Last June I visited Durham, England, enjoying a weekend package that a generous parishioner had given me; the weekend included two VIP tickets to a concert in Durham Cathedral, and my sister Jacqueline came with me. Durham is famous for the stunning cathedral and castle that dominate the landscape from the top of a steep hill. We didn’t really leave ourselves enough time for the climb up the hill from our hotel to the cathedral, and we reached the west entrance in the back, breathless, with about two minutes to go before the concert was due to begin. Durham Cathedral dwarfs St. Paul’s: 900 years old, it is huge and seats well over 1000 people in the nave, and it was full that night.
An usher descended on us with cries of relief – “We almost gave your seats away!” – and guided us all the way up the center aisle to the front row, to the most prominent seats right on the aisle, next to various distinguished personages. Of course, everyone watched us as we hurried to our seats and tried to become invisible. Even though I am used to walking up cathedral aisles, I would have been content with the back row.
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is being watched. He is constantly in the public eye, whether he is teaching the crowds, preaching in the synagogue, or attending swanky dinner parties. If you read the Gospel continuously from Chapter 3, where Jesus begins his ministry, to this passage in Chapter 14, you can see a pattern emerge. Each time he is among the establishment, whether in the synagogue or in the home of a Pharisee, he does something that’s guaranteed to infuriate the Jewish authorities. He announces that God has sent him to change the world! He heals on the sabbath! He allows a strange woman to pour oil on him! He doesn’t wash his hands before dinner! He curses his hosts and calls them hypocrites! And we see the Pharisees watching him with more and more hostility.
Today’s story is of the third and final time that Jesus eats at the home of a Pharisee, and there he goes again, criticizing the other guests for competing for the best seats at dinner. Until quite recently, it was not unusual for formal meals to involve rigid etiquette around seating and status: in Jesus’ time, the guests arranged themselves on couches around the room so that the most important people sat nearest the host. In some places it’s still the custom for the most important female guest to be seated to the right of the host, while the most important male guest sits to the right of the hostess. To sit in the wrong place is a terrible faux pas.
The world still has too many rigid caste and status-related expectations, whether we are aware of them or not. There are plenty of people who wouldn’t dream of sitting near the front of a cathedral, because for whatever reason – skin color, economic status, dress code, language – they don’t feel entitled. And the people who do feel entitled, with or without good reason, may not notice that others are hanging back.
So, the Pharisees are watching Jesus, and he is watching them too. He observes this etiquette, which is the norm in that culture, and he offers advice. When you’re at a banquet, he says, (and of course this is a banquet), don’t head for the best seats: seek the most obscure, and wait to be invited to move on up. This might sound like common-sense advice to avoid public embarrassment, but there’s more to it than that. We know that whenever Jesus speaks of banquets and wedding feasts he is talking about God’s table, about the Kingdom of Heaven, and about the generosity of our God who gathers in the outsiders and gives voice to the voiceless.
Do you hear the amazing good news here? Jesus is telling us that there is room for everyone at God’s table: that no matter where you sit you will be welcomed and fed; you don’t have to be someone important or prominent to be cared for. That’s a fundamental theological value for us here at St Paul’s.
Jesus is also telling us that we may find ourselves seated next to people we didn’t expect. I remember Bishop Gene Robinson talking about Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, who led the opposition to Bishop Robinson’s ordination and who asserted that Bishop Robinson, along with all LGBT persons, was going to hell. Bishop Robinson commented to the effect that some day Peter would be very surprised to find Gene sitting next to him at the heavenly banquet. The church gives us a preview of the Kingdom, in that we come together not because we are friends or have interests in common but because we are all called to the same journey, we are all invited by the generous host to join the party, we are all, deserving or undeserving, offered the same mercy and grace. It seems to me that Bishop Gene’s theology of grace trumps Archbishop Peter’s theology of judgment.
My first reaction to this story is to identify with the Pharisees, to assume that Jesus is telling me to be humble. That’s a good lesson for me, and I suspect for many of us who are part of the privileged, majority population. Most of us probably aren’t too intimidated by the challenge of claiming the best seats. But I wonder about those who have been relegated by our culture to the back rows. I wonder if someone who has experienced racism or homophobia or economic prejudice hears the story and feels empowered by the revelation that God will lift up the lowly and promote those who have been at the back of the line to the VIP seats. This is more than good news: it is a revolutionary pep-talk for the poor and the powerless.
It seems to me that this lifting up is something that we who are privileged can do on God’s behalf. We can look for the people who hang back in the shadows and offer them the best seats. We can adopt God’s preferential care for the marginalized and oppressed. We can take a step back so that others can take a step forward. And not only can we, but we should, because the sin of entitlement, the abuse of power wrought by the people occupying the best seats has brought our world to a point where the oceans are dying of poison, the forests are being set ablaze, and the climate is becoming ever more extreme. Our demand for convenience, for beef, palm oil, fossil fuels and other resources have brought our world to the brink of destruction. It’s time for those who have exalted themselves to be humbled. It’s time to go out and invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to the party, because the ones in the front seats have failed as stewards of God’s banquet.
At the beginning of this service we prayed a Collect which addresses God as the author and giver of all good things. God gives us life as a free gift, to use or abuse as we wish. The same goes for the world we live in. What if we were to take our cue from God? What if we were to commit ourselves to sharing these precious gifts by limiting our demand for the commodities whose production depletes and damages the planet? What if we were to extend the same privileges and freedoms that we enjoy to all of God’s children, without regard for status or identity? Perhaps then we would find ourselves living abundantly, living the way God calls us to live. On this Labor Day weekend, that’s something worth working for.
September 1 2019
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges