190901 – Come In and Sit Down

Yr C ~ Pentecost 12 ~ Luke 14:1, 7-14

Two friends were standing near the back of a huge outdoor venue where the Pope was going to be speaking, and one of the friends said, “Why do we have to be way back here when there’s that wide open space right in front of the stage with nobody in it?”
His friend responded, “I don’t think anyone’s allowed in there.”
The first guy said, “Well, that’s where I’m going!”
And he took his lawn chair and walked all the way up and plunked himself down in the open grassy space, front and centre.
Incredibly, the Pope himself came out to the man, and the friend at the back couldn’t believe his eyes. He watched as the Pope made the sign of the cross in front of his friend, and then the friend got up and made his way back.
As he arrived the waiting friend said, “Oh man, I can’t believe that! You are awesome! You actually got a personal blessing from the Pope! That’s so cool!”
The friend sheepishly responded, “Well, it wasn’t exactly a blessing. The Pope said, [making the sign of the cross as he did] ‘You! Pick up that chair and get the hell out of here!’”

For all who exalt themselves will be humbled!

There are actually two lessons going on in Jesus’ teaching in the scripture passage from Luke 14 we heard today.
The first lesson is about humility. It’s a pretty straightforward teaching.

You walk into a dinner and you have to decide where to sit. Tradition has it that the most important guests get the “best” seats – which usually means next to the host. In Jesus’ parable he imagines a person coming in and sitting in the place of honour, only to be embarrassingly told that someone more important deserves that spot – and since this person was so presumptuous everyone else has already sat down and the only place left is at the far end of the table. The lowliest seat. It’s far better, says Jesus, to sit at a lower place and have the host come and take you to a more prestigious seat, than to try to elevate your status and get shot down.

Luke 14:11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

That’s basic humility. Don’t think too highly of yourself.
Let someone else tell the world how great you are.
If you try to make people think you’re ‘da bomb’ it’s likely to blow up in your face.
It’s a good life lesson – but really, it’s not very spiritual. We didn’t really need Jesus to teach us that – Miss Manners did it just fine.

I think what Jesus really wanted to teach came next. He was just using this familiar situation as an in – using people’s arrogance and self-importance as a starting point.
His real target here wasn’t the guests at this party; it was the host!

Remember, this teaching takes place at the house of a leader of the Pharisees on the occasion of a shared sabbath meal.
And it says, in verse 1, “(the Pharisees) were watching him closely” – watching to see if Jesus would step out of line, or say something provocative that would challenge the ways the Pharisees held. Jesus did not disappoint!

He started with a lesson about personal humility.
The second lesson Jesus is teaching here is much more pointed. It’s about power. It’s about blind spots. It’s about inclusion.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly stand up to the passage of time.
Luke 14:12-14 Jesus said to the Pharisee host 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 neighbours, 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.”

Jesus’ example goes as far as it can. He was limited by the culture of his time. In his culture, the things he was suggesting here were utterly radical. His challenge to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” was pretty revolutionary. ‘Good’ people didn’t have such folk at their ‘proper’ parties. Sadly, the perception was that those folks were the way they were because of some shortcoming, or sin, or punishment. They were considered unclean because of it. So the suggestion of merely inviting such as these would have elicited gasps in the hearers of Jesus’ teaching – especially his Pharisee hosts.

Jesus taught that we should invite those that polite society, or religious opinion, has shunned – include those who the ‘accepted ways’ say should be excluded.
Because God’s love knows no barriers.
God’s love never excludes.
No one is outside of God’s love.
And inviting only those who can repay you, or advance your own social standing, or won’t make you feel uncomfortable, is simply an example of self-interest, not real love, or even real hospitality.
We are called to love – but we can’t stop at ourselves.
We need to love beyond ourselves.
We need to love those who the world has mistakenly deemed ‘less than’.

If Jesus was here today, how might he teach this differently? The “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” aren’t the outcasts of society like they were back then. But neither have we learned the lesson well enough to ensure inclusion of such vulnerable people. The poor are still marginalized and excluded, and the needs and realities of persons with disabilities are far too frequently overlooked when we think about organizing gatherings of any kind. Yes, we’re doing better, but we’ve got a long way to go.

I think if Jesus was teaching this lesson today he’d talk about who we include at our tables, and who we exclude. Here’s the kicker. We’re all church folk here. Most of us have been listening to Jesus’ teaching for a long time. And we sincerely are trying to be inclusive people.

We’re going to celebrate the sacrament of communion in a few minutes, and we proudly say that we celebrate an open table – that you don’t have to be an insider, or a member, or even a ‘believer’ to have a seat at our communion table. We say, “All who seek to be nourished and sustained in the journey of faith, and who long to live justly and in peace with their neighbours, are welcome here!” That’s an open table!

This congregation has done, and is doing, important and meaningful work in the area of being an Affirming congregation and increasing our awareness of the ways we include (or exclude). We learned that it isn’t enough to just be open and welcoming – we have to be public, and intentional, and explicit about it. And we are doing better and better.

And yet…

And yet the fact remains that unless we’re really vigilant, and thoughtful, and thorough we can easily forget about who has a seat at the table, and who’s missing.
I can’t imagine any of us being overtly and consciously exclusive, or classist, or ableist, or sexist, or ageist, or racist.
The challenge is in the ways we exclude but don’t even realize. We say things like:

We are super open and welcoming but “they” (insert whatever group of people) don’t come.
We wanted to have representation from “that” group but no one volunteered.

And there’s a level of truth in that.
But a deeper truth is that diverse representation doesn’t seem to just happen, and when efforts to help it happen (by holding places for various diverse communities) cries of unfairness, or ‘reverse discrimination’ often arise.
It’s really tricky stuff.

In Jesus’ example his point seems to be just about having diversity at the table. But a seat at the table is just the very first step.
We must go much further than that, otherwise we can fall into the trap of tokenism.
Inclusion doesn’t just mean being there – it means being equal.
It means being in on the planning of the menu, in the preparing and serving of the meal, in the eating of the meal, and in the cleaning up after. In other words, full participation, full inclusion. Shoulder to shoulder. Arm in arm. Partners.

I know what you’re thinking: You’re thinking, “Of course that’s what we want! We want full inclusion!”
Yes. We do. We truly do.

The challenge is, for those of us in the majority culture, or dominant culture – white, economically comfortable, cis-gender (meaning our gender identity matches our biology), heterosexual, able-bodied, educated – that’s our majority – we automatically relax into seeing things as ok because they’re ok for us.
This society is quite literally made for us – so we cruise along feeling like everything is normal and fine because it is for us – even as it excludes all sorts of ‘others’.
And when that gets brought up, when we’re called on it, we tend to recoil, deny, and defend.
That simple act of relaxing into what’s “normal” is the act that excludes those not in the majority.

That’s really hard for us to hear – and even harder for us to remember.
So I think if Jesus was teaching this today he’d probably say something like, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, don’t just set it up in ways that you find comfortable. When you have a gathering (or form a committee), consider who doesn’t usually find a place at the table and invite them. And even better, build a relationship with them and host the gathering together!”

Look, this is a really tender subject, and I’m only barely touching the tip of the iceberg here. But this is how conversations about inclusion move forward. They’re often described as uncomfortable conversations. So be it. This won’t be our last one.

There’s a certain hymn that I think would fit really well with this topic today, but we’re not going to sing it, because as some of you may know, I have a particular dislike for it. But I will quote it! It goes:

Come in, come in and sit down, you are a part of the family
We are lost, and we are found, and we are a part of the family

The invitation is spot on. The expression of equality as part of a family is pretty good.
But it still puts the onus on the visitor. It leaves the expectation on the “other” to be courageous and venture into what has historically been for them an unwelcoming space.
All are welcome. Open communion table. Come in and sit down.
All these are great – but what if you’re afraid to come in?

I think we’ve been trying really hard, and really faithfully, and that’s really good – but I’m wondering if we’ve missed a really important part.
We’ve created a very welcoming and open place where everyone is equal.
And we’re ready to build deep and meaningful relationships with anyone who chooses to come in and sit down.

Can you see the problem?

Jesus’ story isn’t really about whether there was a seat at the table for those previously excluded.
It’s about leaping beyond your comfort zone and sharing God’s love.
Love requires a relationship!

Maybe Jesus’ challenge to us isn’t just about making invitations but about building relationships?
And maybe rather than waiting for those relationships to appear it’s on us – the majority culture – to risk initiating them.
Not because we know better and can fix “them” – but because we’re called to love, and to share the journey, and that means being vulnerable, and reaching out, and being humble.

And maybe if we can learn and live that kind of loving humility we might even find ourselves exalted in the most awesome way – when someone smiles at us and says to us, “Come in and sit down!”