August 29, 2010
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Almighty God, the breeze of your love and grace is ever blowing; may our hearts be lifted by that breeze, and may it inspire these words and those who hear them. Amen
When I was in the third grade my family moved from North Carolina to West Virginia, and I found myself as the “new kid” in the class. Being the new kid is always a little bit daunting, and this time, was no different. I missed my old friends and the only house I had known and my grandmother, but I began to make new friends and to adapt to a school where kindergarten through high school was on the same campus and we had a whole hour of recess at lunch time. And I really liked my new teacher, Mrs. Montgomery. Well, except for one thing: she kept talking about something she called “reseating” and I had no idea what she meant. She made it sound important, monumental even, and whatever it was would happen when we received our report cards. I was mystified, but I was also embarrassed to ask any of my new friends what she meant.
Come mid-year I found out. One cold snowy morning Mrs. Montgomery had us all drag our desks out of the neat straight rows they were in to the back of the classroom, and then she proceeded to instruct us in where to replace them—this was the mysterious “reseating;” you know, re-seating, getting new seats? Some how I had never made that connection. And it turns out that reseating was based on our grades; yes, in third grade, we were being lined up by our class rank: the child with the highest grades overall sat in the first seat in Row 1, and the child with the lowest grades was in the last seat in Row 4.
Of course, in third grade we hadn’t yet become too concerned about our grades, but we did understand that somehow where Mrs. Montgomery had us place our desks said something about us. And it became clear that being in Row 1 conferred some status, while being in Row 4 bordered on shameful.
I did make it into Row 1, although never into the first seat; after the first week or so, where we sat didn’t’ seem to matter that much unless our teacher made a comment about it. I admired the boy who sat in row 1, seat 1, but for reasons that had more to do with his sense of humor and friendliness than where he sat. And I always felt a little sorry for the girl who ended up in the last seat in row 4. Sandra had Down Syndrome, although we didn’t know enough to call it that. She was in our class because there were no special education services in the small school system, and she simply was passed on to the next grade every year. Sandra was friendly and cheerful, but I can’t help but wonder if she too didn’t sometimes feel the shame and stigma attached with her seat.
I hadn’t thought about third grade and “reseating” for a long time, but when I read this week’s gospel it was the first thing that popped into my head. I expect that Mrs. Montgomery, because she genuinely seemed to care about her students, meant reseating to be motivational, to prompt us to work harder; whether it actually served that purpose I don’t know, but I do know that for me at least, reseating was my first exposure to the notion that our gospel revolves around—the notion that that position matters.
Position matters—literally where you sit, and figuratively how your ‘standing’ is assessed by others matters—in our culture and in Jesus’ time. Being at the front of the line, at the head table, in the corner office matters. Status and honor and place matter.
At least to us. But to Jesus—not so much.
Jesus you see doesn’t see things the same way we do. For Jesus what matters is first of all being a child of God. What matters is loving God and loving others. Jesus doesn’t think more highly of us if we’re in Row 1, seat 1; Jesus doesn’t care if we’re in the corner office or stuck in that windowless cubby next to the elevator. In fact, Jesus might seek us out more quickly if we are at the end of row 4 or in the stuffy cubbyhole.
That’s a hard lesson for us to hear, it runs counter to the way we know things work in the world; like Jesus’ followers we live in a culture that is wont to rank order, compare, and judge. Prestige and honor and wealth matter.
Or do they?
When Jesus is at dinner with the Pharisee, he watches as the guests take their seats, and he sees them jockeying for position. And then as he reflects on their behavior he offers two sage pieces of advice for those who would follow him, those who would seek the kingdom of God.
First, he says, don’t immediately take the best seat, or even the second best. Instead go to the end of row 4, and maybe later you’ll be invited to move up. At least you won’t suffer the humiliation of being asked to move down; and really, it doesn’t matter anyway.
As startling as that might have been, what Jesus says next must have been even more jarring: When you invite guests, don’t even think about whether they can reciprocate. In fact, you should invite those you know CAN’T reciprocate: the poor, the hungry, the homeless. Invite them to the table; give them a seat of honor—because THAT is what the kingdom of God will be like. That is what the kingdom of God IS.
Jesus in not just playing Miss Manners; he’s concerned with far more than dinner parties and wedding feasts. Jesus is talking about LIFE. No matter what hand we’ve been dealt in this world—a world where then as now things never seem to come out equal and fair, we are all beloved children of God and we are called to love one another—not abstractly, but in our actions, every day. And if we’re among the lucky, the fortunate—as most of us are—it is all the more important for us to look out for those who are at the end of the line. We’re not called to judge them, we’re not call to blame them for their fate; we’re not called to tell them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. No, we are called to invite them to the table as our brothers and sisters in Christ; we’re called to feed them and care for them and we’re called to work for justice, and to right the wrongs in the world that make it so easy for people to end up at the end of the line.
Because in God’s kingdom there won’t be a head table, our desks won’t be in neat rows. In God’s kingdom all the tables will be round, and all the plates will be full. In God’s kingdom, the only status that will matter is being God’s beloved child.
We don’t have to wait for God’s kingdom either. God’s kingdom is not just in the bye and bye—it is NOW – not complete, not finished, by any means, but it’s here; it’s here in that wonderful already-but-not-yet way, shimmering on the horizon and experienced in glory in those moments when we are able to live just as Jesus calls us to live— when we forget about earthy status, earthly prestige, earthly honor; when we invite everyone to the table to be fed and cared for and loved. Because in God’s kingdom, that’s what matters.