One of the years that I was a student at Northwest Missouri State University (the finest division 2 college in all the land) I invited a friend home for Thanksgiving break. Angel and I lived on the same floor of our dormitory and she was from the east coast. Thanksgiving break was short and Angel would have just stayed around had she not come home with me. I was nervous for her to come home with me because she is African American and my grandma was, well….raised during a different time. But, Angel and I were close friends, involved in a lot of the same things. We even had cute nicknames for one another: she was Pepper and I was Salt. The nicknames weren’t because what you think. It’s because she’s black and I’m white (oh….that’s what you thought, huh)? We sat down to a wonderful thanksgiving feast and my Nannie says “someone please pass me some more turkey.” And someone asked her “do you want white meat or dark meat?” And she responded (I think without even thinking) “I don’t care. I’m not prejudiced.”
Today’s gospel reading focuses on two themes: hospitality and humility. One of the things that might help you to understand this reading a bit more is to understand weddings during the time of Jesus. As you may know, they lasted for days. The most important person invited (usually it was a government official) sat in the middle of the table. And this person didn’t necessarily sit, but they were lounging. It helped with digestion. Seating at a wedding was a show of status and wealth. The poorer you were or the less status you had, the more likely you were to be sat far far away from the center of the room. Jesus observes that those invited to a dinner assumed the place of honor. Jesus, being Jesus, challenges these ideas. “What if” he says “those of you who normally sit at the head of the table instead sit at the end of the table and save the head for someone who wouldn’t normally have such an honor?” That kind of thinking is what got Jesus a one way ticket to crucifixion.
I think when we hear this gospel, we often put ourselves in the place of the one offering hospitality. We may think of ourselves as the party thrower, the “inviter” instead of the “invitee.” In many ways, it can be helpful to think of ourselves that way on occasion. It’s good to be reminded that hospitality is a form of ministry. It’s important that people feel welcomed. Hospitality is more than opening a door for someone. Hospitality, when it comes down to it, is helping others to fully live into who God created them to be. Let me give you an example or two.
I said at our semi-annual meeting that I feel like we’re inching closer and closer to an interesting time as church. I’m excited but also scared to death (in a good way, if that’s possible). Because of God, and thanks to the Holy Spirit, we are experiencing an influx of new members, visitors, and maybe just curious passer-bys. Whatever the case may be, if you’ve started coming to church here since I became the pastor (and that means you’re “new”) I want to thank you. You make us better. At the same time, we might be coming close to experiencing growing pains. We might be inching closer and closer to that moment where, if you’ve been here for a long period of time, you may think “this growth thing is great, but these new people are coming, they’re sitting in my pew, things are changing, Pastor is changing things, everything is changing and this isn’t my church anymore.” While I can understand, appreciate, and sympathize with you if that’s how you feel, I also feel it’s my duty to remind all of us that this isn’t “our church.” It’s God’s church. This is where the humility part of today’s Gospel comes in.
Hospitality in this place might look like offering your bulletin to someone who doesn’t have one. Offering to either sit with someone you may not recognize or inviting them to sit with you. Explaining how communion is taken. So many times in church we use “church” language that doesn’t mean anything to anyone outside of these doors. If you used the words “intinction or narthex” outside the church, you’d get strange glances. Offer your hymnal (if there’s not one near by). Introduce yourself. I know this is a tricky subject for some of you. I often hear you worry that if you introduce yourself to someone who’s been coming here for a while then embarrassment and maybe even shame might follow. Take the risk. Blame me if you want. Show people to the bathroom, invite them to coffee, and show them the 43 ways to get downstairs. All of these small things may seem insignificant to you. But to someone else, it takes the pressure off worrying about “doing things right” and instead, being able to be fully present in worship. God created us to be in community; help one another to be a part of this community.
But where this text trips us up is that we’re not the “inviters” to any party, to any table, to anything where God is present and the guest of honor; this is especially true in church. This isn’t your church, our church, or my church; it’s God’s church. It’s not your table, our table, or even my table, this is God’s table. And the thing is, we shouldn’t be sitting at the head of this table, we shouldn’t be sitting at the end where we barely get crumbs, heck, we don’t even deserve to be invited to the table. And yet…yet, because of, and only because of God’s grace do we get an invitation. I don’t invite you to this table, you’re not drug to this table by your parents or spouse, you don’t come to this table out of a sense of guilt or duty. You come because God has invited you.
God invites us, despite ourselves, and not because of who we are, but because of whose we are, to a table and a feast unlike any we could ever have. God invites us, despite everything we have done. God invites us, despite what the world may say about us. God invites us, despite what we may say about ourselves. God invites us when everything else says “you’re not worthy.” God invites us even when we have no clue why we were invited. And God invites us over and over and over again because there’s no such thing as too much grace. One of my favorite hymns is “Chief of Sinners Though I Be.” The words are “Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed his blood for me, died that I might live on high, lives that I might never die. As the branch is to the vine, I am his, and he is mine.” Chief of sinners. Not “captain” or “sergeant” or anything else. Chief, the biggest one there is. But, God, who knows that because of our sins we are: poor in spirit, crippled by our sins, lame thanks to constant temptations, and blind to the hurting world around us, invites us to a feast. In that moment, it is about you. The body of Christ, hung on a cross, beaten, bruised, mocked, stabbed, and stripped bare: given, for you. The blood of Christ, poured out, spilled, wasted, drained out: shed, for you. In that moment, there’s nothing more humbling, nothing that can knock a full grown man (or woman) to their knees more than “for you.” None of us deserve it. And we sit at the head of the table because that’s where God puts us.