Sunday, August 28, 2016

Tales from the table

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Are any of you here today people watchers? I rarely get the chance to people watch with three kids to keep up with, but it is something I enjoy. I enjoy thinking about what these individuals or groups might be doing. Where are they going? What are they celebrating? Sometimes I even come up with elaborate stories as to what has happened in that day to lead them to wherever we happen to be. People watching is a great way to keep your mind occupied and to be entertained.

Our lesson today starts out saying that the Pharisees were watching Jesus. Not only are they watching Jesus, they are watching him closely. There watching is not for entertainment purposes. They are watching to see what Jesus will say, who he will interact with, what he might do and when so that they can see just what kind of teacher is this man from Galilee.

Often we think of the Pharisees as being anti-Jesus, but in the Gospel of Luke they seem to be balancing the role of inquisitive and offended. It is the Pharisees in Luke that warn Jesus to stay away from Jerusalem because people are planning to kill him. It is the Pharisees who invite Jesus to fancy meals and dinner parties. They are curious about him, and watch closely to learn more.

Jesus is a people watcher in his own right. Not for entertainment purposes. “Jesus’ watching is all about noticing people in order to heal, teach, saved and enlist into kingdom work. His close watching is about awareness like a parent in a crowded park, not a security guard behind a monitor."[i]

On the way to this wedding feast, held by the way on the Sabbath, Jesus sees a man with dropsy and heals him. Even on his way to other events Jesus takes the time to really encounter those around him.

When Jesus arrives at the party he surveys the landscape he watches people as they weigh where they should sit and how they should act. It’s a tension that most of us can understand. Perhaps not in our current fancy wedding culture, as most weddings concerned about seating have place cards or at the minimum reserved seating for the families of the bride and groom. If this particular place does not cause us social anxiety, I think most of us can relate to another place where seating is important. The school lunch room. Not so much in elementary school, where you sit with your class, but perhaps in middle or high school where you are finally given the freedom to sit with anyone you like. In theory.

Imagine walking into the school cafeteria for the very first time and knowing you are going to have to pick where you sit very carefully. Too close to the super popular kids and people might think you are trying to use their social currency. TO far away from the hubbub and you might seem to think you don’t belong at all.

Like a scene from the movie mean girls, you scan each table trying to figure out who you should sit with and pray you don’t make the wrong choice.

Jesus was like a new kid in class at this event. Likely this Pharisee always invited a similar guest list to whatever functions he gave. There were family, close friends, and those of influence. These were most often people of the same social stature, or rich neighbors who could improve your standing. They were so practiced and knowing where they stood in a group that they almost instinctively went to their place for a meal. By looking around the room Mr. Williams knew he could sit above Mr. Fitzgerald, but not above Mr. Hohenwald. Mr. Hohenwald could sit close to the host, but had to leave room for the governor. Mr. Fitzgerald hoped and prayed that Mr. Green had been invited so that he wasn’t at the end of the table once more.

The guests may be mentally sorting themselves but Jesus is new to the situation and he’s seeing what they don’t see. Jesus is seeing how this turmoil of where to sit is completely beside the point. Jesus is watching these men turn themselves inside out for the right seat at the table without realizing a very They are all invited guests.

He turns to them and tells a story about guests at a wedding. He talks about worrying about where to sit, how to act. I wonder what was going through their heads at that moment. I’d guess a mix of “Who does he think he is?” and “How did he know what I was thinking?” Then he talks about taking a higher seat and being humiliated, so better to take a lower seat and be lifted up.

This wisdom comes from Proverbs 25, words from Solomon himself, no doubt familiar to these men. It is good to not place yourself too highly in the face of a noble. Good practical advice. After all, one could lose their head for coming before a king uninvited.

I imagine there were some nods around the table, thinking this was good sound advice.  But I think most of them still missed the message. Jesus turned then to the host and said “When you throw a party don’t invite the expected crowd. Your family and rich neighbors. Instead invite the poor and lame, those who will never be able to pay your back or increase your social standing.”

I imagine there was shock at this statement. Why give a party at all if it wasn’t going to increase your social standing? Where you sat at a meal and whom you sat with were extremely important things in Biblical times. I can imagine that the host was shocked and offended at these words from Jesus. But Jesus was making a very important point.

Jesus says when you are invited. Jesus says when you have a party, invite. Invited. That means you are expected. That means that you will have a place. It does not matter one bit

How low you sit at the table, what matters is that you are invited! You are there to celebrate and there will be room at the table. Too often we can get caught up in where our place is, instead of rejoicing that we have a place at all.

This passage is about being stewards of God’s grace by making room at the banquet for everyone. We get caught up in this higher lower talk. This is not making yourself less and putting others above you so that they now control you. This is much more like Isaiah 40:4 “Every valley shall be lifted, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

This is a leveling of sorts. It’s not a switching of elevations, its realizing that we are all on the same plain in God’s kingdom.

And this doesn’t just apply to meal times. This teaching of Jesus’ is about how we treat one another all of the time, especially those who are not in a position to “pay us back.” Jesus is calling us to the kind of people watching he does. Watching with eyes not of judgement or for entertainment. Watching to share God’s grace across boundaries that we may not even realize are there.

Ronald Byars says “From one society to another, and from one era to another, there seem to be different lists of those from whom respectable people expect to turn aside. Jesus’ challenge reaches across boundaries of place and time, calling us to be more aware of those from whom we are inclined to turn our eyes, and to follow him rather than those who baptize common prejudices as virtues.”[ii]

Who are we watching, my friends? Who are we noticing? To what are we paying attention? And perhaps most important of all, what are we doing in light of what we see?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr said “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a qualitative change in our lives.”

Are we willing to make those changes? To participate in a leveling of the field so that the beloved community, the kingdom of God, might be as we pray, here on earth as it is in heaven?

May it be so, friends, may it be so.

[i] Jill Duffield Looking into the Lectionary 22nd Sunday in Ordinary time
[ii] Ronald P. Byars Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 4 page 25

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