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Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 1, 2013

When I was in high school, I was a band kid. Well, not really. I didn’t play in the band, I sang in the chorus, but those were the people I hung out with. I was fortunate that I was happy with my group and they were happy with me. But it is not the same for everyone. Many high schoolers are looking for a place to belong, and they want to belong to the “in” groups – the cheerleaders, the ball teams, the student government leaders. They long to be invited to sit with those people at lunch, to be part of the gang. But often that is not the case. They have to find some “less honored” group to sit with or even have the ultimate embarrassment of sitting alone or joining a table with people they don’t know. The social system of school is hard to navigate. It is an honor and shame based culture that can affect students’ self esteem and their feelings of empowerment. At its worst, it can lead to teasing, gossiping about, ignoring or even bullying people who are different.

The culture Jesus lived in was an honor and shame based culture as well. Upper class people paid close attention to rank and importance. Their whole lives revolved around who was better than they were and who they were better than. They strove to have honor bestowed on them and despaired when they were given less honor. Honoring and shaming a person did not just affect people emotionally; it could also affect them economically (Emerson Powery). Marriage proposals were given and received based on the honor system. If you had been shamed somewhere, then your daughter might not be able to marry into the better families. You might not be able to do business with certain people. You were relegated to a lower class, even if that “lower class” were much higher than the ones many people lived in. As for the poor, the lame, the crippled, the blind and other unclean people, they were ignored completely. They had no place in the pecking order at all.

Jesus is at a Sabbath dinner being given by a Pharisee. He notices that the dinner guests are playing a mad game of musical chairs. Everyone is walking around the couches, waiting for the music to stop so they can quickly sit in a place of honor. Nobody wants to be left out. They know they have good resumes (Ronald P. Byars), and they belong there. Jesus offers some advice from Proverbs about putting yourself in the best places. It is really a dangerous thing to do, he says, because a guest with a greater rank than you might come in later and you would be asked to move down to a less desirable spot. That would be shaming in the extreme, and nobody wants that. It is better to sit in a low position and have your host tell you to move up, thereby increasing your honor – a very good thing. Jesus’ words are just good advice for the type of party he is attending.

But then Jesus says something that clues us in to his real point – those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. These are words about the kingdom of God. In Luke Jesus often gives instruction about the kingdom of heaven at meals because he compares the kingdom to a great wedding banquet. In this case, Jesus is talking about how God will act when it is time for God’s reign to be fully realized. Jesus has already said that some who are first in society will be last and some who are last in society will be the first to enter the kingdom. Here he is talking about the humble receiving special status in the kingdom even if they do not at dinner parties. Luke has talked about this reversal before in the Magnificat and other places.

It is important here to say what Jesus is not talking about. He is not talking about reverse pride, where everyone rushes to get the lowest seat at the table so they can be moved up to positions of honor. Jesus is also not talking about those who are already humble emptying themselves still more until they do not have a self to speak of. Humility comes from a word that means earth, and it is about seeing yourself as a being created by God, just as everyone else is, no better, no worse. It means being available to God for God’s purposes instead of fighting over trivial things like seating and pecking orders.

Jesus’ next teaching is about exactly that – being available for God’s purposes. He tells the Pharisee that the next time he holds a meal, he should invite people who cannot pay him back – the poor, the lame, the blind and the crippled. Payback was an important shame and honor concept. If you invited people to dinner, they were in your debt and expected to reciprocate. It was a giving and receiving honor practice that built on itself. The Pharisee must have been stunned by Jesus’ pronouncement. What purpose would there be in holding a dinner for people that didn’t count? It would reduce your social status; it would not put anyone in your debt. Jesus says the Pharisee would be rewarded in heaven for taking care of those who have physical, emotional and relational needs greater than the ones he typically invites to parties, for giving them the places of honor they deserve as Jesus’ friends and children of God, but that didn’t do anything for the Pharisee now.

The kingdom life is a life full of reversals. The humble will be exalted and those who should have the places at the banquet table are the nobodies of society. This was not how the culture worked in Jesus’ time, and it is not how it works now. The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was Wednesday. Labor leader Philip Roth, “the event’s visionary”, according to The Washington Post, called for a mass march for “Jobs and Freedom”. Yet 50 years later, many blacks still do not have a seat at the table. The economic disparities between blacks and whites are the same as they were in 1963. There is a stubborn persistence of racial inequality, says The Post. And there are others who have few if any seats at the table – the immigrant community, gays and lesbians, the poor and the homeless.

If we are to seek the justice of God’s kingdom, what does Jesus call us to as church communities and individuals? First, we are to stop scrambling around for the best seats in the house. We are all God’s children, and we can never repay God for all God has done for us, even as Jesus’ desired dinner guests could not pay back the banquet giver. We are to do our ministries out of gratitude, not out of a desire to win something we can only have for free. Then we are to make sure that the people who do not have a place at the table get one. We need to be responsive to the needs of others. We need to work at giving up our prejudices because we all have them, however deeply buried they may be. We need to focus on the oppressed and treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve. The Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington feeds homeless people every Sunday morning and invites them to church. The early service is crowded with the homeless. How would St. John’s be different if we invited the homeless to eat a meal and come to church with us? What would it be like if you were to invite someone you were uncomfortable with to church or to take them out to lunch? What if you were to give to the homeless people you see standing in the medians or on the corner?

School is not the only place where a shame and honor culture persists in our society. It is all around us, tempting us to follow its lead and forget the equality culture of God’s kingdom that is already and not yet. The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington has shown us how far we have come – or rather how far we have not come – in including those that need a place at the table. See the needy all around you. Pull out a chair and offer them a seat next to you. Then you will know the reality of God’s coming kingdom.

AMEN.

   - Rev. Ann Barker 


Works Cited:
Emerson Powery, Working Preacher, Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14, blog post
Ronald P. Byars, Feasting on the Word
, Year C, vol. 4 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009), p. 23