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Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 28, 2016

When I was a little girl, my mother taught me how to write thank you notes. She insisted that handwritten notes be sent for every gift I received. It was a pain, but I did it. There was no email to make it easier (I let Evan get away with that) and you didn’t cross my mother. As I grew up I saw the value of saying thank you. You established a deeper relationship with that person by telling them how valued they were. The height of my thank you note writing came as I was cranking out the wedding thank yous. I had received a set of candlesticks that were mismatched – yes deliberately – and I was unsure how to respond. I finally wrote a note that said I was a rather traditional person and Bruce liked a more contemporary style, so the candlesticks were a good match. I heard through the grapevine that the giver loved our note. It made her feel good, which was the purpose of the exercise.

I didn’t just learn how to write thank you notes. It was a rite of passage for most of the teenagers in my circle to go to Lucas’s studio of ballroom dance and learn the social niceties of adult behavior. I learned how to introduce people to one another – the older to the younger – to do basic ballroom dances with reluctant boys and to go through a receiving line. My mother was determined to make sure we absorbed the correct etiquette of the day so we could function properly in society.

It looks like Jesus is teaching an etiquette lesson at the Pharisee’s house. He is there for a Sabbath dinner, certainly not considered an equal but probably considered a curiosity. Besides the Pharisees want to keep an eye on him because he had healed on the Sabbath and upset social conventions and generally has them disgruntled. They want to catch him in a social faux pas. Rather than be caught in a social gaffe, Jesus tells a parable that points out a mistake the Pharisees are making. They are all rushing to claim the places of honor at the table, and, as he often does in the context of a meal, he tells them a parable about the follies of this behavior. In this honor/shame culture, it is very important to maintain your social position, so no one wants to be at the low end of the table. But Jesus says if you go to a wedding banquet and pick a high position, what happens if you have to move down to let someone with more power or status or money sit at a more exalted position. Then you would be shamed by having to go to the lowest place. And shame could have a cost, lowering your family’s social position. Rather you should go to the lowest place, so that you might be honored by being moved upward by the host if you rank high enough. This seems to be common sense, based on Proverbs and the social mores of the day.

But we know that Jesus isn’t about the social conventions of the world. All this jockeying for position is not a kingdom value but an earthly one. It could even happen that after Jesus tells his parable that everyone would rush for the positions at the low end of the table, hoping to be exalted and to establish the same hierarchy as before. In Jesus’ story, it is the host of the banquet that makes the decision about who goes where. And in Jesus’ world of the kingdom, it is God who establishes the positions of who goes where in the kingdom. Jesus is not just giving an etiquette lesson. He is telling a profound theological truthe about the kingdom of heaven. People who concentrate on their ambition to climb the ladder of success will be humbled before God, who does not care about the status of someone in the world. If you climb down the ladder however, seeking to serve and love, God will honor you in the kingdom. Once again, kingdom values are a complete reversal of earthly values. God’s vision for how the world should be is that the lowly shall be lifted up and the proud shall be brought down until everyone is on the same rung of the ladder. The idea that everyone should be equal is not even a consideration for the Pharisees, who live in the culture of who is better than whom. How would they make their seating charts? How would they know whom to invite to dinner if all people had equal value. How would they value themselves

After words for the guests, Jesus has words for the host. Going on with kingdom values, he says that the Pharisee should not invite his friends and family to parties because there is a chance that he would be repaid and the cycle would perpetuate itself. Instead, the Pharisee should reach down the rung of the ladder and invite the poor, the lame, the blind and the crippled to dinner, who have no way of paying him back.

Embracing those who cannot pay you back extends a sense of belonging to them. They are considered good enough to be included. Once again, the Pharisee cannot imagine what it would be like to invite these social outcasts to his home. His worldly views about who has worth are in the way again. He doesn’t know what receiving a kingdom reward means and he probably doesn’t care. He and his friends are not focused on spiritual realities but on the realities of the world they live in. Inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to eat with you is another complete reversal of values from the values of an earthly mindset.

These stories have an obvious meaning for us. We are to work for equality in the world to match the kingdom value of equality. But it is not as easy as all that. Which of us would not rather have our friends and family at the table (which Jesus is surely not forbidding all the time) than to draw in a bunch of homeless people standing in a labor pool to share a meal. Would we be brave enough to do that? Is that what we’re being called to do? We’re certainly being called to work on behalf of the least of these by working with organizations and people that help them. I don’t know about you, but it makes me really squeamish to think about having a bunch of homeless people at my dinner table. But I have shared a meal with a homeless person. I could do the crippled, the lame and the blind because in this day and age, they could be anyone and they are accepted in the social circles of society. We have poor and handicapped people in our church and have had a blind person. Would anyone of us turn away one of them? Of course not. But we need to think about how far we are called to go to create a sense of belonging, which can be so hard to do when class is an issue.

And what about scrambling for social position. Are we so focused on status and money that we lose our ability to relate to those of less social standing than we have but to ourselves as well? Many of us are retired, so our ladders of success may look different, but they are still there. We wonder if we will have enough money to make it through our retirement. We scrimp and save and leave no room for generosity of heart and mind.

Etiquette is important. It helps the culture of the day have ways we should operate. I still write thank you notes. I still know how to introduce people. But etiquette doesn’t always work. I have another memory of the ballroom studio and that was the shame of not being invited to dance until the very last minute. It was heart wrenching. I didn’t feel like I belonged, so even among the social niceties there were inequalities going on. And there always are.

It is God who does the exalting in the kingdom of heaven. None of us deserves a place at the table there. We are all given our spots by sheer grace because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And the spots are equal. Jesus’ lesson for us today is about the kingdom value of equality. We are all God’s children, all welcome at the heavenly banquet. Even Pharisees can be forgiven and belong. Concentrate on serving, not on being served, on going down the ladder instead of up. When the kingdom comes, you will be honored by God.


     - Rev. Ann Barker