Ain’t no seating charts at the heavenly banquet

Proper 17, Year C
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Before I sit down to write a sermon, I often try to imagine what the gospel might look like if it were playing out in real life, and I were there, watching everything unfold.  When I did that this week, I realized: the gospel is hilarious.  Like, sitcom funny.

Picture this: this Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner.  Right off the bat we know we’re being set up for some comedy.  Jesus has already been to two other dinners with the Pharisees, and neither of them went well, from the Pharisee’s point of view.  Let’s have a flashback: “Previously, in gospel of Luke:”

Dinner 1: Jesus goes to dinner with the Pharisees, and this crying woman follows him inside and makes a spectacle of herself, washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair, and Jesus doesn’t even yell at her, but actually praises her for her faith.  This does not go over well with the Pharisees.

Dinner 2: The second time Jesus forgot to wash his hands before eating, and instead of saying “Whoops, sorry, pass the hand sanitizer,” he has the nerve to tell everyone else at the table that it’s actually they who should be worried about being unclean, since even though they keep up appearances on the outside, inside they neglect justice and the love of God.

Back to present moment: here we are, watching Jesus arrive at dinner with the guy who invited him—and they’re late by the way, because Jesus stopped on the way to heal someone and to get into an argument with…guess who?  Some Pharisees.  Probably some of the people who are going to be at the same dinner, which is great, because you know, nothing gives people an appetite like losing a theological debate with the Son of man.

So in they walk, just as everyone’s handing the waiters their empty drink glasses and finding a place to sit.  And instead of heeding his friend the Pharisee, who’s tugging him gently to a discreet spot at the table, Jesus checks out the seating scuffle and starts chastising everyone for using mealtimes to climb the social ladder.  He even quotes Scripture at them, and believe me, there is no faster way to annoy a room full of theological thinkers than to tell them they’re wrong and to quote scripture at them.

So I was totally enjoying this mental image of the poor Pharisee who invited Jesus trying to gently shush him and guide him to his seat while Jesus just ignores him and continues to scold the stiff-necked Pharisees who are just glaring at both of these guys—when I had the moment.

The moment that happens almost every week when I write a sermon.

The moment when the gospel runs smack into something I’m struggling with, and everything stops being funny.

This week, it started with the anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech.  Because as I thought about the words of Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, I also had to think about how the solid words of advice Jesus gave to the Pharisees, the same words that the author of Proverbs offered to generations of the  faithful—advice to take a low seat, and let your host raise you higher—those words don’t work in situations of institutional injustice. Like racism. I mean, what would have happened if Rosa Parks had thought of those words just as the bus driver told her to leave her seat and take one lower down?

For the wisdom of the Proverb to be wisdom instead of surrender, you really have to trust that the people in charge are wise and loving and just.  This week, when I thought about the dream King had, the one where his children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, I also had to think about how one in every three boys who happened to be born black in 2001 will go to prison.

I bet the Pharisees had the same kind of moment I did, where the dream Jesus described runs smack into reality. “This guy doesn’t know anything about how the real world works,” they probably muttered to themselves.

But Jesus spent his days talking to, touching, and healing the real world.  He knew what it was all about, and he didn’t like it.  So maybe his words aren’t just meant to scold the Pharisees—but to reveal how deep their need for the kingdom of God is.

And Jesus, being Jesus, doesn’t stop there.  Then he turns to the guy who invited him—poor fella—and tells him, “When you give a banquet, don’t invite people who can return the invitation.  Invite the dregs of society: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

I think it’s something to pay attention to, that Jesus saves these words just for the person who invited him to dinner.  It’s like Jesus interprets that invitation to a meal as an invitation into this person’s private life, and he rolled up his sleeves, stepped over the threshold, and said, “Ok, buddy, you asked for it.”

Which means that we Christians who, like that Pharisee, are crazy enough to invite Jesus into our lives have to pay special attention to this message: honor those who can’t repay you.

This might sound easy enough, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t get road rage (even if that guy totally cut you off), or are given to random acts of kindness, like paying for the cup of coffee for the person behind you in line at Starbucks once in a while.  It might sound easy enough, especially if you donate to or volunteer with someplace like Café of Life.

It sounded easy enough to me, until I had another one of those moments I was telling you about, and thought about what’s happening in Syria right now.  And it hit me:

The poor might be the politicians too poor in compassion to engage in compromise.  The lame might be those hobbled by their love of power.  The crippled might be the warmongers who are too crippled by hatred to reach for peace.  The blind might be those who can’t see God’s vision for justice. For me, those are the people that are really, really difficult to invite to the table.

Maybe they look different for you: maybe they are addicts limping along the path of denial, or people so poor in spirit that you just don’t want to be around them, or those locked into abusive patterns, who are blind to the way their words and actions can wound you. These are people who may never be able to pay you back, who just don’t have the capacity to love you back, or even to treat you with respect.  How can Jesus ask us to invite these people to the table?

But here’s the thing: these people might not be able to pay us back.  But they can show us what the kingdom of heaven looks like.

Because theirs are the faces gathered around the heavenly banquet—those people we’ve avoided and insulted and hated—not because we’re bad people, but because they are.  Christ came for them.  They’re the ones who the God of scripture again and again showed preference for: adulterers like David.  Prostitutes like Rahab.  Bad parents like Abraham.  Prisoners like Paul.  Subversives like Salome.  Christ-deniers like Peter.  Criminals like the man who hung dying beside Jesus.  They’re the ones Christ came to save.

If the idea that heaven may be full of people that common sense would tell us should not be there is discomfiting for you, then believe me, it is for me too.  I confess to you that one of my failings as a Christian is that there are some people whom it is simply beyond my capacity to forgive.  I don’t want to share heaven with them.  I don’t want to invite them to my banquet.

But it’s in those instants—when the gospel exposes my own sinfulness and smallmindness—that I have another kind of moment.  One where the Holy Spirit takes whatever I’m struggling with and runs it straight into the gospel:

There are none of us whom it is beyond God’s capacity to forgive.  And that includes you and me.  And that is good news, because sooner or later, we all fall short of the glory of God.  Sooner or later, Christ finds it necessary to come for us too, to pick us up from the gutter, to forgive us and set us back on our feet.  Sooner or later, we disappoint God. Somehow, God redeems us anyway.  Somehow, God loves us anyway.  Somehow, God keeps extending that invitation to the heavenly banquet to us.

So today the message for you, you people who were so foolish to invite this Christ person in, is to invite those whom you would so much rather avoid into your life.  Don’t do it because they can repay you—so often, they can’t, or they won’t.  Don’t do it because it will bring you honor; it will probably bring you headaches and heartaches.  Do it because Christ first did it for us.  For us, we sinners.  For us.  For us, beloved, cherished, forgiven, blessed children of God.

Amen.

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6 Replies to “Ain’t no seating charts at the heavenly banquet”

  1. Nicely done, Miss Victoria. I know you struggled with this (gadzooks that Gospel can be a pain sometimes, right?), but I think you pulled it off with grace. An honest self reflection that I’m sure spoke to the hearts of those who heard it.

  2. A very interesting and thought-provoking sermon. So sorry I was not at CVLC to hear this at CVLC on Sunday, but so glad to be able to read your words up here in Honeoye, NY (south of Rochester) where I am visiting my daughter Barbara. I am truly enjoying your blog. See you Sunday.

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