09/01/19 “A Place at the Table”

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Our tables are important to us.  They’re often the center of our homes, the place where memories are made and shared.  It’s the place where family members know that there’s a spot reserved for them, and newcomers are made to feel welcome.  Meals shared around a table are common in Scripture, whether that “table” is a rug spread over a shady patch of desert sand, a picnic basket on a hillside, a table in an upper room or the home of a well-connected Pharisee.

When we plan any event where people will gather around our table, there are two things we consider, apart from the food we’ll serve. We think about whom to invite and where each person will sit.  This can be a very stressful task if the event you’re planning includes people who don’t know each other or even don’t like each other. In fact, an informal poll on Facebook showed that the most stressful part of planning a wedding is planning seating chart for the reception!

Maybe that was on the mind of the Pharisee leader who hosted a dinner party and decided to invite Jesus.  It was a Sabbath meal—maybe the Jewish ritual meal of Shabbat.  It seems kind of funny that the Pharisee would invite Jesus to this dinner party. The relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees wasn’t good at that point. Luke tells us the Pharisees were watching Jesus closely.  They had been picking at Jesus for quite a while, and Jesus had directed some pretty harsh words to them, even as recently as the walk to the Pharisee’s house.

Luke doesn’t tell us anything about why the host decided to invite Jesus.  Maybe he was curious about this backwater rabbi’s miraculous healings and his teachings which were drawing large crowds. Maybe he, like Nicodemus, had a sincere interest in what Jesus was saying and who he might be. Or, maybe he invited Jesus simply because he thought about Jesus the same way Lyndon Johnson thought about J. Edgar Hoover: that it was better to have him inside the tent than outside it.  (Johnson’s words were actually a lot more colorful, but they’re not exactly suitable for church.)

Picture Jesus entering the house and observing the other guests as they jockey for seats at the table.  Jesus watches as they try to claim the most prestigious places—the ones nearest the host.  A seat near the head of the table meant you were important. A seat far away from the host meant you were diminished in some way—that you had less value than others, that you were a kind of hanger-on or wanna-be.

Imagine Jesus kind of standing back and watching this all play out. Then, there’s that pause in the action where everyone has found a seat but the food hasn’t been served yet and the wine hasn’t been poured.  Jesus speaks into that moment, with words camouflaged as advice about where to sit at a wedding reception. He paints a scenario which would have made his fellow guests cringe: You go to a wedding reception where the bride has not made out a seating chart in advance.  Thinking you’re surely one of the more elite guests, you take a seat at one of the tables nearest the bride and groom.  Maybe you even help yourself to a seat at the head table, because then everyone will see just how important you are.

Then a terrible thing happens.  The father of the bride comes to you with another guest beside him.  He tells you that the seat you’re in belongs to this more distinguished guest, and he asks you to find another seat.  Of course, by now all the prime seats have been taken, so you have to slink off to the table at the back of the room, squeezed in between the service galley and the DJ’s equipment.  Everyone watches as you trudge to your new, most undesirable seat, red-faced from the shame that has just been heaped all over you.

The dinner party guests who had just been jockeying for the best seats must have squirmed with imagined embarrassment.  In their society, everything depended on how much honor you could claim and how much shame you could avoid. And Jesus has just painted a worst-case scenario for all the dinner party guests who had pretty much just taken the same risk as that unfortunate wedding guest.

Then, Jesus paints another picture. This time, you go to the wedding reception, and you voluntarily take that seat at the back of the room.  As the tables fill up, the father of the bride approaches you with an invitation. He has a better seat in mind for you!  He wants you to move to a table that will prove how much the host values your friendship.  Now that long trip is one that the other guests watch with admiration. The motto of this story? “All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

Society tells us that where we sit at the table matters.  It mattered in Jesus’ time, and it matters now. While I was on vacation, I read several books that included stories about young teens, and every one of them included observations about the pecking order in the school cafeteria and the agony of figuring out where you could sit that wouldn’t make you the target for teasing or rejection. And it seems that we never outgrow that behavior.  I’ve heard plenty of stories from people who have spent time in assisted living or nursing care about how hard it is to find a place to sit in the dining room.  It’s like Junior High all over again.  Where we sit, matters.

I have a cousin who married (and later divorced) a young woman from a very wealthy and influential family in Columbus.  She and her parents weren’t impressed by our family’s lack of connections in political and banking circles.  At the very lavish wedding reception, we were all seated in an area that was kind of off to the side of the main ballroom, where we couldn’t really see or hear what was going on and, maybe intentionally, the other guests couldn’t see or hear us!  We had a great time together, but we still laugh at how the seating chart made it clear that we didn’t quite live up to the bride’s standards.

We attach meaning to where we sit at the table, and who is sitting there with us.  We use our place at the table to establish our identity, or to take a stand.  Our tables show who we think is acceptable and who isn’t.  We sit with those we like or who have something in common with us.  We pointedly avoid a seat at a table near someone we’re mad at, or because we object to something about them, or because society tells us associating with them will tarnish us somehow. We literally put people in their places by telling them whether they can or can’t sit with us. Society teaches us that we can establish who we are and where we belong by where we sit or with whom we sit.

But Jesus tells us to use a different set of criteria when we’re choosing a place to sit and the people we will sit with. Instead of using society’s rules, he tells us to use kingdom rules.  In the kingdom, genuine humility in the face of a gracious God compels us to take the seat of the least important guest.  We see clearly who we are—people who owe everything that we have and everything we are to God. We see ourselves as the recipients of a gift—the gift of acceptance, the gift of salvation, the gift of life—all because of God’s grace alone.  We know that we have no reason to expect a place of honor.  In truth, we have no reason to expect to be on the guest list at all!

But the good news is that, just as the kingdom rules for choosing a place to sit are different from our society’s rules, kingdom rules for making up a guest list are different, too.  Jesus shared those rules with his host that night.

Jesus knew the considerations the host had juggled while choosing his guests.  There were his relatives, of course. There were rich, influential neighbors he couldn’t afford to offend (and, to be honest, would make him look good if they came). He probably had to extend some pay-back invitations to people whose parties he had attended. Plus, if he invited some people who were lower on the social ladder, they would owe him, and that would also make him look good.

But, Jesus tells his host to rethink that guest list—to think outside the box. “Don’t invite the usual suspects—your friends, immediate and extended family, people who might be able to do you some good,” he says. “They’ll just invite you back, and it will all be a wash. There’s nothing to be gained by that. Instead, invite people who can’t repay you for your generosity.  Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. In that kind of generosity, you will find real blessing in this world and repayment in the next.”

Of course, Jesus never asks anyone to do what he doesn’t do himself. Jesus’ guest list is exactly the one that he described to his host.  Jesus did invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to his banquet.  We know this from the many stories the gospels tell us.  But we also know this because he invited us.

We are among the poor he invited—poor in material wealth, perhaps, but also poor in spirit. Those of us who are discouraged, lonely, disheartened. Those of us whose sense of self-worth is overinflated or underinflated. Those of us who are unconvinced of our sacred worth to God. We are among the crippled—those whose physical movements are limited and joints are stiff, sure, but also those of us whose sense of self has been hobbled by demeaning words, dismissive and unloving attitudes, or constant criticism—our own or that of others. We are among those who are crippled by our certainty—by opinions and habits that confine us to one place, unable to move closer to God or neighbor.

We are among the lame—those whose legs don’t move with a steady, rapid gate, but also those who come to Jesus with difficulty, slowed by doubts and fears, stumbling over the obstacles life puts in our way.  We are among the blind—not only those whose physical vision is impaired but also those of us who struggle to see the risen Christ in our lives and our world and to envision the life he wants to share with us.  We are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind Jesus invites to his table, knowing there is no way we can ever repay him for his gracious invitation.

When I think of a table that looks like the one Jesus sets, I think of the one set by my brother Doug and his wife Missy. They are, hands down, the most hospitable people I know.  They open not just their table but their entire home to their guests. They spend I-don’t-know-how-much money and time to make everyone comfortable in a way none of us who are fortunate enough to be their guests can repay.

But the most important thing they offer is their spirit of welcome.  When they host a party, like our Thanksgiving celebration, their invitation always includes this note: “Invite anyone you know who needs a place to go.”  Since they began hosting our family get-togethers, their table has gotten bigger and bigger.  It’s moved from their dining room to their family room to their basement, as it continues to expand.  They don’t worry about whose politics or religion or personalities or histories might clash. Their only concern is that everyone be made to feel welcome—that everyone has a place at the table.

The only other table like that that I know of is the one we’ll gather around in a few moments.  Jesus’ table is big enough to include anyone who wants to sit at it, including us, even though we can never repay him for his generosity. The only way we can thank him is to imitate him, inviting to our tables those who are just as poor, crippled, lame, and blind as we are.  By making us heirs with him to his kingdom, he makes us both guests and hosts—guests at his table, and hosts who are charged with making sure that everyone knows they, too, have a place at his table, and at ours.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young