A New Community
Luke 14:1, 7-14
November 17, 2019
The scene that we encounter Jesus in today may take us back a few years to our childhood. It may take us back to a time that most of us have since tried to block from our memories because it is too difficult to revisit, too irksome to remember, too traumatizing to think about: the junior high lunchroom. Some of us still have nightmares about those terrifying moments of scanning the cafeteria on the first day of school, trying to find the right place to sit. Where you choose to sit will define you for the rest of your middle school career. Do you sit with the band geeks? The video game nerds? Do you sit with the jocks or the cheerleaders? The goth kids or the theater crew? And of course everyone dreams of sitting at the “cool” table, but some of us are socially aware enough to realize we don’t belong there.
I still remember being paralyzed by the monumental choice of where to sit in the middle school cafeteria my first few weeks of sixth grade. So I chose to sit by myself and do my math homework during lunch…yeah, I was one of those kids. Eventually I found my group, I found the kids who I was most similar to and fit in with. And I realized in hindsight that I never had as much of a choice of where to sit as I realized. I could’ve chosen to sit at the “cool” table, or the theater table, or the band table, but I never would’ve truly been accepted there, the way I was at my table of nerdy goofballs.
We learn from a very young age to be discriminate about who we eat with, who we spend time with and who we sit with. We learn quickly that we get along well with those who are similar to us. It doesn’t take long for most of us to learn, that some people are allowed at the “cool” table, and others are not.
In our passage today, Jesus finds himself at a dinner party that has all the social subtlety of a junior high lunchroom. Everyone is jockeying for a seat at the “cool” table. Back then it was called the table of honor, but make no mistake, it was the “cool” table! This was the social norm. “The popular kids”, or the city’s elite who occupied the upper echelons of society would earn spots at the front of the table by the host, the place of honor. The lower you were on the social rung, the lower down the table you had to sit.
Our author, Luke, tells us that as Jesus arrives at this particular dinner party thrown by one of the Pharisees, that everyone is watching Jesus closely. They want to see where he sits. Does he sit with the cool kids or the band geeks? Does he take a seat of honor? Which social caste does he sit with? But little do they realize, that Jesus is watching them closely, and he flips the game on them. Jesus notices how everyone invited is jockeying for a seat of honor and he shares a parable:
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give you place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in 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 table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
And then Jesus turns to address the host himself: “’When you give a dinner or banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you will be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, then blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.’
On the one hand, this is all very practical and charitable advice given by Jesus; humility is always the best strategy. Best to let someone else recognize your achievements than to address them yourself. It’s always better to share your wealth with others who can’t return the favor than to share it with others in order to benefit from them. It’s a good bit of practical wisdom. But Jesus isn’t in the business of sharing practical advice. Jesus is in the business of subverting the normal way of things and calling people to an entirely new way of living and seeing the world. If we think that Jesus here is simply trying to help us learn to be more humble or be more charitable, then we are missing the point of this story.
Jesus is invoking a new social order, a new way of being in relationship with others; Jesus is heralding a new kingdom come, and new way of being in the world. In his preaching Jesus calls this the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God represents the world as God intends it to be, in contrast to the world as it is. Jesus is calling us and these dinner guests into a new type of community, into a new way of being in relationship with each other.
We may smirk when we think about a junior high lunchroom, and how childish such social politicking is. We think to ourselves how silly it is for there to be a “cool” table. How silly is it that these social castes are formed based merely on what they have in common, like band, theater or video games. But then we realize that we’ve never grown out of this. The social politicking, the hierarchy of relationships and the “cool” table are not something we left behind in middle school. But they are something that pervades our entire society.
Most of us still only sit with those who are most like us. Our friends are those who look like us, think like us, talk like us. How many friends do you have who have a different skin color from you? A different political opinion? A different religion? A different sexual orientation? And this makes sense that we most often spend time with those who are like us. We bond with people through what we hold in common. It’s comfortable and easy to be around those who are like us and who have similar worldview; but this comes with many problems.
There is still a metaphorical “cool” table, and some of us are sitting at it, some of us aren’t. In today’s America, the table is set and places of honor are usually reserved for particular types of people: usually those who have lighter skin, those who make a lot of money and can afford a home, cars and health insurance. It’s usually reserved for those who are mentally and physically healthy, those who fit the gender identity and sexual orientation that our society says is “normal”.
Most of us in this room have a place at the head of the table; most of us have a seat of honor. And Jesus asks us what we will do with this honor, this privilege? Will we continue to sit in the places of honor, with those who also have a spot there, or will we choose to sit lower on the social rung, with those who do not share our social privileges? Will we choose only to dine and spend time with our friends, family and rich neighbors who are so like us? Will we choose to live according the kingdom of this world or according to the Kingdom of God?
Jesus, in this story, is inviting us into new ways of living, new ways of being in relationships. Jesus has a knack for taking ordinary things such as bread and wine or a dinner-time meal, and using them to invite us into sacred spaces. Jesus strolls into this junior high lunchroom scene and he says: “Let me show you a better, more fulfilling way of living and being in relationship with each other. No more social hierarchies. No more only being friends with those who are so alike you. No more fear of the ‘other’, of the one who is different from you. No longer are relationships a tool for climbing the social ladder and earning honor and benefit for yourself. I want to show you a more fulfilling way to live and value relationships.”
Jesus didn’t only talk the talk, but he walked the walk. He was the epitome of a man who didn’t play by society’s rules and social games. He spent most of his time with those on the bottom of the social ladder. The tax-collectors, the prostitutes, the Samaritans, the sinners. He touched people he wasn’t supposed to touch. He ate at people’s houses he wasn’t supposed to eat at. This drew outrage from the social elite, because Jesus, a Rabbi and renowned teacher, one who belonged to the upper echelons of Jewish society wasn’t playing the game properly. He didn’t sit where he was supposed to in the lunchroom.
Jesus didn’t care to live in such a socially stratified world. He knew we were created for something better. Jesus was there when God said let there be light and the world came into being. Jesus was there when God decided to create humanity from the outpouring of God’s love. Jesus, God’s Son, existed in eternal relationship with God the Father and God the Spirit, when they decided to create humanity in their image, in the image of their relationship, in the image of their love for one another. It is easy for us to forget why we exist, why we are alive. We try to create meaning for ourselves by means of success and social ladder-climbing, but Jesus beckons us to remember who we are and who we were created to be.
We are created in God’s image. There is a God-spark in all of us, a piece of God that shines forth for all the world, that is part of our DNA make-up. Created in God’s image, we are created to be relational beings. We can’t live without relationships. We can’t thrive without relationships. We can’t define ourselves outside of our relationships. Even our desire to create a social ladder and place ourselves on it is a perversion of our need to relate to others. It is our relationships that give us joy, that give us meaning, that motivate us to live a life of love, grace and forgiveness. Our God is a relational God, and as we are all created in God’s image, we were all created to be relational beings.
The Apostle Paul writes that we are God’s craftsmanship, created in Christ Jesus. Every one of us in this room is declared to be God’s craftsmanship. We are declared to be God’s work of art even before we leave our mother’s womb. We are declared to be God’s craftsmanship before we accomplish a single thing, before we achieve anything, before we learn how to navigate the social ladders and hierarchies. We don’t earn the right to be God’s craftsmanship, we are God’s craftsmanship.
And that person sitting across from you is God’s craftsmanship, created in God’s image. That person below you on the social ladder is God’s craftsmanship, created in God’s image. That man on the side of the road with a sign asking for money that you drove by on your way to church is God’s craftsmanship. That woman who mutters to herself strangely as she passes you on the sidewalk is God’s craftsmanship. That single mother who can’t afford enough food for her four children is God’s craftsmanship. That man who is in charge of our nation and bears the title “President” is God’s craftsmanship.
How often do we pause to think about others based on the fact that they are God’s work of art, rather than based on how they look, how they act and speak, how much money they have, how they dress or how they spend their time? The Kingdom of God is near and Jesus is inviting us into a new way of living, a new way of viewing others and existing in relationship with them that isn’t based on social class, looks, gender identity, sexual orientation, skin color or political opinions. We are called into this new way of living, not because we should be more charitable or learn to be more humble, but because we were created to live that way. Our souls break a little more each time we think of ourselves or others as “less than”.
Jesus paints a banquet scene where the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind are invited instead of the elite, the ones we are similar to, the ones we get along easily with. Now, this parable is often misunderstood. We have been trained to believe that the banquet is open to all because the lowly, the poor, the outcast need us. They need our help, our aid. But we get this entirely wrong. It’s the other way around. We need to be in fellowship with the poor, the cripple, the lame, the blind, the social outcast, the one who is different from us, not because they need us, but because we need them.
All throughout Scripture, it is the social outcasts, the ones who don’t quite fit in at the “cool” table who understand God’s heart the best. It is those who have learned to see themselves as God’s image despite the ways society has put them down that seem to have the easiest time seeing God’s image in everyone else. In Scripture, God rarely if ever recruits from the “cool” table. God’s prophets, leaders and compassionate souls who moved mountains and shook society were all deemed “less than” by their peers. God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. God has much to teach us through those our society shrugs off and does not offer a seat of honor to, if we are willing to listen.
This is why the church becomes so important. The church is beautiful not because of how good the music is, how extraordinary the preaching might be or how many events and programs are hosted…but the church is beautiful because of the people in it. Too often we forget this. The church is not a building, it is not a worship service, it is not preaching and singing. The church is a community of people who have come together to try to live a new way, a God-directed way, that is different than the way our society tells us to live.
Sunday morning worship, singing praise songs and hymns, hearing God’s Word preached is part of what we do as a church, but it is not our defining characteristic. Church is learning to live together in a new community that is being redeemed from all the social hierarchies, all the ways we try to label others and ourselves, all the ways we try to rank and classify each other. We are the body of Christ, and our communal life bears witness to the resurrection—it bears witness to new life, a new social order, a new way of loving, welcoming and being with one another. We come together as the church to participate in and experience the kingdom of God. This community of people embodies the kingdom of God.
And that means that coming to church on Sunday mornings is so much more than deciding whether or not you prefer praise songs or hymns, whether you feel like the sermon spoke to you or not; coming together on Sunday mornings is about coming to participate in a community of people who are being redeemed from the ways the world breaks us, and together we’re picking up the pieces and striving to live in a new type of community, a type of life together that cherishes and values everyone because they are God’s craftsmanship, created in God’s image.
That makes our fellowship time together after the service one of the most important things we do. Fellowship time, where we share conversation, stories, food and drink, this is not just some social hour after church. That is church. And I would argue that the time we spend together in the fellowship hall after service is just as important, if not more important than the time we spend in worship here. It is probably one of the few times during our week that we are put into a room with people who are so unlike us and who we might never have a conversation with outside this context. It is a God-given opportunity for us to encounter the image of God in new ways, in new people. It is not social hour with our friends, it is Kingdom-building with our brothers and sisters in Christ, who are all God’s craftsmanship.
Church, God is inviting us into a new community, a new way of living, a new way of being in relationship with one another, and that invitation extends beyond the walls of this building. It extends into our homes, our work places, our grocery stories, our cars. The Kingdom of God is happening all around us. And we are invited to experience it and participate in it. Amen.