One of the finest sermons (especially in light of the context) I've heard in a long time...especially the last two paragraphs, which reduced me to a pile of spiritual rubble. I'm blessed to be serving at a church where the gospel is being proclaimed in all its messy fullness. Thanks for the Word, Pastor Chris.
Pentecost 13C—August 29, 2010
Rev. Christopher D. Olkiewicz
Windsor Heights Lutheran Church
What would happen if the North Pole and the South Pole were reversed? Well, among a lot of other really ugly things, your compass would no longer work. Magnetic north would become south, and south would become north, and you would need a new compass to navigate this new reality. It’s something like that that Jesus is up to in today’s gospel reading. And it’s something like that that Jesus is up to because it is what God is up to in the world - reversing the poles, turning things upside down.
“On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.” There is no better recipe for conflict than that. Jesus, who has gotten into all kinds of trouble for doing unauthorized things on the sabbath, is invited to have dinner with a group of Pharisees, with whom Jesus has been constantly arguing, on the sabbath. If Jesus dines with Pharisees on the sabbath, you know sparks are gonna fly.
Further we hear that the Pharisees are “watching him closely.” You get the feeling that this is a kind of setup—that Jesus’ opponents are trying to trap him so that they can point their fingers and wag their tongues (and maybe worse).
The guests at the banquet are all (or mostly) Pharisees. We can assume this because in the ancient world, invitations to banquets were given to people of the same social rank. Your identity and your place among your peers were legitimated by being on the guest list. I’m not sure that dinner parties in our time are so much different. We tend to invite our friends, family, and people who are like us into our homes for dinner.
As this gathering of Pharisees comes together, Jesus notices how they are jockeying for position at the table, angling for the places of honor, because where you sat at the table said something about your importance. So Jesus tells a story. Look out! Sparks are about to fly.
“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 . . . [for the host] may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.”
At first this sounds like pretty conventional wisdom. Don’t assume too much for yourself. Don’t take something that needs to be given to you. You might embarrass yourself. It’s good advice like that of the first reading: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” One of the most important virtues of the ancient Mediterranean culture is always staying one step behind your rightful place, so that you don’t appear to be too self-absorbed or overly ambitious.
But Jesus is hardly offering conventional wisdom. He does not say, “Stay one step behind your rightful place.” He says, “Go all the way to last place.” “When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place.” That kind of self-humbling behavior is not expected. Humility, in fact, was regarded by the Greeks as a vice rather than a virtue. Jesus is turning expectations upside down.
Then he turns to his host, a leader of the Pharisees. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends (like we do) or your brothers or your relatives (like we do) or your rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return.” Again that’s the logic of his culture: reciprocity is expected. Whenever somebody did a favor for you, it was expected that you would do a favor in return. Those were simply the rules of the culture to which Jesus belonged. But notice that he does not say, “Play by the rules.”
Instead, “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Need I say these were not the sort of people one was expected to invite to dinner, because they couldn’t do anything for you in return. Furthermore, to invite people who were not your social equals would have been social suicide in Jesus’ day, because you will be shunned by your peers and won’t get any more invitations to their banquets. Jesus is turning expectations upside down. In fact, Jesus is turning the whole logic of his world - all the rules by which day-to-day life operated - upside down.
What’s going on here? Jesus is throwing conventional wisdom out the window in favor of a new wisdom, a new logic - the wisdom of God’s kingdom. He’s trying to replace the rules by which daily life is governed with the rule of God. Jesus has come on a mission to declare a divine reversal, to declare that God is turning things upside down in the world.
Let me remind you of the very first thing we hear about Jesus in Luke’s gospel. His mother, Mary, signs a song about what God is up to in sending Jesus into the world. Sometimes this song is called the Magnificat (“my soul magnifies the Lord . . .). Mary goes on to sing about God:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the
thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with
and sent the rich away empty.
If Luke’s gospel were a musical, this would be the opening theme song that declared what the whole show was about. Jesus has come to proclaim a divine reversal: the last become first—the least, the lost, the lowly, the losers, are invited up to the highest place. This is the gospel, the good news: God has reversed the poles. North has become south. Everything has been turned upside down. You can go on using your old compass, if you wish, but ultimately it’s not going to work, because there are new rules to live by in God’s rule. The last shall be first and all are welcome whether or not they can repay. God has changed the rules, so why not start navigating life with a new compass now?
Biblical scholars like John Dominic Crossan argue that the very earliest Christian movement began to grow because the community of believers dared to navigate life with a new compass. They dared to live as though the reign of God was really at hand. Resurrection stories in the Greco-Roman world were a dime a dozen, he argues, so the story of a God who died and rose again would not have been novel enough to attract outsiders. Rather, it was the way the community lived that attracted attention, especially their way of practicing a radical hospitality where all were welcomed and valued for who they were, independent of their rank or status or ability to repay.
The witness of our forbearers, it seems to me, is a challenge for the church today. As we think about everything that we do - worship, programs, groups, communications, website, etc. - we need to ask ourselves the question, “Who is this for?” Do we do the things we do as Windsor Heights Lutheran Church primarily to keep our current members happy and dropping checks in the offering plate, or do our activities focus on the needs of people outside the congregation? Do we seek to recruit new members because they are key to the ongoing economic viability of the place, or because we value them for who they are - whether they can “repay” or not - and because, like Jesus, we desire for God’s house to be full as a sign of the coming kingdom?
If our activities mainly focus on meeting the needs of members, then essentially we are being led by the desire to be repaid. Jesus calls us to invite to the banquet those who cannot repay us. Might this mean that we are being called to engage in ministries that primarily serve people who are not associated with the church? Jesus does not ask his followers to build a club where members are rewarded. He invites us to give ourselves away for the good of others, as he, thanks be to God, has done for us. May this be the compass we use to chart our course as a community of believers.