Guests and Hosts in the Kingdom
There is a hidebound old preachers’ story that goes something like this. One Sunday an Episcopal Bishop, in an unnamed diocese, was visiting a parish for Confirmation. The parish was doing it up right: two adult baptisms, a big anthem from the choir, and an all-ages picnic afterwards. They'd been there all morning, and by the look of the length of the line at the serving table, they were going to be there for a while yet. The Bishop was in that line, waiting patiently and chatting with parishioners, and when his Grace got to the serving table, they say that the first person he encountered was the woman dishing up the barbecued chicken. She smiled nicely, picked out a piece with the tongs, and put it on the Bishop's plate. The Bishop looked down at that lone little drumstick and then asked, "Excuse me, may I have two, please."
"Sorry," replied the lady at the table, "one per person. You can come back for seconds later."
"But,” he said, “I didn’t even get breakfast before the 8 o’clock. I’m famished!”
She shook her head. "One per person," she repeated.
Well, at this point they say the Bishop decided it was time to pull a little weight. So he mustered all his Episcopal dignity and exclaimed, "My dear, don't you know who I am? I’m the Bishop."
"Well," she calmly replied, "I'm the lady in charge of chicken. Now move along."
In the Gospel today, Jesus has a lot to say about how we behave with each other, and especially how we behave with each other at table. Jesus begins by speaking to guests, and then he speaks to hosts. And if there is any attitude that is fundamentally out of place when followers of Jesus come together, it's the one expressed by that question, "Don't you know who I am?" We can take that question in two senses, which fit with the two sections of our Gospel today: advice to guests, and advice to hosts.
Let's look first at Jesus' advice to guests. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor. Go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, Friend, move up higher." Jesus had noticed, Luke tells us, how the guests were angling to get their preferred seats. And so he advised them to do the exact opposite. Not to come in with an attitude of entitlement, of "don't you know who I am?", but to sit in a less desirable place so that the host has freedom to put you where she or he needs you to be. Now, one thing that is, is basic advice on how not to make a fool of yourself in a social situation. If you’re at a wedding, and you plant yourself at the head table, it looks pretty bad when the bride's father has to ask you to step down.
But Luke tells us that Jesus spoke this bit of advice as a parable, which is a way of saying that it has deeper spiritual meaning too. Jesus is showing us what it looks like to have an attitude that starts by leaving space for others. That right off the bat recognizes that your agenda is not the whole story. We Christians are to be letting God make us into the kind of people who easily put aside any sense of entitlement we might bring in from somewhere else, who can let God define who we are and how we fit in. People who trust that when God makes the seating plan, everyone gets the perfect place.
So there’s Jesus’ advice to guests. Don’t think of yourself first. Don’t assume you know what you should get out of the gathering. As a Christian, you aren’t only an individual, you are part of a bigger plan, so let God determine who fits where.
But there’s also Jesus’ advice to hosts, which in turn has its own deeper spiritual meaning. "When you give a luncheon or 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. 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."
Avoid getting repaid for what you give; now there’s countercultural advice. But it is profoundly Christian advice. There is no “tit for tat” in Gospel living, there is no "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." The kind of person Jesus invites us to let God make us into is someone who is not looking to get rewarded, but who is free to focus on serving and loving those who might be the least likely to feel accepted and part of a gathering.
See, as I said earlier, "don't you know who I am?" works two ways. It can be the sound of entitlement, the voice of pride -- but depending on how you say it, it can also be the voice of shame. It can be the voice of the guest who ducks his head and mumbles, “Oh no, not me, you don’t really want me at your banquet, do you? Don’t you know who I am?” And one of the most healing things about life in Christ is that he tells all his guests, “Yes, I know exactly who you are, and I love you completely, and I want you at the banquet.” He is the kind of host in whose presence nobody has to glance nervously at their clothes, or wonder if they are sticking out without realizing it. With Jesus, no one has to have that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach as they stand ignored at the edge of the room, hoping somebody, anybody, will talk to them. No one has to feel shamed for who they are.
Can you imagine what would happen if those of us who are part of churches let God make us into the kind of people who would behave like that? Who would deliberately avoid trying to get something out of a gathering ourselves, who would always first turn to the people who are most likely to feel ill at ease? Can you imagine what would happen if that whole “don’t you know who I am” thing -- in both senses, both when it’s spoken as the voice of entitlement and when it’s spoken as the voice of shame – if that just disappeared? It would be a revolution.
But that’s exactly where the two halves of the conversation tie together. To let God make us into the kind of person who can be his kind of host, never evoking shame in another, we first have to let him make us into the kind of person who can be his kind of guest, never assuming entitlement for ourselves. To receive strangers in the spirit of Christ, without in any sense reckoning up their merit, we need to let God receive us as strangers without trying to reckon up any merit for ourselves either.
Because that is the baseline Christian stance. Every single one of us is equally dependent on the infinite mercy of Christ. Nobody needs it less than anybody else. There is no sliding scale where mercy is concerned. It’s all mercy for all of us all the time, no matter how hard the world tries to tell us we can earn at least part of our way. This is very hard to hear, and all of us have a multitude of defenses against hearing it. But once we do, once God’s mercy has dropped into our hearts and pierced them with its kindness, once we have found ourselves embraced, undeserving, by the free and generous welcome of Jesus, then God can start the work of shaping us into people who naturally extend that kind of welcome to all the other people who need mercy just as much as we do.
Now, if you wonder where someone could ever have an experience as nourishing as that, look around you. God’s Table is here, and he is pouring out his infinite mercy for you in the bread and the wine every day. He is offering free and full absolution every day to anyone who is willing to take it as a gift, rather than try and earn their way. There is not a single moment where we have merited or can merit a place at his Table; it is all dependent on the grace and mercy of our Divine Host who is Love. God welcomes us to approach him not trusting in our own righteousness, but in his manifold and great mercies. There’s just no tit for tat at Jesus' Table. There is no tenure here. There is no question of earning a better place by what you offer. Nor is there any question of being excluded because you’ve been told you have nothing to offer.
If I've listened well to the words our Prayer Book gives us, I know that in myself I’m not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under his Table. But if I've listened well to the words our Prayer Book gives us, I also know that in Christ, God has made me worthy to stand before him, bringing me out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness and out of death into life. I didn’t do that – I couldn’t, ever. He did. And it’s that love, that discovery, that generosity, that show up both entitlement and shame for the frauds they are, and give us something worth passing on to others. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.
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