The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
15th Sunday after Pentecost
August 28, 2016
Luke 14:1, 7-14
As a priest, I love doing weddings. Weddings are right up there with baptisms on the joy-meter. People are happy. It’s a big party. People are coming in from out of town. I love doing weddings.
Wedding receptions though, well, not so much. Because no one ever quite knows what to do with the priest at the wedding reception. I get awkward handshakes and mindless small talk from people I’ve never met. Usually about how they are ordained online in some sketchy church or how they trust organized religion. It’s worst than that, though. People are the dance floor hesitantly look over their shoulder to see if I’m condemning them or not. And where do I sit? That’s the big question. No one wants to sit next to me at a wedding reception. I call my priest collar, “friend repellant.” So do I sit near the bride and groom? Do I sit at the table that is obviously the one full of the “leftovers” on the guest list? Or do I sit at the table with crazy Uncle Bob to, you know, keep an eye on him and make sure he doesn’t grab the microphone during the toasts? No one quite knows what to do with me at a wedding reception, and everybody is always very glad when I leave. I can feel the collective sigh go out of the room, “whew, the priest is gone. Now we can finally party.”
See, it’s all about status. Where do we fit in? And where do we rank ourselves compared to everybody else? Where do I fit in? Where do I sit? What’s my standing? And I know it’s not just priests that deal with this. And it’s not just at wedding receptions. It’s at work, where you are ranked and compared against your colleagues. It’s at school, when they publish your class rank. Part of the awkwardness, and really the difficulty with living in a society, is trying to figure out your status. Your place.
Clearly, from this story about Jesus this morning, this is not a new problem. People in society have always, since the beginning, tried to sort out exactly where they fit in. What their status is.
Our Lord Jesus is at a Pharisee’s house for a meal. And he notices everybody jostling and jockeying for position. Just like today, people want the good seats. They want to be first in the buffet line. They want to be near the host. Because the better the seat, the higher the status.
Jesus’ words about this very human ritual of picking a place to sit at meal aren’t just about custom. It’s not just about being kind and letting other people have the best seats. Jesus is not commenting on proper wedding etiquette. Jesus does not presume to be a Dear Abbey letter. No, what Jesus is talking about is nothing less than the Kingdom of God. A Kingdom in which there is no status. A Kingdom in which there is no jostling or jockeying for position. A Kingdom in which the powerful are thrown down and the lowly are lifted up. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Considering humility and exaltation is not an exercise in abstract thought. Think about the new subdivisions popping up around here. They are very clearly marked, houses from the 150s, from the 250s, from the 400s, from the 500s. This neighborhood has a pool, this neighborhood is behind a gate, this neighborhood has a gym. Developers don’t advertise houses that way because it just happens to be convenient. No, developers advertise that way because it’s an incentive for us to “get ahead.” To get into the next house. To go one up. To prove to everybody else that we have some status. To exalt ourselves.
And car makers do this, too. New models come out every year, not because there are breakthroughs in technology, but because it’s a way to get us to buy again. Because they know, that when we roll out of the car dealership in a brand new car, it’s not about the new car. It’s about the status that we’ve just claimed for ourselves.
Developers and car dealers are working on our egos because they know we want to exalt ourselves. We want to sit at the places of honor. We want the newest, biggest, and greatest not because it makes us feel good about ourselves, but because it shows everybody else how great we are. Those who love their titles, their positions, their money, at the resurrection, on the last day, they will be humbled. As the letter to the Hebrews says, “keep your lives free from the love of money.” It doesn’t get much more direct than that.
Jesus goes on, “when you give a luncheon or a banquet, 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.” For those of you who might be planning a wedding soon, perhaps this is an opportunity to think about your guest list. Jesus is giving you permission to not invite the priest. It’s totally cool.
Jesus says, “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.”
For the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the Kingdom of God is undeniably good news. For the refugee crossing dangerous terrain fleeing a repressive regime, for the battered woman who has nowhere to turn, for the kid with the cancer, for the employee kicked to the curb, for the single mom working two jobs, Jesus has good news. Though they have no status in this world, they are exalted in the Kingdom of God.
The exalted are humbled, the humble are exalted. And in Houston, we have both. In 2015, Houston was ranked as the best city in the United States in which to build wealth. But it’s also true, that 38% of Houston children live below the poverty line. The humble and the exalted.
And so the Church has two things to say. First, it is our responsibility, our Christian duty, to welcome strangers, to show generosity to the needy, and to disregard the cost. It is our responsibility to follow our Lord’s words and to care for the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind without regard to the cost; without hoping to ever be repaid. Our repayment will come at the resurrection of the righteous. That will be far greater than all the riches of this world.
And second, in our culture that incentivizes upward mobility, that pushes you to grasp after more and more, in our culture that has tricked us into thinking that we never have enough, the Church says, “you are enough.” You are enough. You don’t have to claim any greater status for yourself because you already have a status that is glorious and holy. When you were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you were given a status as God’s beloved child, and that matters far more than the square footage of your house, or the model year of your car, where your kids go to school, or the title on your business card. So you can quit it. You can quit jostling and jockeying for position. And you can start working on your downward mobility without regard to the cost.
For if our hope is in this world only, we are to be most pitied among all people. But if our hope is in the Kingdom of God, then all our fears have already been conquered, all our anxieties have already been overturned. You don’t have to worry about which table you are going to sit. You don’t have to worry about when you’ll be called for the buffet line. For at the great heavenly banquet, with Jesus and the all the saints, there is only one table. And there is only one meal. And there is no status other than the status of God’s beloved child. And everybody, everybody, is invited to take their place. So come to the table, put away your jostling and jockeying, and take the place given to you by Jesus.