Unity Lutheran Church + Cross of Life Campus
1 September 2019 + Lectionary 22C
Luke 14.1, 7-14
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
“A place for everything, and everything in its place.”
It’s so simple, so proverb-like, so beautiful of a sentiment. Words to live by. It’s no secret that I like things in order. In my office, books are alphabetized by author, loose papers are neatly tucked away in folders organized by committee or topic, and artwork is arranged like a small gallery. My little slice of heaven. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
When I was in seminary, I worked for two years as the sacristan of the seminary chapel, and one of my responsibilities was helping to coordinate commencement – unquestionably our biggest service of the year. I remember vividly all the diagrams, showing the processional line-up and communion and diploma distribution to ensure an orderly and efficient flow of traffic. And the seating charts, with the places for the worship leaders, seminary president, academic faculty, graduating class, and any special guests, clearly marked. There was a place for everyone, and everyone had their place.
In public spaces, we’re used to these clear boundaries and places of honor and distinction. In corporate workspaces, there’s a difference between the corner office and an ordinary cubicle. At restaurants, when given the choice, we’d rather sit at the window booth or on the patio than at the table with the wobbly leg by the restrooms. You get the point: There are clear places viewed more highly than others.
Even a simple church pew – the history of which is far from simple and even a little troubling. If you’ve been to New England and visited some of its historic churches, you’ve probably seen “box pews” – more like the equivalent of luxury skyboxes at sporting venues. Box pews are often walled off at shoulder height, with private seating, doors, curtains, even fireplaces. And you thought we were spoiled with cushioned pews! Historically, box pews were reserved and paid for at rates only the very wealthy could afford. And while the concept might seem so incredibly foreign to us, people actually wanted the front pews – for not only the best seat, but to be seen by everyone else.
All of which, I think, helps us to understand the premise behind Jesus’s parables. He’s invited to the house of a prominent religious leader, for a grand meal with the elite of the elites, all of whom are jockeying for the best seats, closest to their host, where they can be seen and recognized. Meanwhile, Jesus, quietly observing all this from the side, offers a parable: Don’t take the best seat. What if someone more important comes along? Well, that would be embarrassing for you, wouldn’t it? Instead, take the lowest seat. And if that’s not enough, Jesus goes on to criticize the guest list: Don’t invite all these “important” people, people who can invite you back and repay you. Just the opposite: Invite the ones who can’t pay you back, the ones with no social standing, the ones you would normally overlook.
In the course of two mini-parables, Jesus completely turns the social conventions of his day upside-down.
But this isn’t just a lesson in table etiquette, as if Jesus were some kind of primitive Emily Post. This is not a story about place cards or table reservations. The point isn’t even about who sits where. This is a story about humility.
Humility. It’s a strange concept. Humility wasn’t exactly considered a virtue in Jesus’s day, and it’s not exactly the most intuitive in our own time either. Humility is often seen as the opposite of pride – and we like to take pride in our identities and our achievements – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe we need a better definition of humility.
Living in Chicago for twelve years, I grew accustomed to the peculiarities of public transit – including the person who would so graciously and publicly make a display of giving up their seat when an older person or pregnant woman or someone with a physical disability would come aboard, so that everyone could see what a good, humble person they are. That’s not humility. (Though to be clear, you should definitely give up your seat for someone who needs it.)
Instead, I want to suggest that humility is standing up before that person gets on – making a place for others before they show up. Humility acknowledges that there are others who are not at the table. It doesn’t ask us to consider ourselves as less valuable and take the lower place for its own sake. But humility does invite to be aware of others who don’t always get a place at the table and to graciously make space for them, even if we don’t know who they are or if they’re not here yet. Humility is the grace to live in community and to embody the kind of radical welcome and hospitality that Jesus showed us when he dined not just with prominent Pharisees but with “sinners and tax collectors.”
Still, there’s a hesitation for those of us who have always had a place of distinction at the table. And I think that hesitation boils down to fear: Is there going to be enough – enough space, enough food, enough, enough, enough?
Whenever I’m at a large meal that’s being served buffet-style, I seem to have a knack for either choosing or being assigned to one of the last tables to be dismissed to get our food. Recently, I attended a conference, and at the closing banquet, I was at the very last table of maybe fifty or sixty. True to my anxious, impatient self, I kept eyeing the line and the buffet tables: Oh no, they’re going to run out of food… There’s not going to be enough… Blissfully, I was wrong – of course there was enough. And even more than enough.
Of course there is enough. At God’s banquet table, there is a place for all and enough for all. That’s Jesus’s point. I don’t think he really cared about who sat where at dinner. He’s showing us what the kingdom of God looks like.
A place for everyone, and everyone has a place.
There are no reservations required, no cost, no dress code. There are no prerequisites to sharing in this meal. The beauty of our Lutheran theology is that we don’t even have to all agree about we believe to share this meal. We just have to be hungry – hungry for a word of grace and forgiveness and wholeness.
Speaking of being hungry, an interesting tidbit about Luke’s gospel: Whenever Jesus is teaching his disciples or debating with other religious leaders, he always seems to be eating. The table is where it all happens. You could even say, as others have pointed out, Jesus didn’t birth a church, he birthed a table (Pulpit Fiction). A table where all are welcome, where no one is turned away, where there is enough for all, where no one lacks for food.
Let us go now to banquet.
The table’s set and a place is waiting.
For you, for me, for everyone.
Come, eat and be filled with the bread of life.
Come, drink and be warmed with the cup of salvation.
There is a place for you here. Period.