(Luke 14:1, 7-14)
The gospel reading for today presents Jesus going to a meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees. Jesus is often going to a meal or at a meal in the gospels. We have to have food to survive, and we usually eat food with others at a meal, so it is no surprise that Jesus does this often. This time, however, the fact that Jesus is at a meal makes his teaching even more poignant.
His teaching at this meal is about how people behave when they’ve been invited to an important meal, and about who is to be invited to the meal to begin with. He watched how people were behaving and saw that they were choosing the places of honor at which to sit. Have you ever been to a gathering and tried to get a seat next to the people you wanted to talk to? It’s not much fun to get stuck sitting next to someone who holds no interest for you, or who is boring, or who talks incessantly, or who doesn’t listen well, or whatever. So you try to get a seat next to the people whom you will enjoy. I’m not going to ask you to raise your hand and admit to doing this, but it’s something we do. Or, we try to sit next to the person who is the center of attention at the party. We want to be where the focus of attention will be.
Well, Jesus taught that we shouldn’t be concerned with such things. We shouldn’t focus on what we would like, but sit wherever we are able and let the host or hostess manage the seating arrangements. In this way, we won’t invite dishonor and the host or hostess may even honor us when he or she invites us to move to a more desirable seat. And even if he or she doesn’t honor us, God will honor by exalting us, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (14:11).
Jesus has dealt with the guests that are behaving badly by jockeying for seats of honor, and now he moves on to the host of the meal. Next time, instead of inviting his friends, his brothers, his relatives, and his rich neighbors – so that they will invite him in return – he should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. If he does so, he will be blessed, because they cannot repay him. He will be blessed not by people, but by God, at the resurrection of the righteous.
At this earthly meal, Jesus illustrates what a heavenly meal is like. People do not worry about seating arrangements and places of honor, for all are honored. The guests don’t only include those who are friends and family members and people of importance; they include also those whom we might not even know, those who may not have a table at which to sit and eat a meal, those who do not belong to the important circles of society. We set aside our needs and meet the needs of others, but in doing so we find that our needs are met by God: He exalts and blesses us.
Jesus has watched and assessed the behavior of the host and the guests, and now we’re going to take a look at Jesus’ behavior. The Bible Commentary I like to use when I prepare for a sermon comments on Jesus’ behavior, stating that Jesus acts aggressively: he “repudiates the guests who jockey for the [places of honor] at the meal,” and “instructs the host whom to invite to his next meals.” And the commentary goes on to state that Jesus is, in fact, a rude guest: “By both ancient and modern standards, Jesus might be called a rude guest.”
As I pondered Jesus’ description of who would be invited to a heavenly meal, and then thought about Jesus, the Pharisee host, and the other guests at the earthly meal, I began to see that the characters in this gospel passage are like the members of a church. There is Jesus, the wise and yet rude member; there are the Pharisees, their relatives and friends, and the other socially prominent people, the so-called “insiders”; and there are those who are not so socially prominent, the so-called “outsiders,” who in Jesus’ time were the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind (in other words, the people who couldn’t make a living and so couldn’t function in society in the usual way).
The church, the body of Christ, at it’s best, contains all these types of people and more. It is a mish-mash of people who are not looking out for themselves, but for each other. And this looking out for each other isn’t easy, because the members of the church are asked to be in communion with people who are not necessarily like them. Not only are they not necessarily like each other, some may be downright annoyed by certain others, and some may not even like certain others, and yet they are called to be in communion – in relationship – with each other because they are the members of a church, the members of the body of Christ, and, by gosh, God wants them to love each other – even that wise, rude one who thinks he has all the answers and tells everyone what to do. Yeah, they’ve got to love that one, too.
As you probably know by now, I spent a number of years attending Al-Anon, which is a 12-Step program for people who have been affected by someone else’s alcoholism. In fact, I had my “spiritual awakening” during my first year attending Al-Anon meetings, which led, eventually, to my attending divinity school and becoming a minister, so you could say that Al-Anon played a pretty important role in my life. I know someone who would have benefitted greatly by attending Al-Anon meetings, also. But when I suggested that she try attending some meetings, she said, “But they’re so boring. People say the same things over and over again.” She was right; people do come to meetings and say the same things over and over again. It can be challenging to sit and listen to people as they work things out in their lives and struggle for spiritual growth. Spiritual growth doesn’t usually happen overnight. It usually takes time, a lot of time. And during that time, people tend to struggle with the same issues over and over again. To sit and listen to them do so can be boring. But just because something feels boring doesn’t mean it is boring. If we sat and watched a caterpillar turn into a butterfly it would feel boring, but the process isn’t really boring – it just takes time. In fact, the process is really exciting. I mean, a caterpillar forms a cocoon, rests inside of it for a while, and comes out a butterfly! It’s an amazing process!
It’s a similar process in Al-Anon meetings. People come, the meetings act like a sort of cocoon of spiritual practices and principles with which the people surround themselves, they rest inside of those spiritual practices and principles for a while, and they come out a butterfly! It’s not boring at all, in reality! But because it takes time, and we have to sit there and watch during that time, it feels boring.
I realized, after this person refused to go to Al-Anon meetings because they are too boring, that sitting there and watching while people wrestle with spiritual practices and principles is what witnessing is, and that witnessing is one of the things that the spiritual life requires of us. It is part of being a member of a community; it is part of being in communion with one another; it is part of being the body of Christ; it is part of being a member of a church. It is, in fact, a huge part of loving each other. We sit and watch each other’s lives and witness what goes on, providing the cocoon in which people feel safe enough to face what comes their way and make the best of it and maybe even emerge as a butterfly.
And we do so with people we like, with people we don’t like, with people who annoy us, with people who delight us, with people who make us angry, with people who give us peace, with people who we find fascinating, with people we find boring, with people just like us, with people not like us at all, with the rich, with the poor, with the healthy, with the ill, and so on. We do so with the modern-day equivalent of the people in the gospel passage we are discussing today: the pompous Pharisee, the wise know-it-all, the honor-seeking guests, the poor, the lame, the crippled, and the blind. And we come to love each other despite any other feelings we may have about each other. As is said in Al-Anon meetings, “You may not like all of us, but you’ll come to love us in a very special way.” As we witness, we come to love, for how can we not love the caterpillar that is struggling to become a butterfly?
Another way to describe this kind of witnessing is, “the ministry of presence.” Debbie Hall, a psychologist who wrote an entry for the book, This I Believe, describes being present this way: “Presence is a noun, not a verb; it is a state of being, not doing. States of being are not highly valued in a culture which places a high priority on doing. Yet, true presence or ‘being with’ another person carries with it a silent power — to bear witness to a passage, to help carry an emotional burden or to begin a healing process. In it, there is an intimate connection with another that is perhaps too seldom felt in a society that strives for ever-faster ‘connectivity’.”
She first experienced this type of witnessing when a friend’s mother died unexpectedly. She wanted to go and be with her friend, but she didn’t want to intrude on the personal nature of her friend’s grief. She writes, “I was torn about what to do. Another friend with me at the time said, ‘Just go. Just be there.’ I did, and I will never regret it.”
But here’s the unexpected part of witnessing. It may feel like we’re being selfless when we witness, that we’re giving without getting back, and on one level that is true. But just as Jesus said that the humble will be exalted, and the one who invites without expecting to be repaid will be blessed, we find that through the act of witnessing for others we are exalted and blessed. When we show up, worship together, study together, have fellowship together, visit with each other, and witness for each other, we are creating sacred space in which all of us are exalted and blessed. Debbie Hall discovered this, too. She finishes her essay stating, “The power of presence is not a one-way street, not only something we give to others. It always changes me, and always for the better.” Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (Mt. 18:20),” and it’s true. We create this sacred space in which Jesus is present, and when Jesus is present you never know what is going to happen and in what way you are going to be exalted and blessed. By witnessing with and for each other we end up inviting the most important guest of all: Jesus. And there is no better incentive than that to keep coming back. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, August 28, 2016, the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost.
 Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCann, and James D. Newsome. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994, 494.
 “The Power of Presence.” This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men & Women. Edited by Jay Allison, Dan Gediman, and Studs Terkel. Holt Paperbacks. 2007. Also on the internet at http://thisibelieve.org/essay/6647/
Image is from https://clairemusters.com/2015/05/21/church-gods-design-for-caring-community/