This sermon was preached at Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Walled Lake, Michigan and was focused upon Luke 14:1, 7-14. The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
A leader of the Pharisees invited Jesus into his house to share a meal on the Sabbath day. Other guests were invited as well. I wonder if they had any idea what they had signed up for, because Jesus certainly had some challenging words to share.
He watched all the guests sit down, and he decided to create a teaching moment right then. Throughout the Gospels, we often see that Jesus notices what is happening around him. He was quite intentional and present, always making meaning. . . always making parables out of everyday experiences. He opened up moments like these to teach about the ever-inbreaking Kingdom of God, and this moment was no exception.
Jesus noticed how the guests chose places of honor, and immediately, he told a parable. I wonder if the dinner guests became very uncomfortable or even angry. Likely, they simply wanted to enjoy the food or connect with the host. It appears that some of them wanted to be seen alongside the host.
But instead, it seems that Jesus becomes the host, painting a picture of how life in the Kingdom of God ought to be lived. He tells them how to behave at a dinner party, who to invite, and who not to invite. Of course, this all had meaning beyond the context of dinner parties. Jesus uses such a moment to remind us about what is truly valued in this Kingdom of God, so much so that we can live what is valued in particular moments our daily lives. Yes, even at our future dinner parties.
So let’s imagine the moment. . . Perhaps the guests are remarkably uncomfortable as Jesus begins to speak up. He says, “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; and the host who invited you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”
There’s something I wonder here in this little parable, and it’s this: Where was Jesus sitting when he spoke these words? What place did he inhabit at this dinner party?
Because we could hear this parable that he shares and think, “Goodness, is it all about upward mobility? Take the lowest place so that then you can move up in the presence of everyone!” Is it simply that, or is it deeper?
Here’s something to ponder: What if Jesus was sitting at the lowest place and yet speaking as if he was the host? Because his parable didn’t end with the words of upward movement — “’Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” He said one more thing. It was his purposeful conclusion: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus took a moment — a scene that he was noticing in detail – and he opened it to speak truth about the Kingdom of God. That truth is this:
All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
This phrase shows up in multiple contexts throughout the Gospels. And while it is a reversal, it’s not a reversal followed by the same dynamics we’re already used to. . . that is, dynamics of hierarchies. This is not simply about the lowest people becoming the highest, only to turn into oppressors themselves. No, this is a new way of being. This is a leveling – a holy leveling that honors the worth and value of all people without the hierarchies of oppression that we tend to create.
I love to think of this: What if Jesus embodied this himself, choosing to sit in the lowest place, yet speaking as the host and the teacher? We don’t know, but I find that to be an intriguing possibility.
In this story, Jesus notices something in the details of daily living, and he opens it up to teach about the Kingdom of God. Then he begins to invite us to lean into this reality and live into it in our daily, detailed lives. Yes, even applying it to future dinner parties.
He continues to speak challenging words. Can you imagine what the guests are thinking and feeling? Can you imagine what the host is thinking and feeling? Jesus speaks these next words directly to him, “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, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
I wonder if an awkward silenced followed. . .
This is how Jesus sets the table. This is the table to which we are all invited, and this table beckons us to do some inviting. This is the table of the Kingdom of God where all are honored and made alive together.
Jesus says, invite those who are marginalized, not to get anything except to receive everything by living in love for its own sake. Abandoning hierarchies. . . stepping away from our personal pursuits of honor. . . and living into the Kingdom of God, honoring the worth and value of the very people we have so frequently pushed out.
This is how Jesus sets the table. And each Sunday, we gather together around a table. Sometimes, we do this in the experience of Holy Communion. Other times, we embody this great, loving feast as we worship, following the host of every sacred table into the reality of the Kingdom of God.
We say that Jesus is among us, but too often, we expect a simple Jesus, or a Jesus that confirms our collective cultures, whatever that mean to any given place. Can we expect and will we allow our lives to be changed by a Jesus who would speak challenging words to us today? Will we allow him to reorient us? Will we let him deconstruct our hierarchies? Turning toward the Kingdom of God, will we say yes to this reality, following Jesus as he reorients us outward toward our neighbors? Will we?
The Church desperately needs this reorientation.
I recently encountered an article by Thom S. Rainer. He is a long-time consultant and researcher of Christian congregations. The article is entitled, The Most Common Factor in Declining Churches. In this article, Rainer says, “Stated simply, the most common factor in declining churches is an inward focus.”
In some ways, this is not surprising, but it is hard to hear. Rainer gives a list of common traits found in inwardly focused congregations. To summarize them, congregations are inwardly focused when their ministries and budgets are used almost exclusively for their own members.
These days, I see a lot of congregations turning inward. Sometimes, congregations are afraid they will not be able to survive in the midst of so many rapid changes in religious demographics and congregational participation. Sometimes, survival is literally a question about staying open as a congregation; other times, survival is rooted in a desire to stay intact as is without having to make significant cultural and structural changes.
In the midst of these dynamics, congregations do begin to invite others into their collective life. Sometimes, this is motivated in discipleship and inclusion, but sometimes, congregations invite others in in order to gain. Sometimes, these invitations are given in attempts to secure current budgets for buildings, staff, and programs. That process is inwardly motivated.
But Jesus sets the table differently. And this day and every day, we are called to follow one who sets the table differently. He tells us not to limit our collective table to our friends or our brothers or our relatives or our rich neighbors, in case we may be repaid. We are to invite the marginalized and neighbors who remain unknown to us, and the only way to do this, is to go outward and form new relationships, leaving the walls of this sanctuary today and living with an outward orientation. If we do this, we will live for the sake of love itself, and we will know more fully the Kingdom of God in our midst. Will we do this today?
My friends, may God bless you,
and all people beyond this place, and
in your sacred meeting,
may a new, holy table be formed.
 I am grateful for the discussion between the Revs. Casey Wait Fitzgerald and Eric Fistler this week on the Pulpit Fiction Podcast. They discussed this observation.