Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2004 (Proper 17, Year C)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on August 29, 2004. 
Based on Luke 14:1,7-14 (Proper 17, Year C).

Jesus would never make it as a party planner. Despite the obvious advantage of being able to turn water into wine, Jesus would never get hired. He just doesn’t understand what it takes to create the perfect party.

The two key ingredients to any successful dinner party (besides the food) are the guest list and the seating chart. And if we read this morning’s gospel it’s quite clear that these aren’t Jesus’ strengths.

To pull off a great party, you need the right guest list. You need a blend of interesting, witty, and engaging people. It always adds some spice if you sprinkle in a few singles with an eye toward matchmaking. An exotic guest of honor is a nice touch — maybe a foreign diplomat or a local celebrity. Ex husbands and wives probably shouldn’t be invited to the same party. And it greatly helps the ambience if the two year olds stay home with babysitters. 

Once you’ve compiled the guest list and received the RSVPs, the next step is to figure out where to seat everybody. Seating charts are an art. You can’t put all the extroverts at one end of the table and the introverts at the other. Because you’ll invariably end up with shouting over here and silence over there. It’s also important to think about who already knows one another, who would enjoy getting to know one another, and who has what in common with whom. The host, of course, sits at the head of the table and then everyone else finds their place with the help of a place card, preferably written in calligraphy.

But if we follow Jesus’ advice from our gospel reading, we’re far from what we’d consider a “successful” dinner party. He has no use for seating charts or any hierarchical seating based on status. He advises guests to find the worst seat in the house and then says something about those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

And he’s not too concerned with the guest list either. He tells the Pharisee at whose house he was dining not to invite friends or relatives or rich neighbors but the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Not a very impressive list of dignitaries in that crowd. And to top it off, he’s a rude guest at someone else’s dinner party; telling his host how to give a suitable banquet is hardly proper etiquette.

Of course the only dinner party we know for sure that Jesus gave was a flop. The Last Supper was not your textbook Miss Manners affair. He only served bread and wine, he washed some people’s feet, and then he abruptly left to go pray. The guest list certainly left something to be desired – a rag-tag group of fishermen, tax collectors, and sinners. Hardly a refined group.

In this passage Jesus is not telling us to neglect our friends and relatives. Or to never invite them over for dinner. But he is warning us against being too comfortable in our interpersonal relationships. To neglect the stranger is to neglect God. To avoid the outcast is to avoid God. To ignore those who are different from ourselves is to ignore God. 

It’s hard to live this out in our lives because we so crave the familiar and fear the unknown. But it’s the posture that allows Paul to remind us in his letter to the Hebrews that when we give hospitality to strangers we may well be entertaining angels unaware. 

I remember every Thanksgiving my mother made a point to include at least one person who was lonely or didn’t have anywhere to go. This drove me and my brother nuts because it changed the whole dynamic of the day. It brought a stranger into our midst, which was always a bit uncomfortable. We wondered why we couldn’t just be a normal family on Thanksgiving. One that concentrated solely on eating a lot of food and watching a lot of football. But nonetheless the message of hospitality and welcome wasn’t lost on us.  I’ve since seen how Christ-like hospitality to strangers can be.  And it can be as simple as extending an invitation for dinner or listening to someone in need.

The reality is that whatever we think about his party planning technique, Jesus Christ is the ultimate host. Christ is the weekly host at the dinner party that takes place at this table. It is a celebration without a seating chart or a guest list. All are welcome at the Lord’s Table; there is no seat of honor. Those we like, those we merely abide, those who drive us nuts, those we know, those who are strangers. They’re all welcome at the banquet of the Lord. Which is what Jesus gave to us through his Last Supper dinner party. Perhaps not the most successful event by our standards. But our standards aren’t always God’s standards. And it’s God’s standards to which we are called to live.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2004

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