a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
August 23, 2020
Luke 14:1, 7-14 NRSV
1On 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; 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.’
I have been thinking a lot about myself lately. In fact, I have been thinking about how wonderful I am and how much I deserve. I remember hearing at one time about how in heaven we were going to get crowns with stars on them. I really think I am so wonderful I should have a crown now. I wish you all were here in person to see and tell me how wonderful I am.
As I was thinking about how wonderful I am, how it is all about me, whatever it is, I thought of inviting everyone over to a dinner party so that everyone could admire me up close and personally. But of course, COVID and the fact I live in a small apartment where you would not all fit at one time so I would have to decide whom I really want to come. I asked for some advice from some of my friends who are in business, who have these kind of parties all the time and they suggested I focus on those people who can do something for me in return. You know, networking is important in this day and age. And if it is all about me, why hold a dinner party that isn’t going to benefit me?
Then I talked to some people in the church about who I ought to invite. Don’t take this wrong, but a couple of people suggested that a few of you are not very good cooks, so I might not want to invite you because if I get a return invitation I might be sorry. Someone else warned me that some of you didn’t really like me too much and might refuse my invitation, which would embarrass me. Another person said that some of you have pretty poor table manners, so I shouldn’t invite you or I might be embarrassed by your behavior. It’s all so hard, trying to figure out who qualifies and who doesn’t. But I really like the idea of inviting people over who can help me out, or will invite me over in return. So I have to work on this guest list.
Maybe Charlemagne had it right, though. You remember Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. He was the one who united the power of the throne of France with the papal power of Rome? According to Will Durant, in his biography of Charlemagne he was pretty wonderful, too. “He could vision large purposes, and could will the means as well as wish the ends. He could lead an army, persuade an assembly, humor the nobility, dominate the clergy, rule a harem…. He was six feet four inches tall, and built to scale. He had blond hair, animated eyes, a powerful nose, a mustache but no beard, a presence ‘always stately and dignified.’ He … kept in good health despite every exposure and hardship. He often hunted, or took vigorous exercise on horseback. He was a good swimmer, and liked to bathe in the warm springs.” But Durant says, “He rarely entertained, preferring to hear music or the reading of a book while he ate.” Maybe this whole entertaining thing is too complicated. Maybe I ought to just listen to music or read a book instead of holding a dinner party. Or maybe just set up a mirror across from me so I can gaze at myself while I eat. I certainly am not going horseback riding or hunting. Then again, I am not 6’ 4” or blonde either. Never mind. I do like a hot spa pool though.
Jesus was a guest at the dinner party in Luke’s Gospel, the fourteenth chapter. He certainly was no model guest. He was poor, so he couldn’t return the host’s honor of an invitation. He wasn’t particularly polite. He insulted the other guests, criticizing them for social climbing. On top of that he shamed the host for inviting them, suggesting that the host ought to invite a bunch of lowlifes and bums and sinners no one with any class would be caught dead rubbing elbows with.
Mental note, don’t invite preachers to dinner, they make dreadful guests! Oops, did I say that out loud? I didn’t really mean it, of course. Most of us are wonderful conversationalists, would never dream of saying something impolite or insulting, and remember that old saying: inviting the pastor to dinner is next to godliness. At least, that’s how I remember that old saying. Then again, maybe don’t invite, I mean, after all: COVID! [Shrug]. Anyway, where was I about that dinner party with the leader of the Pharisees?
Well, that Pharisee wasn’t exactly without his own agenda was he? Luke says that they invited Jesus over on the Sabbath and they were watching him closely. Probably were waiting to see if he would commit another sin by healing on the Sabbath like he did for that bent-over woman in the synagogue just the week before. Sure enough, Jesus breaks out with another healing. This time it was a man with dropsy. I’m not sure how he even got into the party at all, since he was sick but maybe the host didn’t know or maybe he was the token sinner. Anyway, Jesus heals the man and then goes on to criticize the dinner crowd just like he did last week at the synagogue. How rude!
If you ask me, it sounds like the way a good cafeteria food fight gets started. You remember how that worked in junior high? You insult someone, they insult you back and the next thing you know the Jell-O is flying. I remember my first food fight in junior high. I was just a witness. The girls at the table behind me were starting to get loud. Then they were getting louder. Before I knew what was going on I was wearing the steamed spinach from one girl’s tray on the back of my head and the girl who threw down first was getting a tray cracked over her head. It only got better from there. By the end of it, tables were turned over, people were scrapping and sliding around on the floor and food was everywhere. I promise you I was not a participant, at least as best as I can recall. Nobody there was the least bit concerned with manners, etiquette or rules, I can tell you that.
But in today’s lesson Jesus sounds like he’s giving lessons in etiquette or how to work the system to get to heaven. If that’s all it is then we’ve just reversed the rules, but we’re still playing the same old game on how to get ahead. Some Christians are already playing that game. It’s like the game, “the one with the most toys at the end wins?” Only it’s kinda religious. The one who does the most religious – ish things wins heaven? It’s a bit of sketchy list these days if you ask me, and it never seems to include tithing 10%, but still. A lot of religious-ish folks seem to think following Jesus is just like the individualism of our culture with a whiff of charity. So it raises the question, is following Jesus just a matter of learning the right rules to win the game? Or is it finding out we’re playing the wrong game? Do we need to go back to school to learn how to win cafeteria fights?
Dr. Gregory Jenks suggests that what Jesus called “The Kingdom of God,” – what I prefer to call the “reign of God” - is “not one’s ultimate concern but that which undermines one’s ultimate concern.” In other words, the Kingdom isn’t our goal, it is what redirects our goals. The kingdom isn’t a place but the activity of the Holy Spirit to point us toward a different reality, to imagine a different way of living. In effect it is like saying, can you imagine believing that honor comes by honoring others, rather than by being honored? By lifting up others rather than myself? That by choosing to be last and servant of all it actually makes you the greatest of all in God’s eyes?
That could change the whole dinner party list, couldn’t it? Maybe I ought to start thinking less about who can help me and thinking more about who I can help? Maybe even better, I should remember how Alcoholics Anonymous defines humility. Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. Maybe if I wasn’t always thinking about myself I might be less worried about the things I worry about, like who is satisfying my needs? Like who makes me feel better? You know it might be easier to be less concerned about who is good enough to be at my dinner party and just have the party. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what God does every Sunday.
Richard Fairchild writes, “Who are we thinking of when we come to this house of God?” [ Of course, in these times “come to the house of God” is not literal. We must think about what we are doing when we invite God into our house. Now maybe that is even more important, huh!? ] Fairchild goes on to say, “And who are we inviting to come with us? Who are we reaching out to and letting know about the wedding banquet of God’s Son? It is only our Savior Jesus Christ who can give life in its fullness. That’s in my heart and that most surely is in yours - or you would not be here today. But are we thinking mainly about ourselves and what we can receive here today? Are we more concerned about what we may or may not receive from God this morning than we are about the fate of the rest of the family of God?” Is our worship more about empowering us to be a blessing to others or more about whether we are satisfied with the blessing we think we deserve?
Maybe when I start thinking about myself I might need to remember another part of Charlemagne’s story. It may or may not be true historically, but it surely is true. I have read the story more than once that at Charles’ death “a tremendous funeral procession left his castle for the cathedral. When the royal casket arrived, with a lot of pomp and circumstance, it was met by the local bishop, who barred the cathedral door.
“Who comes?” the Bishop asked, as was the custom.
“Charlemagne, Lord and King of the Holy Roman Empire,” proclaimed the Emperor’s proud herald.
“Him I know not,” the Bishop replied. “Who comes?”
The herald, a bit shaken, replied, “Charles the Great, a good and honest man of the earth.”
“Him I know not,” the Bishop said again. “Who comes?”
The herald, now completely crushed, responded, “Charles, a lowly sinner, who begs the gift of Christ,” -- to which the Bishop responded, “Him I know. Enter! Receive Christ’s gift of life!”
The wonderful thing about Christ’s gift of life is it is a gift we all can receive. We don’t have to fight over it who gets it. So maybe we can stop thinking about ourselves so much and focus more on being a blessing than getting a blessing. AMEN.