preached at Lighthouse Free Methodist church this morning
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Imagine with me: It is Saturday evening. You have spent all week preparing for a special dinner at your house. You even woke up extra early this morning to dust everything one last time before beginning to prepare the feast. Everything has to be perfect, because you have invited your boss – the one you hope is going to offer you a promotion next week. You’ve prepared her favorite dishes and invited people who will make you look classy, intelligent and absolutely essential to your company. You’ve prepared your boss’s favorite meal and – you know this is probably just a bit overboard – but you even created a list of conversation topics just in case things begin getting boring. Everyone arrives and you are beginning to think your chances of promotion are fantastic… until one of the guests begins criticizing your boss. If that isn’t bad enough, this guest doesn’t stop with your boss, but begins attacking all of your guests. And then his attention focuses on you. He complains that the food is bland and calls you a bad host. When everyone finally goes home, you wonder how this perfect party became such a disaster.
If that happened to us, we probably wouldn’t invite that particular guest back, right? We’d call him rude – or worse – and make it clear that he was not welcome at the next event. And yet, that is exactly the sort of guest Jesus appears to be at this party.
The text tells us that Jesus is at the home of a religious leader for a Sabbath meal. This is like being invited for Sunday lunch by the president of the church board. But when you get to the house, you realize only the important people were invited. Maybe there are a few pastors of other area churches, maybe a visiting missionary. Some Methodist leaders show up. This church board president is trying to rub elbows with the big dogs. And you know how this goes. If one guest sees someone that he or she respects, the guest will realize “oh, the host is friends with them? Wow, she must be pretty special.”
Not only have all the important people been invited, but all of the guests know they are important. Each person there thinks that he or she is the best. Isn’t this shaping up to be a great party? A room full of people who think they are the stuff. And as soon as they walk into the dining room, everyone makes a beeline for the best seat, the seat right next to the host. Not only do they get to look important, but they get the food first – everyone knows the host passes to the right.
Jesus notices this. And being Jesus, he calls them on it. He looks at the rascal who ran to the good seat first and says “let me tell you a story… someone was invited to a wedding feast and knowing he was fabulous, sat right next to the bride’s family. Right after he has made himself nice and cozy, a long lost friend shows up. The father-of-the-bride asked him to move to make space for the friend. The only place left was a spot at the kid’s table. What he should have done is sat in a bad spot to begin with, and then the host would enter, see him sitting there and invite him to the head table.”
Luke calls this a parable. Parables are usually when Jesus describes something else in order to share a moral – sometimes the listeners end up scratching their heads for awhile, trying to figure out what Jesus was saying. For instance, a few weeks ago we talked about Isaiah’s Vineyard Song. Isaiah used a vineyard and gardener to talk about our relationship with God. But this time, the only thing Jesus changes is the location. In the story, he talks about a wedding feast, but his description of the guests is exactly like the guests at the dinner party. Almost as if I were to tell you a story about another church I visited, and then describe the exact service we are in now. There was no misunderstanding – these guests knew Jesus was talking about them.
But what was he saying? We often hear the quote “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Was Jesus saying that if we wanted to get ahead – to get the best seat – that we could take the last and somehow trick everyone into doing what we wanted? I don’t think so. If that was the case, then all the guests would just start running to the last seat, knowing they would be honored. I think what Jesus was talking about is humility. Now humility is one of those big words that churches throw around a lot. I grew up thinking that being humble meant telling people that you weren’t particularly good at singing or baking or playing football. It meant thinking you were less than and that everyone else is better. In this case, that definition would mean taking the lowest chair because everyone else in the room is better than you. But that modern definition isn’t what people in Jesus’ day meant by “humility.” Humility isn’t thinking everyone is better than you, but realizing that all of our gifts and abilities come from God. It is knowing that we are all God’s beloved children. We are to love ourselves, but we are also to love others.
This reminds me of the legends of Camelot. In the stories of Camelot, King Arthur builds a round table. This way, when the knights hold meetings, everyone has an equal position. There is no “best seat,” because they are all the same. No matter where you sit, everyone can see you and hear you speak. Perhaps Jesus wasn’t suggesting that we change our method of getting ahead in life, but that we recognize that all of us are equally valuable.
At this point, the host is feeling pretty good. Assuming this host was not trying to get a job promotion, he is nodding along with Jesus’ every word. After all, it was the guests who had messed up, not the host. But Jesus isn’t done yet. He points out that everyone at this dinner can afford to hold another dinner the next week. This is basically a rotating dinner club. This week we’ll be at my house, next week we’ll go to yours, then yours, then yours…Jesus says instead of this display of all the important folk, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. In this society, if you couldn’t walk or couldn’t see, you were out of luck. There were not wheelchairs or books in Braille. If you weren’t just like everyone else, you were on the outside of society. Jesus is saying don’t invite the rich leaders, invite the folks on the street.
I get a monthly update from a man who is trying to do just that. Bart Campolo is the son of Tony Campolo, a popular teacher, writer and Christian speaker. Bart is a pastor who moved – with his family – into a not-so-good neighborhood. Several of the folks are in and out of prison; most are struggling financially. Bart’s family is attempting to be the presence of God to their neighbors. They have taken the time to get to know the folks in the neighborhood; they invite them over for meals on a regular basis. They have bailed folks out of jail. The monthly update is usually a story from Bart. Bart is very open about his frustrations in trying to love others. One month he shared about feeling like he was being taken advantage of. One person was continually at his door needing something, but didn’t seem appreciative of the help or concerned with the things going on with Bart’s family. The next month, Bart described someone showing up for the weekly meal with bed bugs. He was trying to figure out how to love the guy with bed bugs, while also respecting the other guests’ right not to get bed bugs. He wrestled with when it is okay to turn people away.
Another month he shared about a man who was absolutely crazy with anger. This man was mad at Bart because of all the help that Bart gave. The man felt like a project, not a friend. The two men were able to solve their problems, but every month there is some new difficulty. Often, we assume that if we are living the way we are supposed to and following God’s plan, that everything will suddenly be easy. I certainly did. I thought the hard part was getting to the point of loving other people. I assumed that once I started loving, that everything would be fine. But it isn’t. Everyone who has ever loved another person has known the pain of heartbreak. Whether it is a parent, a wife, a child or a friend, people let us down – even when they don’t mean to. People aren’t perfect, so loving people will not be perfect.
And yet, Jesus is telling this host to invite the messed-up folks to his parties. New Testament scholar Fred Craddock points out that in this passage, “Jesus is not calling on Christians to provide for the needs of the poor and the disabled; he says to invite them to dinner.” Jesus is not calling on Christians to provide for the needs of the poor and the disabled; he says to invite them to dinner.
I don’t think Jesus’s message to the host is really all that different from the message to the guests. The folks we invite to share a meal with us say something about who we are. Jesus is saying that once we recognize that everyone we meet is God’s creation, everyone will have a place at the table. In New Testament times, the poor and disabled were the outcasts of society. Who are our outcasts today? The poor and disabled are likely still on the list, but might there be others? I’ve been listening to the news a lot recently and have heard an awful lot about Muslims. There is a huge debate over an Islamic Community Center in New York City. And an increasing number of folks who mistakenly believe President Obama is a Muslim. Statistics I saw recently suggest that those who most disagree with the president are most likely to believe he is a Muslim. That seems to indicate that right now, in the United States, our Muslim brothers and sisters are on the edges of society. Is there a place at the table for Muslims?
There is also a lot of news coverage of Proposition 8. Folks on both sides of the issue are passionate. In the debate, are we remembering that our gay and lesbian neighbors are people with a place at the table? Or what about immigrants? Is there room at our table for immigrants – regardless of their legal status? And there are others with whom we have personal issues.
Jesus urged the folks who shared the Sabbath meal with him to recognize the God-given value of all people and to invite them to the table. I’m sure the host and guests at that meal were squirming just a little. Like Bart, they realized that inviting others in – especially those who are different than us – can be challenging, even miserable at times. I’m sure several simply decided that Jesus was a bad house guest and would not be at their next party. But at least one responded differently. The verse after today’s reading says “One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.’”
Which guest will we be like? Will we invite only those who are like us? Or will we scoot over and make room for those who bring a different perspective to the table?