For August 28, 2016
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When you’re pastor of the Lutheran Church in Athens, Ga, where the population of the town is 115,000 and the capacity of the college football stadium is 93,000 (which means everybody is town is there on game days – 93,000 in the stadium and the rest cooking out in the parking lot), and it’s the week before your alma mater, the UNC Tar Heels, will play the UGA Bulldogs – well it’s time to ease the tension with a probably not true football story.
I heard this story from a football coach over in Alabama. He said that when Shug Jordan was coach at Auburn, he called up a former player and asked him to go to a high school game in his town and see if there were any players that Coach Jordan should recruit. Mike said, “I’d love to help, but what kind of player are you looking for?” Jordan replied, “Mike, you know when you go to a game, there’s always that fellow that gets knocked down and stays down?” Mike said, “We don’t want that fellow, do we coach?” Coach said, “That’s right Mike, we don’t. And Mike, you know there’s that fellow that gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and stays down?” And Mike said, a little hesitantly, “We don’t want that fellow either, do we coach?” “No, Mike we don’t. Then there’s that fellow that always gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and gets up . . .’ Mike got excited, “I know, I know. That’s the fellow we want, ain’t it coach?” Coach Jordan sighed and said, “No Mike. We don’t want that fellow.” Now Mike was really confused, “Well, who do we want Coach?” And the Coach Jordan shouted over the phone – “Mike we want the fellow who’s been knocking everybody down!”
Today’s Gospel lesson is about the question, “Which fellows do we want?” At one level it’s about which fellows we want at our table, in our home, as our friends, on our social calendar. On another level it’s about which fellows does God want us to want – not only in our personal lives but also in our communities. Put another way, it’s about who is included in God’s love and therefore should be included in our love and in our community of faith.
First, let’s look at verses 7-11: “When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘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; 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. 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. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This echoes our reading from Proverbs 25: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’, than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”
Luke’s Jesus turns our assumptions about God and goodness upside down and inside out. Over and over again, Luke shows us Jesus proclaiming that most people are totally mistaken about who’s in and who’s out; who’s acceptable and who’s expendable; who’s good and who’s bad; who’s a saint and who’s a sinner, who’s saved and who’s damned. Jesus teaches that what it means to be a “Child of God,” has nothing to do with our pedigree and everything to do with God’s gracious propensity for love. Over and over again Jesus teaches us this; we are servants, not masters; we are to wash one another’s feet; we are to take the last place, not the first; we are to see in the least and most despised the real face of Jesus our Lord, our Christ.
It is only when we recognize that all places at God’s table are places of honor that we become willing to accept and enjoy whatever place God has chosen as the right place for us. We are all God’s chosen people, serving God in the place where God has placed us. If we sit around wishing we were someone else, doing something else, in some other place; we can miss the joy of being who we are, doing what we’re doing, where we are.
In verses 12-14 we move on to Jesus second parable; this one aimed at the host of the dinner:
“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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”
The importance of this story is not so much about who we invite into our homes, though it wouldn’t hurt most of us to invite some folks from outside our comfort zones once in a while. Jesus is really addressing the issue of who is to be welcomed into the presence of God, who is to be considered acceptable in the church. When Jesus says, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind,” his Jewish audience would have remembered that Leviticus 21:17-20 makes clear that those who “have a blemish” are not to “draw near” to God. No one who is “blind, or lame, or has a limb too long, or a hunchback or a dwarf, or an itching disease or scabs.” Jesus message is this: “This is a totally different community than you thought it was, and the standards for admission are completely the opposite of what you thought they were.”
The question for us today is simple: Are we ready to follow Jesus’ lead? Are we ready to be humble servants and are we ready to be radically inclusive in admitting people to God’s church and to God’s table? These two sayings of Jesus are held together by the fact that all of us in the church are both hosts and guests at the banquet of the Lord.
We are all of us poor, lame, blind, undeserving strangers, sinners whom God has invited in. And we are also all of us hosts at this banquet; those who have the duty of inviting and welcoming other poor, lame, blind, undeserving strangers and sinners to the feast.
I have a file full of little notes and quotes people have given me over my forty years of ministry. Here’s one a teenager gave me at a youth retreat twenty years ago. “The greatest joy any Christian will ever receive will be when we all sit together at God’s great Messianic banquet and someone looks across the table at us and smiles and says, ‘Thank you for inviting me.’”
Amen and amen.