(a sermon for September 1, 2019, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 14:1-14)
This week I heard a radio interview with David Burtka, a master chef and Hollywood caterer who has written this new book entitled Life is a Party, which was described as the quintessential and doable guide to throwing the perfect dinner party. Though I have to confess that such a topic usually compels me to immediately change the radio station (!), I actually found this particular interview quite interesting; for what Burtka was doing was to lay out, in a very lively way, all the essential aspects of a successful and enjoyable social gathering: everything from the overall theme of the event, to the dinner menu from appetizers to dessert; elaborate decorations and beautiful table settings, after dinner entertainment and even creating an appropriate musical playlist that fits the mood!
Burtka also talks all about inviting “the right mix” of people for a particular party; stresses the importance of where one’s guests are to be seated at the table so to maximize opportunities for lively conversation that includes everyone, not just the extroverts, and goes on to suggest some creative topics for discussion if there’s a lull in that conversation (for example, “If you had a super power, what would it be?”). He even provides what I would consider an excellent idea for a party game: upon arrival, you see, all the invited guests put their cel phones and electronic devices at the center of the dinner table, and then the first one to reach for their phone that night has to do the dishes! The whole idea, says Burtka, is to do “whatever it takes to make an event what it deserves to be: memorable and fabulous,” as well as creating an atmosphere at a party that is at once welcoming, relaxing and fun for both the guests and the host.
Well, as I listen to our text for this morning, Luke’s account of a Sabbath meal at the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, I have to say that there’s none of that at all! In fact, if I were to wager a guess this would not have been considered any kind of relaxed or enjoyable dinner party, and certainly not what anyone would have even remotely considered fun… especially given that Jesus was on the guest list!
What we need to understand, you see, is that this wasn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill Sabbath meal; the whole reason that Jesus had been invited in the first place was so that these Pharisees with whom he was dining could keep a close eye on him; in the words of The Message, they were “watching [Jesus’] every move.” And Jesus, in all honesty, was not making the situation any less awkward; to wit, on his way to the Pharisee’s house there’s this who suffers from “dropsy” (which was a swelling of his muscles brought on by excess fluid, that which today we might refer as edema brought on by congestive heart failure) and not only does Jesus proceed to heal the man of this disease, just prior to this happening he turns to all these lawyers and Pharisees who are gathering together for this Sabbath meal and asks them point-blankly, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” Talk about keeping the conversation lively! And of course, despite their devotion to every letter of the law the Pharisees all keep quiet about this; and so Jesus, true to form, presses on: Come on! “Is there anyone here who, if a child or animal fell down a well, wouldn’t rush to pull him out immediately, not asking whether or not it was the Sabbath?” And to this, again from The Message, “They were stumped. There was nothing they could say to that.”
I’m thinking at this point, the lead Pharisee is wondering why he ever thought it was a good reason to have Jesus as a dinner guest!
And then; and then (!) Jesus starts talking to them about dinner party etiquette; he quite literally starts instructing not only the gathered guests at this meal but also his host – the lead Pharisee, remember (!) – regarding how they are to conduct themselves at a dinner party and moreover, who should have been on the guest list! I mean, can you imagine; Jesus turning to the person next to him and saying, you know, next time… “when you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit at the place of honor, in case someone distinguished than you” comes along and you get sent to the back of the room; that would be humiliating! No, says Jesus, next time you sit at the back of the room so you can be invited to move up; because, friend, that’s the real honor! And by the way, Rabbi Pharisee, next time you have a banquet like this, you really ought to be inviting, oh say, “the poor and the crippled, the lame and blind,” the outcasts and misfits; you know, the kind of people who never get invited to such a soiree as this one, and could never pay you back for the opportunity! “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Seems to me we’re not talking about proper social etiquette anymore… if in fact, Jesus ever was. Because the real topic of conversation at this particular dinner party? It’s the Kingdom of God.
What Jesus is actually addressing here is what David Lose refers to as the “honor-and-shame” culture of his day, in which “status is pretty much everything,” and which infected just about every kind of gathering one could name, most especially those at mealtimes. In other words, those deemed as more important or influential people would easily and immediately be seated close to the host, while others of lesser reputation were sat further away… much further away! “Status was important,” writes Lose, and a matter of prestige; but “it could be fragile… a better position at the table wasn’t simply an honor, it could also have tangible benefits to your business pursuits as well. Similarly, to be invited to a lower position could affect all dimensions of your life.” In other words, where you’re seen at the party says everything about how you’re seen.
So for Jesus now to suggest that the best and most honorific place to be seated at a dinner party is at the back of the room, and what’s more, that all the people who get invited to said party really ought to be the ones who are always at the back of the room… well, that actually would have sounded pretty ludicrous if not downright offensive where the rich, the powerful and the Pharisaic of Jesus’ time were concerned! To quote David Lose one more time, “Why on earth waste an opportunity for social commerce by inviting those who have nothing to give you, who can do nothing for you, and who typically mean nothing to you? It’s crazy… true enough. But it’s also the kingdom of God.”
The Kingdom of God!
It turns out, you see, that the truth of Jesus’ words extend well beyond the banquet in question; and, might I add, way beyond the social mores of ancient Palestine, up to and including the times and places of our lives today. You’ve heard me say before from this pulpit that the very nature of the Kingdom of God is it relates to the kingdoms of this world is that it turns every one of our expectations upside down and inside out. Contrary to what the world may continue to profess, the value of our lives and living is not to be determined by some arbitrary, humanly created standard of honor-and-shame; but rather, we are loved and cherished, named and claimed, and as the Psalmist has sung, has “crowned [us] with glory and honor,” [8:5] by the God who has created us in his image and for his purpose, who cares for us, forgives us, redeems us and continues every day and in every way to give everything we need to flourish in this life. All of this, and so much more, despite the fact that we haven’t earned it – any of it – in the least, or that more often than not we fail to live in a way that says we deserve it, or even though ultimately we can do absolutely nothing meaningful for God in return… except, maybe, trying to do the same kind of thing for others?
I think that’s what Jesus was talking about when at that Sabbath meal he made a point of “suggesting” to that Pharisee that at his next party he ought to forego inviting friends and family and the rich and famous in favor of those who would never have any hope of repaying him for the kindness… because in truth of fact, that’s exactly what God had done for him, and for you and me! Can’t you see… don’t you get it, Jesus says, where the grace of your heavenly Father is concerned, for every good thing you’ve ever been given by God, there can never be any kind of debt repayment, no quid pro quo, no “you scratched my back so now I’ll scratch yours.” All you can do in return, all you can ever hope to do is to do the same for others.
That, dear friends, is what real faith, true discipleship and the kingdom life… is all about.
To put this another way, it’s about taking what we’ve been given by God’s grace and letting it navigate our daily decisions, our priorities and our behaviors as we go through this life. It’s about living life with a spirit of both hospitality and humility; about foregoing self-aggrandizement and upward mobility for the sake of welcoming those who sit way back in the room without any hope of ever sitting at the head table. It’s about ignoring the “pecking orders” of this world that dictate all statuses of honor or shame; it’s to humble ourselves and place our hope in a radically different kind of kingdom.
I guess the question for us this morning is what you and I are to do about that… and ultimately, where it is we’re sitting now. Can it be said of you and me that we’re in a place where we risk getting “sent down,” or do we stand anticipating the joy of being called up? It’s a good question… and our answer has a whole lot to do with us.
In the words of Debie Thomas, director of children’s and family ministries at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, California, “Jesus asks us to believe that our behavior at the table matters – because it does. Where we sit speaks volumes, and the people whom we choose to welcome reveal the stuff of our souls. [So] favor the ones who cannot repay you. Prefer the poor. Choose obscurity. This is God’s world we live in, and nothing here is ordinary. In the realm of God,” Thomas concludes, “the ragged strangers at our doorstep [might just be] the angels.”
Something to think about as we come, invited, to the Lord ’s Table this morning.
Thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry