September 1, 2019 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 17C
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
I don’t think Jesus really cares where you sit at a dinner party, but where you sit probably says something about you that Jesus does care about.
Sabbath meals with a visiting rabbi are a little like Sunday lunches with the bishop after a visitation. The leaders of a congregation do everything they can to show off how holy and hospitable they are. A devoted parishioner with an impressive house offers to host. Everyone on the vestry contributes. And, when the appointed time arrives, people clamor for a chance to talk with the guest of honor. Actually, clergy usually aren’t that much fun to talk to after a busy morning. Having spent almost all of their energy in worship, they’re more likely to doze off than entertain you. Still, people press in, hoping for a chance to sit close by even though they’d probably have more fun if they hung back and grabbed a seat on the other end of the room, where the trouble-makers like to gather.
On this particular sabbath, Jesus noticed how the guests took their seats, maybe not clamoring for the places of honor but doing their part to make sure that they got a good seat. When everyone had settled down, he told them a parable: “Whenever 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…” Jesus used an image that is as familiar to us as it was to his original audience. We know that awkward feeling when we look across the room and see our six-year-old sitting by himself at the head table at our boss’s daughter’s wedding. We know how good it feels to have someone invite us to join them in their skybox. But Jesus wasn’t dishing out advice for dinner parties. He was telling people a parable about how God’s kingdom works.
A parable is a story or an analogy that uses real-world imagery to portray an other-worldly truth and then bring that truth back into this world. Like any preacher, Jesus had his eyes and ears open for an experience or an encounter that would work in a sermon, and watching the guests take their seats gave him one. Jesus wasn’t offering a passive-aggressive criticism of how the guests had selected their seats. They didn’t need Jesus to tell them that it’s risky to sit in an honored place without knowing that it belongs to them. Instead, Jesus was using that universal experience of wanting the best seat without wanting to sit in someone else’s spot to teach the guests something about God. If God’s kingdom is like a dinner party, Jesus explained to them, it’s the kind of dinner party where everyone seeks out the lowest seat because they know that God is the kind of host who says to the lowly, “Come, sit up higher with me,” and says to the haughty, “I’m sorry, but that seat belongs to someone else.”
The truth is that Jesus doesn’t really care where you sit. Jesus cares how you think of yourself and how you think of other people. In his life and ministry, Jesus reveals to the world that God loves the lowly, the poor, and the vulnerable. Jesus shows us that, in God’s great reordering of the world, those who occupy the places of honor will be pulled down from their seats so that those who have been trampled by the powerful may sit beside God. That’s what Jesus’ death and resurrection are all about, which is why we talk about it here in one way or another every single Sunday. Maybe we talk about it so much because it’s a truth that isn’t easy to grasp. It’s hard to internalize in our minds and hearts and lives that unconditional love is the opposite of everything we know. Maybe that’s why Jesus uses parables like this one to try to get his point across—because it’s hard for those of us who live in this right-side-up world to understand what God’s upside-down kingdom is all about.
In this passage, Jesus used another image to try to explain what he meant. He turned to his host and said, “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.” Pay particular attention to the words Jesus used to explain his rationale to his host. Jesus didn’t tell him not to invite his friends and family in order that they might repay him. He told him not to invite them just in case they might repay him. There’s a difference. It’s one thing to buy someone a present or do someone a favor expecting nothing in return, and it’s a whole different thing to do it because you know that they will never be able to repay you. That’s what Jesus wants us to see about the kingdom of God—that, in God’s reign, good things come not as payback to those who have done good things but good things come to those whom God loves. And whom does God love? God loves the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind—those who, in the eyes of society, have no way of ever paying God back.
Again, Jesus isn’t telling us that our friends and family shouldn’t be invited to our daughter’s wedding. What Jesus wants us to see is that, if God’s kingdom were a wedding banquet, it would be the sort of wedding banquet where the host invites the kinds of people who could never repay the invitation. If you want to experience the reign of God, give it a try. Be the kind of host who throws a party for the people who can’t pay you back and learn what it means to be celebrated in God’s kingdom.
If you want to be a part of what God is doing in this world, you have to see the world the way Jesus sees it. You have to see that true status comes not from who we are or what we’ve done but from God, and you have to see that our God is the sort of God who gives out that status indiscriminately—as an underserved gift. If you’re the kind of person who finished high school, went to college, got a job, worked hard, started a family, bought a house, had children, and then threw a big party when your daughter got married, you’re the kind of person who is going to have a hard time seeing the world the way Jesus sees it—the way God sees it.
God is spilling God’s love all over the place, indiscriminately and recklessly. Sure, God loves rich and successful people, too. They are recipients of God’s love just like everyone else. But, when you’re the sort of person whose accomplishments are recognized by the world, the sort of person who gets to sit in places of honor without worrying about someone else more distinguished than you bumping you from your seat, it’s really hard to see how God’s love works.
So what are we going to do about it? You can’t just start sitting in the lowest seat because Jesus says it’s the way to get moved higher up. Believe me; I’ve tried. Instead, you must pursue the kind of emptiness that makes enough space in your life for you to be defined by God’s unmerited love. It’s more than caring about the poor, though caring about them is a good place to start. It’s becoming the poor. It’s pursuing poverty. It’s emptying yourself of everything you’ve ever accomplished in this life. When the only seat left for you in this world is the lowest one, then you will have made enough space in your life to hear God say to you, “Friend, move up higher.”