Sirach 10: 12 – 18
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.
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. There is of course the Last Supper, the supper at Emmaus, and the account of the Risen Lord eating broiled fish in the Upper Room. 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.
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.
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.’
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.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.
Luke 14: 1
Luke 15: 11ff
Luke 22: 7ff
Luke 24: 13ff
Luke 24: 36ff
Luke 14: 7
Luke 14: 8 – 9
Luke 14: 11
TEC, Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 305
The kingdom of God as a great dinner, as banquet, is an old image. 700 years before Jesus, Isaiah wrote that one day God would make a feast of rich food and well-aged wines for all peoples. At that time, God would also destroy death and wipe away all tears.[i]
Over time, a few groups reinterpreted Isaiah’s vision inserting limits, saying it was not for everyone but rather for good religious folk, those who kept all the religious laws, not for unbelievers, not for foreigners.[ii] Likely some reclining at the dinner with Jesus were expecting him to affirm the reinterpretation: Blessed are the righteous, those who keep the rules, who (like us) will be worthy to be welcomed to God’s party.[iii]
Instead, Jesus tells this story. “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many.” One invites, get confirmations, and from that number prepares appropriate food. When the food is ready, guests are invited a second time to come over, like as we say “now come to the table.”
Contrary to all custom, the guests refuse, giving ridiculous excuses. “I bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it.” Yet anyone would look at a piece of land extensively before buying. “I bought five yoke of oxen, and I have to go try them out.” Yet oxen must work well together yoked. It would be foolish to buy without testing them first. The third says, “it’s my wedding night. I can’t come.” These are not: I’m so sorry. Something I couldn’t have foreseen just came up. These are absurd. They are offensive, public insults to the host.[iv]
For good reason, the master of the house became angry. One rightly expects retaliation, or cutting off relationship, or withdrawing and stewing. When you or someone you love is insulted, threatened, hurt or attacked, what stirs in you? How do you want to respond, or what do you find that you do with your anger? Right the wrong with revenge. Fight back with force. Wound with words. Hit to hurt. Shame.
(for contextual notes about this passage in the arc of Mark’s Gospel, see the end of this sermon)
Picture this: Jesus and his disciples are traveling on a hot and dusty road from Galilee – the territory in the north where he was raised and where he has been teaching and healing – to Jerusalem, the holy city in the south that is the center of Jewish faith and practice. He has deliberately set out to go there, “setting his face towards Jerusalem,” knowing full well its dangers, and the opposition he is certain to face there.
Along the way, he has revealed to his disciples that he must suffer and be put to death by his enemies, but that God will raise him to life again. These words confuse and frighten them and they repeatedly demonstrate their failure to understand not only the meaning of this prediction, but also who he is and what he has been teaching them. They seem not to have grasped at all the concept of the “kingdom” of which he has been speaking – an “upside-down kingdom” in which the first are last and the last are first, in which to lose one’s life is to gain it, and in which the greatest is the servant of all.
Just now they have been arguing amongst themselves over who will be the greatest in the kingdom which they are sure he will establish once he arrives in Jerusalem and defeats his foes. Jesus corrects them and tells them plainly that in God’s kingdom “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then, we are told, “he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’” (Mk 9:35-37). For Jesus, children are a sacrament of God’s presence and of his presence and are therefore to be protected and loved.
a sermon for the Feast of the First Book of Common Prayer
I’m thinking today of our friend, Dick Mahaffy, as we celebrate the feast that marks the publication of the first Book of Common Prayerin the Church of England in the year 1549. Dick is an Episcopal priest, a graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School, and a member of the Fellowship of Saint John. He is also profoundly Deaf, and has been since birth. He currently serves as the President of the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf (E.C.D.), an association of Episcopal churches that minister to and with Deaf people throughout the United States. I’m reminded of him today because I think this feast would be one that he would especially value.
The 1549 Book of Common Prayer was the first book of services written in English, the language of the people. As such it was a powerful sign that the liturgy belonged to the people and not just to the educated priests who could read and speak Latin. It was an invitation for all to participate in the worship of the Church with full comprehension of what was being said, for all to join in the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” of the Eucharist in their own tongue, for all to be not merely spectators but actual participants in the Church’s worship. The publication of the Book of Common Prayer in the English language in 1549 was an act of inclusion.