Rev. Harrison’s sermon from September 1st, 2013. Hope everyone is having a wonderful Labor Day Weekend and staying safe. The passage for the sermon is Luke 14:7-14.
A Humbling Revolution
I was a cool kid for about nine months my eighth grade year. I started making jokes in the back of science class with the kid who sat next to me. I’ll call him Garret. Garret thought I was funny. As we were getting out of class one day, he said, “You’ll sit with us at lunch, right?” I thought, “Who, me?”
He probably didn’t think anything of it. That’s the privilege of people who are naturally cool. But it was a big deal for a kid like me. From that day forward, a lot of things changed for me. I was sitting at one of the cooler tables at lunch. On Friday night football games, he started introducing me to girls (This was in Memphis, where I went to an all-boys school). All of a sudden I had access to a world that I had never known. Bullies didn’t pick on me anymore. Making friends was suddenly much easier. Girls were flirting with me. I was this close to getting invited over to Garrett’s house where they pulled apart fireworks and blew up things in the back yard.
Unfortunately, it was over almost as soon as it began. Garrett transferred to a school in the Northeast the next year. The rest of his friends moved on to other groups, and I slid back to the nerdy lunch table.
Do you remember what that was like? Do you remember how important those things were, little things like where you sat at lunch, whether you made the cheer squad, or who danced with you at homecoming? Maybe you know what it is to be left out. Maybe you had an experience like I did, and you were cool sometimes and not other times, which made you aware of what a difference it can make. Maybe you were popular, and you can remember how stressful it was to worry about what other people thought of you all the time. It was intense time, and the stakes always seemed to be high. One of the things that worries me about our kids and grandkids is that because they are always connected, through facebook and twitter and texting, that it doesn’t end when the school day ends.
But now, at least, we’re all adults, and we don’t have to deal with that kind of thing anymore. Or do we? I’m not really sure that it ended for us either. It’s a little less obvious now, maybe, but it still happens. Some folks like to grab a drink after work. Not everyone gets invited. A man waits his turn for a job interview. As he double checks his suit for lint, he sees the boss shaking hands with the other candidate on his way out saying, “I’ll see you at church!” He doesn’t get the job. We are all still dealing with status, and how who we know and where we come from makes a difference in our lives.
In the first century, the thing was banquets. Hosting and attending big dinners were ways to gain and lose social standing. Invitations could lead to marriage arrangements, business deals, and prosperity, if everything worked out in your favor. You’d invite the most important people you could get to attend, so that everyone would see how important and well-connected you are. They in turn would be obliged to invite you to their banquets. Seating arrangements were just as important. To be asked to move to a better or worse seat would affect more than just your social status. To be asked to move up would impress all the people you want to impress, and could lead to great things in your future. To be moved down would shame you and your family in front of a room of potential spouses, clients, and business partners.
In our passage today Jesus is sitting at one of these banquets, and he observes how people are jockeying for who sits where. He offers up two pieces of advice. The first piece is traditional, common sense wisdom. It sounds like the kind of thing you’d read in Poor Richard’s Almanac. When you’re at a banquet, don’t take the risk of assuming a place a little higher than you deserve. We find the same thing in Proverbs 25:6,
Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’,
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.
It’s good, common sense advice, even a little conservative. Trying to sit a couple of seats above your station might help you out a little, but being shamed in front of the whole assembly isn’t worth it.
But the next thing he says turns it on its head. This is what Jesus does, he has a tendency to turn our expectations on their head. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world?” He says when you’re hosting a banquet, don’t invite the people you like. Or the people you want something from. Or the people who can pay you back. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. The forgotten people. People who have nothing to offer. This is the opposite of conventional wisdom. Why even bother doing it if you have nothing to gain?
And when you put this together with what Jesus said before, a new picture emerges. What would happen if you invited the lowest status people you could find, and then seated them in places of honor? This isn’t a clever strategy for moving up in the pecking order, but the exact opposite. It’s a strategy for challenging the very existence of a pecking order.
Can you imagine what the world would be like if we did this? We could make this sanctuary live up to its name. It could be a sanctuary for our children, where they don’t have to worry about popularity or not having the right friends. It could be a sanctuary for our elders, where they don’t feel left out or forgotten because of their ability, but treasured for their wisdom and love. It could be a sanctuary for all of us who are tired of protecting our reputations, worrying about what people will think and who might turn cold if we say the wrong thing.
But this is just the beginning. We could take it out of the doors of the church and transform the community around us. We could live in a world where everyone has the benefits of high status, and not just a few people. Where, in the words of Southwest Airlines, all the seats are first class seats.
This is what Jesus is telling us to do. He is telling us to reject the system that tells us that some people matter more than others. To give up all of our scratching backs and getting our backs scratched, worrying about who is doing what with who and what that might look like. To finally let go of the lunch table and the country club and the invitation-only event, and humble ourselves. To lift up the weak, the overworked, the handicapped, and the forgotten. This doesn’t mean more charity. Benevolence given from the top down doesn’t fix hierarchies, it reinforces them. It means ministry with the poor, not ministry for the poor. It means letting go of our hopes to better ourselves, and instead putting our energy towards bettering everyone.
And what do we get in return? Nothing. There are no business contacts to make. There are no neighbors to impress. People won’t think better of us. They might think worse. So why do it? Why throw away all of the social power that we’ve built up. Won’t it be better if we husband it carefully, spending it when it can make a difference and maintaining our status so that we can occasionally offer help to someone in need.
The first reason is that God wants us to. It’s what Jesus tells us in this story but the idea is found throughout Scripture. In the prophets, they talk of the time where the wolf dwells with the lamb, and the lion and the fattened calf lie together. The Psalmist writes of a banquet set for us in the presence of our enemies. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
The second, and far more profound reason, is that Jesus did it for you. Continuing from Philippians, “Though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Jesus Christ, who sits at the coolest lunch table in the universe, the right hand of God the Father, chose to come down to earth, to you. Knowing that we have nothing to offer, he gave us everything, not only his life but our own lives, lived anew in gratitude for his sacrifice. In his death we have invitation to an eternal feast, the feast of salvation, of everlasting life. And we are not invited because we have something to give, because we deserve an invitation, because we keep the right company. Contrary to popular belief it isn’t even about us at all. It is about Christ, who invites us because of who he is, because he loves us.
We should invite people to our table because he invited us to his table. Because he gave his body and shed his blood that we might participate in the feast. And he is inviting us once more.