This week’s Gospel lesson finds us at a fancy Sunday dinner party with Jesus. In the verses omitted from our reading, Jesus meets a sick man on his way to dinner. In an interaction all too common in Jesus' ministry, Jesus heals the man only to find himself again debating whether that was an appropriate thing to do on the sabbath or not.
Sitting down at dinner, the drama of healing a man on the sabbath is fresh on Jesus' mind. Jesus, naturally, says what’s on his mind, which apparently causes some folk to reconsider whether it’s a good idea to be seen dinning with this bizarre prophet from Galilee. As Jesus sits reclining in his seat, he sees folk jockeying for the newly empty seats trying to improve their seating position at the dinner.
In German Christian circles, there’s a well-known series of children’s books named “Not how it is With Thieves” — “Nicht Wie bei Räubers.” The series is about a little orphan boy raised among thieves, Oliver Twist style. One day while the boy is scrapping by on the streets, he runs across a kind king who ends up inviting him to live in his castle. The first book of the series finds the boy, Tom, waking up in his strange new surroundings and being invited to breakfast. At breakfast, Tom grabs as much food as he possibly can as soon as it’s placed on the table. When the king asks what he’s doing, Tom explains that with thieves the smallest children have to fight hard for food or they will go hungry. The king then explains that it doesn’t work that way in the castle. In the king’s castle, the older children serve the smaller children and everyone is given enough to eat.
Each book in the series is about more situations where Tom learns how to live differently in a world ruled by love, trust, and friendship. The king is loving and kind, unlike the adults Tom knows in the world of thieves. The children in the king’s house share and help each other. The castle is a world ruled by love and peace.
Today’s episode around the dinner table — which only appears in St. Luke’s Gospel — reminds me a little of Tom’s adventures. Reclined in his seat, Jesus sees folk acting very differently from how a feast in God’s perfect world should go.
These folk are fighting and pushing to get a better seat, to be closer to the host, to move forward in their career and social standing. That might work among Romans and the Pharisees, but not with God.
Taken at first glance, today’s Gospel reading sounds like some fairly useless pointers for seat selection at fancy dinners. I don’t know about y’all, but in my world fancy dinning usually means El Fuego with the family. The place of honor is next to Jennifer — and Oliver’s already grabbed that spot. Selecting the best seat isn’t top of my agenda.
Luckily for us, Jesus isn’t a self-help guru. This isn’t a BuzzFeed top-ten list — “10 Wedding-feast Seating hacks You Won’t Believe!” Jesus is the incarnate Son of God. His life unites us and points us always toward the Eternal Living God of Israel. It should come as no surprise, then, that Jesus isn’t talking about where to sit.
The key to this whole saying, for me, is in verse ten. The host tells the person who selected the worst seat, “Friend, go up higher.” Friend. Friend.
The host of this banquet is God. God isn’t judging us by how close we are to his seat. It’s about so much more than the banquet. God comes to his friends. God comes to those who he knows. Those who have lived with him outside the banquet.
I’m reminded in Luke 13 of the people who are shocked that being in proximity to God doesn’t bring salvation.
‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ (Luke 13 ʀꜱᴠ)
The Lord responds:
‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’ (Luke 13 ʀꜱᴠ)
You can’t make yourself the big man. Only God can do that.
We sit, sometimes in the worst place, in faith that our friend will join us. While we’re there, we hang out with the losers around us. We realize we aren’t any better than them. It turns out the nerds don’t sit at their own table because it’s their only choice.
God comes to the places where his people are faithfully living in love. He comes to the people who recognize they don’t deserve the best seat. God comes to the worst places and, despite it all, calls those he finds in faith just and gives them the best.
This table is our banquet. Each week it is set and we come and dine with the Lord of lords and host of hosts. I must admit, there are times when I feel that my proximity to the host in this moment is sufficient. My prideful heart allows me to accept the lie that this act of worship and sacrament alone — this feast — elevates my status above those who enjoy lazy Sundays at home.
Jesus calls us to reject that lie. Jesus' story about the feast has more to do with the people he met on the way and the friends he shared the meal with.
Jesus calls us to live a common life. He calls us to live as communities bound so tightly in love that they can withstand and support “the poor, the maimed, the lame, [and] the blind” when they take their seat at the table.
The best contemporary analogue to the social complexities of the Roman dinning table is, I think, the high school lunch room.
It will come as no surprise, that I wasn’t very cool in high school. Being an introverted, non-athletic, Mormon boy into computers doesn’t lead to much social standing in Alabama. As it would happen, however, my little elementary school housed the one and only working class neighborhood in wealthy South Huntsville. Many of these kids were athletic and because their parents weren’t rocket scientists, they had more access to unsupervised activities, alcohol, and cars. Thus, my acquaintances from elementary school became the “cool kids.”
For the first three years of high school, I spent my lunch hour in the suburbs of the cool tables. Like the annoying little brother, I sat quietly at the end of the table. Our ten-year relationship meant they weren’t going to ask me to leave and I thought I looked cooler by proximity. For three years I orbited a conversation and community I wasn’t a part of in silence all in the hope that some of the coolness would rub off on me.
Finally, in my senior year, I grew confident enough in my own self to go and sit at the nerd table. My year at the nerd table was the best. At the nerd table I could be myself. I could talk about computers and cars. I could laugh at the crazy fashions the popular kids were wearing. I could openly talk about my insecurities about girls I liked but thought were out of my league. At the nerd table you sat where-ever you wanted. There were no assigned seats. No one put up heirs. No one judged. — I mean, sure it’s odd for a 17 year old to be super into Pokémon, but I’m writing a phonetic alphabet for English in my spare time, so whatever. —
The nerd table was for me and everyone there a respite from the social pressures of the day. The nerd table was a community of hope and acceptance in the storm of high school.
God feeds us here each week, but he expects us to keep feeding each other between Sunday dinners at his house. The world so full of hate and violence needs communities of hope and love. We are called to be that community. Christianity isn’t an intellectual exercise. Christ lived, died, and rose again to call us into a way of life and being.
I pray we all take the several days before our parish meeting to ask God’s forgiveness for the many ways we have all fallen short as a people. I pray we also humbly seek God’s guidance for how we can feed one another and better live the common Christian life the world so desperately needs.
We don’t get to choose who sits at our nerd table. The world names the ugly, the stupid, and the outcast. We, however, can choose to live fully in God’s love where-ever — and with whomever — we are.
If we humbly sit, serve in love those who come and sit around us, and faithfully confess the Risen Lord — God and God alone will finally come for us. Not because of what we’ve done or where we’re sitting or who we’re sitting with, but because of our shared life with him found in those who bare his image.
God comes to where we are sitting: “Friend, go up higher.”
The Spirit moves in our midst today in East Nashville and says, “Epiphany — my friends —, ‘go up higher.'”
May God grant us the fortitude and wisdom to love and serve each other and all those Christ invites to his banquet until he comes again.
We eat among thieves, but through God’s grace we can still dine like we’re in the king’s castle.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the of the Holy Spirit. Amen.