[I'm preaching tomorrow, or rather, this morning. This is the final draft. Constructive comments are welcome.]
Sunday, September 2, 2007
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Anybody ever play “musical chairs”? You marched around not quite enough chairs while the music played, then scrambled to get a seat once it stopped. The one left standing was “out,” and everyone else was glad not to be that one and hoping not to be the one on the next round. Finally, it was down to two left standing on the final march-around and a battle to the finish for that final chair. And all for what? Some trinket or other. Anyone remember what the winner’s prize was? No, I didn’t think so. I don’t, either.
We play musical chairs a lot in our society, come to think of it. Long lines for concert tickets (well, for some kinds of concerts!), for movie opening shows, the latest book release, even to change lanes or get onto the exit ramp before somebody cuts you off. In fact, with all the commuting I do, it seems to me the majority of North Texas drivers have an attitude of, “I get to go first. The rest of you losers, fend for yourselves and don’t tick me off.”
We’re a nation of competitors for the best place. Jobs, homes, cars, the appearance of success and status. We want to be recognized as worthy of all that we manage to achieve, and we especially want to be considered more worthy than our neighbors and coworkers. The church isn’t immune from this, though it can look a little different. If we’re not careful, we start equating the number of people who attend worship and Sunday School and events with our success as a church. We raise “the way we do it” to a measuring stick to judge everybody else. Personally, we might number the notches on our spiritual belts: how many people did “I” save, how many years have “I” taught Sunday School, how many committees do “I” serve on, and so forth. (True confession time...) In my "normal" sphere of ministry, I'm tempted to measure my success by how close to perfection the choir gets on the anthem each Sunday morning. Some Christians measure their success by how differently they consider men and women and the work they think pertains to one or the other. Others measure it by how many social causes they support. Still others consider themselves successful by how far they isolate themselves from non-Christians. Usually, those who do things differently are judged less faithful or maybe not even Christian at all.
Jesus addressed this human tendency in this morning’s lesson. In his day, you showed your status by giving feasts–if you could afford it–and inviting the most important and influential people who would condescend to attend your feast. You did this if you were a man (or the family of a man) getting married, if your daughter was being betrothed, perhaps to mark the birth of a son, or for no special occasion if there were alliances to be forged or social climbing to be done. Among wealthy households, it was expected that you would give banquets periodically. You could even win some points for generosity if you let the beggars have the left-overs.
The part we often don't "get" is that in Jesus' time and culture, if you invited someone to your table, that automatically meant two things: First, that you accepted that person as family, and second, you were responsible for them while they were under your roof: their comfort, their well-being...and their behavior. So you didn't take chances with inviting "questionable" people to your table. Your honor and that of your family was at stake.
As usual, Jesus challenged the sensibilities of his hearers. In fact, he got downright offensive. First of all, if you were the guest, he told you to take the lowest seat at the wedding banquet. Be self-effacing. Let the host move you to a place of higher honor according to the host’s assessment of where you belonged. Save the better, higher status seats for others. That was a risk; what if the host DIDN'T elevate your status? What if everyone began to treat you as the low-status person your place implied? The humiliation of it!
Then, to the potential hosts of banquets, Jesus gave even more unthinkable advice: Don’t invite people of high enough status that you would expect a return invitation, like your friends–your social peers–or your relations, or the folks further up the status ladder. Instead, invite people who never get invited to banquets: the poor, the physically infirm, the outcast. Offer to these people the places around your banquet table. They’ll never repay you with a reciprocal invitation. Instead, your reward will be from God.
Unthinkable! was the probable reaction to these words. That’s not why you entertained! (It’s still not, is it?) You entertained to get ahead in society, to congratulate yourself on your achievements. The thought was, if people were poor or outcast, it was their own fault; they were sinners. Their low status was said to be God’s judgment on them. You just didn’t mess with that. You shared your leftovers with them; you went above and beyond. You are a good person! How DARE Jesus claim that these lowest members of society have a legitimate place at your banquet table! How dare this Galilean teacher expect you to shame yourself and compromise your honor by inviting socially unacceptable guests!
In fact, there were people who would rather have starved than to dine at that kind of banquet. Jesus was criticized for accepting the hospitality of people whom society judged to be sinners. His reply was a further rebuke: “I came not to save the righteous, but the lost.” Jesus knew that anyone who believed themselves to be righteous, saw no need of the salvation and wholeness Jesus could offer them. He made it clear that they were being selfish in their self-righteousness, hoarding a religious status for themselves and doing nothing to bring others into right relationship with God. In fact, Jesus knew none of us can save ourselves or anybody else, despite our self-important efforts to do so. His radical, upside-down teachings were merely leveling the playing field, showing us that from great to small, rich to poor, we all need a Savior. And there are people even today who hate him for that. So Jesus’ style of all-comers banquets and taking a lower place than one merits, were and are witnesses to the spiritual hypocrisy of considering ourselves worthy of a high place and offering hospitality only to those who can offer it back to us.
You see, we now know that there’s another banquet coming. Heaven, eternity, is likened a number of times in Scripture to a great banquet. The apostle Paul wrote that those who belong to Jesus Christ are his Bride. John of Patmos, in the Revelation, wrote that we will celebrate with our Bridegroom at the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb. No scrambling for places. We, together, are the Bride, the honoree along with the Lord himself, at the feast. It doesn’t get any better than that.
How do we merit that kind of honor? It’s easy enough to simply say, “we don’t,” and leave it at that. But let’s think about what it means to not deserve the honor, but to be elevated as the honored guest anyway.
Please understand: I rarely lose an opportunity to tell folks that some of the finest people I’ve ever known are a part of this congregation. But as fine as you are–and I truly believe you are–there’s not a one of you who has earned your place at the Feast of the Lamb. I know I sure haven’t! No, our place is secured for us by virtue of Jesus’ righteousness. He bought our place–with him, now and forever–through his love for us. A love that compelled him to die in our place, to wash away our sins, to MAKE us righteous, to make us one with him, the Bride with the Bridegroom. From the greatest sinner to the holiest saint and all of us in between, we merit no place at the table apart from the love of Jesus Christ. With Jesus, however, we share the highest place.
I think it is for this reason that Jesus told his parable of lower seats and lower guests. He told it when he was on his way to Jerusalem, where he knew the outcome would cost him his life. He knew that his followers would not immediately understand. But he also knew that his death and resurrection would open his own heavenly feast table to any and all who would accept his invitation. His followers would, in the years and centuries and millennia following his earthly ministry, remember his teaching about taking the low place and inviting the lowest as honored guests. We can now see that doing these things illustrates for others what God’s Reign is like. WE are the guests who cannot repay Jesus for his lavish hospitality–life now and forever in his company, feasting at his side at his never-ending feast! As with all his teachings, he is telling us to “go and do likewise.” When we show hospitality based on God’s lavish love for all, rather than basing it on who’s worthy and who can repay us, we are showing that love of God to those who need to experience it.
Jesus taught us that there’s no ultimate difference between the rich and powerful in this world, and the poorest beggar. At Christ’s banquet, all of us are poor and unable to repay our Lord. The miracle is, he doesn’t ask us to! How often do we think we’re doing Jesus a favor with all the good things we do? There’s a big difference, at least in our spirits, between working for God in order to pay down our debt–as a duty, and working out of pure gratitude, knowing that God delights in our gratitude rather than our sense of obligation. There are joyless Christians laboring away because “duty demands it.” I find that tragic. I read a book many years ago and can’t even remember which one or who wrote it. But I’ll never forget a line in it: “Is that how you define friendship? A series of sacrifices equally repaid? Accept that you cannot repay what your friend has done for you, and let that be the basis of your love.”
Today, we gather at the Lord’s Table, as we do each month, to remember and be grateful for what the Lord has done for us. In this meal, we anticipate the heavenly feast to come. We give thanks for the priceless gift Jesus has given us: his own life, and his ongoing fellowship with us. He promised never to leave us, and he never has and never will. Poor and undeserving though we are, nevertheless he invites us to share in his feast, giving himself as the food and drink. He knows we can’t repay him and he doesn’t ask us to. Instead, he tells us, “I give myself to you, and I want you to give yourself to me.” That is the good news. That is the news we show in tangible ways every time we take a lower place, putting someone else first. When we practice hospitality to people this world rarely takes the time or effort to honor. When we embrace as honored guests any and all who accept the invitation. When we offer the cup of cool water, or visit the sick or imprisoned, or clothe the poor, or house the homeless, in the name of the Lord who became poor for our sake. When we share the bread and the cup at the table of the One who simply says to us, “Come.”
In a few moments, we will again be invited to share the Lord’s table. This meal is not about this congregation, or The United Methodist Church, or any earthly organization. It is about Jesus Christ, who issues the invitation to you. We all simply get to be a part of that invitation and celebrate it together. There’s only one kind of seat at this table: the seat of the Honored Guest. That’s you, and me, and all of us and all those we can gather in for all the celebrations to come. So when we rise from this table and re-enter a world that looks for rewards instead of opportunities to share hospitality, let's all remember that we share the best place of all, at a table with enough seats for everyone. Let’s issue the invitation to God’s own honored guests in the days to come.