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Luke 14:1, 7-14
1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “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; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 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. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12 He said also to the one who had invited 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. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
A few years ago, well-know youth ministry thinker and author, Mark Yaconelli, was invited to a church council meeting to talk about youth ministry. Rather than giving his usual talk about youth ministry, he asked the adults – why did you start coming to church?
Not surprising to him, most of them came because they had kids. They thought it would be good for the kids. They wanted the church to help their children learn values and morals of the Christian faith.
Upon hearing this, Mark then said, “You know, the purpose of youth ministry isn’t just to help people learn morality, as important as that is; it’s to help them enter into the alternative way of life that Jesus offers.” A way of life where no one’s identity comes from what clothes they were, or car they drive, or job they have, or grade they get. But a way of life where we all share the same identity – child of God. Youth Ministry is to help young people see and live into that freedom that Christ gives.
A little shell-shocked, one parent said, “Umm…I think that is well and good, but I think that is more than we’re after. We just want our kids to learn the 10 commandments and be kind to others. The kind of values of Jesus.” “Yeah,” another parent said, “We don’t want our kids to be Jesus, we just want them to participate in church.”
After pausing a moment, Mark boldly said that if they wanted their kids to learn morals, they could probably just take them to the Scouts Program. This, here, is about following Jesus and falling in love with God. That youth ministry isn’t about morals or well-behaved children. And it isn’t about preventative medicine to declining church membership, but that is about helping youth to discover a new way of life in following Jesus.
The adults got quiet and a little embarrassed. He got quiet and a little embarrassed. Until finally the pastor said, “Okay! That’s terrific. Thanks for coming and for your words of encouragement. I think we’re done for now and need to move on to the next agenda item.”
I share this, because it’s easy to think that church is simply about morals and being a good person, and we forget that Jesus came to offer us an entirely new way of life. And our gospel reading for this morning is the exact kind of bible reading that can just sound like good moral advice or it can sound like an entirely new way of life.
At first glance, Jesus appears to just be teaching us good manners at the dinner table. Don’t sit in the place of honor, because you may not be the most honored guest, and we’d be embarrassed to have to take a lower seat. But rather, take the seat of low honor, and perhaps the host will invite you to a more honorable seat, and won’t that be nice. And Jesus even has that nice one-liner, bumper sticker advice – Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Jesus takes it a step further and says that the hosts of such meals shouldn’t invite people who are just like themselves or people who have more honor and power than you so that they can repay you, instead invite those in need, who could never repay you.
And all of this is nice good, kind advice from this Miss Manners Jesus and his etiquette class. We do learn some good morals and practices here from Jesus. But if this is all it’s about, then we all go home with better etiquette and not bigger hearts. And it doesn’t really feel like a transformative, new way of life promised in Jesus.
When we get a passage like this, it’s easy to forget the context of the story. And what’s important for us to know is that in the ancient world that Jesus and his followers lived in, everything was about shame and honor, political and social standing. Everyone knew their place in society – who was above them, who was below them. From the clothes you wore to the food you ate to where you live. With school starting soon, we are reminded of how this still alive and well today – I mean, is there anything quite like the lunchroom or the bus, where social pecking order so frighteningly obvious. And if the adults are honest, we too know those places in our week, where we are reminded of our social status and where it is right there in front of us.
In the midst of that kind of deeply rooted social norm of knowing your status in society that Jesus steps in and says, “Knock it off. Don’t live that way.” Which would not only have sounded ridiculous to the people, but would also have been dangerous. Because if you suddenly throw a party and don’t seat people by their status or don’t invite the proper guests, you put your own status and standing at risk. And not only your standing, but the whole social order at risk.
This is social revolution here that Jesus is inciting. He’s calling us to an entirely new way of life. And it’s part of what gets him killed in the end.
So we do ourselves a disservice if we make this text or any part of the life of the church simply about developing good morals and becoming good people. Being Christian, being part of the church is learning what it means to follow Jesus and live into a different kind of kingdom – not the kingdom of Rome, not the kingdom of America, but the kingdom of God.
And what’s amazing is that Jesus is saying that something as simple as our table fellowship – how we eat together reveals that to us. How we eat together says something about who we are and how we think God views us. This parable doesn’t take place in a worship service, and not in a church, but around a dinner table. A pretty ordinary place can be the very revelation of the kingdom of God. As Christians, we are called to let our table fellowship reflect our oneness in God’s eyes.
St. John’s member Andrea Hoff caught a glimpse of this while she was chaperoning the Christikon trip this summer. A couple of years ago, Andrea and her family were remodeling their kitchen, and as result the ended up with a kitchen counter top that was perfect for quick and easy meals. In the midst of a busy life, the family never really used the square dining table, but simply sat at the countertop. Now, while this was convenient, something about it never sat right with her. She was always standing up and serving dinner. Dinner wasn’t really something they shared together. So for the past couple of years, she’s wanted a round dining table for everyone to sit at for dinner but it was never a high priority.
Then when she chaperoned this youth backpacking trip, she was so moved by this constant theme on the trip of everyone looking out for everyone. You could see this in many ways through out the trip, but the primary way was in the group’s table fellowship. Now, in the mountains, their table…was a towel. But once dinner was ready, everyone would sit in a circle, and the leader would ask, “Who would like to serve the community tonight by serving the community?” The food bowls would be filled, and passed around the circle until everyone had one. And then, before one could eat, everyone would present their bowl to make sure no one had too much and no one had too little. And if it were out of proportion, they would re-portion the food.
She said that because of this everyone felt connected to each other but also accountable to each other. By the end of the week, it became a priority for Andrea to get that round dining table for the sake of the family. She wanted to bring a slice of that table fellowship from Christikon back to her own home.
And on her first day back, she went out, and she found the perfect round table for their home.
Now here is where we pull it all together. Because that Christikon meal is fashioned after another meal…a meal we share here each and every week. Every week, in one way or another, you’ll hear that this is not my table, or Pam’s table, this is Christ’s table. Jesus is the host of this table. The host of this table is Jesus. And as host, Jesus invites all people to this meal. And guess what, there are no seats of honor here. We don’t get to pick who we stand by in line in the aisle. We all get the same portion of bread and wine. There is no separate fancier wine for the wealthier congregation members. This isn’t a table where we get to decide who is worthy of more or less. But rather this is a place where we all come with hands stretched out like beggars looking for a morsel of God’s grace that is given freely and with no strings attached to us all.
In this table fellowship, we get a glimpse of the entirely new way of life that Jesus is calling us to – the kingdom of God. And it has nothing to do with whether you have been good and moral. So, I invite you to think about the tables you will be around this week or in the weeks ahead. The kitchen table, the lunchroom table, the table in the teacher’s lounge, the board room table. The tables in St. John’s Hall at Wednesday meals. How does the way we engage with the people at those tables reveal the grace-filled kingdom of God? How does it reflect our oneness in Christ?
And if it doesn’t, know that you are set free in Christ to do something about it. To live out your faith not in a good way, a moral way, but in an entirely new and life-changing way. For the sake of your neighbor. May we have eyes to see it and hearts of courage to risk it.
 Mark Yaconelli, Contemplative Youth Ministry, p. 39-40.