The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 17—Year C; Sirach 10-12-18; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
So, for anybody who started school this week, what did your teachers spend a lot of time doing this week? (pause) That’s right, going over norms, do’s and don’t’s, rules; they spent a lot of time talking about how the class would work. There are certain protocols that we follow to get along in this world; there’s just a certain way things work, especially when it comes to human relationships. And when we’re talking in terms of social situations, we call this etiquette. Well, this morning, Jesus goes all first century Emily Post on us—complete with instructions for the guests and the host on the occasion of a dinner party.
Jesus has been invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees (this would be a person of status and significance in that community) to eat a meal on the Sabbath (on occasion of great significance), and those gathering for this affair were watching him closely.
But Jesus was watching them closely, too, and he began to notice something. He noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, and he sees that a little correction is in order. But instead of calling them out directly, he chooses a more southern approach; he opts for telling them a parable, a good ol’ fashioned story.
“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.”
So, a little quiz for the guests. If you’re invited to a dinner party, where do you sit? Do you aim for the high place, the place of honor, or do you go low? (pause) Good, you go low.
Now, for the host. Jesus doesn’t go southern when it comes to the host; he tackles this one straight on. “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.”
So, quiz for the host. If you are throwing a luncheon or dinner, whom do you invite, those who can repay you or those who can’t? (pause) Good, those who can’t.
So, what is Jesus driving at here? Is he really only concerned with social norms when it comes to first century dinner parties? Well, yes and no. Who you ate with in the first century could land you in a whole lot of trouble. Doggone, who you ate with in the 1960’s could also land you in a whole lot of trouble—just ask the black and white students who integrated the lunch counters across the south.
Where we sit says a lot to the world. Whom we break bread with says a lot to the world. Jesus is concerned with the whole realm of human relationships; Jesus is concerned with how we connect to one another; Jesus is concerned that we see our kinship with all of humanity, and not just with those who can further our own status. And this isn’t just about raising up the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind—though it is about that—but this is also about the salvation of our own soul; this is also about the wholeness of our own being.
And that takes us to our passage from Sirach.
The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;
the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.
For the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations. Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities, and destroys them completely.
And then Sirach spells out the unheard-of calamities—overthrowing the thrones of rulers and putting the lowly in their place; plucking up nations by their toxic roots, and planting something much more humble, literally closer to the earth, in their place; nations laid waste, destroyed, removed, erased from memory. A pretty bleak picture.
And Sirach closes with a searing observation: Pride simply was not created for human beings, or violent anger for those born of women.
And where does this all begin? (pause) Not with pride, but with forsaking the Lord, withdrawing our heart from our Maker; it all begins with sin; it all begins with separation.
It’s actually a really vicious cycle—when we see ourselves as separate from God and from one another, we enter that never-ending, death-dealing cycle of comparison—“He’s just a little better than me; I’m just a little better than her.” And we start asking, “What do I need to do to improve my position? Who do I need to sit next to at lunch?” And that applies to grown-ups as much as it does to the school cafeteria. As Brené Brown says, “We start hustling for our worth,” and we forget that our worth is not on the table; we forget that our worth is not a commodity to be traded; we forget that our worth is a given, and not something we earn; it is not up for negotiation. And when we forget that our worth is our birthright as those created in the Maker’s image, then we start jockeying for position, our pride takes over, and nothing good comes of that, not as individuals, not as societies. Sirach is right, violent anger is the endpoint of this trajectory more often than not, and more separation, more sin is left in its wake.
That’s why Jesus is so concerned with where we sit and who we invite to the table. If we go for the high place, we don’t see those who sit below us because we’re too afraid that we’ll lose our position, and we certainly don’t see those who aren’t even at the table at all. When we only invite those who can repay us, then we have turned people into a means to our end. And when we can’t see the most vulnerable—the poor, the lame, the crippled, the lame—as honored guests at the table, then we haven’t begun to grasp how great and glorious and vast and deep and broad and wide God’s table is, and we will miss the essence of the feast that God longs for us to share—not just the feast of Isaiah, of well-aged wines and rich foods, but the feast of drinking deep of relationships with the whole of humanity and coming to see God gazing back at us in each and every set of eyes.
I don’t know about you, but this is a party I don’t want to miss. But if I cling to my pride; if I cling to my station, my role, my status, my position, I will do precisely that because you can’t see your connection with others when you are bent on proving you are better. For Jesus, it’s always a race to the bottom because that’s where all the trappings are stripped away and all you have left is the essence of God in you meeting the essence of God in another, and when essence touches essence, well, that, indeed, is to taste of the heavenly banquet.
So, today, Jesus is inviting us, both gently and not so gently, to think about where and how we are seeking the place of honor. Jesus is inviting us to consider whom we see and don’t see when we do that. Jesus is asking us, point blank, who is sitting at our tables? Are we dining in our own little echo chambers with people just like us? Sirach is calling us to examine those places where we have separated ourselves out from God and one another, and to see how that separation plays out as pride, and to roll that tape forward and see how pride leads to a whole lot of not good outcomes.
And then, Jesus invites us to imagine a different vision, a different table, a table of mutuality and reciprocity and connection and kinship, a table not based on repayment, but based on inherent worth and dignity and value that can’t be quantified or measured, but only enjoyed.
So, unsettling though it might be, sit in a different place, take a seat that lives you a different view, invite somebody to lunch or dinner that would hurt your image and discover the image of the Maker in the other that has been hidden from your eyes.
Reach across the great divides that would keep us apart in this community, in this nation, in this world—for those brave enough to try, a banquet of heavenly proportions awaits you. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
August 28, 2016