by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 14:1, 7-14
Our Gospel text offers a lesson in two parts. Part one is framed as advice to banquet guests; part two is advice to those who host banquets. How strange that the man who flouted rules related to Sabbath observance—as we’ve read in recent Sundays—would be concerned about rules of table etiquette. Of course, what on the surface seems to be a lesson in table manners is actually a lesson in how we as Jesus followers relate to one another in the now and coming realm of God.
Almost all cultures develop certain expectations of table behavior but the specific rules vary from culture to culture. To illustrate that point—and to prepare us for Jesus’s point that table manners in God’s kingdom are different from table manners in the kingdoms of this world, we’ll start with a quiz on table manners around the world.
In a very basic sense, our behavior around the table reveals our relationships, including how status is determined. Even today in America the “host” at a formal dinner is usually seated at the head of the table, a position of status, with the most honored guest next to him.
Jesus’s ancient Near Eastern culture was greatly concerned about status, about who was the honored one and how one maintained honor and escaped from being shamed. On the surface, in today’s reading Jesus seems to be reinforcing his tradition’s concerns about honor and shame. It was surely obvious in that culture that it was better to choose to sit far from the place of honor and hope to be moved higher up—instead of presuming a place of honor and risk being sent to a seat of lesser status.
But when we realize Jesus is really talking about the kingdom of God—as he does in all his parables—we recognize he’s not simply giving practical advice on how to avoid social embarrassment through good table manners; he’s illustrating God’s values. The humble ones will be brought to a place of honor. The haughty will eventually learn humility. As Jesus in Luke’s Gospel said in his sermon on the plain, in God’s upside down realm, the poor and hungry and sorrowful, the despised, excluded, and reviled are the very ones whom God will lift up—while those of high status will find themselves weeping and ashamed (Luke 6: 20-26). God’s ways are not our ways. God’s ways, in Jesus’s day and in 21st century America, are at cross purposes with our aims for self-advancement. So God turns the tables on us, so to speak, welcoming most heartily the least and last.
And if the rules for how to be a good guest are reversed in God’s kingdom, so are the rules for the host. In the ancient Near East’s patronage system, the host had to be careful whom to invite because he could lose his status if a guest’s status was too low. Yet the God who is our host, who eventually gathers us all together, strategically chooses to honor those who have been dishonored in this world.
I think this idea that God does privilege (and we should, too) those on the margins was as hard for 1st century Jews to hear as it is for 21st century Americans. Those today offended by the Black Lives Matter movement seem to share a similar kind of outrage that Jesus’s original hearers experienced in reaction to his parables. To some, saying “Black lives matter” sounds as if you mean “only black lives matter” when founders of the movement mean it as “black lives matter, too.” To some, “Black lives matter” sounds like reverse racism–which actually isn’t a thing. Prejudice is different from racism. Some believe Black Lives Matter supporters are anti-police. Yet the early nonviolent civil rights movement was also misperceived as being anti-police.
More importantly for Christians, some may think that Black Lives Matter is taking sides, and God has no favorites. Except that God does take sides–according to stories like today’s Gospel reading and the Beatitudes. Those who were invited late to the party deserve special invitations to the party. The guests who had earlier chosen the seats of honor need to move to the less prestigious seats in some sense.
Humility is the essence of discipleship. To follow Jesus—who was born in a manger and brutally executed as a common criminal—is to adopt Christ’s humble ways.
A fellow UCC pastor, Rev. Chris Ayers, leads an open and affirming church in Charlotte, NC. Recently, Wedgewood UCC’s rainbow banner they display outside their church was vandalized. They responded by painting the entire triple door entrance of their church building that faces the street in wide rainbow stripes. But last week when the church sign made public a message lamenting black lives being lost, they were vandalized again. The words on the church sign had said, “Stop killing, disrespecting black people.” A few days ago someone covered over the word “black” with white tape.
Pastor Chris at Wedgewood Church removed the white tape to expose again the word “black.” A few days later their sign was again vandalized. This time an orange paper containing a handwritten message was attached to the church sign. It read: “How about the no-good gangster [the n word] who murdered my friend’s brother and wife. Should I respect them? Should I use my next shell on your sign or the gangsters? There [sic] names and pictures are all over the news.”
The note is signed, “Concerned Citizen.”
And a shotgun shell was taped next to the note.
The police were notified.
Then yesterday Chris posted this on Facebook: “Was not expecting this. I have been contacted by the person who vandalized Wedgewood Church’s sign. They have apologized and while not excusing themselves have provided some background information. I hope to have lunch with person next week and become good friends. I will not be doing follow up stories with media or contacting police for prosecution so as to give relationship best possible chance.”
Rev. Chris Ayers is responding pastorally because, yes, ALL lives matter. And he has a chance to meet with a child of God who needs a friend. But Chris and his church also continue to speak out prophetically with a sign that insists that yes, BLACK lives matter.
I have little confidence in the effectiveness of slogans. Jesus told stories instead. Even they were misunderstood. Actions speak louder than slogans—to rework a slogan.
Jesus and Jesus followers sometimes said with their actions, “You’ve been at the back of the line too long. You should go first.” You and I sometimes need to make our invitation very explicit and the rules of God’s realm very clear through shocking language and humble actions.
Those offended by the “Black Lives Matter” slogan view it as anti-white. I can sort of see how the person who vandalized the Wedgewood Church sign could read that lament for black lives lost as a biased statement against white victims of crime. A similar thought process might lead some people to object to our congregation’s Open and Affirming statement since we explicitly welcome LGBT folks. But so far no one has actually said to me, “Why isn’t your church welcoming straight people?” The answer to that seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it?
However, some in the larger community probably do wonder why Open Table creates ads and makes statements that single out LGBT folks with welcome–when we could certainly just say “everyone is invited!” These folks may be concerned that straight people will feel unwelcomed and uncomfortable by such an emphasis. But I think it is not a bad thing for someone in the majority position to feel uncomfortable. In fact, it’s my job to sometimes make some of us uncomfortable.
To whom are we going to issue special invitations to the OPEN TABLE? I suspect in coming years that explicit invitation list may grow.
We’re going to issue the banquet invitations as Jesus instructed us: making sure those whom others might not include at their banquet receive their invitations first.
All of us who help host Christ’s Open Table need to be sending out invitations. Each of us has a responsibility to extend literal invitations to a worship service or to our Free2Be youth group. And to issue less explicit invitations by being in relationship with people who need a friend, who are seeking spiritual nurture, who are grappling with the big questions, who are hunting for meaning and relationships and meaningful relationships.
Living invitationally is a natural outgrowth of Christ’s work in our lives. If your spiritual community is supporting you, challenging you, accompanying you . . . if you have been stretched in some sense through your church . . . if you have a deeper (not necessarily easier) faith life . . . if worship or discussion at or service through your church has expanded your vision of God . . . then you may have something to share with others. I’m not suggesting we preach to our co-workers or guilt friends who don’t go to church. I’m not recommending that you knock on doors in your neighborhood and hand out flyers about Open Table (although we have some great new flyers!). I’m talking about simply sharing in natural ways about something your church is doing that you value or some spiritual practice that helps you or some way of looking at the world that contributes to you becoming more generous maybe, or less afraid, or more compassionate. I’m talking about not being embarrassed to mention something you heard or thought about in worship last week with co-workers or by sharing a Facebook post from Open Table on your page.
You and I recommend good movies to friends, swap recipes, absolutely evangelize about a favorite restaurant or a massage therapist. Let’s be sure to invite to Open Table’s weekly banquet those who may think they are not included. This Gospel text has Open Table’s name written all over it.
As a white female, I realize there are in our culture many ways to calculate if someone is privileged or not. I also realize as a woman that sometimes our sin is not the pride of privilege—it’s the sin of subservience we’ve internalized. But when we invite others to the banquet and then when our guests arrive, we know clearly what to do: welcome all. We give up our seats for the guests others might not honor. We offer Christ’s welcome.
That’s not simply how we will grow as a church. That’s how we will grow spiritually as individuals through challenge and discomfort. And as a result, God’s kingdom on earth will come ever closer.
PRAYER: Thy kingdom come, O God. Amen