Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – September 1, 2019

Luke 14:1, 7-14

 Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Who you eat with matters. And not only that, but where you sit when you are eating with others also matters. It is fraught with significance! This was true in the ancient world, and it is true today as well.

There is a plethora of studies which show that families who make a point of eating together regularly fare far better than those who do not. Eating together is a social ritual with all kinds of benefits, but perhaps most important is that they are honoring each other. They are investing themselves in each other, meal after meal. And, especially when you’re eating with extended family, where you sit matters. Many of us know how significant it is at Thanksgiving or Christmas when you finally get invited up from the wobbly card table in the rec room to the dining table with the adults. That’s an important rite of passage for many people!

The significance of who you eat with and where you sit is evident in the cafeterias of middle schools and high schools. You can bet that one of the big concerns many students will have as they start school this week is where they will sit for lunch. Will they have someone to sit next to? Whose table will they be invited to sit at? Will they be honored with a spot with the cool kids? Who will they invite to sit with them?

This continues into adulthood. Consider a couple putting together a guest list for their wedding reception. They often have to decide who will sit where. There is usually the table for the couple, at which a few guests of distinction will be seated. The closest family members and friends are usually seated closest to the couple, with the other guests radiating out from the honored table in order of decreasing importance, until you get to some poor shmuck who is seated way, way out on the perimeter….right next to the pastor.

It gets especially tricky when parents of the bride or groom are divorced and have to be seated in some way that honors both sides. It gets even trickier when one of those parents brings a date or there is a stepparent involved. Believe me, in those highly charged situations, people are watching where people are seated! I’ve seen it again and again! It matters!

Similar kinds of things also happen in employee lunchrooms and senior center dining halls and church fellowship halls as well. There is a subtle social ceremony taking place as people are seated, and it matters. It is fraught with meaning. Oftentimes it reveals what and who we really care about.

In our gospel reading for today Jesus is at a banquet. St. Luke introduces the scene: “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.” The choices Jesus would make in this social ceremony would say a lot about him. And so they were watching closely.

But Jesus was doing some watching of his own. As the banquet got underway, Jesus saw guests who were jockeying for position at the head table. Just like at a wedding banquet, the closer you were to the host, the more important you were, and so they were climbing all over each other trying to get to those choice seats. Jesus warns them that this is a recipe for humiliation. Far better, Jesus tells them, is to humble yourself. Not only do you avoid being humiliated if you should be asked to move down, but you stand the chance of being publicly honored if you are invited closer. Jesus is citing some wisdom literature here. He’s quoting almost word for word from the book of Proverbs – our first reading for today – from a section on how to conduct yourself in the king’s court.

But then Jesus moves beyond just offering some wise advice. He moves beyond mere etiquette to something far more profound. Jesus uses this general principle to describe what God has in store as he brings in the kingdom: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This is what God was up to in Jesus!

Jesus then turns to the host, inviting him to live into this new reality God is bringing about. He says, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, don’t just invite your friends and relatives. Don’t just invite your wealthy neighbors who’ll return the favor. Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. You will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Here Jesus is giving the host – and all of us! – a glimpse of what the heavenly banquet will look like. The sick will be healed. The poor will be fed. The humble will be honored. The faithful will be rewarded. And as he gives us this glimpse, he invites us to live into this coming kingdom, this new reality, even now.

Do we do that? Does our congregation reflect the picture Jesus paints of the heavenly banquet?

I remember reading how Saddleback church in California – one of those non-denominational megachurches – trained its evangelism team by showing a picture of an upper-middle class man with a Starbucks cup in his hand and SUV in his driveway and a wife and two children and telling them that this was their “target demographic.” Their goal was to reach that kind of person, and they shaped their church around attracting such a person. You could say it was hugely successful. But you could also ask, especially in light of this text, was it faithful?

There’s more to Saddleback church than this one anecdote and I don’t mean to throw stones at another church – especially since something similar happens in Lutheran congregations ALL THE TIME. We’re much more subtle about it, but it happens!

In a previous congregation I served I remember when an attorney who was new to town started attending worship at our church. You should have seen the way the members drooled over him and his family! An attorney! Wouldn’t he be great to have on the church council! I wonder if he tithes? Can you imagine how that would help our budget? You can bet that everyone wanted to sit by him at fellowship time!

Or I have a Lutheran pastor friend who is interviewing for a new call and all the call committees are constantly asking him: “How would you bring young families into our church?” No one is asking him how he would “bring in” the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

This is the problem with our seating charts. We quickly go from honoring friends and loved ones to treating people like commodities, like assets, like “target demographics.” We jockey for position so we can be close to those who can do something for us. We surround ourselves with people who are like us, people who make us feel comfortable, people who look like us and think like us and vote like us. We surround ourselves with people who can improve or reinforce our social standing or affirm our worldview. These little choices we make week after week about who we are willing to sit next to in the pews and in the fellowship hall and in the coffee shop and in our homes reveal what we truly value, what we really care about.

Jesus has come to turn all of this upside down. He has come to rearrange our seating charts. He does this through his own humbling and exaltation. As Jesus was both humbled and exalted through his death and resurrection, he has brought us into a new reality, he has brought us into a new relationship with God and with each other. There is no more jockeying needed!

By his saving grace, by the forgiveness and new life he has won for us in his own humbling and exaltation, Christ has made it possible for us to come to his banquet, his supper – even though we bring absolutely nothing to the table.  We have been called to the heavenly feast – not because of anything we have done, not because of any kind of status we bring, but simply because the King has called us forward.

Who we eat with matters. It is fraught with significance. When we eat with Christ Jesus, we receive his grace, his undeserved favor. And when we have received his grace, we start to live into it, extending it to others. When we have received this grace, we begin to live it out. When we have received this grace, how can it not impact who we are willing to sit next to?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church