“Invitations to All”
August 28, 2016 – 15th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C
People say to me “you must love conducting weddings.” My response is usually, “I actually prefer other facets of ministry.” Part of the reason I am not overjoyed about weddings is because of the assigned seating at receptions. I am inevitably assigned to the table with Uncle George, who by time the reception has started, is a good way towards drunk. He usually has some very inappropriate comments to make towards women in ministry. He makes some lewd comments about the bride’s dress. He tries to crack an inappropriate joke or two, and is getting progressively more inebriated. I am not having any fun. And then I am asked to say grace. I sit back down in my assigned seat and Uncle George usually tells me I’m a “Pretty little thing, for a minister!” Oh yes, the joys of assigned seating at wedding receptions! Once upon a time, seating was a free-for-all and guests would arrive and find a place wherever there were empty places. Now, it seems that the seating arrangement is as carefully plotted out as a major military operation.
For months in advance of the date, the wedding couple arduously attend to the seating arrangement that will result in the greatest degree of harmony on the big day. “You can’t put Uncle Charlie with Aunt Beatrice! All hell with break out!” the haggard bride proclaims. “Cousin Dorothy hasn’t spoken to anyone in her family for years, so where do we put her?” asks the beleaguered groom. It’s no wonder more people are opting for small weddings in Mexico.
If Jesus were a wedding planner, he would no doubt encourage the seat-yourself rule. The guests who had read the gospel text would no doubt hang around by the door, and make sure everyone else had a seat first, then they would humbly take what was left. Me – I’d offer to help with the serving.
Hearing today’s Gospel text is one of those times when you can’t help but say “halleluiah, there is a place for me!” It is full of acceptance, welcome and possibility. But before we get too settled in our complacency, let’s remember that this acceptance is for the hurting, the poverty stricken, the ill, and the prisoner – just as much as it is for those of us who are comfortably well off, in committed relationships, and are welcomed in the most elegant places of Penticton.
In the children’s game “musical chairs,” there is always a scramble when the music stops. Only the fittest and quickest survive the game by claiming their chair before anyone else can. But in God’s economy, when the music stops there is no scramble, for God provides a chair for every guest, a seat for each one at the Table.
Let’s go back to our scripture and take a closer look at what this meal with the Pharisees has to tell us. It is not a family gathering or a festival celebration but a symposium in which guests eat with a leading teacher. Jesus has been invited to dine – an invitation that would have included an expectation of appropriate behaviour as well as a willingness to discuss theological and moral issues.
In this setting Jesus does two very unconventional things to upset his host. As we heard last week he heals on the Sabbath. Second, Jesus goes on to criticize the accepted standard of meal etiquette. At such dinners, guests were always assigned places that indicated their social standing as well as their relationship to the host. Jesus undermines the importance of the entire value system by quoting from Proverbs and urging guests not to trouble themselves with vying for places of honour. After all, true honour – and by the way the Greek word “doxa” also means glory – the true honour is the glory that only God has and only God can bestow. Similarly, Jesus tells those who host dinners not to invite guests who can reciprocate their invitation, which was a standard expectation then just as much as it is now. Instead Jesus encouraged them to invite those who cannot pay them back – People who were the social outcasts such as the blind, lame, crippled, and poor who were excluded not only from the social circuit but from community life by virtue of their physical and financial limitations – those were the one’s that Jesus included. Jesus’ exhortation to invite those who cannot reciprocate is an invitation to ignore societal norms and accept God’s invitation to create a community that invites and includes everyone. Then as now, Jesus’ teaching calls for radical changes not only in what we do but also in how we think of others and ourselves.
As you know I am deeply committed that no one should be in a situation of eating alone on a family holiday unless they choose to. That is why I open my home and invite you to join me for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinner. Some times we have a fascinating array of interesting folk. Some singles, some doubles and some in-betweens (to quote a favourite hymn) sit around the table and share stories and good food. Not all of us have wealth – not all of us are in committed relationships -some of us are grieving the loss of loved ones – some have had health troubles – some are struggling to just get by – but all feel accepted and welcomed. There is no assigned seating. Sometimes you even have to eat off your lap. But that is O.K. We become family for one another for that period of time and it is good!
A letter was written to Miss Manners, in the local paper. “Dear Miss Manners: My wife and I are planning a party, but even a well appointed home such as ours presents some limitation. For reasons of space, we must keep the guest list within reason. How can we be certain that we have invited the right people? We do not want to offend any of my husband’s business associates, but everyone knows what too many stuffed shirt types can do to a party. In addition, many of our friends from church have less than sparkling incomes and we do not want to invite them and them to feel terribly out of place. Oh, I should also add that we wonder what to do with the pastor. You know how ministers can be at parties. Some of them can be real wet blankets and no one really feels all that comfortable around the minister. Please give us some advice on who to invite and some tips about how to balance the guest list.”
There is an old legend that I have told before, and I’m sure you have heard from others, but it bears repeating. A man died and went to Paradise. He was shown 2 banquet rooms and invited to choose which one he wanted to spend eternity in. At first he could see no difference, until the feast was laid and the guests took their places at the table. In one room, the guests all began to moan and weep because they had their eating utensils fastened to their arms in such a way that they could not bend their elbows to feed themselves. In the other room, the guests had their arms restricted in the exact same way, but they went quickly to work to work feeding each other with great joy and warm fellowship. Said the host of the banquet, “This is the difference between Heaven and Hell.”
We are people who are being fed with good, nutritious food. Others are there to assist us. There are plenty of seats to go around. The invitation has been circulated. It says “Come to the banquet. It is open to anyone who hungers for God’s grace. There is a place for you, if you but acknowledge your neediness. Come and be blessed.” Amen.