Seating Arrangements Proverbs 25: 6-7; Lk. 14: 1, 7-14
I don’t think we can fully understand what’s going on in today’s Gospel lesson if we don’t take into consideration the honor-shame culture in which Jesus lived. In such cultures—some of which are still prevalent in the Middle and Far East–saving face means everything. Personal and business affairs must be conducted in such a way that everyone is shown the proper respect and honor, and everyone appears to win. In such contexts, there aren’t many things more humiliating than having a host at a dinner party move you from the VIP section to the general admission area.
Maybe it’s because school is about to start again, but the only remotely comparable frame of reference I could come up with for this honor-shame system in our day is the cafeteria experience on the first day of 8th grade. No doubt this example is more about me than about you, but I’m trusting that maybe some of you can relate to the panic of deciding where to sit for lunch on the first day of 8th grade. It’s a choice that is freighted with ramifications for the rest of the school year. Exiting the lunch line and choosing a table must be done carefully.
In my case, I first ruled out the ridiculous—I couldn’t sit at the jock’s table because I’m hopeless at sports and their boisterousness intimidated me. I couldn’t pick the stoner’s table or the band table, as I didn’t partake of their particular hobbies. But then it got trickier. Dare I sit down with the popular girls? What if they turned up their noses at me and asked me to leave? The nerd’s table? Sitting there felt more consistent with my adolescent self, but did I really want to be associated with their weirdness for the rest of the year? In the end, I abdicated all responsibility and just sat at an empty table, waiting to see who else would show up. This option meant risking the horrible possibility that no one would. The complex business of choosing a lunch table in the cafeteria is fraught with peril and possibility.
In today’s text from Luke, Jesus is sitting at a table, watching a similar jockeying for social position around him. Jesus sees the shame and cruelty that establishing a pecking order can bring out in us. Yet, somehow Jesus refrains from flipping the tables the way he did when he encountered money-changers in the temple. Instead, here Jesus flips the whole system! Instead of playing along inside a structure that measures who has more worth than whom, Jesus breaks the whole system into a million pieces, of equal weight and proportion.
In the kingdom of God, Jesus says, it isn’t ok to simply choose to sit at tables with people we already respect, and whose company could repay us with similar honor. In God’s economy, places of privilege should be offered to those who don’t normally have access to them, and not just at mealtimes. Jesus poses the radical suggestion that other people have as much a right to feel special as we do. Our voting, our spending, our entertainment, and even our church planning should be done with other people in mind.
In Jesus’ “Lunchroom” the people no one wanted to sit with were the poor, the sick, and the generally socially undesirable–tax collectors, prostitutes, and the like. Maybe not much has changed. It bears pondering who we’d rather not make room for at our table today. Who wouldn’t you want? Addicts—recovering or not? Undocumented immigrants? Trump supporters? Protestors? Homeless kids? Capitalists? If you can think of the last person on earth you’d want sitting next to you at lunch, then you can imagine exactly what Jesus would say about your next dinner party.
I tell you, that Jesus is a trouble maker. It’s not hard to see why people got so angry with him that they decided to get rid of him.
But it’s worth bearing in mind that Jesus doesn’t want us hanging out with the disenfranchised and neglected just to make brownie points with God. That motive simply has no merit. We don’t have to do anything at all to stake our claim in the world. We are loved by God just as we are, prejudices and all. That doesn’t mean we need not try to expand our circles of influence, inclusion, and power, it just means God’s love is not contractually dependent upon our ability to be humble and kind. (To which I, for one, say fervently, “Thanks be to God!”)
Not only does Jesus ignore society’s measures of who is good enough and who isn’t, Jesus also levels the relationship between us and God’s own self. Jesus doesn’t keep count of all we’ve done right and all we’ve done wrong, and create a seating chart accordingly.
Sometimes we forget this amazing thing about Jesus: apparently he really enjoyed hanging out with tax collectors, prostitutes, and yes, even Pharisees. Not so he could prove them wrong, but because he genuinely liked their company. He liked talking theology with them. He pushed them to be their best selves and invited them to be transformed. He called them to be accountable for their actions, and to make their words gentle, but he also felt connected enough to sit down at their dinner tables for a relaxing evening meal without trying to correct them.
It gives me a lot of hope to remember that nothing we can do will make God love us more. And nothing we can do will make God love us less. All the tables in God’s lunch room have the same servings of grace.
This is the mind-blowing Good News: we are always welcome at the table where Jesus sits. An amazing side effect of this profound reality is that when we feel like we matter and belong, we increasingly find the courage to welcome other people to sit with us too. We are transformed by knowing that our status is not dependent on our behavior or our friends or our choices. Refreshed by the promise that nothing can separate us from God’s love, we get to practice making more room at the tables where we sit, always widening the circle of inclusion. That’s how the kingdom of God works.
We have many opportunities to provide exactly that kind of radical hospitality here at U Lu. Our facility is used by many different groups every day. Homeless women rest and eat and sleep and learn here. Teenagers create beauty. Language learners and recovery groups nudge each other toward growth and healing. Musicians and maintenance workers, believers and doubters, partnered and single people, retirees and job-seekers all come through our doors, looking for a place to sit, hoping desperately to find they belong.
That’s why we cling to the liberating news that it’s not our church, not our building. This is God’s house. Here Jesus is guest, host, and meal at the table around which we gather weekly. Jesus welcomes us and promises never to leave us–but he doesn’t stop with us. Whether we like it or not, Jesus intends to keep on sending folks to our ever-expanding circle–extending forgiveness and friendship to us and to all kinds of people we think he shouldn’t.
No matter what we think God’s seating chart ought to look like, Jesus inevitably invites everyone–including each of us–to come up to the best seat at the table. At that place of honor, Jesus inevitably serves us the most extravagant feast—his very own self. Each time we participate in this gracious event, immerse ourselves in Jesus’ hospitality, we are transformed to be more like Jesus. Here, we are what we eat–literally! We are the body of Christ.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that when we get in the habit of eating with strangers, we sometimes might encounter angels. The trick is that we never know which ones they are. Any stranger we meet might be Jesus undercover. So it’s good to keep expanding our circle, ensuring that there is always room at God’s table for one more. And one more. And one more….. Amen.
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