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Ancient Social Conventions
Come Lord Jesus, be our guest and may these gifts to us be blessed. This was a table grace I first heard as a child at a meal in our neighbors’ home. It seemed bold to me to ask for the very presence of Jesus when they were serving Hamburger Helper. And after hearing this parable, we may not want to invite Jesus to our table. On the one hand, he tells some great stories, stirs imaginations toward a world renewed, but on the other hand Jesus’ disregard for social conventions gets embarrassing.
In Jesus’ first century context social status was made explicit at fancy meals. In the Greek tradition, banquet hosts who had the wealth and status to make invitations created seating charts to establish social rank among their guests. Invitations were reciprocated by those who could afford an elaborate spread and turn out equally impressive guests. There was some jockeying for position at these banquets. Some Bible readers are surprised that Jesus the Galilean was invited to this kind of banquet. Perhaps his status was on the rise. Important people were paying attention to him. And, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is always eating. At this meal he seems to critique the Greek practice of the symposium–a banquet meal followed by speeches and conversation. At a symposium, the most important people had the seats of honor–literally the “first couches.” Remember they were lounging around long, low tables in ancient Palestine, reclining on their sides as they ate.
Contemporary Social Conventions
Now there are fancy meals in our society too and select guest lists, but Jesus’ advice to guests and hosts may not apply to our day-to-day life. In fact, this first bit–about seating oneself at the lowest place, and allowing the host to invite you to move to a higher position–is called a parable. If it’s not straight-forward advice, specific to the symposium or meals today, then perhaps we need to live with this parable beyond our next mealtime.
In our society social rank is generally established by wealth, race, income, education and occupation. Our Lord is deeply concerned that church community–the renewed world sometimes called the kingdom of God– dismantles the social ranking that societies and organizations typically establish. Jesus lived in a culture highly attuned to honor and shame. But he didn’t reject the categories of honor or shame. Nevertheless, the kingdom, the new society Jesus announced, is a culture shift. Jesus honors women, the poor, the sick, the outcasts, the children. And Jesus sometimes shames or embarrasses the religious leaders and elite members of society. In other words, when it comes to social rank, honor and shame, Jesus turns the tables.
Again, in our society social rank is most often established by wealth, race, income, education and occupation. Think about the implied social rank of these situations. Who is more important? Who deserves special privileges?
Someone who inherits a trust fund or someone who inherits a family quilt?
A white citizen of the US or a brown immigrant to the US?
Someone with salary & benefits or someone earning min wage.
Who deserves honor?
A graduate of an Ivy League school or a grad from a vocational program?
Someone who works as a judge or someone who works as a lifeguard?
It’s typical for any of us, even those of us who have invited Jesus to be our guest to rank people in our society. Perhaps some of you were here last Sunday when we were blessed with a guest preacher, Sarah Bixler. I was the worship leader and briefly introduced Sarah. I could have said that I was recently in a Bible study that Sarah was leading and found her teaching to be creative and fitting for our congregation, especially her focus on faith formation across the whole lifespan–from children to elders. But I didn’t say that. I could have introduced her husband Ben and their children who had also joined us for worship that day, but I don’t think I mentioned her family. I could have said that Sarah had formerly served as Virginia Mennonite Conference Youth Minister. But I didn’t say that either. I said that she was finishing her PhD at Princeton and that she had accepted an academic position at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. In this introduction, I made Sarah’s academic rank seem more important than her Christian witness. If Jesus had been here in the flesh, he might have interrupted me last Sunday. Or is it the Spirit of Jesus who nudged me to make this confession to all of you?
There’s nothing wrong with people getting advanced degrees, but when the church uses educational achievement (or race or wealth or income or occupation) to rank some in the church as more important than others, to privilege an elite few and diminish voices and gifts of the humbler members of the community, Jesus interrupts us. And it’s rather embarrassing.
A Humble Church
Friends, we’re invited to a banqueting community in which the family quilt is precious, where the brown immigrant has dignity and power, where minimum wage earners deserve living wages, where we know that the Ivy League can’t confer the wisdom of the gospel and that someone working as a lifeguard at the local pool has as much value as a judge on a bench. And, if the judge puts a life behind bars forever and the lifeguard saves someone from drowning, whom shall we honor in the kingdom of God?
A couple thousand years ago, Jesus spoke about a God who brings down the mighty, lifts up the lowly, forgives sins and feeds the poor. There is no way that Jesus told us this parable as a quick and easy way to gain social advantage: take the lowest place, and bank on a host who will move you up the ladder, or up the table, as it were. But if we let this parable live in us a while, Jesus will disturb the ranking systems we typically use. We’ll become interested in others for their own sake, and not the social advantage they may bring us.
Tomorrow is Labor Day. In 1894 it became a federal holiday. Throughout the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, workers in the US were often subject to 12 hour days, working 7 days per week to make a living. Young children worked under dangerous conditions in factories and mines. The labor of people of color and immigrants was stolen and exploited to create wealth and social stratification that is still operating in our society today. Now, in 2019, Virginia is still among fewer than half of the states to keep the minimum wage for labor at $7.25 per hour. That’s why local communities across VA are sponsoring living wage campaigns. If you want to support that effort in Harrisonburg, head over to Gray Jay’s Provisions tomorrow at 10:30 for the public launch of a living wage campaign. From our congregation both Brent Finnegan who initiated the campaign, and Chris Hoover-Seidel who directs Bridge of Hope will be speaking. Learn about local businesses and organizations who are turning the tables on social rank by occupation and dignifying typically low-wage jobs with living wages.
An Undivided Life
During September, our worship series is focused on an undivided life. As the body of Christ, we want to reflect the undivided life that Jesus lived among us rather than the divisions, hierarchies and rankings that honor some and exploit others. Quaker author Parker Palmer has used the image of a Möbius Loop to describe an undivided life. I think this image can be helpful to us in several ways. It may even help us live with Jesus’ parable and counsel to both guests and hosts. I first learned about a Möbius Loop in math class. Though it appears to have an inside and outside, this Loop has a single surface. [WITH STRIP OF PAPER.] Most of us can relate to the idea that we have an inner life and an outer life. Our outer life includes commitments, plans, work and relationships. The stuff we do all day is our outer life.
Our inner life includes motivations, values, our conscience, our spirit. In our development as human beings, a rich inner life is evidence of growth and maturity. [MAKE CIRCLE WITH STRIP OF PAPER.] We might imagine this development as a circle in which the inner life supports the outer life. There is beauty and wholeness to a circle. Yet, for many religious people our growth can be stunted in this shape. We are likely to keep out influences that might disrupt our security or privilege. We can do this individually or as a group.
The Möbius Loop is different from a circle. To make it from a strip of paper, we make a little flip before attaching the ends. [CONVERT CIRCLE TO MöBIUS LOOP.] This loop now actually has but one side which appears to move from interior to exterior as we move around the loop. Palmer is taken with the idea that at our best the interior life–let’s say our spirit–is revealed and expressed in our outer daily life and likewise, what we do in the world moves inward and becomes part of our interior life as well. In reality our life is undivided and we need not fear being our true selves in the world. Nor should we fear that the world will destroy our inner dignity or spirit.
Practical Implications for Guests and Hosts
Although Jesus is addressing more than mealtimes, more than hosts and guests, it’s very practical to consider how this scripture affects our outer lives. Where in our lives do we have the power of hosting? Do we use this power to benefit ourselves or to benefit others? We might consider whom we host congregationally. As we hire staff for children’s ministry or another pastoral position, will we privilege white persons or seek a wide candidate pool for these positions?
Given that Jesus’ parable and teaching takes place during a meal and that he speaks directly about guests and hosts at a meal, it’s also quite fitting for us to consider how our meals contribute to an undivided life. When we say grace and pray at meals we bring express the unity of our inner and outer lives. How we attend to the food we eat and whom we invite to share our table can be signs of our life in the new world Jesus brings into being. Can our mealtime conversations begin to honor and bless each other? Can we raise important questions and challenge each other in light of God’s vision for the world? Will we at our next meal listen deeply to each other, praying together and remembering each others’ concerns?
Jesus reveals God in the World
The Möbius Loop makes a provocative turn, a flip in the circle that invites questions. When we are guests, how might we turn the typical honor-shame hierarchy upside down? When we have the power to host, how might we honor persons who are sometimes forgotten or dismissed? When and how are we as a church shifting our culture to resemble the kingdom of God–honoring the immigrant, the ill, the prisoner, the child, the poor? The Möbius Loop is named after a 19th century mathematician. I wonder whether early Christian theologians trying to describe Jesus’ unity with the divine, would have benefitted from some of the math that illustrates an undivided relationship? At the beginning of Luke 14, the Bible says that folks were “watching Jesus’ closely.” If you read the Gospel straight through, this phrase sounds ominous because Jesus has already been watched and cornered and threatened. The way of Jesus–the gospel perspective on the world–is always threatened, always under attack. We’re always being lulled into seeing our neighbors, strangers and fellow diners in terms of social rank that privileges a few (ourselves, we hope) and excludes most of humanity who suffers plenty and matters little. But to make his point–not in parable, but in person–Jesus doesn’t just talk at party tables, he goes to the cross. In solidarity with everyone who has been ranked as inferior, Jesus goes to the cross of humiliation, suffering and mattering not. He is the incarnation of God, yet refuses to pull rank. Jesus dies on that cross. And sometime later, he is raised from the dead. Talk about a God who lifts up the lowly. And, of course, folks did talk about it. In no time Jesus was eating meals again. In this very Gospel Jesus becomes the unrecognizable guest made known in the breaking of bread. Come, Lord Jesus be our guest…Perhaps as we pray this week together or alone, at the table or whenever, we can invite the crucified Christ to be our guest. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind–invite the crucified One and if you recognize his way as the Undivided Life of love, invite him to move up higher and become your Lord. AMEN.
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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