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 14: 1, 7-14
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our provision and from Jesus our gracious host and teacher. Amen.
According to our gospel reading, we should take some time this morning to go around and make sure everyone is sitting in the right spot! Are you sitting in an exalted place, maybe in a spot that you haven’t rightly earned? Are you sitting in a pew that is really beneath you and need to be brought up to a more righteous cushion in the sanctuary? In a couple of weeks we will be entering the programmatic year where in the past, Memorial has held to two different worship services. This year we are remaining at one service at 9:30am which will allow the whole of the community to be worshipping God altogether. My worry however, is over the inevitable turf wars about to blow up for many of you will learn that there is someone from the other service who calls your church pew home and there will have to be some shuffling going on!
Of course, for churchy folk this is a common joke -- pew placement. Church goers of every kind can get stuck in their ways faster than most and while I don’t actually anticipate fists being thrown on Rally Sunday, it is good to acknowledge that even our simple actions like where we sit, are often symptoms of some intentions or fears that run deeper.
Our gospel reading this morning reads a bit like a Ms. Manners article with Jesus teaching the guests and hosts at the meal how to pick just the right seat so as not to bring about embarrassment or to appear arrogant. Yet, as always, there is something much deeper underlying this teaching of Jesus. This is not simply a dinner among church friends or family, Jesus is dining with powerful religious leaders, it was a selective invitation list and where one sat during the meal and afterwards for the time of discussion and teaching was paramount to one’s standing both in the earthly society. The seriousness of this meal is made known to us as the gospel writers sets the scene with the phrase “they were watching him closely”.
Luke’s gospel is all about food. This week I read a delightful little commentary on Luke’s gospel entitled, “Eating your way through Luke’s Gospel” in which the author says that according to Luke’s gospel Jesus is always on his way to a meal, having a meal or leaving a meal and Jesus, sinners and food always go together! What good news for us sinners who love to feast!
This story we heard this morning is not Jesus’ first meal with religious leaders, they have already seen him dining with tax collectors, allowing women to be a part of the post-dinner discussion, they have witnessed him bringing in drunks and sinners to their precious feasts. So now, they watch him closely as Jesus once again breaks apart their laws of good order and says they ought to make their seating arrangement more flexible and change the guest list so that all might have a glimpse into the feast that is promised in God’s heavenly kingdom.
|While not actually related to the sermon topic, |
this picture is from our first year at the seminary!
All of this talk of food and community dining reminded me of my first year at Luther seminary. My daughter I lived in a hallway that held four apartments. Next door to us was a married couple and their teenage boy -- they were from Kenya and both parents were pursuing their PhDs. Across from them was a family from South Korea, with a 3 year old and new born who had been at the seminary for a couple of years while the father of the family also pursued a PhD. Across from our apartment was a family from western North Dakota, they had two little boys that spent their day with Dad while their mom was finishing up her Masters of Divinity on her way to becoming a pastor. No family make up was exactly the same, no one’s paths of origin was similar in anyway and yet we were thrown together into one hallway as we all set out on a journey of academic study for the sake of the church. Very quickly after moving in we were invited to a hallway dinner, family dinner as they were called. This international group would cram into someone’s living room, the dining room table would be filled with a wide variety of food from all over the world and our children would run up and down the hallway as we attempted to feast, talk and pray together as often as possible.
Elsewhere on campus I had a hard time feeling like I really fit in at Luther seminary and the invitation to these meals helped me to feel some sense of belonging. It wasn’t all roses living in that hallway together, we had different parenting styles and stresses because of our studies. When we cooked in our individual apartments we would all stink up that hallway with varying global smells that appealed to some and disgusted others. But the welcome and support in that hallway was something fierce, I felt cared for, protected and nourished because of my neighbors -- I glimpsed the heavenly banquet that Jesus talks about in our gospel reading.
This hospitality is not easy to come by, this is painfully true in places of worship. One morning that same year at seminary walked into the chapel and saw my Korean neighbor sitting by himself. I joined him in the back pew and opened my hymnal so familiar with the liturgy. I sat next to my neighbor who was a pastor in his own country, here in America getting advanced degrees and something about the way our worship was formatted and led left him feeling lost. It was very awkward sitting there that day as I thoughtlessly flipped pages next to my neighbor who could not follow along with the many page flips, did not know the sitting and standing that was not led and who decided not to make his way to the table for communion because he felt so very “other” that morning in worship.
Stories and experiences like my former neighbors’ are repeated all over the church. Sunday morning is often said to be the most segregated hour of any given week in America. How is it that the same loving people who can feast together in seminary apartments cannot also create hospitable and accessible practices of worship?
We all are beautiful saints and fallen sinners capable of loving feasts and ugly division. Suddenly Jesus’ teaching of seating arrangements and guests lists is speaking to our all too divided world. Jesus’ meal was shared with the highest religious leaders of the community, his teaching that we heard read today is for the church, very specifically and directly teaching us to constantly be pushing against our own patterns and traditions that may lead to exclusion or division.
And I do not believe this teaching is given to the church in order that we may win any blue ribbons in the “nice-est church” division (though, Memorial really does have a gifting here!), nor are we taught about breaking open our patterns and hearts to others so that we will grow...Jesus is taking a risk sitting at the rabbi’s table and teaching about welcome because of the welcome we are given by God.
Jesus is revealing a nature of God that is pursuing the poor in spirit, a God who is extravagant with welcome, a God who compiles guests list of the least deserving, arrogant, self-righteousness, grieving, lonely, sick and hurting children of the earth and bringing them to the feast of life and joy in God’s presence. Because of the mercy we have experiences at the hand of our God, we can hear Jesus’ teaching on seating charts and be broken open for the sake of the world God loves.
In a few moments you will be invited to the feast of victory. The bread of life is offered to all who hunger, the cup of salvation is lifted for all who thirst -- this is the work of our God, this is the grace of our Savior who will not be satisfied until all know this welcome and feast at this table. So when you come today, come to be fed, come to be broken open to those who are not yet at the table. Come and be fed so that you may be feeding the poor in spirit and nourishing the least likely table guest you encounter.
None of us are deserving of this invitation, yet to all of us it is extended. May God give us the vision of the heavenly kingdom and the heart to extend the welcome to others. Amen.