Sermon: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the last week or so, I read in the newspapers about the death of Leona Helmsley. Do you remember her? She and her husband Harry were New York hotel operators and real estate investors who amassed a huge fortune. She had a reputation of controlling, tyrannical behavior toward those who worked for her, earning her the nickname of “The Queen of Mean.” There was even a movie by that title made about her life. Perhaps the most famous story about her came from her trial on tax fraud, when her housekeeper quoted her as saying, “We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”
Now, before we launch into mental condemnation of such an attitude, let’s not get carried away. After all, it’s very easy to look at such a situation, and think smugly how WE would never behave that way! We would certainly treat people better than that, regardless of their social station. We would use that much money more kindly and generously during our lifetime, and dispose of it in a more virtuous manner afterward to boot!
But before we start that sort of self-righteous line of thought, let’s take a deep breath, and listen again to Jesus in this morning’s gospel.
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...
This still sounds like common behavior at a social gathering, doesn’t it? Some things haven’t changed in 2000 years. These are the manners we’re taught, most of us, practically from the time we’re old enough to feed ourselves. That’s why most folks are reluctant to be the first in line at the buffet, or to take seats at the table until the host or hostess indicates how things should be arranged. This is why some people use place cards, especially at large receptions-- and no one would dream of plopping down at the head table at a wedding, unless one were specifically told beforehand to do so.
However, it’s too easy to fall into that trap away from simple social situations. It’s too easy to feel more righteous than perhaps we should when we compare ourselves with others around us. Any of these sound just a little bit familiar?
“We’ve been members for years, so we’re entitled to have our opinions carry more weight.”
“We’re new, and can see things with a fresh perspective, so we’re not stuck in ruts and bad habits.”
“I’m younger, so I can understand better the way things need to be, unlike some clueless old fogey.”
“I’ve dealt with adversity that has made me a better and more caring person; someone with a comfortable life is probably more selfish and arrogant.”
Amazing, isn’t it, how we measure ourselves against one another? How we seem to need to be better than someone, in order to be acceptable?
But Jesus turns that around. He reminds us that we need to give greater consideration to those around us... and he doesn’t just mean at the banquet:
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
That’s the first reversal we hear in this passage: How we find our proper place in this world might have less to do with how important we think we are, than how important we allow others to be. And that affects in turn how important we allow God to be.
So, how do we do that? One way, perhaps, is shown in what happens next in this story. Jesus turns to the host, and offers another, more surprising reversal of custom and culture.
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors... But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
Hardly how we usually plan our guest list, is it? Keep in mind here the way the first listeners of this story might have heard it. This was a culture where misfortune was seen as deserved, where birth defects or disabilities were thought to be due to sin and part of God’s judgment. The “usual” people, the socially acceptable and the elite, would know of them of course; but they would not have been part of their regular social circle at all.
Now, think of the last people you’d think to invite into your home. This might be someone you simply can’t stand... or maybe you envision a convicted criminal of some sort.
Or maybe, perhaps, there are folks that you simply haven’t thought about at all. Those who are not normally on your radar, in a given context.
Think about this for a moment... and then, bring it back home. We have a banquet, a feast, right here in this church almost every week. Who have you invited to the party lately? And who have you not invited? When have you hesitated, and why? Was it because you thought they might not fit in? (That’s not up to us to decide, remember). Or was it because you didn’t want to seem pushy? Or because you were nervous about what they might think? Isn’t the place of God in our lives worth sharing with those around us, at least as freely as we do other opportunities for connection and relationship?
Perhaps it might help to remember that we all have also been the poor, crippled, the lame, and the blind, in one way or another-- and we’ve already been given the invitation, in Jesus’ name.