September 1, 2019 Worship Sermon - "Table Manners"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Proverbs 25:6-7, Psalm 112, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus gives some advice for dinner parties. He tells us how to behave when we are invited to a dinner and who to invite when we are hosting a dinner. What Jesus says is pretty radical, and after reading it, I wonder how many more dinner parties Jesus got invited to.
One thing to realize about society in those days: status was everything. Our society is pretty stratified economically, but in those days, it was much, much worse. Slaves were non-entities, no better than beasts of burden, while nobility could do whatever they pleased and get away with it. So, you really didn’t want to be at the bottom of the totem pole. Life was much harder there.
Dinner parties were one very important way to improve your status within the community. It was kind of like a fraternity… or at Princeton, where they have these things called eating clubs. You share a meal with a group of people who have influence in society; you form relationships with them; and that helps you establish your own position in society. Sales reps do this all the time… they wine and dine potential customers in order to get their business. And, of course, lobbyists do the same thing.
So Jesus is at the first century equivalent of the Rotary and when it comes time for people to sit down, it’s like musical chairs; everyone is pushing and shoving to get the best seats. Now, that kind of behavior could easily backfire: if some nobody presumes to sit next to the guest of honor, he risks extreme embarrassment if the host tells him to give up his seat for someone else.
So, in order to avoid that kind of social humiliation, Jesus advises us keep close to the ground... not to strive for the kind of social status that could very easily collapse from under us. That's not such bad advice. Don't be presumptuous and you won't be disappointed.
But then Jesus pushes the point even further. Instead of hanging out with people who can improve our lot in life, Jesus tells us to hang out with the poor and the disabled. This isn’t about charity. Jesus isn’t telling his disciples to go out and do something nice for weak people. He’s telling them to take the weakest members of society as their friends. This is about community.
It takes a very secure person to put what Jesus is saying into practice. As soon as we start associating with the outcasts of society, we put ourselves at risk. It’s much more tempting for us to seek out people who can help us climb a few rungs on the social ladder.
It takes a very secure congregation to put what Jesus is saying into practice. It’s much more tempting for us to seek out people who can help us pay the electric bill. There’s just one problem: that’s not the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is people from every segment of society - rich and poor - powerful and weak - everyone receiving an invitation to come to God’s dinner party.
If you want a wonderful glimpse of God's dinner party, consider the life of Jean Vanier, a Roman Catholic theologian who died earlier this year. Jean Vanier was the founder of a network of communities for disabled men and women called L'Arche. At one time, Vanier had been a high ranking officer in the French Navy. But when he was stationed in Paris, he visited a sanitarium where 80 disabled men were warehoused by a society that had no use for them. These 80 men spent the whole day walking around in a circle in the courtyard of the sanitarium. Vanier was so moved with pity that he invited two of the men to move in with him.
That may have started out as a kind of charitable act, but what Vanier quickly discovered was that the disabled men were transforming him in a very profound way. They were helping him to get in touch with his own weakness and vulnerability. For years, Vanier had lived as a soldier, where competence and efficiency and rank were everything. The slightest sign of weakness could undermine his credibility as a powerful leader. Now, these men were helping him to become less competitive and more human… more tender and loving.
Then Vanier had an epiphany. These vulnerable men – weak and useless in the eyes of society – reflected the vulnerability of Jesus. We think of Jesus as this powerful wonder-worker; but Jesus is also weak and vulnerable. Jesus hangs powerless from the cross. He cries out to Peter, "Do you love me?" He stands at the door of our hearts and knocks, patiently waiting for us to invite him in. Jesus is vulnerable; and Jean Vanier found that in these two disabled men he experienced his deepest connection to Jesus.
This experience inspired Vanier to found communities centered on people with disabilities all around the world. L’Arche communities are not places where strong people come to take care of weak people. They are places where everyone shares and learns from each other. People with obvious disabilities and people whose disabilities are not so obvious: they form friendships and teach each other what it is to be human. They experience the “mutual love” that we read about in Hebrews.
That's what this community is called to be. We are not a community of religious elite inviting the lowly to join our club; we are the lowly – every one of us is vulnerable in one way or another. We are the lowly and yet we have been exalted by God’s love for us. We have been invited to sit in a place of honor at God's banquet. Welcome to the feast!
Christ Lutheran Community Church
Christ Lutheran Community Church