Text: Luke 14:1, 7-14
Grace and peace be unto you from God who is our Creator and from Jesus Christ who is our Savior and our Friend. Amen.
Cafeteria scenes are a staple in movies about teenaged life. Our heroine walks into the cafeteria alone, looking for a place to sit. She approaches a table full of popular kids only to be rebuffed. Determined to change her social status she transforms herself into a beauty queen and becomes even more popular than the girls who rejected her. It’s a terrible message about value, obviously.
Alternatively, our nerd-hero sits alone in the cafeteria ignoring the popular kids who pick on him. A new kid arrives and our hero welcomes him or her to his table. Then they become best friends and take on high school together with many adventures. That’s a better message.
I’ve noticed that the more things change, the more they stay the same. As adults we don’t worry so much about popular and unpopular, but in a group situation in a restaurant, or a banquet, or in the Fellowship Hall after church, deciding where to sit is a thing. It always is. We really would prefer to sit with our friends or with the people who are fun to be around. Right?
It’s easy to welcome newcomers to worship and extend the right hand of peace when we’re all focused on the worship service. It’s harder to sit with a newcomer at coffee hour and give up that time we would otherwise have spent talking and laughing with friends. And yet our gospel lesson for today calls us to do just that, and more.
The society in which Jesus lived was extremely hierarchical. It was stratified. The rich and powerful and male were at the top, and everyone had their place. The poor, obviously, and especially women and slaves, were at the bottom.
It was indeed the custom of the time for the most important guests to be seated at places of honor near the host. In fact there is some evidence to suggest that guests were seated in different rooms according to their social status.
When I was in high school, for three summers in a row I attended a church camp run by the Nazarenes. This meant that in the evening there were revival meetings with fire and brimstone sermons that culminated in altar calls. Why was I at a Nazarene church camp? That’s a story for another day.
The story for today is that one year at church camp I worked in the cafeteria. The cafeteria was run by adults but staffed by teenagers, all of us church kids who didn’t have money and had to work to pay our way. I volunteered to work the VIP section because I had heard that at the end of the week, the VIPs gave the servers a nice tip.
I didn’t know until I started that being a VIP server meant working all three meals for seven days, and getting up earlier than the other kids because we had to set the tables, and staying late to clear them. I worked really hard for the privilege of being there “for free.” At the end of a long week the director handed me an envelope, the tip I had heard about and I opened it eagerly. It was $10.
I was so disappointed and disgusted and humiliated that my labor was valued so little that I cried. And then I wrote a letter expressing my feelings, and said that obviously they needed the money more than I did, and I gave the $10 back. It was my first experience of being taken advantage of because I was not well-to-do and it really hurt.
Now, you might be wondering, “Why is there a VIP section at a church camp?” and that’s a good question. The VIPs were the guest preachers for the week and camp directors and their wives (I say that intentionally). They sat in a separate room within the cafeteria, and they didn’t go through the serving line. We brought the food in to them on platters.
As the week went on, innocent though I was, I started wondering, “Why aren’t they sitting with everyone else? I bet the people here would like to talk with them.”
I had not been raised in a union family or with any kind of activist awareness about fair labor and yet I knew something was off. I did know the bible, after all, and having a VIP section at church camp was the opposite of Jesus’s parable that we heard today.
At the beginning of our reading, Jesus is just giving good, practical advice. He’s telling his listeners how to avoid embarrassment and to be esteemed in front of one’s colleagues. He says, “When you arrive at a wedding banquet don’t immediately go and take the best seat, right next to the host.”
That would be like going to a wedding reception today and ignoring the seating chart, and taking a seat at the head table right next to the bride and groom. Jesus continued, “Someone is going to say, ‘Excuse me, but you’re going to have to move. This seat is reserved.’ And you’ll be embarrassed.”
“Instead,” Jesus said, “go take the lowest place.” Maybe today that would be like sitting at the kids table, and then someone will come over and say, “Oh, you don’t need to sit here. Your seat is reserved at the table near the front.” And then you feel honored.
Like I said, good advice.
But then Jesus takes a turn, as he always does, and goes much deeper. He starts to preach about the Kingdom of God where everything is turned upside down and right side up. He went on to say, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner party, don’t invite your family, your relatives, your business colleagues, or your rich neighbors, because they are able to invite you back.”
And let’s just stop here and acknowledge that family, friends, and business colleagues are exactly who we invite to dinner or to parties! Let’s acknowledge that the people we want to hang out with are our friends, and inviting someone well-to-do and connected is smart business. If a VIP comes to our event, that’s good publicity and good for future business. Everyone does this.
BUT NO, Jesus continues, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Why? Because they cannot repay you! Because they cannot repay you! That is nonsensical, downwardly mobile thinking except in the Kingdom of God. And that is what we are called to do.
On a local or personal level Jesus’s teaching reminds us that we should always be looking around to see who is alone in a room, and sit with them, or invite them to sit with us.
It reminds us that people are not to be separated according to some sort of hierarchy of value assigned to them based on their finances or gender or abilities or where they were born. There are no VIP sections in the Kingdom of God.
And on this labor day weekend Jesus’s parable is a timely reminder that as Christians, let alone as ethical people, we are not to take advantage of the poor or the immigrant, in this country or in other countries, and pay non-living wages for hard work because we know they can’t get better work.
All of this leads me to say how proud I am of you, Knox Presbyterian Church/Thanksgiving Lutheran Church, for the event you are hosting along with Thanksgiving Lutheran/Knox Presbyterian, next Sunday. A Neighborhood Party. God’s Work – Our Hands.
Together we are hosting neighborhood party to which all are welcome. We are not looking for people to repay us. Finances are not a hindrance. Entrance is free, the food is free, and the music is provided. There will be a bingo section, but there will be no VIP section.
To let people know, we have a banner up on the corner. Anyone passing by can read it. But in order to reach all our neighbors, flyers were delivered to the apartment buildings near the church. And after church* several of you are going to/this morning, a group from Knox put door hangers on people’s doors.
The folks who come – and we really don’t know who will come or how many – are welcome to eat and drink and relax and enjoy because we want them to extend to them a taste of the grace of God. We would like our neighbors to experience a little bit of what it is like to sit at the table at the Kingdom of God where all are valued and none are turned away.
In the words of the prophet Isaiah [55:1] “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
No one will be asked to repay what they enjoy. Perhaps instead they will pay it forward. It’s your gift to the neighbors. It’s a free gift. It’s the grace of God. It’s God’s work, our hands. Amen.