August 28, 2016

“That’s My Seat”

Luke 14:1, 7-14


While I was attending seminary, I was invited to be in the wedding of a friend from college. She was a really good friend of mine, so I was happy to attend, but our group of friends had long dispersed so I wasn’t sure who I would see when I got there.


The ceremony was beautiful, and I enjoyed my part. That being said, one of my greatest anxieties about weddings stretched my patience at the reception: assigned seating. I make friends easily, but something about assigned seats at receptions gives me anxiety.


The closest connection at my table was a girl I barely talked to in college. I badly wanted to sit with our other mutual friends, but they were at different tables. God help me if I sat in someone else’s seat.


At that table, I was a guest, so it would be rude for me to tell others, “Nope, this is my preferred place to sit. You can sit elsewhere.” At that point in time, the place I belonged wasn’t where I wanted to be, but it was where I was asked to be.


The same is true in church, and I’m not talking about telling visitors in church, “you’re in my seat.” Don’t do that, of course. I’m talking metaphorically about the places Jesus asks us to go that are, well, uncomfortable and sometimes a little awkward.


But that’s the problem with Jesus – messing up our desire to be comfortable creatures of habit. It’s pretty natural to feel like the places and roles we pick are ours. I will be starting school again tomorrow, and I bet you that whatever seat I pick that first class will be my seat for the remainder of the semester, barring someone getting to it before me. When I was in elementary school, I remember wanting to be bathroom monitor or line leader and having to share that position to another kid. It was a day-ruiner when I realized it wasn’t my turn.


Jesus is telling those around him that it isn’t good to covet someone else’s place. One of the ten commandments is not coveting your neighbor’s property, so it isn’t a stretch to assume Jesus is using his rabbinic knowledge to expound on that definition.


So what is he saying here in the story of the wedding? In short, watch yourself when you start looking to be the center of attention. Instead, it is better to sit in the lowest place and get noticed that way.


But we all know that this nugget of wisdom has boundaries. Jesus could just as easily have followed it up with, “but don’t be a martyr about it.” Nothing worse than someone doing the right thing for the wrong reason. The point remains the same: whatever you do, do it with a servant’s heart. People who genuinely care about the wellbeing of others will be happy at the most valued part of the table as well as the least valued part. The idea is we are to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, so giving up our prized place isn’t a burden. Let God, the greatest host, decide where you belong.


I think the issue is pretty endemic in society. We are taught to do the best we can in school and life so we get jobs and friends and romantic partners that put us in the upper crust of society. When you think about it, though, being impressive has nothing to do with how blessed we are. Happiness found in having more stuff is flighting. Happiness in loving God has depth.


What’s funny to me about this passage is it is a two-parter. No one gets off easy. As Jesus is talking about coveted seats and letting the host decide who goes where, most hosts would think, “yeah, my party, my rules.” So what does Jesus do? He turns to the host of the party and says: “Don’t invite people who you already like. Invite those who need dinner.”


I’ll be honest – my spiritual gift is parties. Y’all know I like food, but I also really like parties and helping people connect. Still trying to figure out how to do that pastorally. But this turns my love of connecting my friends to my other friends on its head. What if they aren’t like me?


It’s hard to understand the deeper lesson Jesus is telling us in those last verses. Does he mean we should literally invite strangers and the poor to our parties instead of friends and family? Is he being metaphorical in saying that we need to expand who we talk to so we make new friends who we owe nothing and who owe us nothing? Is it a mixture of those?


According to the Jewish Annotated NT, Luke is assuming a wealthy audience, so he is specifically talking to people who have no clue what poverty is like. We more likely do, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn from what Jesus is saying here. If you need practice serving those who don’t have the means to repay you, invite the youth and college students of the church over for dinner. It’s hard mastering more than mac n cheese.


If I had to guess, Jesus is putting a spin on being careful about seeing ourselves as being too good for service. We work so hard to feel important to people we like and who we want to like us, but it isn’t an act of service and love of friends if our dinners for them are about showing them up. Need a modern parable?: How many moms have done some crazy Pinterest stuff for their kids’ parties? Is it for the kids or the other moms?


We are people who are called to always be looking for ways to serve God. Serving God is usually not glamorous or gets us the best press. During the floods this week, cameras were trained on celebrities and politicians handing out food, which is nice for bringing attention to the area, but I noticed none of them got dirty. A couple of miles away, people like you and me were slogging through the muck of unspeakable things trying to save whatever they could. Not many cameras were trained on them, but God’s eyes were.


What about all the people who work day in and day out trying to feed refugees in these huge camps in Europe? We hear nothing of them. Of all the churches, civic groups, activists, and people who are trying to do the right thing, they so rarely get airtime. Even if they do, it lasts just a day or two.


Take your seat at the lowest part of the table. Eat among strangers like yourself. When we take on God’s calling in our lives, we serve a risen Lord, who really understood that, even when we party, we always serve.

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