September 1, 2013
Proper 17, Year C
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
I heard today's gospel story too late to save me from a painful incident in elementary school. The incident took place after school on a Friday at the first meeting of the Lineweaver Elementary School chess club. I was in second grade. The leaders asked us to organize ourselves according to ability: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced.
Well, I felt pretty confident in my chess-playing skills. After all, I could beat my own dad at chess . . . or so I thought. I seated myself at the table of advanced players. It must have looked pretty funny to see a seven-year-old take her place with a group of fifth- and sixth-grade boys. (I remember them all as boys.) Someone asked me whether I was sure that I was in the right place. I answered without any doubt, "Yes. I can even beat my dad!" (I didn't realize that my dad hadn't exactly been playing to his full potential.)
Long story short, I got clobbered in several chess matches. I realized that I wasn't in the right place, so I lowered myself all the way to the beginners table. There, I spent the rest of the year easily defeating other kids with a very basic strategy called the four-move check mate. But I never tried to move up again.
I have such a strong emotional memory of how it felt to move lower than the seat that I had claimed. And although this hasn't been verified by a therapist, I'm pretty sure that this event explains why I became so determined never to overestimate myself.
The context for our gospel this morning isn't an elementary school chess club meeting, but a sabbath meal at the home of a leading Pharisee. Jesus notices something about how everyone chooses their seats. They try to claim places of honor for themselves.
And so Jesus tells them this parable: "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, don't sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host." The host would need to ask you to give up your place, "and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place." Jesus instructs people to choose for themselves the lowest place, so that the host will come and say to them, "Friend, move up higher."
What a beautiful invitation that is: "Friend, move up higher." Our reading from Proverbs has different wording but the same simple message of Jesus' parable. It says, "it is better to be told, 'Come up here,' than to be put lower in the presence of a noble."
These are words to listen for: "Friend, move up higher." "Come up here." Sometimes, it's hard to hear those words if we have histories of embarrassment and humiliation that keep us in low places. But we live our lives of faith along this continuum: sometimes stepping down in disgrace, and then stepping up to God's invitation.
Even as we seek to resist our impulses to seat ourselves in a place of honor, we also need to open our ears to God's words: "Friend, move up higher," and "Come up here." What is God inviting us to aspire to, to dare to do, to climb toward as a result of this divine invitation?
Ultimately, what we're reaching for is the kingdom of God. In this gospel reading, Jesus actually gives us a vision of the kingdom which makes his previous teaching almost unnecessary. If the reign of God is like a wedding banquet full of the poor and the lowly, there is no seat more honorable than the rest. At a banquet like that, Jesus' teaching about choosing seats sounds merely like advice for how to avoid embarrassing ourselves at a dinner party.
The kingdom of God isn't just about how to be a good guest. It's about being a good host. It's not just about negotiating our place in a crowd of people with varying degrees of honor. It's about inviting people in for a meal when they can't get served anywhere else.
Jesus says, "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." In fact, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, it may turn out that we've been entertaining angels without knowing it.
A few weeks ago, I had the experience of being both personally humbled and then lifted up into God's vision of a banquet for the excluded. The Episcopal church has a ministry to the Northwest Arkansas Community Correction Center, which is a facility for incarcerated women. Some local priests take turns celebrating the Eucharist there on Sunday evenings. The facility is actually just a few blocks from my house.
On one Sunday when it was my turn to lead the Eucharist, I was traveling with a few volunteers from the church where we get worship booklets and other supplies. Most of the volunteers attend different Episcopal or Lutheran congregations in the area. I asked one of them, "Where do you worship on Sunday mornings?" And she said, "Oh . . . I don't really go to another church on Sunday mornings. I just serve with the prison Eucharist every Sunday. This is really my church."
In that moment, I realized the subtle ways that my heart had crept up and taken a seat above others. I'd been thinking of the prison Eucharist as a ministry of the church. I hadn't deeply recognized that Eucharist for what it was: the church. The church celebrating the sacrament of Christ's body and blood. The church proclaiming a gospel of healing and freedom. The church envisioned in our reading today from the letter to the Hebrews, which asks us to "Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them."
There's no real need to supplement a Eucharist in prison with worship somewhere else . . . unless you want to. I felt very humbled by the woman who challenged the ways that I had started to put worship services in some kind of hierarchy—those in the church and those in the prison. This conversation with the volunteer lowered and humbled me, but it also invited me into the reign of God and the heavenly banquet for the excluded and shut out.
There is a way to treat today's gospel lesson merely as an etiquette lesson: "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." When you choose seats at a party, choose the most humble position so that you don't embarrass yourself! We could easily live our lives as self-deprecating guests and as reciprocating hosts. We could live our lives by lowering ourselves politely and then waiting for the invitation, "Friend, move up higher."
But when God asks us to "move up higher" and to "Come up here," he isn't calling us to a seat of higher honor. God is calling us to share his role as host, inviting anyone who has been shut out of other feasts, and serving the angels in our midst. Aren't we lucky that we're on the guest list?