A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va. September 1, 2013
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 14:1, 7-14
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…. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “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, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (NRSV).
Back when I was living and working in Washington, D.C., I once saw in the newspaper that George Clooney and Brad Pitt were going to be in town (for those of you who are tuning in from Papua, New Guinea, George Clooney and Brad Pitt are two very handsome American actors who sometimes cause women to swoon). The woman who wrote the report for the Washington Post was swooning, apparently. “Turn on the hunk-o-meter!” she wrote. “George Clooney and Brad Pitt will be in town sometime next year to shoot parts of a Coen Brothers comedy called ‘Burn after Reading.’ They and the other stars in the film are likely to roam freely in our town,” she warned, “dining in our restaurants and causing a frenzy among the citizenry.”
The next day at church I asked, “Can you imagine? No, I mean really, can you imagine sitting at a table in some out-of-the-way restaurant when George Clooney and Brad Pitt walk in? And can you imagine if they were seated at the table right next to yours? What if you had the nerve to ask them if you could join them, and what if they said yes? Can you imagine the way the other diners would look at you, glaring from their tables as you sat there with two of the coolest guys in the world, laughing and swapping stories late into the night? Next morning there it would be on the front page of the ‘Style’ section—a picture of you sitting between your new best friends, George and Brad.
“OK, that’s probably not going to happen,” I said. “But we do live in Washington, DC (which someone once described to me as ‘Hollywood for ugly people’). And sometimes we do find ourselves in the same room with somebody famous. And, because we are like everybody else in the world, we do seem to be fascinated by that kind of celebrity, drawn to it like a shopper to a really good Labor Day sale.” I said, “Without even realizing what we’re doing we move closer and closer until, suddenly there we are, standing right next to some well-known author, or US Senator, or minor celebrity. And if someone offers to take our picture we laugh and say, ‘Oh, no! We wouldn’t want to bother…’ but when the camera comes up we smile and lean in a little closer. And when the prints come back we put one in a silver frame and prop it on a bookshelf in the living room, so the next time we have a dinner party someone will look at it and say, ‘Oh my gosh! Isn’t that you and somebody famous?’
“‘Well, yes. Yes it is.’”
When I was on vacation with my family in New York this summer we bumped into Uma Thurman at the grocery store, and of all the wonderful things we might have told people about our trip afterward that’s what we ended up talking about the most. I saw an old friend this summer who had ended up in the same room with Brian Williams, the NBC news anchor. She worked her way through the crowd until someone took a picture of her standing right beside him. Why do we do that? Why do we think that our own status will be elevated if we can position ourselves near those who have more of it than we do? Remember the “cool table” in the high school cafeteria? Why do we think that if we can get a seat at that table we will be rendered cool by association? Do we think this stuff rubs off? That celebrity is like glitter and that if we get close enough to it we will sparkle and shine a little more than we did before?
Maybe on some primitive level we do, and maybe in that regard we are not so different from the primitive society in which Jesus lived and worked. In that society the stuff you wanted to acquire was honor and the stuff you wanted to avoid was shame. So when you went to the Sabbath meal at the home of a well-known Pharisee (as Jesus does in today’s Gospel reading) there were places of honor, close to the host, and if you could get yourself into one of those your status would go up a notch. The other people at the meal would see where you were sitting and assume that you were somebody special. So you tried not to do it in an obvious way, but when you thought nobody was looking you might just slip into that empty chair, and then when everybody looked back in your direction there you would be, the new best friend of your celebrity host.
But Jesus saw what was going on. The Pharisees were watching him closely, Luke says, but he was watching them closely, too, and when he saw them jockeying for the best seats at the table he told them a parable. “When you go to a wedding banquet,” he said, “do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.” For people who wanted to acquire honor and avoid shame it was a horrifying thought. They could imagine themselves getting up from the place of honor and starting toward the place of shame while everyone in the room laughed. Maybe you can imagine George and Brad throwing you out of the restaurant personally, and that picture ending up in the newspaper the next day.
But then Jesus says this: “When you are invited to a wedding banquet, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” And that would be the best thing in the world, wouldn’t it? That would be like having George and Brad invite you over to their table at dinner, offer you a role in their movie, and then drive you all over town with your head sticking up through the sunroof in their limo.
How cool would that be?
It may sound as if Jesus is only giving some lessons in etiquette, as if he were a divine Miss Manners or Emily Post, telling his hearers how to take their place at a fancy dinner party in order to maintain their dignity and avoid embarrassment. But Fred Craddock notes that Luke calls these words a parable, and that’s a clue, Craddock says, that in Luke’s thinking at least Jesus is using Kingdom language, and that all this talk about wedding banquets and guests and hosts might be a subtle way of talking about something much deeper. For example, take a closer look at the way Jesus talks about the host in this passage. The guest may be the one who initially chooses to sit in the best seat or the worst seat at the table, but it’s the host who makes the final decision. It is, after all, his house, and his party; he’s the one who gets to assign the seats. And if what Jesus is really talking about here is the Kingdom of God, and if the host is none other than God himself, then this parable begins to hum on a different wavelength.
Imagine walking into the banquet hall in God’s kingdom and seeing God himself sitting there at the head of the table. Where would you take your seat, near the head or at the foot? I don’t know what you would do but I think I would position myself as far from God as possible, not because I don’t love him but because I wouldn’t feel worthy. I might look for a place in some dark corner of the room, or sneak off to the kitchen. I wonder sometimes if that’s the real reason people tend to sit in the back of the church rather than the front—because they don’t feel worthy, because they think that if God is up here somewhere then they should sit as far away from him as possible? Well, let me tell you something: they aren’t worthy. None of us is. And the people who sit up front know that just as well as the people who sit in the back. But let me tell you something else: it doesn’t matter. Since it’s the host who gets to decide how worthy you are it doesn’t matter what you think of yourself. It only matters what he thinks of you, and he thinks you are his.
I keep thinking about how God said to Jesus at his baptism, “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” Can you imagine what that did for him? He didn’t ever have to wonder about his own worth: he was the beloved child of God. And because he knew who he was he didn’t have to look for validation from any other source. So, who cares about places of honor at a banquet? If you’re the beloved son of God you can sit wherever you want. You can go to the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees or you can share your bread with sinners and tax collectors, because you’re not trying to be somebody: you already are. John Claypool used to say that if we could hear what Jesus heard at his baptism, if we could hear God saying to us, “You are my beloved child,” it would change our lives. And we can hear those words. We are his beloved children. Right there in the first chapter of John it says that Jesus came to his own people and his own people wouldn’t receive him, “but to those who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God” (1:12). In 1 John 3:1 the author says, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God; and that is what we are.”
Can you see how that sets you free? If you are one of God’s beloved children then you don’t have to look for validation from any other source. Your ticket has already been punched. So you can go to a banquet without wondering where you’re going to sit, and you can give a party without wondering what you’re going to get in return. In fact, for the first time in your life, maybe you can really give a party, as in give it away. You can give it to the people who could never pay you back. For example, Jesus says, you can give it to those people who always get kicked to the bottom rung of the ladder—the poor the blind the lame and the maimed. And, yes, he says you will be repaid at the “resurrection of the righteous,” but that’s not the reason you do it. You do it because you feel like doing it, because you are a child of God, because it’s the kind of thing God would do. He would be generous to people who were needy—he is. He would pour out blessing on those who don’t deserve it—he does. He would do it just because it’s in his nature to do such things and maybe just because it’s fun.
Imagine throwing a dinner party at one of the best restaurants in town. Imagine making out the guest list and sending out the invitations and then, when the big night comes, imagine dressing up in your finest clothes and heading out the door. But then imagine that while you’re there, having dinner, George Clooney and Brad Pitt walk into the place. You find that you can’t help yourself. You wave and say, “Loved you in ‘Ocean’s Eleven!’ but perhaps for the first time you can see that these are just two reasonably talented, fairly good-looking guys, who have stumbled onto some fame. Fame is nice while you have it, but it doesn’t last forever, and you realize that while you’d be happy to join them at their table you’re having a little too much fun at yours. You are a child of God, after all, so full of his love that there’s plenty to give away, and on this particular night you’ve chosen to give it away to some AIDS orphans from Africa who are sitting at your table eating and laughing and having the time of their lives. And because they don’t get out much they don’t even notice George and Brad, don’t even know who they are. They’re too busy trying to get your attention, trying to show you with their shining eyes how much they appreciate your love and generosity. And that’s when you realize that of all the tables in the room…
…yours is the coolest.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.