Luke 14:1, 7-14
1 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.
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “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; 9 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. 10 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. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12 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. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
School buses have been rehearsing their routes, teachers are preparing classrooms, parents and students are filling backpacks with supplies and readying themselves for the school year routines. At this time of year, whether I’m in school or not, memories of my school years come back to me.
For instance, I remember that on the first day of 7th grade, I had convinced my parents that I absolutely had to walk to school really early, about an hour before the first bell rang. I don’t remember exactly what I did between 7:30 and 8:30 in the halls of Willmar Junior High School, but I remember it was important. I knew my friend Jon was getting dropped off early by his parents before they went to work, and others would get there early, too. I couldn’t be left out. I knew that crucial work would get done during that early time in our school; not homework or organizing the books in my locker, but the work of establishing social position.
Oh, I didn’t understand it in those terms. But I knew very well that it mattered who I talked with before school, or more to the point, who people saw me talking with. Maybe it’s different at Sanford Middle School or other schools where some of you will soon spend a lot of your time this year, but when I was in 7th grade, one’s social network meant everything.
And then an even more crucial moment during the day was when the bell rang for lunch period B and I walked to the cafeteria. I remember that first day carrying my tray and scanning the room for a place to sit, not just any place, but the right place, a place with significance, a place that would help things go well for me for the rest of the year. I imagined that the eyes of every single student in the lunch room were on me as I looked for my place and that where I chose to sit would determine not only where I would sit the rest of the year but also what they all would think of me. I felt everyone was evaluating me. As I think back on it, I’m ashamed at how I, too, in choosing my spot, was sizing everyone else up in that moment.
Someone once said, “I don’t believe in reincarnation because I can’t imagine a loving God would make us go through 7th grade all over again.” I sympathize with the feeling behind that statement, but though I wouldn’t quite put it that way. For one, I have to say there were some really great things about 7th grade, too. But more important, this worry about finding your place isn’t just a middle school phenomenon. Have you had a similar experience at a work lunchroom table? Or a wedding reception? Or even here at church? I have heard from people that walking into this Community Room after worship at Holy Trinity can be a scary experience. Everyone seems to know each other. Everyone seems to already have a place. At least it can seem that way to newcomers. No, it’s not just 7th grade where we might worry about our place.
At a youth gathering last summer, we heard Pastor Emily Scott describe how her eyes were opened to how the school lunch room culture plays out on a larger societal scale. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York, her apartment building, filled with middle class tenants, was not seriously affected. Across the street, though, was a public housing building where some of the most vulnerable in the city lived. The storm flooded the basement of those houses, knocking out the electricity, heat, and water. Residents had to move up to higher levels, waiting out this disaster. Days went by. On Day 7 there was a blizzard and the temperature dropped. And the worst part was that some who were older couldn’t get down the stairs to get groceries and other supplies.
Pastor Scott helped a group of neighbors in knocking on doors to see if people were okay and to distribute supplies, but during the eleven days that the building was without utility service, she had the sense that these residents had been forgotten. It seemed that to many in the city, they just didn’t matter as much, that there place in the community just wasn’t as significant. The hurricane had revealed to her and many others the terrible gap in our country between rich and poor and that a system that worked well for her didn’t work for everyone.
When we keep our eyes open, we see that this kind of injustice exists in our own communities, too. As Pastor Scott says, recognizing the gap that exists between us will break your heart. We know this divide should not exist, no more than social cliques should permanently divide up a middle school. And in seeing it, we all want to close the gap. Yet overcoming these injustices is more than any one of us can accomplish on our own. No number of good deeds of charity can bring about the systemic change that is needed to bring equality. There is no simple solution. We all need to come together for the kind of transformation we need.
So as we continue to wait for and work for change, in the meantime Jesus keeps inviting us to the table together. At the table, we receive again and again a vision of how God’s world is intended to be. Each of us, no matter our experience or circumstances, is invited to the same table, and that’s how the reign of God starts to break into the world as it is. When each of us is given a space at the banquet of Christ, we are set free from having to worry about where we or someone else will sit. We’re set free from having to size people up or worry about what value others will place on us. And then rather than watching one another closely to see where people are and who deserves which place, we can instead watch for the presence of the resurrected Christ at work among us. We can look for a glimpse of Christ in someone we thought was a stranger.
Imagine how our world might begin to change if, freed from the need to arrange ourselves, we looked for Christ at every table.
During a visit last week to St. John’s Abbey, I was reminded of an old story about another monastery. The community of monks was tucked away in the middle of a forest somewhere, and years ago it had been known as a place of peace and healing. Visitors would seek it out and eagerly make the long journey there for personal retreats. Over time, however, fewer and fewer people were visiting the monastery. The monks who lived there had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited.
The Abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and he poured out his heart to his good friend, a Jewish rabbi named Jeremiah. After hearing about the situation, Jeremiah told the Abbot that he had received a vision. He said that in his vision the messiah was among the ranks of the monks. The Abbot was amazed. He raced back to the monastery and shared his exciting news with his fellow monks.
The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s faces. Was this one the Messiah? Was that one? From that day on the mood in the monastery changed. Enemies reconciled. Petty competition ceased. The monks began serving each other, looking out for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offence had been given. The word soon spread about the remarkable spirit of the monastery. People once again made the journey and found themselves renewed and transformed. All because those monks knew the Messiah was among them.
It’s in this way that I hear in the Gospel reading today not just good advice about social etiquette but a vision of God’s reign breaking into our world. The truth is, Christ is among us. As we leave our places at this table today, we can also look for Christ at every other table in our world.