Sunday, February 28, 2010

Seating Arrangements

Luke 14:1, 7-14
Hebrews 13:1-3, 15-16

My pastor in college used to say that the gospel according to Luke was “just one dinner party after another.” It seems true when you read through it. Jesus is ALWAYS eating with people in Luke. He is always at table with someone, and USUALLY that someone is the wrong person. It isn’t but a few verses past the portion that we read today that the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling and complaining that this Jesus is always sitting and eating with sinners. Apparently they have already forgotten that not too long before he was sitting at table with THEM.

When Jesus tells these parables we have heard he is sitting with all the “right” people, at least, in their own minds and in the social and religious pecking order. For once, he is sitting down with some “respectable” folks for a Sabbath meal. He is, however, anything but a picture perfect guest. Looking around at the people who have gathered, watching their behavior and their attitudes, instead of just sitting down or, more likely, reclining to share a meal among this cultured and learned gathering, Jesus decides to tell a couple of stories, some parables that comment on what he is observing. He holds nothing back – critiquing both about his host and the other guests.

The guests are enacting every dinner party host’s nightmare. Have you ever been to a wedding with a well-thought-out seating arrangement? Maybe you have even been behind that seating arrangement process. It’s not easy, deciding who should sit next to whom. Will it be a table of people who have known each other for years or a table of people who share the same interests? Will husbands sit next to wives or will couples be scattered around the table? It’s never an easy process setting up the seating arrangement for a party, and it seems that there’s always at least one person at every party who thinks he or she has a better idea, and the place cards start shuffling. The seating arrangement is knocked out of order.

Jesus sees these people already at work at the Sabbath meal. He notices that the guests are beginning to jockey for position at the table, rearranging the seats trying to make sure they are next to the right person, and, even more, importantly in the right position. Seating arrangements were very particular in Jesus’ time. The host or the honored guest had a particular place of honor, and everyone present knew the status of everyone else present based on their location at the table in relationship to the guest of honor. The closer you were seated to this guest, the more respect you deserved. As soon as they arrived at the party the Sabbath guests begin to try to rearrange the placecards to get themselves seated in the right place, a place of high honor, may be higher than they deserve Jesus warns.

Humility, Jesus’ story tells these guests, is far more important than honor in the sight of others. It’s better to put yourself at the bottom of the pile than to make assumptions about your worth over others. It’s better to show honor, show love really, to all others than to try to take that honor for yourself. The best seating arrangement is the one where you place yourself in service to others, thinking of their needs before your own, holding them in highest honor.

Jesus’ next comments are for the hosts of the party. The guest list, he says, is a bit off. “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.” Extending kindness to our friends is all well and good and enjoying the fellowship of those we know and love is wonderful in its right time, but true HOSPITALITY comes when it is extended well beyond our usual range of comfort, well beyond those whom we can expect to extend it back.

An introduction to the Canadian people by Tom Brokaw that aired during the Olympic coverage this week recounts a story of just this kind of hospitality. It caught my eye in particular because a close friend of mine was the recipient of the amazing hospitality and grace that was the subject of the story. On September 11, 2001, my friend, a seminary classmate, and his family were in the air somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean on their way back to the US when the Twin Towers in New York City were attacked. Like hundreds of other flights, theirs was forced to land in Canada when US airspace was closed.

This family found themselves, along with passengers and crews from 39 other flights, temporarily grounded in Gander, Newfoundland, a rural town of about 10,000 people. The story of welcome and hospitality my friend told was just as Brokaw reported it. This small town opened itself whole-heartedly to their unexpected guests, 6,600 unexpected guests. Passengers were housed in the school, and when that didn’t seem to be enough local residents showed up to take individuals and families home with them, not just for warm showers and hot meals, but even to stay in their own beds instead of on mats on the gymnasium floor.

Back in September of last year, when Tom Brokaw was in Gander gathering information for the story that just aired the mayor of Gander, Claude Elliott, commented on why this story was so interesting in his country and ours. He said, accurately I think, “American people are not used to people helping them and not want to get paid for it. They find this unusual.” I also believe the flip side is true. We aren’t used to offering help to others without wondering or asking “What’s in it for me?”

There was nothing in it for the people of Gander. They didn’t open their town and their homes because they expected financial reimbursement or even a chance for the same hospitality to be offered back to them. Their guests were from all over the country, all over the world, even, so they certainly weren’t expecting an invitation back to dinner from those whom they served. They offered their hospitality warmly, selflessly, and sacrificially with no regard for when or how they might be repaid, when or how the invitation might be returned.

This is the way Jesus calls for hospitality to be extended. In fact, Jesus and even as far back as the Torah, the Old Testament law, calls for hospitality that is even MORE radical than this. Not only are the people of God called to welcome travelers who are stranded at their doorsteps, but they are to go out and seek those who are outside of any usual positions of power, those who are purposely EXcluded from usual society, those who are injured, broken, shunned, and disconnected. These are the people God’s people are called to welcome. These are the people we are told to invite into our homes, our church, and our lives.

Hospitality, Jesus teaches, is not the Martha Stewart cooking, organizing, bed sheet ironing industry we often imagine. Hospitality is not about a mint on a pillow or a “free” pair of slippers when you walk into the room for which you have paid. Hospitality is about being open to the friendless, welcoming the stranger, making room for those who are different from us, and not trying to turn them into us, but letting them find out who they are in our midst, giving them space to be who God called them to be without threat of judgment or pressure for repayment.

Not only does Jesus teach this, but it is part of the ancient laws even as far back as Leviticus. “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God,” it is written (Lev. 19:34). It’s just that Jesus took this hospitality to a whole different level in his ministry. Besides the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, Jesus associated with all sorts of unsuitable people. In Luke he sits with tax collectors who cheat the public. In John he spends an inappropriate amount of time with a Samaritan woman with more than her share of male companions. Jesus lets another questionable woman anoint his feet. He makes himself ritually impure by touching lepers and the dead.

And apparently, he expects the same from us. He says as much in these parables. When we are the hosts, when we the church are opening our doors to the community and the world, our list of invitees isn’t supposed to look just like our membership roster. When we, his disciples are trying to serve others, our scheduled visits shouldn’t come from our Christmas card address list. Those we seek to serve in the name of Christ, should be those who are on no other lists, those who are forgotten, ignored, or even purposely shunned. That is the unique and challenging call of Christ.

And likewise, when we are invited to be the guests, we should never find ourselves to be like those guests at a wedding who presume to have a better idea than the host. We shouldn’t show up and try to change the seating arrangements to make ourselves look better. We should never be so mistaken about who we are or what honor we bring that we try to place ourselves in a higher position than another. The call to humility is the call to place others above ourselves.

Granted neither of these has ever been easy. Christians have been struggling with them from the origins of our faith. The believers in Rome, even just fifty years after Jesus death, were struggling with this as they waited for what they thought would be Jesus’ imminent return. In the letter to the Hebrews, the community is reminded to be strong and faithful in following Jesus’ example. Even they are already having trouble as they tried to figure out what it means to be the true community of Christ. Yet, the wise elder sends them this advice, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Let mutual love continue. Remember you are in this community, this church, together. No one person is any higher or better or more exalted than another. No one deserves more honor or respect. No one is more right or more holy or more important than any other, but instead each should humble himself or herself to the other. Don’t mess with the seating arrangement by trying to put yourself above others. Accept your seat. Even choose one below another and serve someone else for a while. Each should regard the others with such dignity and respect and love and honor that your love for all will grow and be sustained.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers. Send your invitations far and wide. Welcome those you don’t know, those who need the company and the meal more than any others you may usually choose. Invite the people who will never invite you back, so that when you serve it is out of love for God and for others, not because you hope or know you will be served in return. Let some new guests in to the table. Guests who have never tasted a feast like this before. Let them eat and be filled and know the goodness of God through your welcome and invitation without judgment.

St. Benedict lived in the 6th century and founded a monastic order whose monasteries and abbeys are still thriving today. Guests are ALWAYS welcome at Benedictine communities, with or without a reservation, with or without an explanation. Benedict, in his rule says, “A monastery is never without guests” and goes on to pose this challenged: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Presbyterian writer Kathleen Norris, who has made several stays with the Benedictines, writes that “if it regularly exercises enough hospitality so as to attract guests, it is a monastery. If it doesn’t, it is not.” (Amazing Grace, p. 263-264)

Could this not also be a description of a REAL church? “If it regularly exercises enough hospitality so as to attract guests, it is a church. If it doesn’t, it isn’t.” In the vision it discerned for this congregation, the session described our church at its best, as God is calling us to be, as a welcoming garden. In coming up with this description they reflected on the gifts we have been given, the things we do well and with a Spirit-inspired passion.

Hospitality is a call from God to each and every Christian, and it is one of our calls from God as a congregation - - to open our doors, our hearts, our minds, our lives to any and all who walk through them. It is a call to go out and seek those who are welcome in no other place to make sure they have a place at the table. Once they are here, once they are at the table, then we must remember that all of us are actually the guests. All of us are hosted by someone far more important, far more honorable, far more loving. Taking our seats as servants of one another, then and only then, can we worship and serve the living Christ among us.

May God’s gift and challenge of humility and hospitality be ever visible and obvious in our life together. Amen.

1 comment:

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