Luke 14:1, 7-14
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."
There's a lot more than just a guide to table etiquette in this morning's story from the Gospel According to Luke. In this morning's reading, we find an underlying condition that runs throughout all of our lives. And that underlying condition, whether we know it or not, is that we like to count or tabulate our social credit. There is a tendency for us to calculate what impact our actions and words will have and how by positioning ourselves correctly, we might advance to the next social ring. I'm not sure that's how we would describe what we do, but it's something that exists in the back of our minds.
The Dowager Countess of Grantham, aka Violet Crawley, from the PBS, show Downton Abbey is a perfect example of what Jesus is warning us about in the reading from this morning. If you've ever watched Downton Abbey, you're aware of how the character of Violet Crawley stands out as someone who is known for "scheming" and maintaining the social status quo as the matriarch of the family. Being in a place of high social standing, it's essential to her that her family doesn't do anything that would endanger their reputation. It’s all about keeping their family on a positive upward trend.
For as long as human beings formed communities and created norms by which they would abide, the challenges of relationships has not gotten any easier. We live in a world that values success, a world that places those who are social media influences and celebrities on pedestals that help guide us to some culturally enlightened place. But at some point, we have to ask ourselves, "How much are we willing to sacrifice in order to have a seat at the place we think is meant for those who are honorable?" Because the cost of that prestigious seat might be higher than you initially expect.
It is impossible for us to earn, to manipulate, something that was never ours to begin with. All the scheming, all the planning we could do is not enough to win us a seat at the place of honor. And that is because we are all given a place of honor. Jesus is the host who invites us to move up and sit closer so that we may be in fellowship with God and one another. Jesus is the one who calls out to us, saying, "Friend, move up higher." Because there is enough room for all, who are looking for a place at the table, there is no need to shove or push or jockey for some in with Jesus.
We may think we are deserving of a place of honor, but Jesus holds a mirror up and tells us we need to pump the brakes. Perhaps that's part of what we do on the Sunday when we celebrate the Lord's Supper when we consider what it means to partake of the bread and the cup. At that moment, we are allowed to see the world from a new perspective. Sometimes it takes that moment, a holy moment, to gain a perspective that reground us on the truly important things. Imagine what we could accomplish if we stopped caring about what others think of us and use that energy for something beneficial?
It should be no surprise to any of us, though that Jesus doesn't just stop at the making one point. Jesus has something else to add; something that makes his message speak not only to the present or future, but the present and the future combined. You see, Jesus throws us a curveball at the end of his parable. It's not just about doing good things for the sake of doing good things and not worrying about being noticed for them, but it's also about those who aren't at the table. It's about the people who are not at the table because they haven't been invited in the first place and about people like us have tried to stop them from taking their rightful place. How many times have we heard a story like that before?
The reversal of our expectations evokes a very Dylan-esque feeling. And what I mean by that is that this story from Luke rings especially true when you consider the last couple lines of Dylan's The Times They Are-A Changin', "For the first ones now will later be last. For the times they are a-changin'." The times they are a-changin,' and it's time for us to be a part of that change. It's time for us to give up our pettiness, the things that we genuinely don't have control over, and to place our trust into the hands of God who watches over us and calls us to action. A dinner party of one is not a very good time, and as an introvert I think that is a little too far. So how much are we willing to allow the Spirit of God to move and transform our lives?
In the back of my mind, I hear the old African gospel song belting out the phrase, "All God's children gonna sit together one of these days." What keeps us from the table of welcome? What keeps our souls from letting others sit at the table with us? Is it our pride? Is it our prejudice? Is it our inability to let the past be the past and let the future be the future? Is it our fear of not knowing what's going to happen if we allow our hearts to be vulnerable? We'll find that if we learn to trust a little harder, lean into the words of Christ a little deeper, the hard exterior shells we have crafted for ourselves will begin to crumble. And then we might be willing to embrace this not so radical world of Jesus after all.
This transformation requires a lot of trust, which is something that we may not have at the moment. But we need trust because without it our faith has no place to find nourishment. And I've got the feeling that we all need a little more trust in our lives. Trust that people are doing the best they can, trust that God will point us in the direction we need to go and trust that in moments when we feel like we have no control God is there with us every step of the way. And I say this because trust will be critical when we start inviting everyone to sit at the table with God and us. And I say this because sometimes we need to be reminded that as much as we might have a handle on things, some things are simply beyond us.
In the end, I think most of us would take Jesus' words as more of a command than a recommendation. But I like to believe that Jesus' words were meant to serve more like an invitation rather than a command. "An invitation to what you?" you might ask. Well, I would say that it's an invitation to live a life that is free from unnecessary and burdensome constraints of what everyone else thinks about us, and an invitation to live freely in the love of God. And what a beautiful life that would be! We are all invited, all able to partake of the gift of the feast that Christ, the host of hosts, has laid out for every one of us.
So we can stop counting! We can take a break from the social jockeying we partake in and just be ourselves. The game of social positioning is one that is unrelenting and brutal and gives no joy unless we take that joy from others. We can't have all the power, and we can't have all the control, because it was never ours, to have! Perhaps it's time we take a step back, pump the brakes, and stop counting, stop collecting, and start living life simply to bless others for the sake of blessing others. And then we will come to understand that it doesn't matter if we start at the bottom because there is always enough room, always enough love and grace at the table that Christ has prepared. Amen.