glad to be back.
As you probably know, I am a sociologist, and the heart of sociology is the study of social stratification – or how humans take differences among people and translate those differences into enduring inequalities. It’s nearly universal among human societies, and it is even found among animals. Imagine a flock of chickens penned together; they will immediately establish what we call a “pecking order” among themselves. The chickens enforce their pride of place with a sharp beak.

Jesus knows about our pecking orders. In today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has been invited to a Sabbath dinner by one of the Pharisees. He decides to tell a story about a wedding feast, but the implication for the guests in the room with Him is pretty clear. Much like the wedding guests in the parable, each guest at the Sabbath dinner is seeking the best position, and Jesus offers some practical advice: don’t take the highest seat, because someone more important than you might be invited. Take the lowest seat, and then you might be invited by your host to go higher. The punch-line is one that will be heard again and again in the Gospels: he who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.
This is more than wedding etiquette advice. The Gospel makes clear that it is God Who is ultimately in charge of the exalting and the humbling. Six months before the birth of Jesus, Mary in her Magnificat makes the agency of God very clear: “He Who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. He has struck down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. He has filled the poor with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:52)

The message is not an easy one for disciples to learn. As His apostles are taking their seats for His last paschal meal with them, and just before He gives them the example of washing their feet, they are discussing among themselves who is the greatest (Luke 22:24). Jesus has basically the same answer for this status-seeking. In the Gospel of Mark He says, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." (Mark 9:34-36). In the longer answer recounted by Luke, He offers greater detail: "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-26)
Thus, in the Kingdom of God, the leaders serve. The pecking ceases. If there is to be any exaltation done, it is left to the Host of the wedding feast.

There is a second message here that is also important for us to hear. In the latter verses of the reading, Jesus advises the banquet host not to invite only his wealthy friends and relatives to dinner, in the hope that they will return the favor. He tells him instead to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” (Luke 14:13)

You might recall that later in the gospel of Luke, in chapter 18, Jesus said to His disciples, “Suffer little children to come unto me …” (Luke 18:16) when the disciples tried to forbid children from approaching Him. He was famously friendly to the outcasts of His time – tax collectors, prostitutes, Roman officers, even the hated Samaritans.

You get the idea. In Jesus’ words and in His actions, we discern a single message: God may have a different idea about a human being’s value than society does. The little children, the lepers, the last in society’s eyes — these are first in God’s eyes.

All of us can learn a lesson from these words: Care for those around you, especially those who are most in need. This is one of the foundations of a strong community based on caring and shared responsibility for one another’s well-being. The Kingdom of God has many bridges, but not so many fences.

I hope that those of us who are connected to UVA can hear this message and take it to heart. Many in this community are still grappling with the aftermath of Yeardley Love’s death last spring, and aching from the loss of a young woman so full of promise. As we begin a new academic year, we are continuing conversations that began in the wake of Yeardley’s death.

We have scheduled a Day of Dialogue for Friday, Sept. 24. It will be a day of open and vigorous discussion about violence, violence prevention, and campus safety. Our goal is to create a caring community, one whose members recognize their shared responsibility for each other. I hope all of you who are able to participate will do so.

UVA students have launched another initiative with a similar purpose. You may have heard, or you may soon hear, about the “Get Grounded Coalition.” Composed of student-run organizations, the coalition is working to create a culture of shared responsibility on the Grounds — to teach all of us to be vigilant and to look out for each other’s well-being.

We want to challenge the so-called “bystander behavior” that may cause students and others to stand aside and remain passive in potentially dangerous situations, either because they don’t recognize the situation as problematic or because they don’t believe it’s their responsibility to take action. We want each of us to take ownership of this community and to help take care of everyone in it.

Today’s reading from the epistle to the Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2) The King James Version of the same verse says, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Ask yourself this question: If you happened to encounter an angel unawares, how would you treat him or her? What if this angel-in-disguise were a stranger, or someone who looks different from you, or someone who is on the low end of the socio-economic ladder, or someone suffering from physical or mental distress?

This morning, let’s affirm our commitment to caring for every member of this community every day. Let’s make this promise to ourselves and to each other. Let’s promise not to stand by when someone else needs help. Let’s promise to take responsibility for each other. Let’s promise to show hospitality and kindness to everyone around us — even the strangers, who, for all we know, might be angels.

Your neighbors might not exalt you for taking such responsibility. Your friends might criticize you. But building a community of caring is a very positive long-term investment. Jesus promises the reward at the resurrection of the just. And then we might hear that Voice, familiar to us even though we have never heard it before, saying to us, “Friend, move up higher.”

God bless you. And God bless the University of Virginia.
Photos by Bonny Bronson

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