Ordinary 23C — September 8, 2013

No One Left Behind

Luke 14:1, 7-14 
(Gospel reading from Ordinary 22C preached on September 8)
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.
 7When 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; 9and 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. 10But 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. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12He 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. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Let us begin with prayer:  Oh Holy God, we know we are your creation, filled with value, fully loved and known by you.  Give us strength, we pray, to allow ourselves to be known and loved by others.  Through Christ, we pray.  Amen.
I’m not sure that every couple has this problem, but it’s been a big one for my husband and me.  Mitchell is a surgeon and I am a minister, so we move in quite different worlds during our workweeks and have friends with very different backgrounds.  We do not entertain often – maybe once or twice a year — so when we invite people over it’s impossible to limit the guest list to only “my friends” or “your friends” or even “our friends.”  Our parties usually end up being a big mishmash of guests, most of who have very little if anything in common other than being friends with one of us. We’ve hosted stockbrokers, bagpipe players, therapists, college professors, seminary students, teachers, attorneys, stay at home moms, physicians assistants, secretaries, ministers, doctors, rich people, poor people, white people, black people, Chinese people, hipsters, vegans, vegetarians, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, kids, babies, teenagers, college kids, little old ladies, gay people, straight people, atheist, Hindu, Christian, Jew – very often all of them at the same time, in the same house, occasionally watching Steelers football which, I must say, is the great social equalizer and spiritual unifier on Sundays in Pittsburgh.  I am pretty sure Jesus will let me get away with saying that this week because everybody knows that God is a Steelers fan.  

Well, maybe not this year.
But it’s always risky business.  When you throw different people together as haphazardly as we do, there’s always the risk that the polite Emily Post dinner party we envisioned can devolve into something more like a fiasco.  There’s always the distinct possibility that somebody is going to say or do something that causes an impolite quibble. Even when I limit the liquor and try to head disaster off at the pass with a whispered warning to potential troublemakers while collecting coats. 
But sometimes the best-laid plans go awry. Like when the attorney for a school district got into a heated debate with a high school teacher who just happened to be the head of the local teachers union.  That was fun.  Or when the president of a synagogue met up over the buffet table with a pro-Palestinian seminary student who had just returned from Israel.   Those are the sort of evenings when I wish I had required our guests to wear a nametag with their name, rank and serial number and a list of acceptable conversation topics that won’t lead to mayhem over the Buffalo wings.
But you know whom I really would think about leaving off the guest list?  Jesus, that’s who.  Because Jesus doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy who reads Emily Post.  Jesus doesn’t innocently wander into uncomfortable conversations. Jesus creates uncomfortable conversations. In fact, you can’t invite Jesus anywhere in the gospel of Luke.  He always manages to make a scene when he shows up for dinner.
For example, in chapter 5 of Luke, Jesus goes to the home of Levi for a big party with a guest list including tax collectors and other offensive sinners.  This sketchy gathering stirs up all kinds of issues for the Pharisees who end up calling Jesus and his friends a bunch of drunks and gluttons.  Then, in Luke chapter 7, Jesus is at another dinner party and this uninvited crazy lady shows up.  Most people would send such an unwelcome guest out the door, but Jesus lets her cry all over his feet and it’s all so embarrassing and sort of weird that the Pharisees end up madder than hornets.  A couple of weeks ago, we saw how Martha and Mary practically got into a fistfight when they invited Jesus to dinner.  And of course, in Luke 22, at the last dinner party Jesus hosted, he ends up getting betrayed, arrested, and dragged off to prison in handcuffs, bringing an otherwise very pleasant evening to a very abrupt end.
Even though he has proven himself to be just about the worst party guest ever, Jesus has been invited – again — to a Sabbath dinner at the home of a Pharisee and from the get go Jesus is not behaving as the sort of guest who hopes to be ever invited back.  Jesus does not really care much for small talk.  He does not bite his lip or hold back on offering an opinion, especially an opinion that is apt to tick off his host.  Instead Jesus quickly hones in on the dining customs of his hosts and Jesus decides he doesn’t much like what he sees.  Because what Jesus sees is a social hierarchy in which everyone knows their place based upon the seat they are assigned at dinner.  The most important people in the group, the people holding the highest honor, are seated on the right and left of the host.  The host didn’t necessarily have to like those people seated next to him; those were simply the seats for the guests who called the shots in the community. 
And Jesus begins innocently enough by saying that nobody should come into a dinner party assumingthey’ll receive the seats of honor.  That would be, I don’t know, sort of show-offy and nobody likes a show-off, even Pharisees. No, Jesus says – better to be humble and head for the peanut gallery rather than to automatically go to the head of the table and risk looking like an idiot when somebody asks you to move.  You can imagine the guests who hear this parable murmuring in polite agreement with Jesus.  After all, there’s nothing controversial in feigning humility.   In fact, everyone thinks it’s kind of charming when someone important or famous demonstrates how very humble they are, really.  It’s like that section in People Magazine: “The Stars – They’re Just Like Us!”  They go to the grocery store!  They take their kids to the playground!  They go to baseball games!  They carry their own luggage through the airport!  Everyone admires important people who pretend they’re not really as important as everyone thinks they are.  Even if nobody actually believes that Ben Affleck carries his own suitcase through LaGuardia Airport.   Really, if you were Ben Affleck, would you carry your own suitcase?
Everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled.  And those who humble themselves will be an exalted.  It’s all a little game for these Pharisees.  Jesus knows that it’s all an act.  Jesus knows that while he’s watching the social maneuvering of the party guests, the Pharisees are watching him closely– again – to see how Jesus behaves.  This isn’t about who sits where at dinner.  It’s about the larger power structure that Jesus has been poking at since his first sermon back in Nazareth.  And the Pharisees are watching Jesus and wondering:  has Jesus decided, finally, to play along?  Has Jesus decided to behave like a good rabbi and stop coming so dangerously close to upending a carefully constructed hierarchy?  Is Jesus going to keep making trouble for the guys who already have the game rigged in their favor?
Well, it is Jesus we’re talking about here.  Jesus is that terrible dinner guest you regret inviting because he ends up ruining everything.  The guest who insults the cook and informs the host that the people at this party are no fun at all and he needs to find some better friends.  
Who does Jesus tell us to invite?  The poor, the blind, the crippled and the lame.  And this is where Jesus gets in trouble with the Pharisees – again – and with most of us if we’re being honest.  This is the part of the story where we become either defensive or…well…even more defensive.  Because who does that? Who invites the most feeble people you can imagine to a party?  Who invites a homeless guy to their house for dinner?  I spent most of this week feeling really defensive and sort of put out because I would much rather give away all my possessions and go live like a monk in a cave than invite people I don’t know to my house.  Jesus is really asking too much of us here, isn’t he?
Then it came to me.  Jesus isn’t talking about the dinner party he wants us to give.  He’s talking about the dinner party we are called to receive – that great and crazy banquet God throws for all of us.  All of us who are truly are, deep down, blind, lame, poor, insecure, frightened, broken and dysfunctional people who waste enormous amounts of energy pretending that we are not.  All of us who need to stop depending on something, anything, everything outside of ourselves to tell us who we are.  We are all invited guests at God’s table of grace, whether we like the other people at the party or not.  If you’re going to have dinner with Jesus, the food will be incredible and the wine will never run out, but you will also probably find yourself at the table with other people with whom you’d never choose to have a meal, much less an eternal banquet.  That’s the great joy of the kingdom of God and also the great pain in the butt of it.
The film Little Miss Sunshine is the story of a girl, Olive, who has been chosen as a finalist in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest. So she and her incredibly nutty family head off for an 800 mile road trip to the pageant in a Volkswagen van that barely works.  In fact, in order to get the van moving, the family has to push the van until it reaches a speed of 20 miles per hour and then they all jump in and turn on the engine.
Olive is a chubby little girl with big glasses. At one point Olive says: “I don’t want to be a loser because Daddy hates losers.”  Olive’s father is a failed motivational speaker and most of what he says in the movie consists of clichéd aphorisms that make fun of people for being losers. The irony, of course, is that it’s absolutely clear to the audience that Olive’s father is a total loser and by most standards, so is the rest of the family.   When Olive’s father says, “There are two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers,” the camera pans round the people in the van: his foul-mouthed father, his suicidal brother-in-law, his son who refuses to speak, his exhausted wife who is trying to hold them all together, and himself, the failed businessman.
But there’s a great moment in the film when the family discovers that Olive isn’t in the van because they’ve left her behind at a gas station. We see the van moving across the screen in one direction and the whole family whisks her up into the vehicle without stopping because at this point, if they stop they won’t be able to restart the van at all. Then we hear the father’s voice: “No-one gets left behind, no-one gets left behind.”
And I think that’s sort of the point that Jesus is making in this parable he unloads on the dinner guests.  In the kingdom of God, no one gets left behind.  No matter how broken.  No matter how difficult or annoying.  Which means that gotta reach out and pull one another in and then hold on for dear life in this broken down, sputtering old van that we call the church. 
It’s like that game people sometimes play when they’re on a boring road trip.  You know this one.  If you were able to invite three people to have dinner with you, living or dead, who would you pick?  That’s always a hard one.  Since you’re in church, you’d probably pick Jesus as one of your guests.  Then maybe George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.  Maybe Ben Affleck.  Who knows?
But if Jesus were playing the game, you’d ask:  “Jesus, if you could invite any three people to dinner, alive or dead, who would they be?”  And Jesus would reply, “That’s easy,” and go on to give us a full glimpse of who Jesus is and who he cares about.  “The poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.”  “But Jesus, that’s four!  You only get three.”
“Oh in that case, the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, your mother, your jag off brother, that guy you can’t stand at work, Bashar al-Assad, Barack Obama, Mother Theresa, Mister Rogers…”
The list goes on.  And on.  And on.  When Jesus throws a dinner party, the guest list is everyone. And that’s good news for us.
Jesus is establishing a new humanity that has no place for our insecurities and hang-ups and prejudices and craving for order.  That is why Jesus was so frightening to those who had a stake in keeping the higher ups high and the lowly low.  That is why those who were invested in a social pecking order – which, of course is all of us — eventually put Jesus to death.  But this is the Jesus who came back and lifted his hands up in an eternal blessing, inviting all of us to a new vision where there is enough for everyone, no first or last, no honor or shame, just us, bound to one another in God’s abundant love and grace.  So we can show love and give all we have — even to those who have nothing to give us in return. 
Thanks be to God.  Amen.