Well, whatever Jesus is talking about in this 14th chapter of Luke's account of the Gospel, he's certainly not talking about seating arrangements or etiquette in general. If that were the case, then we could surely find some verses about four-way stops or cell phones in public. But the banquet table and seating arrangements happen to be the classroom in which Jesus chooses to teach the lesson for today, so it will serve us well to look at them.
I suppose that Jesus had witnessed some jockeying for position and seating around himself, particularly as his popularity increased. He watched people who had forgotten some fundamental rules of decorum and hospitality; and he seized this instance to teach the greater lesson that we find our best selves in humility and sacrificial service and, ultimately, then that so very much depends upon how we treat and live with one another.
Now there is a prosperity gospel out there that proclaims a different truth, that humility and sacrifice are merely means to an end, means to immediate and tangible rewards. You've heard it and so have I. "I gave God a hundred dollars and I got a thousand dollars in return." "We are faithful Christians and because of that, Billy made quarterback and Andrea got a full scholarship and sits first chair in the strings section. And we took the whole family on a magnificent vacation to Hawaii. Praise the Lord!" A man in our church told me once that he didn't understand God. "We've started coming to church," he said. "And we've been giving money and volunteering. But our marriage is still rocky, our kids are still unruly, and I'm still having financial trouble." Somewhere he had heard that humility and sacrifice are merely means to financial success and domestic harmony. Where in the world did he hear that?
I know the lesson that Jesus is trying to teach. In the children's moment in worship recently, I told our children about waving a woman into a long traffic line, and she didn't wave a "thank you" in return. And I held the door for an older couple to go into the bookstore, and they didn't say "thank you" either. Both times, I told the children, I was offended; but the children and I had to come to the conclusion that we are kind and generous not for a "thank you" or for any other reward, but simply for the peace of being the people God has called us to be.
A while back Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, was a guest in our church. Hundreds of men had turned out one evening to hear this humble man of God; but before the doors were opened, when the men were still lined up outside waiting to be seated, I went into the auditorium to greet Mr. Cathy. I introduced myself and identified myself as the Senior Minister of the church. "If there is anything I can do to help, "I said rhetorically, "just call on me." And he did! He handed me a big stack of those cards that entitle the bearer to a free Chick-fil-A sandwich and said, "Put these out on the tables if you don't mind." Good grief. I was the Senior Minister! But this man gave me a chance to view the banquet from a lesser seat, and I think he got it right. And yes, the Senior Minister put a few hundred cards on the tables.
And there are always those members who want to give a gift to the church, and they want it to be a spectacular gift. They don't, they say, want to give "just to the budget." They want to give something that can be seen and identified. And I understand that. There is nothing glamorous about paying the light bill or assuring that the church's garbage will be picked up. There is nothing flashy about cleaning carpets. And there are people who volunteer to serve in more prominent leadership positions in the church, but it's still difficult to find enough volunteers to teach Sunday School or to make sandwiches in the kitchen for the homeless. There's just not much glory in those things.
But we are called to humility. In humility there is obedience and obedience is its own reward. The knowledge that we have fulfilled God's purpose for our lives is the assurance of tranquility of soul and spirit and not any down payment on premium seating. The scripture tells us that our host may come and move us to a more exalted place...and then again he may not. Perhaps the lesser seat might be our permanent place.
I remember some moments of profound humility, moments that defined my childhood and some that inform my ministry today. In my childhood, W. P. Sprayberry was a member or our church. Dr. Sprayberry was the School Superintendent and one of the most beloved and respected men in our county and in our state. A high school in Cobb County still bears his name today, over forty years after his death. He held a number of significant positions in our church, but it was in an unofficial position that he made an impression on me. At the end of every worship service on Sunday morning, Dr. Sprayberry walked through the pews and collected the used bulletins and straightened the hymnals in the racks. Five decades later, I have not forgotten that. In my own church today, one of our oldest members, Hazel Braude, now in her 90's, performs the same tasks. Every single Sunday. I wonder if children are watching her the way I watched Dr. Sprayberry. I don't know that either of these servants of God was ever noted or thanked for their service. But they are of a common faith and their reward is in faithful service. There can be, apparently, great peace in those "lower places."
But now comes the hard part. Having learned that we are called on to live lives of humility and sacrificial service, to whom are we to be humble and who are we to serve? The answer, as much as we would like it to be, is not God, but is other people. Dr. Roy McClain, former pastor of Atlanta's First Baptist Church, said once that 99% of what we ever do about loving God, we do toward other people. God does not, he said, need our money or our time or our compassion. But people do. The people around us need our money, they need our time, and they need our compassion. The truth of this narrative from the 14th chapter of Luke's Gospel is that when those banquet goers gave up those prominent seats, they gave them up...think about it. They gave them up to other people. In order to fulfill God's call on their lives, those diners had to respond with and through other people.
There really is no other way. Finally, it is in our connections with and our service to others that we find our identity as Christian people. Remember that most of scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, is written to believers: in the Old Testament to those already a part of the covenant and the New, to the church, to people who already claimed the name and nature of Christ. And so very much of scripture is directed toward how we live our lives together with other people within the covenant and within the church. We are supposed to live together harmoniously, in service and hospitality. The next time you are in worship, look at the backs of the heads of those in worship with you. Take a moment and really look and think about them. These are your brothers and sisters, the people who walk your walk with you. Earlier in the summer another of our lectionary readings was from Luke's gospel, the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac. After the demoniac was cleansed, he wanted to go with Jesus, but do you remember what Jesus told him? He told him to go home, to tell of God's goodness at home among his own people. He was not asked to take his family to a new land, like Abraham. He was not asked to proclaim the gospel among his enemies in the hated Assyrian empire, like Jonah. He was not asked to leave his family and his livelihood, like the disciples. He was asked to go home and live and proclaim the gospel among the people whom he knew and saw every day.
Remember that we serve humbly because of the commandment of God and not necessarily the goodness of other people. There simply are no perfect people among us to be served. I was saddened earlier in the summer by the death of Will Campbell, the great Southern Baptist minister, the Mississippi-born, Yale-educated leader in the civil rights movement for more than four decades. In his magnificent autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly, Brother Will recounted the day his brother confronted him with a great challenge. "Define Christianity," he said, "in ten words or less." And Will did it. I'll paraphrase Brother Will, but he said essentially, "We're all devils," he said, "but God loves us anyway." And while his words might seem harsh for us, he is essentially correct. We are all sinners, but God loves us anyway, and that is the world in which we live.
But be careful, lest we boast. A guest minister in my pulpit declared once, "God loves us all, but God likes some of us more than others." On another occasion, at a funeral, he said, "All of us hear 'Welcome!' in Heaven. But some of us hear 'Well done.'" I think that to make those kinds of distinctions among us, to teach that there are different degrees of our standing before God, is dangerous and vain. Such distinctions encourage pride and arrogance among us, exactly the opposite of the humility and sacrifice for which Jesus calls in our scripture today. I haven't invited that minister back to my pulpit. I'll say it again. We are all sinners, standing in the need of God's grace.
We aren't perfect and we won't find any perfect people to serve. But we serve.
There was a woman in our church who was just experiencing the onset of dementia. At Wednesday night suppers, Evelyn loved to go from table to table and in her words, "offer a toast." She would raise her iced tea glass and say, "Here's to those who wish us well. And those who don't can go...to Savannah!" And she would laugh uproariously every time as if it was the first time she had heard the toast and then she would move on to the next table. In short order she would visit every table in the auditorium and then start over, often stopping a second or third time to offer the same toast. I found myself directing her away from the tables where our visitors and prospective members sat. I didn't want them to be embarrassed by Evelyn's behavior, and I did that for several months. Then one evening it hit me. "What in the world are you doing? Are you trying to pretend to these new members that we don't have a little craziness here? There probably isn't a family in the world without an eccentric aunt or uncle. But you're pretending that our church family is not like that. You're pretending that we're perfect." And so I stopped and let our newcomers get a better look at their new church family. And I don't remember anyone ever leaving.
Ah, the beautiful part of this scripture and of the Christian experience is that we are called by Almighty God to live lives of humility and sacrificial service. But the difficult part is that we are called to live those lives right now, today, among the broken and damaged people whom we meet every day. That is the difficult part. Amen.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, for your grace and the peace that you offer us, we are grateful. Help us to understand that most of what we ever do about loving you and caring for you we do through other people, who, like us, are broken and simple. Grant us all your grace and your peace. In the name of Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.