Sunday, August 29, 2010

Assigned seating and other bad ideas . . .

So today I preached on the lectionary passage from Luke 14 & the one from Hebrews 13.  I used and really like The Message version which you can find here: & here:
I never like the written version of my messages as much as the spoken one, usually because I end up adding little pieces (words and wording) here and there.  Oh well.
Here is is:

Most of us have been to weddings and wedding receptions.  One of the most interesting aspects of the wedding reception is always the seating arrangement.  I am not sure if this is the case for you or not, but . . . . As I walk into a wedding reception that has assigned seating, there is this little twinge of anticipation and anxiousness about where I am going to be seated. 
I pick up my name card and hope I’m not off in the corner or at the far end of the room – away from the head table.  The head table, of course is the table where all the most important people (usually the bride & groom & the wedding party) are seated – and the tables immediately next to the head table are usually filled with the other ‘important’ guests.
This image – of the wedding reception with assigned seating – maybe the closest we can come to picturing or understanding how dinners, banquets and parties functioned in Jesus’ society.  So as you listen to Jesus words of advice from the Luke passage this morning picture a wedding reception or some other function with assigned seating.
The first part of Jesus advice in Luke challenges the accepted and practiced social order (choosing the lowly seat at a banquet ran counter to what was done – a large part of what was happening at a meal like that was a reaffirmation of the social order and everyone’s participation and acceptance of that) 
You see, assigned seating at events like this in Jesus’ day were not like a wedding reception – the seats didn’t show who is most important to the bride or who the groom’s favorite relatives are, but rather the seating was about actual perceived importance and worth from a societal perspective. 
Your seat at a dinner like the one from our reading indicated just how much or how little you mattered.  You seat demonstrated your importance or lack thereof. 
The Second part of Jesus advice – the part about who to invite when you are hosting the banquet – takes it several steps further.  Here Jesus is overturning the social order and sitting it on its head.  He is saying to us, it is not enough to not be self-involved and to not be prideful ourselves, to no seek after affirmation and ‘honor’, but we also have the responsibility to actively work to lift others up – especially those that are not in a position to do anything for us. 
I once heard it said – in the context of Jesus’ concern for the hungry & our duty to share with others that: "Bread was important; in fact, where some eat and some do not eat, the kingdom is not present
Jesus has ushered in a new kingdom – a heavenly kingdom with a different set of norms, practices and values.  As children of God that kingdom is part of our inheritance.  Increasing that kingdom – sharing it with others and spreading it wherever we are and wherever we can, is our responsibility as the family of God. 
In sharing the two pieces of ‘etiquette’ advice one right after the other.  Jesus is telling us that we do indeed need to change our thinking – but changing our thinking isn’t enough. 
Jesus calls us to allow our transformed minds to transform our actions and our lives.  And in so doing transform the lives and the world around us.
As we all know, all of this talk of change and the upheaval of the social order does not sit well with everyone.  In fact, it is the insistence on this kind of change that eventually leads to his death.
What Jesus does in calling for this change in thinking and in behavior is incredibly profound: He dares not only to stand outside the social order of his day; he dares not only to call that social order – and all social orders – into question; but he also says these things are not of God.
Jesus proclaims here and throughout the gospel that in the kingdom of God there are no pecking orders. None.  He simply extends the kingdom to us and we either accept the offer to come into the royal family of God or not.
And while that sounds at first blush like it ought to be good news, it throws us into radical dependence on God's grace and God's grace alone. We can't stand, that is, on our accomplishments, or our wealth, or positive attributes, or good looks, or strengths, or IQ, or our movement up or down the reigning social (pecking) order.
There is, suddenly, nothing we can do to establish ourselves before God and the world except rely upon God's desire to be in relationship with us and with all people.
Which means that we have no claim on God; rather, we have been claimed by God and invited to love others as we've been loved.
Just last week I had an interesting experience as I travelled back from my continuing education retreat in Colorado.        I was sitting alone in the van, waiting for the shuttle to begin its journey to the Denver airport so I could head back home.  As we were getting ready to leave a man in his late 50’s or early 60’s hopped into the seat in front of me and quickly and pleasantly introduced himself.  It wasn’t more than a minute later that he started up a conversation with me.
I quickly found that his family was half-jewish, half-catholic; that he had three grown children (2 boys and girl) and that he was a venture capitalist who was doing quite well for himself.  What followed, for the entirety of the shuttle ride (an hour and ½) was a in-depth and interesting conversation about faith, doubt, organized religion and the state of the world in general.
One of the most interesting aspects of our conversation was just how much he bristled (more than that really) every time I mentioned Jesus and implied that we (or more specifically he) might in any way NEED Jesus or anyone or anything else. 
But how at the same time He kept asserting the need for religion for its social value.  Especially for ‘those people’ that need it to get by or that ‘need it’ to be taught the proper way to act & live.
You see, He was quite happy where he was in his life and quite confident that he got there on his own – and didn’t want to entertain any other thoughts – but he also thought that seemingly everyone else around him needed some religion to ‘keep them in line’
Now, it was initially very easy for me to criticize this man and see his shortsightedness and even to view him as a hypocrite.
But then I thought, ‘how different am I?’  ‘How different are we?’
We know about God and assent to a certain amount of his power or authority, but we still want our relationship with God on our own terms and we still want to judge ourselves (and others) by what we have done.
Especially if we are sitting here – in a church on a Sunday morning – we like the idea of some sort of social order, some reward or recognition for what we are doing with our time and our lives!  It is, after all, only fair.  Right?
But In his ‘etiquette lesson’ in Luke (reinforced by the writer of Hebrews) he is throwing all of that out the window.  Telling us that in the kingdom of God there is no social hierarchy – an ranking order of importance that we much be slotted into and abide by - and that it isn’t about where you sit but who you serve and in whose name you serve!  

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