(Luke 14: 1, 7-14)
Today, we begin again. We begin the same journey we begin every year at this time, we begin our Lenten journey. Our forty days in the wilderness, preparing for what we know is coming but what nevertheless continues to surprise us. We began this journey this past Wednesday; we marked the sign of the cross on our foreheads with ashes as we heard the words: you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
The Lenten journey takes us within ourselves, deep into the very place we often avoid during the normal course of living. We look there and are confronted with questions that cut to the chase – are we prepared? Are we prepared to die to certain things, so that other things may take their place? This is the journey our Lenten sermon series will take us on over the next six weeks.
So listen now to our scripture today, from the 14th chapter of the gospel of Luke, verse 1 and then verses 7-14. Listen to God’s word:
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’
I hear today’s passage and my mind takes me back to a scene in the movie Four Weddings And A Funeral, where Charles, a perennial bachelor who would love to get married, is subjected to a string of weddings of close friends. I’ll let you guess how many.
It’s at the second wedding, the reception dinner. The bell has rung and the guests are invited in. As Charles enters the huge awning leading into the ballroom, he is greeted with this massive board perched precariously on an oversized easel. It is the seating chart for the dinner, and it is not for the faint of heart. It depicts an aerial view of the room, dozens of round tables all numbered off. At the bottom of the diagram are rows and rows of names that correspond to those tables, and the individual sitting at them. Charles looks overwhelmed, his eyes darting back and forth, up and down, side to side, trying to figure out where in the world he is supposed to sit.
It’s funny because it plays up a frequently-shared, anxiety-producing experience – the wedding dinner seating assignments. Who sits where – and who you sit with – is the name of the game. Ask anyone who has been through this before and they’ll tell you that making the wedding rehearsal dinner seating assignments comes with some level of stress. A lot of thought goes into who sits where.
Jesus knew as much. It’s an interesting meal he’s attending, and that’s putting it mildly. Jesus has been invited by the Pharisees, and things have gotten off to an ominous start. Guests at these occasions are expected to play a deferential role. And yet there is Jesus, taking center stage by healing a sick man who wanders in. And the more we read, the more we see that Luke is not just recounting dinner events. He’s revealing something to us; he’s revealing what the kingdom of God looks like. Not the kingdom to come in heaven, but the kingdom here right now.
And when we get to verse 7, we find the heart of that kingdom; Jesus painting a picture for these dinner guests of another meal entirely. A wedding dinner, in fact. And rather than focus on the lovely newlyweds, the sumptuous meal, or the lavish decorations, Jesus brings up, of all things, the seating arrangements.
Now it may be good to remember that back in the day, seating arrangements at formal dinners were very socially significant. They served to reinforce the status and rank of those present. And one’s status was directly related to their proximity to the “first couch” where the host sat. In other words, the closer one sat to the host, the more important they were. Consequently, the further they were from the host…. well, you know what that means.
It goes without saying that everyone wanted to be as close to the “first couch” as possible. But not everyone could. So people would show up at these dinners and take stock of who else was there, see where they fell in the pecking order, and sit accordingly. And this was an accepted practice of the day; there was nothing unordinary about it. No one ever had any qualms with it; no one ever raised a fuss.
No one, that is, except Jesus.
When someone invites you to dinner, Jesus tells them, don’t take the place of honor for yourself. Somebody more important than you might’ve been invited by the host. Then the host will have to come and call you out in front of everybody, saying, “You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.” So then red-faced, you’ll have to make your way back to the very last table, the only place left.
The ancient Rule of St. Benedict is a collection of writings for monks living in community in the 5th and 6th centuries. In it, St. Benedict speaks of Jacob’s ladder from the Old Testament, where the angels were seen climbing up and going down that ladder, and surmises that climbing up is achieved when we humble ourselves, and going down the ladder is done by praising ourselves or building ourselves up.
One minister, remarking about Benedict’s ladder, said that they were strangely drawn to this image “for often I meet myself going down this ladder when I want to go up.” I love that expression – that counterintuitive, inverse way of understanding our place in this world, that intersection where our pride and humility cross paths for an instant, like two trains on parallel tracks moving in opposite directions. So much of our life, it seems, takes place at that intersection.
Jesus knew as much, which I imagine is why he goes on to say this:
But when you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, ‘Friend, come up to the front.’ And then you’ll be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.
Read between the lines and we see that this parable is about what could be called the “economy of God.” This little vignette Jesus paints for us depicts in perfect fashion the topsy-turvy nature of God’s kingdom on earth; a kingdom that comes more into view the further we read into the 14th chapter, the longer we sit at the table. And a large part of the meal at this table, a large part of this kingdom, involves swallowing our pride and putting others before ourselves – letting them sit closer to the seat of honor; while we assume the lesser seat.
Now there is, of course, an element of risk in this. Jesus says the host may come up front. May. He also may not. And that’s the rub, that’s the risk of living under the auspices of God’s economy. We’re not guaranteed that others will do the same. Which makes it even riskier. We saw just how risky this past week.
Well, we didn’t see it, but we heard about it. It crossed our news feeds and timelines in the days following the shooting at Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; and once again, as is becoming our sad ritual, learning about those lost, stories of the seventeen teachers and students who did not make it home from school that day.
One of those was Peter Wang, a fifteen year-old freshman. Perhaps I find myself haunted by his story in particular because I happen to be the father of a fifteen year old freshman myself. Peter was a member of the Douglas High School ROTC and was described by his cousin as “funny, caring and selfless; the kind of person who is genuinely kind to everyone.”
When the shooting started and everyone dashed for the doors, Peter stood there in his ROTC shirt and held the door open for them. Held it as his fellow students rushed out, held it so countless lives were saved, even though he wound up losing his own. Peter Wang assumed the lesser seat so others could move up.
Now to be clear: this was an act of God’s economy that a 15-year old kid should’ve never had to carry out in the first place. Never. What happened in Parkland last week, what’s happening in schools and churches and concerts and movie theaters and public places in our country at a frightening clip, is not normal. And as well-intended as they might be, no amount of “thoughts and prayers” will magically solve the scourge of gun violence that is plaguing our country. That‘s going to fall to us – we who have the power to hold our lawmakers accountable and make sure they address this issue, or make sure they don’t get to be our lawmakers anymore.
But more than that – or along with that – it falls to us to tilt the scales of our culture in a new direction; a culture that is so deathly afraid of the lesser seat because it has an entirely different understanding of what that seat means. Tell me, people of God, what might happen if you and I began living out the rule of St. Benedict and Jacob’s ladder, God’s economy, an inverse way of living, humbling ourselves as going up, taking the lesser seat as being honored? Might we somehow demonstrate to the world, as the apostle Paul once said, a still more excellent way?
For that way, after all, is what ultimately brings us to this table and to this meal, is it not? A table where all are welcome and where there is no seating chart; a meal where everyone is served and not because they deserve it but because they need it.
It is here at this table and this meal where something in us dies – our pride, our fear, our need to protect that which is not ours to begin with; our mistaken belief that looking out for our interests and looking out for the interests of others are mutually exclusive. That dies here.
Are we prepared to die to those things? That’s the question as we come forward this morning. Are we prepared to embrace and live into the contradictory, inverse way of God’s economy, and in so doing bring the world along with us?
Let’s embrace that death, brothers and sisters, so that we may truly live. So that all may just live. Let’s take our seat at the table together.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Brett Webb-Mitchell, “The Humility Ladder,” Journal for Preachers, Lent 2001.
 http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/broward/parkland/florida-school-shooting/fl-florida-school-shooting-peter-wang-obit-20180215-story.html, visited on 2.16.2018.