In society, it is common for significant donors and people with esteemed titles to be seated in the places of honor. Jesus challenged this notion time and time again, saying, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted?” How does Jesus challenge us to examine our hierarchy?
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.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Think of time in your life when you felt really out of place, like you didn’t belong and maybe like no one really wanted or even noticed you were there. Do you have a place or time in mind?
I sincerely hope that the first place that came to mind wasn’t church, but I fully recognize that churches can and have been places where many people have felt unwelcome or out of place. If that is or has been the case for you, please let us know, so that we can respond and learn from one another. We don’t want that to be the case here at Calvary.
But wherever your awkward, out of place moment may be, whether it was a church or a big dinner party or a mixer of some sort, think about how you felt: how uncomfortable it was, how unsettling it was to not know where or how you fit in.
I imagine our children and youth, many of whom are sitting in the balcony, might be feeling some of that as the school year begins again. Some of you might be in new schools, all of you are in new classes. And I hope it’s a little exciting and fun, but I’m sure it’s a little nerve-wrecking and anxiety-producing as well. In fact, for me, the time and place I think of when I consider where I’ve felt the most out of place and uncertain of where I belong are my first few days of 8th grade.
I had just moved to a new middle school (in Texas, that’s 6th – 8th grade), and everyone else already knew each from previous years, some from even before then. And going to class or walking down the hall by myself wasn’t that bad as the new girl. But going to lunch, that felt like a nightmare.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had to walk into a middle school cafeteria, holding a tray of food and unsure of where to sit. But I can guarantee you, from first-hand experience, that it is pretty awful.
There may be kids who are outgoing and gregarious enough to just overcome the sheer the horror of it all, but I was not one of those kids. I wasn’t particularly all that shy or scared of people.
In fact, earlier that day, I had boldly asked to borrow a pen from the boy who thirteen years later would become my husband. So, I could talk to people; I wasn’t afraid to make conversation, and I knew I’d eventually make new friends. But taking on a cafeteria full of kids who knew exactly where their seats were from previous years, and having no idea where I should sit, that was too much.
So, after that first day of cafeteria trauma, I decided it would be easier to just stop eating lunch. The next few days, I went straight to a vending machine, inhaled junk food, and then hung out in the girls’ bathroom until lunch was over. And that’s how it went for about the first week of school. I just dreaded lunch. But one day, two girls walked into my lunch-time sanctuary, aka the bathroom.
And they noticed me. One of them said liked my shirt, and another one thought we had a class together. They noticed me. But it didn’t stop there. They, then, invited me to come sit with them at lunch and meet some of their friends. They had a place at their table, and I was invited to join them.
Friends, sometimes the kingdom of God is like two thirteen-year-old girls making room at their lunch table for the new girl. I can’t tell you the relief I felt, the burden that lifted off of me that day. I no longer dreaded lunchtime; I had a table where I belonged. And to this day, I am grateful for the kindness of Hanh & Emalie.
I made two life-long friends that day. They were both in my wedding, in fact, and though we live in different states now, I still consider them two of my closest friends.
See, that type of kindness, that kind of grace, that inclusion when you’ve felt so left out, it changes you, it shifts the trajectory of your life in some way. And that is precisely God’s invitation to us. To come and sit at God’s table. Just as we sang this morning, “All are welcome.” You are welcome. It doesn’t matter where you’ve spent your lunch hour, how out of place you’ve felt at school, or work, or even at church. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t feel worthy of the invitation. All are welcome, no matter what.
We all belong, that’s the promise we receive at baptism, what we all remember each time we baptize new members and babies. It’s the promise that God has made room for you at God’s lunch table. You belong; you are loved, and there’s nothing you can say or do to earn that kind of grace, and there’s nothing you can say or do to stop that kind of love. It is as unconditional as it is unwarranted.
And that kind of love, it changes you. It’s salvific. It frees you from hiding out in bathrooms, from hiding in closets, from hiding from yourself and from others. That kind of love frees you to be you.
Jesus said he came to let the oppressed go free, and he did that through love. And that is the good news of the gospel. Each one of us is personally invited to experience God’s radical hospitality and love. And I think that’s what’s made this message of Jesus catch on and survive through the millennia. Perhaps why many of you have gathered here this morning. That sense of relief, of belonging, of healing and acceptance and love that we all crave is offered to us, for free. Simply because God loves us. And it impacts each of us profoundly, doesn’t it? It leaves us changed. But here’s the thing. It doesn’t end there.
You see, if Jesus’ message was strictly personal, he wouldn’t have been a threat to the religious and political authorities. You don’t get crucified for making individuals feel good about themselves. So Jesus’ message was more than just “you are loved.”
It was that, for sure, but it was “you are loved, and so is ever single other person in this world.” And until that is evident by the way we treat and value one another, we have work to do. See, the society that Jesus was born into was deeply hierarchical. Status determined who would be invited to dinner parties and where you would sit at those parties. The most esteemed guests would sit closest to the host. And hosts, really, only invited those who would benefit them in some way.
According to one commentator, (Andrew Prior) in this communal culture, position wasn’t just a matter of individual achievement. It was a community value. It was given by the group, and your value and worth came from your place in society. In some ways, there’s something beautiful about that, about a community knowing you and valuing you and helping you figure out your place in this world. But this societal/communal structure had stopped being affirming for some as those in power sought to only keep that power to benefit themselves. And those at the highest ranks inevitably began to fear losing that position. So they held on tight and created rules and regulations to ensure that they would stay in power. That fear gave rise to some horrible practices, grave injustices, and oppression of an entire subset of people.
Jesus witnessed this. He saw how those in power sought to only stay in power rather than to help those who needed it. He saw how compassion and generosity were shown only when it would benefit them in some way. Sound familiar?
If we’re honest, these days we’re not so different from the hierarchy of Jesus’ day. Our social stratification might not be as blatantly obvious or as formal, but we tend to keep company with those who are more like us than not, with those who might have something to offer us, with those who seem like they could help us climb that social or corporate ladder, or at least not drag us down. And deep down, we all have a desire for significance and recognition. Andrew Prior says, “Even our best efforts at life are compromised by the need to matter, to feel wanted, to be valued, and to have some significance.” He recognizes that oftentimes, even in the church, our resistance to change and wanting to “gate keep” that is to determine whose allowed or welcome, what music is allowed or welcome, it all stems from our fear of losing our place at the table. We have created our own seating charts, with ourselves at the center, and those of subsequent significance seated near us. And we are afraid of losing our place, so we hold so tightly to things that really may not matter much in the end. Jesus saw this in his day and sees it today. And he, not so politely, protests that system.
Last week, we heard how he went to the halls of power and broke the laws of Sabbath by healing those who needed it. Jesus recognized that people were more important than rules. And this week, he proposes to throw the whole seating chart and the invitations out altogether. It’s open seating, and everyone can come.
What he proposes is a radical upheaval, a complete transformation of values where the those “who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted”, where “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” And he does this because he is driven not by fear but by love. You see, no one can lose their place at God’s table. There is nothing to fear, no one to fear.
In fact, the person who should be seated at God’s right hand, God’s own Son, Jesus the Christ, came not to take his place at the head of the Table, but to serve and wash the feet of his disciples. He even washed the feet of the one who would betray him. This was a servant’s job, and Jesus took it upon himself to do it.
So what does all that mean for us? How can we possibly live out this upside down gospel message in our own lives today?
I can think of three things from the three different perspectives included in today’s scripture passage.
First, if you are in need of an invitation this morning, consider yourself invited. You matter. You are beloved, and this community would love to get to know you better.
Our next new members class is at the end of October, but you don’t have to wait to join to get involved. Come to coffee hour in Calvin Hall, let us know how we can contact you by signing in on the pew pads, meet someone at our welcome table in the atrium. We welcome everyone, really. Not because this is our church, and we’re such great people. But because this is God’s church, and God has welcomed us.
Second, if you have been invited to a party or a feast or an event of any kind, consider less about your position and prestige while you’re there and more about how you might serve others at the event. Is there someone who might need a listening ear? Could the host use your help in some way, setting up chairs or bringing food? How might you take a place of humility and of service to those around you?
And third, if you are hosting a party or a feast or an event of any kind in the next few months, think about who you could invite that would push you out of your comfort zone a bit.
Maybe it’s that relative whom you avoid because you have such differing political or religious views. Maybe it’s that guy at the office who just seems really awkward and hard to talk to. Maybe it’s your neighbor who wears a hijab or a turban or whose first language isn’t your own. Maybe it’s even that guy who stands outside of Peet’s hoping that you’ll drop in some change. Who could you invite? Who should you invite, so that your event looks and feels a little more like the kingdom of God?
Friends, in these next few moment, we invite you to a time of silent reflection. In this time, let us prayerfully consider, what is God calling us to do and be this morning? Are we willing to listen? And when we hear God, are we willing to follow?
Being a follower of Jesus was never meant to be easy.
Life-changing and life-giving- yes! But never easy.
So let us listen for God and commit to leaving this sanctuary changed in some way. Amen.