Steve Lindsley

Luke 14: 1-24

We are in Week 3 of our Lenten sermon series, “Hands, Feet, and Heart of Jesus,” grounding ourselves in the stories of Jesus and stories told by Jesus to better understand the lives we’re called to lead as followers of Jesus.   And I just want to reiterate how important it is for us to do this, particularly in the time we find ourselves in.  You do not need me to tell you that there is a lot happening in our country and our world today; a lot being done in the name of Jesus, and under the guise of Christianity, that are at best contradictory to the gospel and at worst a blatant attempt to redefine and rewrite that gospel in the service of privilege and power.  If there ever is a time for us to reacquaint ourselves with who Jesus is and what he is about, that time appears to be now.  Doing a deep dive into the stories of Jesus and stories told by Jesus, as we’re doing this Lent, is one way we can do this.

Our passage today comes from the gospel of Luke, chapter 14, verses 7-24.  Here’s the scene: Jesus has been invited to a meal at the house of one of the Pharisees where a whole lot more is going on besides the food.  At this meal, cultural norms are reinforced and societal hierarchies fortified.  Jesus, though, is having none of it – even as a guest in someone’s home, he is having none of it.  And the way he challenges these norms and hierarchies is by telling stories that get the point across far more effectively than just jumping on his soapbox.  These stories – these parables – very much speak to us today.

Our passage will be interspersed throughout the sermon, and Molly will be reading it from The Message translation.  And so I invite you to join us at the table.  My friends, listen to this:

One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move. Right before him there was a man hugely swollen in his joints. So Jesus asked the religion scholars and Pharisees present, “Is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath? Yes or no?”  They were silent. So he took the man, healed him, and sent him on his way. Then he said, “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?” They were stumped. There was nothing they could say to that.

The table is set, as all tables are when guests are on their way. It’s taken all day to get things ready.  And truth be told, the planning and preparation has taken even longer – choosing the menu, purchasing items from the market, the actual table put in place and meal prepared.  These meals were significant events in the homes where they took place and the people they were prepared for.  It was about more than just having a few friends over for a bite.  It was about the very embodiment of cultural etiquette and principle.

A lead Pharisee had graciously offered his home, invited Jesus and the others.  And even though Jesus is not the host, he is very much the center of attention.  He is the reason this table has been set.  They all have their eyes on him, we are told, watching his every move.  We wonder if this was mere curiosity or something else.  Did they genuinely want to learn more about Jesus, or were they there to serve other agendas, looking for a weak spot, a contradiction, something they could use against him?

The meal is going exactly as planned until it does not.  There is an unwell man at the table, suffering from swollen joints that cause him great pain.  We all bring our ailments to the table one way or another.  We’ve just learned how to mask them, keep them out of view, because no one wants our brokenness to be the center of attention.  Even if everyone can see it, like that man at the table where Jesus was.  We keep our pain and the pain of others to ourselves, because there are protocols to be followed, there are do’s and don’ts to adhere to.  Everyone knows this is how things operate.  Everyone accepts this.

Everyone except Jesus.

Is it okay to heal on the Sabbath? Jesus asks the gathering.  This is how he acknowledges that which everyone clearly sees but no one wants to address.  He is forcing the issue here.  Is it okay to heal on the sabbath?  Jesus asks this because he knows that’s the question running through the minds of everyone at the table.  And he answers his own question by doing the very thing they least expect him to do – he heals the man.  He shines a light on this man’s suffering even though it is a gross breach of decorum, a slap in the face to table etiquette.  He heals the man and sends him on his way, even as others wonder what he was doing at the table in the first place.

The table is set.  But for what, exactly?  What is to become of this meal, and what will happen when it’s over?  The table is a place where meals are enjoyed, where fellowship takes place, where people gather as one.  And because of that, the table can sometimes be a place of conflict, of uncertainty, and unexpected grace.  What happens when our tables look like that?

Jesus went on to tell a story to the guests around the table. Noticing how each had tried to elbow into the place of honor, he said, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left.  “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.’ That will give the dinner guests something to talk about! What I’m saying is, If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

I remember years ago, facetiming my Raleigh family on my brother’s birthday.  He and his wife and the greatest niece ever were over at my parent’s house, sitting around the Lindsley dining room table, enjoying a bowl of ice cream and a piece of cake.  Facetime is great when it’s just one person you’re talking with, but it can get a little disorienting when multiple people are engaged; the phone passed around from one person to the next like the chocolate syrup eagerly drizzled over ice cream.   And so it was nearly ten minutes into the conversation when I came to an earth-shattering realization about this whole affair:

My sister-in-law was sitting in my mother’s seat.

And by “mother’s seat,” I mean the seat my mother sat in every Sunday afternoon lunch after church, every holiday meal, every special occasion where our family gathered around that dining room table.  Her seat was the one at the end of the table, closest to the kitchen door; because if there was to be food on the table it would be my mother who would bring it there; if there were seconds to be had it would be my mother who would take care of it.  All my years growing up in that house, all those times I’ve come home since, every meal I can remember, I cannot think of another person sitting there.  It was – it is – my mother’s seat at the table.  And believe me, it is a seat of great honor.

I made a comment about this, and there was a chuckle in the room there.  It was explained to me that Mom’s role had evolved somewhat – she was still very much the host of the meal, no doubt about that; but she was also now the official toddler-wrangler.  And you cannot stay in your seat very long doing that!

My mom is not protective of her seat at the table, but I know some are.  I know some care very much about who sits where – and not just at dining room tables but in board rooms and school PTO gatherings and city council meetings and yes, even at church.  We all know well the sensation of entering a space where it becomes exceedingly clear that position to power means everything.  You can feel it in the air, like an approaching storm.

I love the fact that Jesus is inviting us here to engage in a little mischief, a little deconstruction of our pecking order and caste culture.  I love that he is inviting you and me to do something that does not come naturally to us – to intentionally take the seat that the world sees as beneath us.  To voluntarily relinquish our access to power and privilege, precisely so those who would not normally have access to those things can.  Jesus knew that the bedrock of any meaningful societal change hinges on those in power choosing to empower the powerless.  And he knew that a good enough place to start as any was at the table.

Then Jesus turned to the host and said, “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”

The carpenter gets to work, for there is a table to be built.  And at this table, those of similar status and stature will sit in their pre-assigned seats and understand that the invitation they received that brought them there is in reality a transaction – an unspoken expectation to eventually return the favor by hosting their own meal at their own table, and invite those same people of similar status and stature to sit in their pre-assigned seats and anticipate the next invitation. It is a dance for which everyone moves in rhythm to the same tune.

The carpenter constructs a sturdy table made of the finest wood.  He steps back and admires his handiwork.  And it is gorgeous.  Although there is something missing from the table.  He is not sure what.  At a first glance it doesn’t appear it could be any better.  The woodwork is exquisite.  It is more than durable.  What is missing?

And that is when it occurs to the carpenter that it is not a what that is missing but a who.  All those people the host already knows, all those of similar status and stature, all those who can repay him in kind.  Such a small group of people, when you think about it.

And so the carpenter decides to change the design.  He refashions the table and adds a leaf in it, a sliver of wood inserted in the middle to expand the surface area.  So more people can sit at the table.  He steps back to assess: yes, yes, that is it! That’s what was missing!   He’s so excited that he adds even more leaves, leaf after leaf after leaf; expanding the table so there’s room for even more.  Expanding it so the invite list does not have to be restricted to the same old same old, but can grow to include those who would not otherwise have a reason to be there.  Those who’d normally be the last to get an invite if they even made the list.  Welcoming and embracing all.

There’s room at the table for so many now – so many that some of those who can return the favor choose to stay home altogether.  Which is their loss, of course.  Because this table is an amazing sight to behold.  It is exactly what the carpenter envisioned all along.

Jesus then said, “There was once a man who threw a great dinner party and invited many. When it was time for dinner, he sent out his servant to the invited guests, saying, ‘Come on in; the food’s on the table.’  Then they all began to beg off, one after another making excuses. The first said, ‘I bought a piece of property and need to look it over. Send my regrets.’  Another said, ‘I just bought five teams of oxen, and I really need to check them out. Send my regrets.’  And yet another said, ‘I just got married and need to get home to my wife.’  When the servant told the master what had happened, he was outraged and said, ‘Quickly, get out into the city streets and alleys. Collect all who look like they need a square meal, all the misfits and homeless and wretched you can lay your hands on, and bring them here.’  The servant reported back, ‘Master, I did what you commanded—and there’s still room.’  The master said, ‘Then go to the country roads. Whoever you find, drag them in. I want my house full! Let me tell you, not one of those originally invited is going to get so much as a bite at my dinner party.’”

We make plans.  We love our plans.  We make decisions on who is invited and who is worth inviting.  What to put on the table and which course to serve first.  What the dinnerware will look like, what napkins we’ll use, where people will park their cars and where they will leave their coats.

And it is an act of the greatest faith, these plans; because there is no guarantee that anyone will actually show up.  Although they usually do.  They typically show up just as hoped, just as imagined when we first started making all those lovely plans.

But anything can happen at the table, including no one coming to it.  Maybe they have good reasons for not coming, maybe they don’t.  Maybe we picked a bad night, didn’t think things through, left out an important detail or two.  Or maybe sometimes our wonderful plans just don’t work out.

But what is more important than the plans we make, are the plans that God makes.  Who God invites.  Where God wants people to sit.  What God wants to happen at the table.

Because the truth of it all, my fellow tablemates, is that this table is not our own.  Although we like to claim that it is.  It is not our table.  It was put together by the carpenter who had his own plan for it – an ever-expanding surface with room for everyone, and I mean everyone.  Welcoming and embracing all.  And the meal is not our meal, either.  No, this meal is prepared by none other than God –  and it is enough for us, it is more than enough.  It is enough to satisfy our deepest hunger and quench our longing thirst.  It is enough to satisfy our needs and the needs of the whole world over.

People of God, the table is set. We have our place.  Who else needs a seat at this table?

In the name of 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.