Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, "At the Table with Jesus: Table Talk," Luke 14:1, 7-24

Art by Ayseluna Hockenbary
Sermon 3/17/19
Luke 14:1, 7-24


At the Table with Jesus: Table Talk

We can sometimes get the impression that the lawyers and scribes and Pharisees, the interpreters of the law, the religious leaders and scholars of the day, were enemies of Jesus. Certainly, Jesus saves his most challenging words, his harshest criticisms for these religious elite. And some of them seem to be more actively plotting against Jesus. But Jesus, as we saw last week, also spends time in the home of Pharisees as their invited guest. He directs a lot of his teaching at them, and we might conclude that it is with hope that they will hear and act on his words that he spends a lot of time speaking to them about their behavior.
Today he’s again at the home of a Pharisee, and Jesus is spending the sabbath there. Before the part of the text that is our focus for today, a man with edema appears at dinner, and Jesus heals the man, and then tries to engage his guests in conversation about healing on the sabbath. Perhaps having heard about how adept Jesus is at challenging their understandings of scripture, the Pharisees and other leaders stay silent. They can’t figure out how to argue with Jesus and win. And then we move on to three back-to-back teachings Jesus shares over the meal table that all have to do with customs and practices in just such a setting. Let’s look at each of these vignettes in turn.
First, Jesus addresses seating dynamics at wedding banquets. We’re not as starkly structured by economic class today as folks were in Jesus’ day - at least not overtly. The rules are much more flexible - social etiquette in most settings is not so rigid. But in some places still today, we are remarkably unchanged over 2000 years. If we think about weddings and awards banquets today, we’ll find some of the same “seating” issues that come up in Jesus’ first of three teachings. At many weddings today, folks are still assigned to a specific table to sit at. And to some extent, some seats are perceived as better than others. The head table is for the most important people - the wedding party. The tables nearest them are usually full of family and close friends. And if you don’t know the newlyweds well, you might be on the outer edges of the reception hall. It is one of these settings where we’re awkwardly aware of how we “rank” compared to others in attendance. Were we an integral part of the big day? Or did we just barely make it on to the invite list? Movies and TV shows often find wedding receptions ripe with material for laughs, depicting funny situations about the wedding couple trying to figure out who should sit where, or someone getting stuck at a table with unpleasant meal companions, or someone accidentally ending up at the kid’s table.
In Jesus’ day, too, the closer you were to the host, the more prestigious your position. Remember when the disciples James and John ask Jesus to sit on his left and right-hand side at the heavenly banquet? They know those are the very best seats there are. As Jesus is reclining at the table during this meal at the Pharisee’s home, he notices that people are seeking out the best places they can secure. They all want places of honor. So Jesus gives them a little advice. “When you’re invited to a banquet,” he says. “Don’t pick the best place. What if someone more important than you is coming to the celebration? Then the host will have to come and ask you to move, to give up your seat, and you’ll be disgraced. Instead, start at the lowest place. And when the host sees where you are, the host will come and call you Friend and tell you to move close, to a better seat, and then you’ll be honored in front of everyone.” Jesus condudes, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus’s conclusion is one oft repeated in the gospels, but I find the build up a little confusing. In his parable, Jesus seems to be saying that the reason we should take a seat of less honor is in hopes of being moved up to a better seat by the host. Is that humility? Or just pretending to be humble? But Jesus moves on quickly to his next lesson:  
When have you invited a bunch of folks to your party knowing they would never be able to afford to throw one in return? When have you treated someone to dinner who could never treat you back? Or when have you been someone’s guest to a meal when you knew you couldn’t return the favor? As I shared with our Wednesday night study group, what springs to mind for me is when I first started attending Annual Conference, our denomination’s regional yearly business meeting, when I was in high school. Now, our meals are included in the event, but back then, folks would go out to eat for every meal. It was rather expensive. Well, my pastor not only let me tag along with him and his colleagues to every meal, but he also paid for every meal without question. I never could have afforded it - my mom couldn’t have sent me if it meant sending me with an extra $100 for meals at restaurants. But my pastor paid for everything, knowing, of course, that I wouldn’t be paying him back later - at least not for many years!
In the second, short section of our text today, Jesus turns to the host and says, “If you’re throwing an event, don’t invite your friends and relatives and rich people who you think might pay you back, invite you to something they are hosting next week. If you do that, you’ll be repaid, and that’s that. Instead, invite the poor, the lame, the blind - people who (in Jesus’s day in particular) have no chance of repaying you. Then, you’ll be blessed, because your repayment will come at the resurrection of the righteous.” Again, I wonder - if we’re inviting dinner guests who can’t repay us just because we’re looking for a heavenly reward, is that really any better than looking to get a return gift in this life? Or does it just demonstrate more patience - we can last longer and wait for the better reward? But again, Jesus presses on.
In the last vignette, Jesus again talks about someone throwing a great dinner party. Have you ever thrown a party and had nobody show up? I still remember my birthday party in sixth grade, which I had at the Delta Lake State Park. I had a really hard time in fifth and sixth grade with kids teasing me. I had some good friends, thankfully, but I couldn’t let go of wishing the popular kids would like me - that I could be one of them. Some days the popular kids were nice to me, and I held on to those moments. I invited everybody in my class to my party, and I really believed they would all come. After all, a party was a party, right? Everyone liked birthday parties.
But they didn’t come. None of the “cool” kids came. I had maybe three friends that did come - people who were always kind to me, always there for me. But I could only focus on my disappointment. I told myself, “No one likes me.” But what I meant was, of course, that the popular kids didn’t like me. I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate my actual friends who had shown up very much in that moment. It was a long time before I learned to value true friendship.
The party host in our parable doesn’t seem to struggle like I did. He had invited a great many people - people of some measure of wealth and property. And they’d accepted the invitation. They’d RSVPed yes. But when the time actually came and he sent his slave out to call everyone to the party, suddenly, everyone had better things to do.
The host was angry - but he didn’t sit around moping. Instead, he figured he could find plenty of people who would be happy to share in the feast he’d prepared. So he sent his slave out - first to the streets and lanes in town, with orders to call the poor, crippled, blind and lame (in other words, folks who weren’t usually on anyone’s invitation list) and then to the roads and lanes, where one would find folks even more separated from the community. This host would invite as many people as it took to fill the table at his party, remarking to himself how everyone who had refused was missing out on the feast he’d prepared.
What do we make of all that Jesus says over this meal? Is he just giving us advice for shrewd behavior, navigating the social mores of our society to position ourselves best in the eyes of God and neighbor? That seems a little unlike Jesus, doesn’t it? So what’s happening here?
I think, piece by piece, Jesus is upending the whole system of honor and shame, reward and disgrace. Each vignette seems to pull back another layer. We’re at a party, and instead of trying to get the best spot, Jesus encourages us to take the lowest place. Who would we see there, do you think? Think about a gathering you’ve been to recently. Who was on the fringes? Who was sitting alone? Where was the spot no one else wanted? What if you sat there?
Even as we agree with Jesus that we can sit there at the lowest place, because now we’re sure that the host will soon be asking us to move up higher, Jesus changes things again. Now there is no one of high status at this party at all. The whole guest list is made up of people who are normally on the fringes. The places of honor go to those who will never offer a return invitation to the host. Can we take the lowest seat at this gathering too? A whole gathering of people who don’t normally even get invited - do we even want a seat at all?
Jesus suggests that many won’t even bother to come to the feast, once they realize the kinds of parties the Host of all his stories throws. The host of the last vignette has so much room, so many seats available, and pushes the boundaries beyond even the “second tier” guests to people probably not considered fit for polite company at all. Do you still want a seat? Many, Jesus suggests, aren’t interested in being part of the feast after all.
Are we? God is inviting us to be part of God’s reign on earth. But week after week Jesus pushes us, reminding us of who else is invited. Tax collectors, enemies of the people, known sinners with bad reputations, snooty self-righteous Pharisees who think they’re better than everyone else, people who are dirt poor, people who need to be carried in, people who are diseased, people who you’d find just standing by the roadside, up to no good: these are the kinds of people Jesus wants at his table. This is who God is inviting to the great banquet. And you. You’re invited too. It turns out, God thinks you fit right into that mix of people somewhere. Will you accept the invitation? When you realize who else is invited, maybe it doesn’t matter anymore where you’re sitting. Maybe places of honor and places of disgrace have gotten all mixed up so that to be humbled is to be exalted and vise versa.
So, will you take a seat? Will you make conversation with everyone else at your table, and stop worrying about how they made it on to the guest list? Or will you suddenly remember that you had something else to do? Jesus says the party must go on, and God will keep inviting until the whole house is filled to the brim, overflowing. What will you do? I think it sounds like a party we don’t want to miss. Amen.

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