Sermon for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Seating Arrangements," Luke 14:1, 7-14 (Proper 17C, Ordinary 22C)
Luke 14:1, 7-14
I’m a big fan of Jane Austen novels. I have a small collection of favorite books that I tend to read and reread, and Austen’s novels are among them. As a woman of the twenty-first century, I certainly find it difficult to imagine how I could ever live under all the constraints and rules, particularly those placed upon the proper behavior of women. But society and behavior were highly structured in the Regency era, and most areas of life functioned according to very particular rules, especially for upper class men and women. And so, the drama can be heightened in many scenes of Austen’s work because of something as simple as this: who got to escort who to the dinner table – because people could only walk into dinner in a certain order, according to social rank, age, and marital status – and who ended up sitting next to who at the dinner table – because it wouldn’t have been appropriate to try to speak to people who weren’t sitting near you, and certain seats at the table were more coveted than others. Imagine the pain of the Austen heroine being made to sit next to an unsuitable prospect for marriage – intolerable!
I’ve been thinking about the different places we find ourselves choosing where to sit, where to place ourselves this week. We don’t have such a clearly defined social structure anymore as in the days of Jane Austen, but there are still some areas of life in which our world today isn’t really so different. Maybe we all have some experience with assigned seating in our own homes. I think of my grandparents’ house, growing up. We’d eat there many night a week, and we didn’t exactly have assigned seating, but we most definitely always sat in the same place. My grandparents at either at end of the table, my mom and I on either side of my grandmother, my Uncle John next to my grandpa. I can’t imagine what kind of crisis would have had to take place to get us to sit in different spots at that table.
Our kids who are in school might have a better appreciation than the rest of us of the trials and tribulations of assigned seating, although I’m a bit out of touch with current practices. There would always be a teacher or two who would let you pick seats near your friends, but most of my teachers in junior high and high school sat us alphabetically. If you had all your classes with the same kids, you’d end up near the same handful of people in every class. There’s also, of course, the intricate dynamics of who sits where at lunch time. I know that I sat with the same group of people at the same table during lunch every day during junior high. I might wander over to speak to people at other tables, but some great upset to the social order would have had to take place for me to sit down at another table without invitation.
We might be most familiar with careful seating arrangements when we think about wedding receptions, although even there the trend is toward more casual, unassigned seating. But generally, the closer you are to the couple getting married, the closer you will be to the head table at the reception. If you are a more casual acquaintance of the newlyweds, you wouldn’t expect to be at a table that was front and center. A number of TV sitcoms make whole episodes of the bride and groom trying to figure out who will sit where at the wedding reception, or of wedding guests being disappointed with the table to which they are assigned. I have to confess that I often end up seated with any and all religious-type people at wedding receptions, no matter how little else we might have in common. Better to keep all the churchy-types where you can keep your eye on them! Many of you know my youngest brother Todd recently became engaged, and I wonder how he and his fiancée Emma will handle the struggles of figuring out who gets invited, and where you will put them when they show up!
In our gospel lesson from Luke today, Jesus is eating dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees on the Sabbath, something he does regularly. Pharisees were teachers and interpreters of the law of Moses, forerunners of the rabbinic Judaism we know today. Pharisees were leaders, generally well-respected in their community, looked to for guidance and advice. Luke tells us that they’re watching Jesus closely. This isn’t surprising, given that it was just the chapter before when Jesus was healing in a synagogue on the Sabbath, and offering an interpretation of the commandments concerning Sabbath that completely contradicted the teachings of the Pharisees. And indeed, in the intervening verses in our passage today, those verses 2-6, Jesus purposefully leads the conversation back to whether or not one can heal on the Sabbath, and proceeds to heal a man with dropsy – we’d called it edema today. Jesus leaves the Pharisees and lawyers, the group of guests gathered for the meal, grasping for ways to argue with him.
Then Jesus turns his attention to the guests as they are coming in for the meal, noticing how everyone is trying to get the best seats. And so he says, “When you are invited to a wedding banquet, don’t choose the best seat, in case someone of higher status than you shows up, and the host who invited both of you has to come and ask you to give up your seat and move to a lower place. Instead, start at the lowest place, so that your host will have to come and say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus continues saying that when you host a lunch to a dinner, you shouldn’t invite your friends or family or rich neighbors. They might invite you back, and then you’d be repaid. Instead, Jesus says, invite the poor, the infirm, the blind, and any others who cannot pay you back, invite you back, offer you something in return. In this way, Jesus says, you’ll be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
I had the pleasure of going to see a play last night – Anne of Green Gables. It was general seating - you could sit anywhere, and we had good seats. But many times, people will pay big money to get what we would call “the best seats in the house.” The idea is that there’s a seat from which you can enjoy the best views of the stage, take in the most action, get the best angle. If you can’t pay as much, you might get to the see the show, but you have to crane your neck a little, or look to the side, or you can see into the wings and see the actors waiting to come on stage, or you’re so far away you can’t really see the small details.
But – there’s something we miss out on when we’re obsessed with getting the best seats in the house. Many years ago, when I was living in New Jersey, I saved up money and invited my youngest brother Todd, the actor, to go see the Nutcracker with me at the New York City Ballet. We both love dance, and I was so excited, even though I could only afford seats in one of the higher level balconies. And then, we turned out to be sitting next to a mother and her toddler – 3 or 4 at the most, this child. And the mother, when the show began, started narrating everything that was happening to her little daughter. I could feel my blood boiling. Ballets don’t require narration! And I’d worked hard to get these seats and was going to have to listen to this woman narrate the entire show. But I started to think about my first time seeing the Nutcracker, when I was probably close to this child’s age. Did my mom tell me about everything that was happening? Probably. And here I was, getting to witness this little girl ooh and aah at the magic that I sometimes missed as a more experienced connoisseur of the ballet. Maybe my ballet experience wasn’t so quiet and reflective. But what would I have missed, had I had a “better” seat?
I think of the Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio movie Titanic. Aside from the whole sinking ship thing, the main point of the story was that Kate’s character, Rose, was going through life with what was billed as the best seat in the house. Wealthy, status, educated, opportunities. But Jack showed her all the things she couldn’t see from her supposedly best position. Decks full of people who were not even allowed to walk in the same places Rose had been walking. Suddenly, Rose could see them, when she was willing to leave her seat, her deck, her status and position behind.
Jesus uses the image of a wedding feast often in his parables. It’s a time of celebration and rejoicing, and so it makes a great metaphor for the kingdom of God. And the great thing is: we’re guests! We’ve been invited! We already have a place at God’s table! Our identity, our value, our true value, comes from God alone. We’re God’s children! Sometimes, we act like we’re still waiting for our invitation in the mail. But God has already invited us. Friends, we’re in. But God is also hoping we’ll stop climbing over each other trying to find the best seat, the seat at the head of table, as if there’s some bigger reward waiting for us there.
We’re meant to strive for, to work for God’s kingdom, God’s reign on earth. And to do that, we need to get a different perspective. We need to realize that Jesus isn’t staying put at the head of the table anyway. He’s out at the fringes, out on the street, seeing who else wants to come in. He’s out there where he can really see everyone, and especially seeing people that have been overlooked, who never heard from anyone that they were invited, who’ve felt like they wouldn’t be welcome, who’ve felt like this party wasn’t for them. That’s where we’ll find Jesus.
What can we see from our seat in God’s house? How much of the world do we see, really? How much of our community do we see? Who do we see? Who do we eat with? Who do we sit next to? Who do we invite? In the days and weeks ahead, I encourage you to ask yourself those questions – not just metaphorically, but literally. Who do you see? Who do you make eye contact with, or not? Who do you eat with? Who do you sit next to? Who have you invited to be a part of your life, to be a part of this community, to move up to the seat you’re willing to give up for them? Who have you invited to be a part of God’s party? There are so many people God wants us to see, and such blessings that await us when we do. Amen.