Lutheran churches are all alike.
OK, let me rephrase. They aren’t ALL alike, in all aspects, of course. But in one particular aspect, I think it’s fair to say that, except for a few exceptions, they are all alike.
What is that aspect, you may ask? Anyone want to wager a guess…?
It’s our sitting arrangement. Oh, I don’t mean what we sit in, because I’ve worked in churches with pews, with chairs, with pillows on the floor. And I don’t mean the seating layout, because I’ve worked in churches with a semi-circle of pews like ours, but also churches with rows of pews facing forward, or chairs in a full circle or oval, or chairs in rows facing each other.
I mean where we sit. No one ever wants to sit in the first few rows, no matter how the seating is laid out! It gives me a complex. Do I smell? Do I sweat a lot? Do I spit? Is it like Sea World—the first few rows may get wet?
I was wondering about this interesting phenomenon of everyone sitting in the back at church when I read our Gospel reading from Luke chapter 14.
To the status-obsessed Pharisees, or the religious leaders during Jesus’ time, where you sit during a meal is a huge deal. They would jockey into position, wanting to sit as close to the host as possible, in the places of honor. Quick, get those honor spots! They’re going fast!
But Jesus tells them—when you’re invited to a banquet, don’t sit in the places of honor right away. Because, what if the host tells you that you’re taking someone else’s seat, who is more important than you?? Then you are embarrassed and have to move to a lower seat. And then everyone there knows you aren’t as important as you think you are. It’s like a very embarrassing game of musical chairs.
Instead, Jesus says to take a lower seat right away, so that the host can say “friend, move up higher” and then you will be moved to a more important and honorable seat.
Well, I’m so glad all of you took Jesus’ words to heart! You are living out exactly what Jesus said! That’s why you don’t sit in the front, right? You want to be invited to move to the places of honor.
Well, here is your invitation. “Friends, move up higher!” Come on down and sit here up front in the places of honor, Anyone? Anyone? Well, it was worth a try.
As is usually the case with Jesus’ stories and teachings, his reason for speaking really isn’t about seating arrangements. He just uses that to make his point. What he is really talking about is being humble. Humility. He ends his teaching on where to sit with a line some of you may have heard before: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Being humble. It’s a virtue we value much of the time, right? Whenever we meet a famous person who is “real”, or someone who is very gifted and “real” or not stuck on themselves, we usually say, “they’re so humble!” Or the opposite—if someone thinks too highly of themselves, we usually say “they need to be taken down a peg or two, or “they should eat some humble pie!”
I used to watch the TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch—it was based on the old comic book character. And the episodes usually had Sabrina try to fix something in her life using magic, and things go awry, and then her aunts usually help get her out of trouble using counter magic. Although it was highly predictable, I enjoyed watching to see what hijinks would ensue whenever Sabrina cast a spell.
Well I remember one episode when Sabrina was sick of doing things well and not getting credit for it. People either wouldn’t notice, or someone else would get the credit. Anyone relate to that?? So she cast a spell to be recognized for the things she did well.
So this spell started out OK at first. People thanked her more, people praised her more. But of course the spell gets out of hand, and eventually the whole school is shut down for an award ceremony—in which Sabrina is given all the awards! It’s too much, so she calls in her aunts to help.
And what made me laugh was the antidote to her spell was actually eating a literal piece of magic humble pie. Her aunts hand her the piece of pie with a fork, and she takes a bite. “Ew, that tastes awful!” she exclaimed. One of her aunts replied, “Humility doesn’t always taste good.”
Being humble and eating that humble pie doesn’t always taste good for us, either. We like to think we are good at things—and we are! But being humble is the way to go, as Jesus says. Thinking too highly of yourself means you’ll probably be taken down a peg or two. But if you’re more realistic about your gifts, and do what you do well without lording it over anyone else, then you are living more in line with what God wants.
Jesus doesn’t stop there, though. After taking about the importance of humility while attending a banquet, he transitions into talking about what to do when hosting a banquet.
Jesus says: “When you give a luncheon or a 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. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Does this mean we should never invite family or friends over, and go out and get people off the street instead? Probably not—Jesus is exaggerating to make a point. He is telling the Pharisees that rather than always inviting people that can give them something in return, they should also invite those people who can’t give anything in return, the people who are on the fringes of society. Jesus is telling them to engage in radical hospitality.
And really, humility and hospitality are linked. In order to be a host, you have to be somewhat humble—in that, you are putting others’ needs before your own. I mean, if you have people over for dinner, you aren’t going to pour yourself a glass of wine and not offer any to your guests! You would offer them some wine first, and after they are served THEN you pour yourself some wine.
Some people don’t get this memo in other aspects of their life, though. When I was on internship in the Albany area, my supervising pastor and I noticed that there was one particular traffic light right down the road from the church that people consistently ran the red light, many seconds after the light changed. We thought maybe there was a delay with the lights. So we actually timed them. He sat in his car at a bank on one side of the light, and I stood at the Taco Bell on the other side of the light (that’s not sketchy at all!)—and together we figured out that no, there was no delay. People were just running the red light all the time, for many seconds—even though it was a green light on the other side and the people going the opposite direction were waiting to go.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve ran a few red lights in my time. But when people do it consistently, over and over again, they are basically saying their time and travels are more important than yours. Not very humble or hospitable.
Now before you chalk it up to those mean people in Albany, I would like to offer an example here in Western NY. We have this thing where, when you need to turn, you wait until the person going straight is almost right to you, AND THEN YOU TURN IN FRONT OF THEM. You know what I’m talking about! Even in a snowstorm, people do the Western NY turn thing. And it must cover all of Western NY, because people not only do it here in the Buffalo area—they also do it in the Jamestown area, where I served before I came here. It’s a Western NY epidemic!! So, I would say that humility and hospitality is most definitely NOT valued—at least in driving!
Jesus is saying that we are called to be both humble by not deeming ourselves overly important, and hospitable to those who society has deemed unimportant. Being important in our world is very different than being important in God’s kingdom. God says everyone is of value and important. Our world does not. Our world has hierarchies based on net worth, race, gender, sexuality, etc.
But Jesus tells us that through humility and hospitality, we are important to him. Jesus is the ultimate host, humble and welcoming to all people.
In fact, Jesus was SO humble and SO hospitable to us all that he took it to the extreme-- he died for us. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, chapter 2 that Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
Our God is a God who humbled himself to the point of dying on the cross so that we would be welcomed into God’s kingdom, no matter what. Talk about humility and hospitality!
So Jesus calls to us in his humility and hospitality, calls us to follow him, to be his hands and feet, to humble ourselves and show others hospitality in his name. We are invited to be a part of Jesus’ welcome to all people as we ourselves welcome all people. Jesus calls us to be humble and welcome and love everyone, no matter what our world tells us about importance and hierarchies and self-worth.
And THAT is the most honorable seat of all. Amen?