Sermon for Sept. 1, 2019, Pentecost 12C. An audio version will be available here for several weeks.
Luke 14:1, 7-14
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.”
While I was serving in another congregation, we wanted to have a series of classes on different topics of interest, so we asked people to give us suggestions and to volunteer to teach if they had something to offer. So we had classes on nutrition, on art appreciation, and chair yoga. During the preparation phase, a person came to me wanting to teach a class on good manners. She had written a book about manners. She thought attention to manners was eroding in our culture. Perhaps she was right; we let her try, but almost no one showed up for the class.
Is that what Jesus is doing here; teaching good manners? I don’t believe so. I think that Jesus saw himself as a person on a mission. His mission was not trivial. In fact, it was a mission he was willing to risk his life for; and it cost him his life. So when Jesus talks about where to sit at a wedding banquet so that you don’t end up embarrassed by being demoted, what is he doing?
And when he talks about whom to include on your own luncheon or dinner invitation list, and tells us to include
“the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,”
I have some questions, like, what is behind it? Why those people? What kind of persons do they represent? How is this part of a mission worthy of your life?
If you were here last Sunday you recall that we spoke of the wide cultural gap between ourselves and the characters in the bible. That gap is obvious in this text again. We do not live in an honor-shame culture.
We do not measure our social status by the seats we are given at a wedding banquet. Yes, indeed, the closer you are as kin, or in friendship, to the bride and groom, the closer your table will be to theirs, but probably the only consequence for you is how fast your table gets called up to the buffet line. But it was a big deal back then, so let’s just try to imagine how it was.
To Stop Playing the Honor Game
So, what would it mean for a person back then to stop playing the honor-seat game? What would it mean for someone in that culture to extend luncheon invitations specifically to people who could not possibly reciprocate by inviting them in turn, since
“the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,”
don’t host luncheons? In other words, what would it mean to give to the kind of people from whom there would be no possibility of collecting an IOU later?
It would mean they had embraced an entirely different value-system. And that was part of Jesus’ mission. The kingdom of God had come, according to Jesus. That means, if we had “eyes to see it and ears open to hearing about it,” that we all would start seeing people in a new way, and treating them in a new way.
We would treat them, as Martin Buber said, as “ends, rather than means.” As “thou” rather than as “it.” It would mean that their social status would not matter to us. Their educational level would not matter to us. Their race, their gender, their religion, and whether or not they were capable of being self-sufficient would not matter.
Or rather, that all those conditions would matter, because those are the very ones whom people with kingdom of God values would make sure have an invitation to the banquet and a good seat when they got there.
A Needed Caveat
Let us pause, to ask an important question: Who is the intended audience for this teaching? In one sense, it is everyone; we are all called to humility and inclusion. There is no place for ego-issues in the kingdom of God.
But in an important sense, a clarification is needed here. There are many people who have been marginalized; whose voices have been silenced, who have not been taken seriously, who have not been given a seat at the table.
They include, for example, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” They also include all women, minorities, people of color, gay people — the list is long. This text is not advising to them, to keep down, to keep in place, to be content with being dishonored by — to put it in our context — the rich straight white men in charge.
In fact, Jesus highlights marginalized people specifically, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” to show how far this kingdom of God value-system goes. The ones who have been shut out are specifically the ones that now get included, invited, and honored with an invitation and a good seat at the table.
Where Do We Stand Now?
This new kingdom value-system is what we are trying to practice here. It has taken the church a long time, but we can be so thankful that we have come to this point. There was a time when people came to church and heard sermons that justified slavery in America. It seems almost inconceivable to us now, but it happened.
And the end of slavery did not mean the end of the horror. Bringing it close to home, this Labor Day weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the Elaine, Arkansas massacre. A black farm labor movement seeking fair prices for cotton was accused of being an “insurrection,” thus justifying the killing, of between 100 and 200 blacks, over three days, with some estimates of more than 800.
One hundred years seems like a long time ago. We might be tempted to think that the problem is over, but it is not. I have been recently listening to a podcast by investigative journalists called Bundyville. It’s about Cliven Bundy and his sons.
If you remember, he was the cattle rancher from Bunkerville, Nevada, who led a standoff, in 2014, with officials of the Federal Bureau of Land Management. He had accumulated over a million dollars in unpaid grazing fees, so the BLM came to collect.
He resisted. His cause attracted people from many different organizations, all of whom were built around this or that conspiracy theory. Those groups all share one thing in common: blatant racism wrapped up in versions of Christianity that neither Jesus nor the apostles would recognize.
I have even heard tape of preachers from those groups expounding a gospel of white supremacy. That is happening today. And people are willing to die and to kill for these racist ideas. This is not about manners!
Marginalization is not limited to people of color, even within churches. It is still the case that many churches shut out women from leadership. Some still believe that same-sex attraction is a choice, and so, do not affirm LGBTQ+ people.
The rhetoric that I have heard people use about immigrants, equating them with animals, in spite of the huge economic benefit they are to our country is a toxic cocktail of arrogance and ignorance. It is the opposite of the value-system of the kingdom of God in which all of us are beloved, bearers of the image of God.
Where is this going? I have no idea. I never thought it could get this bad in America; perhaps it will get even worse. On the other hand, in the Presbyterian Church USA, and in a few other denominations, we have never been more inclusive and welcoming. Perhaps we are swimming upstream now. Perhaps we are out of sync with our culture, at least in this region of our country.
Our Core Identity in Practice
Well, if so, we accept that. We will continue to seek to live fully into our core identity as followers of Jesus. We will put out the invitation to “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” and all whom they represent.
Everyone is welcome at our table. And when they come, there will be no competition for the seats of honor. All of us are here, as Jesus was, “not to be served, but to serve,” and even to give our lives, as some have done, upholding the inclusive values of the kingdom of God. For Jesus said, in Matthew 25,
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, … just as you did it to one of the least of these …you did it to me.’”Matthew 25
If you have ever been marginalized or dishonored for who you are, know this: you are welcome here! And if you, like me, have never faced that kind of discrimination, then you, like me are privileged. Let us dedicate ourselves to using that privilege for the good; to be allies of “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” and all of the others that they represent.