Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
I’ve been to a lot of weddings. It just goes with the territory when you’re a pastor. I’m looking forward to officiating and celebrating the marriage of two of our newer CUCC folk, Lindsay and Jake, next Saturday at the top of Keystone Mountain. Most of the time, when I’m attending a wedding, I know very few of the people present. So added to the awkwardness of trying to look like I know where I am and what I’m doing is the need to find where I am supposed to sit. I’m always grateful when there are place cards provided. Sometimes they are right on the tables, which is fine except it can be quite a challenge to wander through a banquet hall to find a tiny card with your name printed in small, fancy, hard-to-read script. Much better to receive your place card at the door along with the number of the table you are to sit at. But then, of course, finding the table with the right number can be a challenge, as well.
My fear is that someday I will arrive at a wedding reception and have no place card at all. What if in my confusion and uncertainty about protocol I end up sitting down in the place intended for the groom? Or the bride?! How terribly embarrassing it would be to look up from my hors d’oeuvres and have the best man ask me to move to a table in the back of the room.
That’s pretty much the picture Jesus gives us in this little story in Luke 14. It makes me wonder why someone didn’t just write the man’s name on a card and put in on the proper table. Problem solved!
Jesus was inspired to share this parable not because he was a stickler for manners, but because he was distressed by how people chose their seats at a dinner he attended. It really is human nature to want to try to get a good seat, wherever we are. We want to be close to the serving line when the buffet opens. We want to be able to see the action on the stage or the ball field. We want to find a place in the front or the back of the church based on which we think are the really good seats.
None of that is really a problem. I don’t think Jesus would launch into a parable because we have a preference of one place over another or are smart enough to know where to sit at Red Rocks in order to get the best view.
The issue that Jesus is addressing here is the human tendency to exaggerate our own importance in ways that lift or advance ourselves beyond others. The idea that we deserve a special place because of who we are really irritated Jesus and found its way into many of his stories. A bunch of adults assumed that they were more worthy than a group of children, so he put some on his lap and said that the realm of God belonged to them as much as it did to anyone old enough for a driver’s license or Social Security. It was widely believed that Samaritans were morally equivalent to animals and Jesus gave them starring roles in parables and spent quality time with them while his disciples scratched their heads and grumbled. The poor were assumed to have gotten what they deserved, and Jesus had the audacity to say in his Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth.” Those who were so certain that they should sit beside him or have his ear or gain a great inheritance discovered that Jesus really didn’t care if they were of the right age or race or tax bracket. He wanted people to know that God loves and values all persons equally.
That can be a tough message to hear. Like it or not, there is a pecking order than seems to find its way into every system of human relationships. At the core is the belief that we are somehow so special that we are more special than anyone else. It’s human nature to want to elevate ourselves above others, but it’s not the good part of that nature. Jesus commented frequently on the need to keep our pride in self under control. He said here in Luke 14, “The first will be last and the last will be first.” And “Whoever exalts themself will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I saw a cartoon a while back that said “I don’t want to be first or last; I just want to be somewhere in the middle!” Getting lost in the crowd and not having to lead or be noticed sounds good, but Jesus urges us to adopt an active form of downward mobility by choosing to serve others. To metaphorically take the last place.
Several years ago, the New York Times reported on the death of a woman named Judith Dunnington Peabody. Judith Peabody was a woman familiar with the finer things in life. From her childhood, she was immersed in wealth and privilege, and she was engaged in the sort of activities one might expect for a woman of her social standing. She was often in the society pages, sharing space with other women from the world of business and politics. She enjoyed the highest places at the tables she graced. Mrs. Pennington nevertheless scandalized her circle of friends in the 1970s when she befriended a gang of Hispanic youth from East Harlem. Her New York Times obituary describes her in a way that makes me think that she took Jesus’ instruction about whom to invite to your table quite literally. She invited the entire gang to dinner one evening. Her husband recalled the event and said, “The doormen were a little surprised, but it was a great night.” Judith Peabody is most remembered for her volunteer work in the early 1980s with men suffering from AIDS. Very little was known about AIDS at that time. Many feared it could be caught through casual contact, but as one observer stated, “Mrs. Peabody was constant with her hand-holding and consoling.” Friends would say, I can’t believe you’re doing that. We don’t know people like that.”
Judith Peabody understood what privilege meant and the danger of using it to diminish others. She used her privilege to exalt others, to use the words of Jesus.
Last weekend, the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Church of Christ celebrated the installation of our Conference minister, Rev. Sue Art at Camp La Foret. It was a great day, and the preacher for the event was none other than the new General Minister and President of the UCC, John Dorhauer. I had never met him before, and I was impressed by his humor and humility, as well as his abilities as a preacher and storyteller. John Dorhauer’s particular long-term area of interest and study is race relations and specifically the impact of white privilege in our society and in the church. Since he became General Minister in 2015, a new adult curriculum has been developed and is about to be released with the title “White Privilege – Let’s Talk.” My experience and observation has been that it’s a very tough subject to talk about. Those of us who are among the most privileged by virtue of birth, meaning our gender, ethnicity, orientation, or even where we live, often have a hard time comprehending why life is so much more difficult for others who don’t didn’t start with those same advantages.
For most of my ministry vocation, I assumed that the opportunities I had and whatever successes came with them were entirely due to my abilities. My prior denomination moved me up the ladder pretty quickly. I was white and male and Christian and assumed to be straight. When I came out and lost my vocation, I began to consider for the first time what it means to be part of any group that is routinely given a lower place. But I was still white and male and Christian, and there is still much societal advantage in being so. Being married to someone who is not white has also given me an unexpected opportunity to see the subtleties of racism first hand. In regard to Jesus’ parable and what I see as the reality of white privilege, I have to keep asking myself: how do I choose to take the lower place so that others will not only have a seat at the table, but will feast equally from the abundance I have too often taken for granted.
Jesus encouraged us not to take the first place, but to survey the arrangement of all of the tables and recognize that others are just as deserving and should be shown to a place up front. He said that when we throw a banquet, instead of inviting everyone on the “A” list, we should welcome the poor, the physically disabled, and any others whose experience of life is especially challenging. Henri Nouwen, the Dutch writer on spirituality and social justice, wrote that “Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.” How can we create a free space that welcomes another and erases dividing lines if there is only room for us and others like us?
May God’s vision of our world as a feast where everyone shares freely and grows in relationship with one another move us to choose a place of humility so that we may listen to and learn from the experience of others. And by choosing that lower place, may we discover the exceeding joy that come from knowing and loving all the diversity of God’s human family. Amen.