Filed under: Sermons | Tags: Cross, ELCA, Jesus, kingdom of God, Luke, Pharisees, poverty, Sin, Sinners, wedding
Luke 14:1, 7–14
Pastor Jeff is away in Chicago this weekend, presiding at the wedding of a college friend. About this time last year, one of our pastor friends had flown home to Milwaukee to preside at the wedding of a family member. The ceremony was held at a park, it was a beautiful day, just the right setting and lighting for a picture- perfect wedding.
Just as the pastor began her sermon, a man who appeared to be homeless wandered in through the rows of chairs. A start contrast to the elegant guests and wedding party, he wasn’t dressed for the occasion. His hair wasn’t combed and he smelled like neither he nor his clothes had been washed for days. All eyes were upon him as he walked right up the aisle and took a seat at the bride’s feet. Right up front, in the middle of everything, the center of every picture.
Can you imagine the reaction? What would you have thought? What would you have done?
In this case, an usher quietly welcomed the man to join them for the worship and marriage rite, but asked that he take a seat in one of the chairs. It was a polite attempt. It didn’t work. The man continued to wander around the wedding party and the rows of guests, inspected the musicians, and found his way into their memories, captured on camera.
As a bride, I think I would be horrified! Month of planning, of deciding who should be invited and who ignored, arranging seating charts and training ushers, finding the perfect photographer, all to end up with someone uninvited and definitely not in the color scheme in the middle of it all, drawing all the attention.
There are, after all, books and magazines, websites and tv shows all about how to create the most magical wedding, and avoid faux-pas. I’m sure that random people off the street, especially people who live on the street, aren’t among the wedding desirables!
This generation isn’t the first to have social standards and taboos. Society in Jesus’ day felt a lot like a wedding with its unwritten rules and what to do and who to avoid books. It wasn’t just the host of a wedding or a dinner who had to think about the do’s and don’ts of etiquette, but everyone who had to know and follow these standards.
Part of the social rules were based in religious ideas, others were just a part of their culture. Purity, holiness, and righteousness were major religious ideals. Who you touched or spoke with affected you. Interacting with certain people made you unclean, unfit for worship in the temple. If you wanted to look good in God’s eyes, you’d stay away from people who were sick, crippled, blind, or in the wrong religious group.
A big part of their culture was based on hierarchy. There were only a very few at the top of the society, and everyone else had a specific rung on the ladder of importance, above or below someone else. Hopefully above someone. Another big part of their culture was about honor. Honor had to do with how you behaved, what you did for a living, and how you repaid those who did things for you. Both hierarchy and honor have to do with one individual’s position relative to another’s.
People’s positions were played out in every day interactions. They were especially noticeable at functions like dinners. At the turn of the first millennium, eating at everyday gatherings was worse than the most complicated seating chart today. Instead of neatly arranged, numbered and named tables and settings, guests had to figure out how they ranked in relation to the other guests and choose a seat that was appropriate to their position. Every seat was not the same.
Dinners themselves were opportunities to cement or better your position. To be welcomed as a special friend of a rich and honored host makes everyone else recognize you as someone special, perhaps more important than they had thought. Everyone is watching everyone else, and they’ll remember who sat where: it’ll affect how they act the next day.
Instead of our weddings, judged by the lavishness of the food offered to all the guests, their dinners might include food that fit the station of those being served: the best for the host and specially honored guests, less rich food for those less honored, and so on.
Attending a dinner was an intricate dance, an opportunity to maneuver yourself into a better social position, while trying not to push too far that you might find room for yourself only at the bottom.
Dinner etiquette wasn’t so easy for the hosts, either. They were judged not only on what they served, but on who they welcomed to their tables, and who showed up. As host, you would hope to have a highly honored person attend as your friend, a person whose position could raise your own.
A leader of the Pharisees invited Jesus to dinner one Sabbath. I wonder where the host intended for Jesus to sit, what position he envisioned Jesus taking? Was he hoping Jesus would cause a scene, or just look good among the diners?
Jesus is hardly one to play someone else’s game. As well as he knew the rules and the ropes of good society, he acted as an outsider and questioned them. To the guests he speaks a parable, perhaps giving them advice on how to be more greatly honored, referring to Proverbs. He tells them to take the lowest seat rather than the highest, so that, choosing the lowest, they would not be put down, but would have the opportunity to be raised up. But the Proverbs passage doesn’t advise taking the very lowest seat. It’s Jesus who tends to talk about people in the lowest and last position. In the chapter just before today’s reading Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of God and says, “some who are first will be last and some who are last will be first” (Luke 13:30). Could Jesus be using this dinner as an opportunity, not to raise his position, but to teach people about this new way of life, the kingdom of God that he is bringing in?
To the host, Jesus gives a direct command: “Don’t invite the people you’re supposed to invite to a dinner: your family, friends, and people who’ll be obligated to return the invitation. Instead, invite those people who aren’t invited to respectable dinners and who don’t have the means to invite you back.” This advice goes against every rule in the book, both societal and religious!
Jesus isn’t concerned with social convention. Jesus is bringing in a new way of being. Jesus is trying to make real to everyone what the kingdom of God is. Custom, command, and common-sense are all put aside because the kingdom of God turns every social ladder, every expectation upside down! Dinners in the kingdom of God aren’t just for those who are used to feasting, they are for all of God’s people.
So, you and me, whatever car we drive, whatever our checking account balance, we’re all welcome at Jesus’ banquet table! That’s a great thought to carry you through the week! Warm and fuzzy.
But the difficult reality – and the wonderful promise- is that the kingdom of God isn’t just up there somewhere, a place we go when we die, it’s right here, right now. And we have some responsibility for being a part of it.
In this life, we are both host and guest. Daily, we have opportunities either to welcome or ignore. We can seek to use others for our advantage, or can recognize each other’s individual gifts and personalities as part of God’s creative handiwork. How we act towards each other bears witness to our desire to live out God’s kingdom. At school, in the lunchroom, you can make room next to you for that person who isn’t sure where to sit. Before you go out or have friends over, you can invite someone new. You can build a relationship with that family people tend to ignore or whisper about. You can be the host who welcomes people on the edge of society, those who are not often invited.
Whenever we read in the Bible about the Pharisees or other religious people, we may shake our heads and think they had it all wrong, they always missed the point of Jesus’ teachings. They’re not alone. Centuries later, we still struggle with similar issues; we still miss the point of Jesus’ teaching. We don’t have such elaborate written rules about ritual holiness and cleanliness, but as a church, we still identify people whose actions, illness, or lifestyle makes them unclean, undesirable, and uninvited.
It’s our decision to recognize and live into the kingdom of God. God is at work in our lives, trying to open our eyes to recognize in the outcast and the stranger our neighbor, a beloved child of God. The kingdom of God is coming to us through Jesus.
Jesus ushers in this new kingdom himself, as he embodies its upside down reality. Jesus tells the dinner guests to choose the lowest seat so that they might be raised up. It’s language that is used to describe Jesus’ actions. Listen to this hymn from Philippians: Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him…” (Phil 2:7-9). Jesus, the Son of God the Father, to whom rightly belongs all glory and honor and praise, chose to set all this aside and take the lowest place. Jesus chose to eat with sinners, to touch lepers, and to talk with prostitutes. Jesus chose to suffer and die in the most despised manner of death. By his presence, Jesus hallowed people who were avoided because they brought unholiness by association. In his commitment to the kingdom of God, he chose accursed humility. Jesus shows the extant to which God is willing to go to make the kingdom of God a reality. There is no one who has been left outside Jesus’ welcome. Through Jesus, all are welcome in the kingdom of God.