Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sermon for August 29th: Luke 14:1, 7-14

What’s in it for Me?

As I began my Bible study in preparation for this sermon, I was confronted with this question in the ‘Serendipity Study Bible’: ‘If you could have the best seats in the house, what would you choose: Super Bowl? Rock concert? Philharmonic orchestra? Indy 500? Royal Wedding?’ For me, having recently attended the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, that was an easy question to answer: I’d like the Golden Tarp at the 2011 Festival!

For those of you who haven’t been initiated into the mysteries of the Folk Festival, seating at the main stage is rather rustic: we bring tarps and low chairs and set them up on Gallagher Hill. If you want a seat really close to the front at the main stage, you probably have to line up at about seven o’clock in the morning, and most of us don’t have the time to do that. However, there’s a way of jumping the lineup. Each year there is a raffle, and one of the prizes is the ‘Golden Tarp’ for the following year: the winner gets to be the first person on the hill every day and can put down his or her tarp wherever they want, before anyone else gets a chance!

I’ve never had a lot of success myself getting close to the main stage, but I’ve done quite well at some of the smaller stages – usually by going to them quite a bit ahead of time. Fortunately for me, no one has ever come up to me and said “Someone more important than you is here: give them your place!” With some of the more popular smaller stages, that would probably mean going an awful long way back!

In today’s Gospel Jesus has a lot to say to people who always want the front seats – in other words, to people who want the best deal for themselves and don’t care who they displace in order to get it. Whether they are going to a dinner party put on by others, or throwing a party themselves, these folks are not actually thinking about the other people at all. Rather, their first question is always “What’s in this situation for me?” Let’s refresh our memory of the story.

Jesus went to dinner at the house of a prominent Pharisee. Let me remind you of two things about these dinner parties. First, these were not private occasions. The doors of the houses were left open all the time, and it was not uncommon for the curious to wander in and out while the meal was going on, especially if well-known people were there and it was likely that there would be interesting discussion and debate. And this leads to the second thing about these parties: in the Gospels, they are often occasions for teaching and the discussion of issues.

Jesus tells the dinner guests two parables, one about not taking the highest place at a banquet, the other about who you ought to invite when you yourself give a dinner party. In each parable, self-interest is Jesus’ target. In the first parable, he warns against using the banquet as an opportunity for others to see how important you are. In the second parable, he warns against issuing invitations to your party out of self-interest: “If I invite Lord so-and-so, then I’ll get an invitation to his party in return – cool!” In both cases, gatherings that ought to be occasions for human companionship and fellowship are spoiled by self-interest.

So let’s think about what Jesus has to say about lining up for the last place. Apparently St. Francis of Assisi was once invited to a meal with the Pope and many other important church dignitaries. Of course in those days before photo technology people were less familiar with the faces of celebrities, and when Francis turned up at the door of the Vatican in his ragged brown robe, the doorkeepers thought he was a beggar. So they sent him round to the kitchen to take his place with the other beggars. Francis didn’t complain; he went joyfully as usual, and was soon having a good time with the folks in the kitchen.

Meantime there was consternation at the high table; where was the guest of honour? Eventually it was discovered that Francis was in the kitchen with the beggars, and a message was sent that he should come to the banqueting hall. He did as he was told, sat down with the guests at the high table, and immediately began to share with them the scraps he had gathered on his beggar’s plate!

Obviously St. Francis was a person who had no problem taking the last place in the pecking order – in contrast to the people Jesus is aiming at when he warns us in his parable: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour” (v.8a). Of course, we don’t very often see this happening in a literal way; I’ve never attended a wedding reception in which someone has marched up to the head table and sat down there, only to be told a few minutes later “Madam, I’m afraid this seat is reserved for the wedding party!” Nonetheless, the attitude behind this action is widespread. Let me point out to you two common manifestations of it today.

The first is the inability to sit back and be part of the crowd. You know what I mean: there are some folks who just have to be up front all the time. They can’t just be ordinary members of the group; they have to be visible, they have to be leaders, so that people can look up to them and they can feel important. Leadership, when it’s offered genuinely, is a real gift to a group. But the hunger for leadership, so that we can be recognised and looked up to, is poisonous and dangerous for the group and also for the person who wants to be a leader.

The second manifestation of this attitude is less obvious; it’s when we’re always wondering what others are thinking about us. Some people are so insecure that they are constantly worrying about whether others will like or approve of them. It’s as if they’re constantly checking a mental mirror, to see how they look in the eyes of others.

The root cause of all this, of course, is insecurity and a low sense of self-worth. We have an empty, aching space inside; we’re not sure if we’re loved, if we’re valued, if our life has any significance. We need others to reassure us of these things all the time. The trouble is, we can’t rely on them to do it, so we have to engineer situations that prompt them to do it for us.

The good news is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes down like rain on the dry field of our insecurity. The vital word in the vocabulary of this Gospel is the word ‘Grace’. Grace is God’s free and unconditional love for you and for everyone else he has made. You don’t have to earn it, you don’t have to deserve it; it comes as a free gift, and nothing can change that. As Philip Yancey says, grace means that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less; God already loves you infinitely, and nothing can ever change that.

So – Jesus is inviting us to trust in God’s love for us and to relax in it. Don’t rush to get the first place! Of course, don’t rush to get the last place either, if your motive is to get someone to invite you up to the first place in the end! No – the Christian way is not to think about precedence at all. Rather, relax, enjoy the feast, share God’s love freely with the people who happen to be around you, in the secure knowledge that you are loved by God and nothing can ever change that – especially not the trivial matter of whether or not others recognise you for the celebrity that you actually are!

Let’s now go on to think about Jesus’ second parable, in which he discusses invitation as a form of grace. In June 1990 the Boston Globe told the story of an unusual wedding reception. A woman and her fiancée had arranged to have their wedding reception at the Hyatt Hotel in Boston, and as they had expensive tastes the final bill on the contract came to over $13,000. But on the day the invitations were to go out, the groom got cold feet and asked for more time to think about things. When his angry fiancée went to the Hyatt to cancel the reception she found that she could not, unless she was willing to forfeit the vast majority of what she had paid.

It turned out that ten years before this same bride had been living in a homeless shelter. She had been fortunate enough to get a good job and get back on her feet. Now she had the idea of using her savings to treat the down and outs of Boston to a night on the town. So in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken – “in honour of the groom”, she said – and sent invitations to shelters and rescue missions throughout the city. That summer night, people who were used to eating out of garbage cans dined on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’ouevres to elderly vagrants propped up by crutches and walkers. Bag ladies and drug addicts took a night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big band melodies late into the night.

For this jilted bride to be, this unusual dinner party was an angry response to the collapse of her wedding plans. For us, however, Jesus is inviting us to embrace it as a way of life. Look at verses 12-14:

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you will 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”.

This parable cuts me to the heart, because I have to admit that most of my social interaction is chosen on the basis of my own enjoyment. “I’ll go and visit so and so – that’s always enjoyable for me”. But Jesus is inviting me to make those decisions on the basis of unconditional love. I don’t think Jesus is literally condemning every family party or quiet dinner between friends. Rather, he’s challenging us to look for creative ways of reaching out to those who have no friends and no status in society at all. I find it interesting that the literal meaning of the word ‘hospitality’ is ‘love for the stranger’.

A friend of mine who was the rector of a church in a small Alberta town became aware that there were many lonely people in that town on Christmas Day. So he posted signs and issued invitations to any who had no family or friends in town to come and join him and his family for Christmas. They were welcome to come to Christmas Day service at the church, and then afterwards come over to the Rectory for sherry, mince pies and conversation. Over a dozen people accepted his invitation, most of whom were unknown to him before.

I wonder who you know who could benefit from a social invitation – perhaps a cup of coffee, or an invite to dinner? It might not be someone you would naturally think of inviting, or someone who could pay you back. What might be the best way for you to reach out to that person?

Fund raisers discovered a long time ago that it’s easier to raise money if people can get their name on something – a brass plaque on a pew, or a list in a book. At the River City Shakespeare Festival here in Edmonton, they have humorous Shakespearean names for different categories of donors – and of course the people who give the biggest gifts get the most recognition.

In this passage Jesus is offering us a vision of a different way – a way of freedom from our slavery to self-interest. If we live by his vision, we can go to a dinner party without quietly asking ourselves “I wonder how I can get people to notice me and admire me”. Instead we can concentrate on listening to others, loving them, and building them up. Or we can throw a dinner party and initiate social relationships, not for what we can get out of them, but for what we can give to them.

For some of us it might seem an impossible dream to think we could ever be that free. I put myself in that category; I’m well aware that my fundamental sin is self-centredness, which is why these parables hit me so hard. But I have met people who live in the way Jesus is inviting us here to live, and their lives challenge and inspire me.

So we don’t always have to be silently asking the question “What’s in this for me?” Rather, because God loves each one of us out of pure grace, we also can learn to live our lives in the same way, and discover in it the way of freedom, joy, and love.

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