Room at the Table – Br. James Koester

Sirach 10: 12 – 18
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16 
Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14 

If you are anything like me, (and I can already hear some Brothers muttering, please no, one James is already one too many, the last thing we need is a roomful of people like him) but if you are like me, you have spent the past decade (yes, DECADE), of your life waiting for the release of another programme on PBS or Netflix. First, it was Downton Abbey that we waited for. For six years we waited patiently each fall until the new season was released shortly after the New Year. Now, we wait, and wait for Netflix to release the next season of The Crown.

I’ve enjoyed both Downton Abbey and The Crown, partly because they have fed my fantasy life, but mostly because I have been fascinated, not always with the story line, but with the attention to detail. One of the things which has held my attention, has been all the care shown around the preparation for great occasions, even if it was only the Crawly family sitting down to dinner. Watching Carson measure the distance between the edge of the table and the bottom of the wineglass, or seeing Tommy Lascelles on The Crown, eye the great seating charts used for state occasions, and moving an individual a few seats up or down depending on their rank and station, has been a wonderful study in detail.

Now few, if any of us, will ever dine at Buckingham Palace, or take the care to measure the placement of our glasses when we set the table for dinner at home, but there isn’t all that great a leap between what we have been watching thanks to PBS, or Netflix, and today’s gospel from Luke, or even some of our own behaviour.

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.[1]

Even the casual reader of Luke’s gospel will become aware that Luke fills his gospel with stories about meals, and great banquets. We have this meal today. In the next chapter there is the banquet held by the father on the occasion of the return of the prodigal[2]. There is of course the Last Supper[3], the supper at Emmaus[4], and the account of the Risen Lord eating broiled fish in the Upper Room[5]. Luke fills his gospel with stories of meals, so much so, that for Luke we can stay that the meal is a sign, and foretaste, and announcement of the breaking in of God’s reign, the heavenly banquet which we will all share, and the establishment of the kingdom of God, here and now. Just as in Downton Abbey and The Crown, meals in Luke’s gospel are wonderful occasions, and occasions to watch people in order to see their real motives.

When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable.[6]

All this talk of meals, and banquets, and watching people, reminded me of an event in my own life.

I was a brand new deacon, not long ordained, and finally serving in my first parish as the Assistant Curate. Shortly after my arrival in the parish, a couple invited me to dinner. Their family was coming, and they thought that this would be a good opportunity for me to meet them, and get to know them. I arrived in my new clerical collar, grey flannel trousers and tweed jacket, looking every inch the new Curate. There was a very pleasant half hour or so, as we enjoyed drinks and nibbles in the garden, and I chatted with a number of others. When our hostess called us to dinner, I followed the crowd into the dining room, looking forward to more conversation and a wonderful meal. Imagine my shock and horror when my hostess turned to me and said, Oh, James, we have put you in the kitchen with the grandchildren. We thought that you would be good with young children.

‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.[7]

It would be easy to dismiss this parable of the meal, as just an easy bit of social advice: when someone invites you to their house for dinner, don’t assume that you are the guest of honour, and take by right the seat of privilege. But neither Luke nor Jesus use these parables and stories of meals and banquets, simply as occasions to discuss social etiquette. There is a lot more going on here than that. In his gospel, Luke uses meals in a number of different ways. One of the ways in which he uses them, is to enable Jesus to make rather cutting comments about people’s unbridled pride, sense of privilege, and ambition. But Luke also uses meals to show how Jesus is turning people’s social expectations about the kingdom of God, upside down.

So, this story is about so much more, than social etiquette. It is a reminder of our natural tendency simply to assume certain rights and privileges, based on who, we at least think, we are. Much of our un-thought out behaviour stems from assumptions we make about ourselves. Just as that new deacon assumed certain things about himself, and his place in the scheme of things on that occasion, we assume certain things about ourselves, and what is ours by right.

But that is not the way it is in the kingdom of God, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’[8]

Sadly, we live in a world and a culture that makes assumptions all the time about an individual’s worth and dignity all the time. I was insulted that day being sent to eat in the kitchen with the grandchildren, believing that my place was in the dining room, thinking that those with whom I was to eat, were below my dignity, and forgetting that they too have a place set for them at the heavenly banquet.

When we get caught up in our own pride, and privilege, and entitlement, as did the Pharisees at the dinner party Luke tells us about in today’s gospel, and as I did as a new deacon that afternoon years ago, we lose sight of the dignity of those with whom we have been invited to dine. When we are concerned only with our own dignity, we forget about the inherent dignity of others. They too have a place set at God’s bountiful table, where there is room and enough for all.

In our baptisms we pledged, with God’s help, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and [to] respect the dignity of every human being.[9]But we cannot do that, if we are constantly elbowing people out of the way, in order to get what it is we think we are owed. We cannot do that, if we fail to see the image of God in the faces of those whom we deem to be insignificant, or least, or last.

Today’s gospel doesn’t come down to us from a book of etiquette about rules for every social occasion imagined (although if I had read it before going to dinner that day, I might have saved myself some embarrassment). Rather it is about how to live in the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ parable about choosing the lowest spot at the banquet table must have touched a raw nerve among the Pharisees, just as it should us. But again, it is about more than simply social etiquette or good manners, and a lesson about not elbowing our way to a seat of privilege at the dinner table. It is also about not elbowing our way into the kingdom of God.

Just as we make assumptions about our rightful place in the scheme of things, so too do we make assumptions about our place in the kingdom. I made certain assumptions that day about my place, and where I deserved to sit, largely based on the collar I wore around my neck. But as I have reflected on that experience over the last 40 years, I wonder about what other assumptions I am making, not about my place at the dinner table, but about my place at the heavenly banquet, and where and with whom I sit.

There is a great debate going on in the world today, and not just in this country, about who deserves a place at the table and where, as millions in India discover they are not actually citizens of the country where they have lived for generations; as Britain wrestles with the implications of Brexit; and as people of colour in this country are told to go back where they came from. The elbowing our way into places of privilege, and entitlement, is not confined to the Pharisees described by Luke, and challenged by Jesus, because it is happening even now as people are elbowed out of place, based on any number of factors. But into this melee, Jesus comes and pours over us the waters of Baptism. Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
This is the challenge of Baptism, as Jesus reminds us that there is another way to live, the way of humility, love, justice, and peace. These are the marks of the kingdom of God, and every time we swallow our pride, pull in our elbows, sit down in the kitchen, and eat with the grandchildren, something happens, and the kingdom of God takes root in our lives.

[1]Luke 14: 1

[2]Luke 15: 11ff

[3]Luke 22: 7ff

[4]Luke 24: 13ff

[5]Luke 24: 36ff

[6]Luke 14: 7

[7]Luke 14: 8 – 9 

[8]Luke 14: 11

[9]TEC, Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 305

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  1. carol carlson on October 6, 2023 at 11:30

    What a great sermon for the week in which we remember Francis, the Little Poor One, who always sought out the lowest place and found it the place of blessings beyond number. Those of us who follow the ‘Franciscan’ way have this experience again and again – you are so lucky, Br. James, that it came so early in your ‘career’ and helped form your own spirituality. Dining in the kitchen with the kids – assuming that they all weren’t as ‘entitled’ as their elders seem to have been – probably made for a more enjoyable meal than sitting around trying to keep up with people who don’t have sense enough to dine with their own kids! Thank you!

  2. Carney Ivy on October 6, 2023 at 08:41

    Thank you Br. James. There are so many things I cannot change. So many inequalities. But I can always work on myself. Peace to you and all the Brothers.

  3. Laurel Leslie on June 19, 2023 at 17:46

    This is such a wonderful comment on privilege and had me look honestly at myself for assumptions I make base on what I assume I am owed. Thank you for looking honestly humbly and with a sense of humor at yourself and how thi story comes alive to us today.

  4. Dave Lambert on June 19, 2023 at 08:50

    Excellent sermon! Very insightful and applicable.

  5. Bill Palmer on June 19, 2023 at 08:02

    Br. James, this homily rings the bell in so many ways. Thanks for a refreshing and timely look at a familiar text.

  6. Liberty on August 23, 2020 at 08:43

    How very timely this is. The word that jumped out at me was “strive.” It’s not just having a right and reverent heart to which we are called; “strive” is an action verb. So with the grounding of a right heart, we are called, urgently, to act out those baptismal promises.

    And I too feel sure, like Bill, that the children were blessed by your presence!

  7. Dr. Russell K Carter on August 22, 2020 at 12:32

    A few years ago, our church hosted a weekend retreat on racism and reclaiming Jesus. The very first part of the weekend, the moderator walked over to a participant and said, “I see the face of God when I look at you.” This absolutely floored me at the time. By the end of the first morning, I was seeing the face of God in all of the participant’s faces. This uplifted me so much that I have yet to touch the ground. One of the most upsetting aspects of this pandemic is that I cannot meet strangers in the food stores while my wife shops. I meet new brothers and sisters of all ages and races; I see God in each face. What a wonderful way to live!

  8. Barb Liotscos on August 22, 2020 at 11:23

    I feel a sense of outrage at the hostess acting in such a way, I suspect because she thought your ‘collar‘ would stifle conversation among other guests. Truly it is a challenge when we are treated in such a way to let it go and be present and aware in the moment to what we have been given.

  9. Bryan Thompson on August 22, 2020 at 10:56

    We loved this, and this reminded me today, as a gay man, I too have a place at this wonderful and bountiful table with each of you! Thank you!

  10. Elizabeth Hardy on August 22, 2020 at 09:56

    I’m still chuckling, and having flashbacks to my own ill-starred curacy!! Thanx Br James!
    Elizabeth Hardy+

  11. SusanMarie on August 22, 2020 at 07:48

    I have learned much from this sermon today about where my heart is, which often is not in a good place. Assumptions about myself and others that do not promote the Kingdom of God. So often I feel that I’m very aware of all of my misguided ways. Today you gently but clearly showed me things I hadn’t considered.

    I am finding this very challenging in the months prior to the presidential election and in the midst of a pandemic that has become so divisive to the point that wearing a mask or not brings an assumption of who someone will be voting for. Yesterday I saw another sign in a neighbor’s yard promoting a candidate who I will not vote for. In years past, this would have meant a simple difference of opinion. Now, for many of us, it leads to unpleasant judgments and assumptions about who “these people” really are in their hearts and souls. And I am extremely uncomfortable with this. Humility, respect and dignity for and toward every human being brings forth the Kingdom of God… and I have work to do.

  12. ginger Hansen on August 22, 2020 at 06:43

    THANK YOU for your honesty. The evening might’ve been forgettable, if not for your bruised pride. Some of us who chuckle at it have lived/owned the experience and see you as an exemplar of one who goes “on (his) way, rejoicing”.

  13. Bill Burke on September 19, 2019 at 16:20

    I wonder whether your host knew you better than you knew yourself back then. I expect you WERE very good with the grandchildren and made them feel fully included, even if at the time you didn’t feel fully included yourself because of a false sense of self importance. I always enjoy and value your sermons and insights.
    Bill Burke

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