Summit Presbyterian Church
August 28, 2016
Luke 14: 1, 7-14 Our Place at the Table
The seats in the Hastings on Hudson Middle School cafeteria were all alike. Long white formica benches attached to long white formica tables set in identical rows. There were no assigned seats. No special tables for honor students or athletes, no seats at the head or foot of any table. To the uninitiated it may have looked like a democratic, egalitarian arrangement. But every seventh grader knew better. Every seventh grader knew what some adults may have denied, that there were seats of honor and seats of shame. Seats of honor and seats of shame with many gradations in between, depending on who sat where. For among the seventh grade girls, at least, — the boys might have been different — there was an exact social hierarchy that everyone understood. A class ranking more public and less debatable than any grade point average. I don’t think we could have explained what put the top girl at the top or how we each found our place. It was some mixture of looks and class and personality and associations. To be fair, there wasn’t a simple correlation of wealth or beauty or brains or popularity with rank. The girls at the top could be kind as well as mean, the girls at the bottom stylish or not. But as resistant to explanation as the ranking may have been, it was there — so to be invited to sit next to a top girl was to be honored. To seek a seat above your station and be ignored was to be disgraced. Lunchtime was stressful - and not only for those on the lower rungs.
The ancient world also had an exact social hierarchy that everyone understood. Family, wealth, gender, work, and health made some folks more distinguished than others. There were seats of honor at every table, and seats that were lower, although being invited at all was an honor. It’s not clear from our scripture how people chose their places at this particular sabbath meal, but Jesus was watching them. As they were watching him. So he offers a parable. At first hearing, the parable doesn’t challenge the social hierarchy or the seating arrangements. Indeed, he seems to be telling folks how to work the system so they’ll always be honored rather than disgraced. Go low, he says, so the host can bring you high, honoring you before guests. When Jesus then talks about the ideal guest list, again, he seems to be accepting the status quo and telling his host how to get ahead. Rather than inviting friends and being repaid now, invite the poor and the lame so you’ll be rewarded in the resurrection of the righteous. I’m guessing anyone who was poor, lame or blind and invited to a party for this reason probably didn’t have a very good time.
But on second hearing, it’s not that simple. For Jesus is talking about more than the dinner party we may be planning for next week, the garden club luncheon, or even the church potluck. He’s talking about the eschatological feast (to throw in a big theological word). That heavenly banquet when Christ will gather all the faithful from east and west, north and south to sit at the table in the Kingdom of God. That feast where we will celebrate the redemption of all creation, when peace and righteousness will kiss each other, and the lion will lie down with the lamb (not, I trust, on our dinner plates). But the feast is not all Kumbaya. There’s a warning here. Jesus says the humble will be exalted the exalted will be humbled. So, if we choose that top spot now, if we cling to our titles, our status, our first class tickets and insist on the head of the table, on that great day Christ may say to us, “give this person your place,” and in disgrace we’ll have to take a lower place. That is, assuming we make it to the banquet at all. For if we’ve been paid and re-paid here on earth; if we’ve enjoyed dinners at the houses of rich neighbors, family and friends, while closing the door on those who for whatever reason can’t extend an invitation, who knows where we’ll be at the resurrection of the righteous.
So Jesus promises a turning of the tables. His mother Mary sang about it when Jesus was still in her womb: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” It’s hard to argue with the justice of that, but still . . . does the eschatological feast have to be like a Middle School lunchroom or that Sabbath dinner so long ago? With high seats and low seats, some eating their fill and others going hungry? Even if it’s justice? Even if the hungry and the full are different people than they were on earth?
The answer is no. It doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be that way because Jesus tells us what to do. He gives the same instruction to everyone, for all to hear: take the low seat. Humble yourself. Don’t seek the honor of that special place. Now Jesus isn’t saying “debase yourself.” Jesus isn’t saying, let others put you in the low place so they can take the high. He isn’t saying, go to the kitchen and eat only crumbs, so that you’ll have pie in the sky. I think he’s saying, just sit down. Find a seat without checking out the scene and worrying about where you rank in relation to others. Sit down gratefully. Acknowledge that God, creator of the universe and source of all good, is the ultimate host of every banquet. And if we all take the low place, if we all just sit down and make sure that everyone’s invited, we’ll all be exalted on that glorious day. Shown by Christ Jesus to our seats, with good things before us. Basking in everlasting love.
But this is the thing about the Reign of God. It’s in the future, but it’s also now. It’s not yet, but it’s also here. We don’t have to wait until Christ comes again for a foretaste of that heavenly banquet. We taste it here, at Holy Communion, when we invite all to the table that Christ has prepared. We taste it too, when we stop thinking about each other in terms of what you can do for me: whether it’s a dinner invitation or a look of admiration. We taste it when we stop thinking about those we are helping as points in our favor, a chance to show off our righteousness. When Jesus tells his host to invite those who could not repay him - in that time and place it would have been the poor, the crippled, the lame or the blind — he was suggesting a guest list for a truly joyful luncheon. A meal where no one would be fighting for the seat of honor - since the guests were not distinguished in the eyes of the world. A meal where folks wouldn’t be fawning over each another in the hopes of a dinner invitation, since no one could offer one. A meal with no networking, no ranking, no matchmaking of the joining family dynasties kind. A luncheon where Jane Austen or Julian Fellows would have nothing to write about. A meal where everyone could just relax, enjoying the company of fellow pilgrims, grateful for God’s bounty, watching one another closely in love, not judgement. A meal quite different than the one on that particular Sabbath. A meal quite different than all those lunches in the Hastings Middle School Cafeteria.
But to go back to Middle School. The Holy Spirit works hard among Seventh graders, and even within a few years, things got better. Social ranking — although still there — was less precise, less hierarchical, as we began growing up and saw each other more clearly. In high school we were still anxious about making friends and finding our place, but there was more back and forth, more openness, more charity — at least as I remember it. And now, as Hastings Alum are Facebook Friends, although of course we’re still caught up in the honoring that the world gives, the Seventh Grade Hierarchy is a thing of the past. Through God’s grace we’ve moved a little closer to being a beloved community. And that’s just Facebook. Here in church, the body of Christ, with the help of the Holy Spirit and the teachings of Jesus, we can host some wonderful meals. (Real meals and metaphorical meals). Loving one another and inviting all to the table, as we wait in hope for the heavenly banquet where all God’s children, from North and South, East and West may be exalted together.