Sermon - Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost (9/1/2019)
Prov. 25:6-7; Ps. 112; Heb. 13:1-8, 15-16; Lk. 14:1, 7-14
“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.”
I’m not sure why Jesus keeps getting invited to so many dinners in the gospels, because every single time he says or does something critical of the guests or the hosts, or both, and he makes something of a scene. Yes, there was that time that he turned the water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, which I’m sure the guests appreciated, but the hosts were more or less insulted by the head waiter, I don’t know why you saved the good stuff until last, now that the guests are in no condition to appreciate it! The parable of the Prodigal Son was told at a dinner, where the guests thought Jesus was a bit too forgiving of people the guests thought of as “sinners,” and Jesus took the occasion to put them rather uncomfortably in their place. And there are others, including the gospel today, where we are told that the guests were Pharisees who were “watching him closely,” and Jesus took the opportunity to let them know exactly what was on his mind.
In biblical times, both in Jewish and in pagan contexts, shared meals were public events with highly developed rules about status, an elaborate protocol of who could sit where and with whom. Much like the modern school cafeteria, you don’t want to plop yourself down at the cool kids’ table if you haven’t been invited. And in fact, we have unspoken rules of etiquette surrounding all kinds of practices in our culture, as well as implicit signals that nobody really teaches you but that everybody basically knows. The kind of car that you drive, for example, sends signals about your level of financial success, your personality, and even your politics – whether you mean it to or not.
One of the things I observed when I first came to D.C. is that this area is particularly attuned to signals about how important and powerful someone is. The first time I observed was 20 years ago, when we all spent the week before classes began for the second year of law school interviewing with law firms for jobs the following summer. One evening there was a reception thrown by one of the fancier law firms. I wasn’t interviewing with them but we were grad students with no income, and they were offering free food, so I went. As I walked in, people were lined up to shake hands with a 70-something gentleman who standing near the door. I immediately recognized that he was Warren Christopher, who had recently retired as Secretary of State. Apparently he had spent most of his life, when he wasn’t in government, working at this law firm, and I suppose he had returned there on his retirement. I waited my turn, shook his hand and said, “Pleasure to see you, Mr. Secretary,” and he said, well, absolutely nothing. So I went over and joined my friends at the free food table.
Where more than one person said, “Who was that guy?” Warren Christopher, of course. Wow, they said. They should have made a bigger deal out of it, let people know who he is, they could have attracted a bigger crowd. Strange that they have him standing there with no sign, no name tag, no introduction. And that’s when I figured out something that has proven consistently true for the 20 years since that I’ve been working in D.C.: Important people in Washington never introduce themselves. You’re already supposed to know who they are. And if you’re so disconnected that you don’t recognize the immediate past Secretary of State, well then you’re clearly not important enough for important people to take the time to introduce themselves to you. And so even something so simple as who should introduce themselves to whom is, for people in Washington, an elaborate ritual in which we display and reinforce who is important and who is less important and who is not important at all.
So at this Sabbath dinner, Jesus observes the Pharisees angling with each other about who’s going to sit where and with whom, and he starts offering advice. Some of it is basic advice, as old as the Book of Proverbs and as timeless as Miss Manners: Don’t aim too high and get knocked down in front of everyone; start low and let someone move you higher. Wait for someone to call and tell you you’ve been bumped up to first class. Much better than trying to crash first class and get kicked out in front of the whole plane, you’ll just have to go back in shame, and there will only be middle seats left. It’s pretty basic, standard, good life advice.
Except – it’s out of character for Jesus, isn’t it, to be offering advice about how to impress crowds and get a higher place in the social pecking order. You do not need to know very much about Jesus to realize that he’s not going to tell you how to use false humility in order to get ahead. And if Jesus seems to be doing just that in today’s reading, I think we are expected to see that he does so with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
What Jesus says is, “Oh yes, if you’re really trying to impress your neighbors with how important and successful and devout you are, by all means take the lowest place, so that when your host calls you up to the head table, you can walk the whole length of the room for everyone to see. You should really do that.” What Jesus means, of course, is: I see you. I see what you’re doing. You are not fooling me. You think you’re hot stuff and you want everyone to know it. And you, you have no confidence in yourself and you’re trying to maneuver people into telling you you’re worthwhile. Then there’s you, you’re looking to see who you can flatter so they’ll be in your debt next time you need a favor. I see all of you. And I’m not buying your PR.
And then, Jesus delivers the kicker: You know, if you’re giving a Sabbath dinner, you really should not invite your friends and your family, you should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Not just because that’s a Christian thing to do, although it is. But because a table full of people with nothing to offer and no one to impress will be good for you. It will give you the opportunity to stop jockeying for status. Because it’s exhausting, always having to put your best foot forward, always having to think three steps ahead about how to manage people’s impressions of you, always worrying about whether you match up to everyone else and fearing that you don’t. It’s exhausting.
And it’s pointless. Because at God’s table, God only invites people who have nothing to offer, people who are not worthy of a place at the banquet and have stopped worrying about it. God welcomes to this table all the poor, and the crippled, and the lame, and the blind parts of each one of us, the parts we spend so much time and effort pretending don’t exist and hiding from one another. We cannot hide those parts of ourselves from Jesus, but fortunately he does not care.
Because here’s the thing – God does not love the carefully curated version of yourself that you put forward for the world to see. God loves the actual you, including all the the poor and crippled and lame and blind parts. So the more we believe our own PR, the less we are authentically ourselves and the less we experience God’s love. God needs nothing from you, and God is not interested in your displays of piety or humility. God is not counting your merits or your sins, and the bookkeepers in heaven have been put on indefinite leave. God simply wants to delight in you as you are, and so God’s table is for you as you are.
When we are caught up in the rituals of honor and status in this world, the people who seem like losers in that game – the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind – these are the last people in the world we want to be associated with. We are trying desperately to prove that we are successful, capable, reliable, insightful – and we fear being tagged as people who are not those things. To prove that to others, and perhaps to prove it to ourselves. But Jesus sees through all that nonsense. And at God’s table the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind are at the top of the guest list. Only those who still insist on pretending that they are none of those things will feel out of place.
My prayer for all of us today is that we can learn to see through the artificial status games and carefully curated self-images we encounter everywhere we turn in our lives. That at God’s table we may learn to live differently, to see ourselves as Jesus sees us, to let go of our fears of whatever parts of us feel poor, crippled, lame, or blind. That we may know that we are seen and loved by God not despite our brokenness and flaws but in them, and that we are invited to share at God’s table without pretense or shame.