Please Take Your Seats

Psalm 81:1, 10-16Luke 14:1, 7-14

We church folk can be particular about our seats. I’d like to do a quick poll here. By a show of hands, how many of you sit in roughly the same seat from week to week in worship?

A friend of mine from the Midwest is pastor of a large Presbyterian church. It’s one of those classic-looking sanctuaries – long and vaulted, with a wide aisle cutting down the middle and transcepts along its sides. The walls alternate dark wood and large, simple stained glass windows. The place is so big that they have numbers on the pews. It’s kind of like going to church at the Fox Theater. A few years ago, the Session decided to notch out pews number thirty-four and thirty-five, about halfway down, so that there would be room for a few of their members in wheelchairs. There was one problem they had not anticipated: pew number thirty-four was Mr. Jessup’s pew. Mr. Jessup was born in that church, was baptized in that church, was raised in that church. Pew number thirty-four was Mr. Jessup’s birthright.

One Sunday morning, Mr. Jessup arrived to find that his pew had been shortened and that his seat had been taken away. Unfazed, he went out into the narthex, grabbed a folding chair that was leaning up against the wall, and put it in the spot where his pew once sat. The next Sunday morning, the chair had been removed, so he went back into the narthex, got another chair, and sat in his assigned spot. The third Sunday, when the ushers arrived to set up the church, they found the folding chair already in its place – now chained and padlocked to the pew. By the fourth Sunday, pew number thirty-four had been swapped with pew number thirty-two. Mr. Jessup got his seat back.

We church folk can be particular about our seats. I remember the little corner pew at First Presbyterian Church where my sister and I sat snugly between our grandparents. And I remember when they removed that pew to make way for one of the TV cameras, banishing us a good three feet away, all the way on the other side of the aisle. But I know that Mr. Jessup and I are not the only ones with these kinds of stories. There are many of us here (we know who we are) who let the pastor when our “reserved seat” gets roped off! And while I haven’t heard of it happening here, there are many variations on the story of the eager visitor who came to church and mistakenly chose a vacant seat that a long-time member considered “theirs.” They were “informed” of their mistake; they didn’t come back, either. We church folk can be particular about our seats.

It could be that there is something in our New Testament lesson this morning that speaks to this tendency of ours to be particular, this parable of the wedding banquet.

The whole context for the story is set in the first verse, where we learn that Jesus has been invited to a Sabbath meal with one of the leaders of the Pharisees. He has clashed with the Pharisees several times already; last week, we heard about the conflict over whether or not it was proper to heal on the Sabbath. As Jesus enters the home of this important public figure, his every move is being watched closely. The same can be said for Jesus, we learn, as he watches them closely. And as they choose their seats, he begins his parable.

In that part of the world, stories always have a meaning. This particular story is meant to convey meaning to the Pharisees about their relative sense of self-importance. And so, the scene shifts to a wedding in a small village. Everyone is invited to a celebration such as this; everyone from this village, as well as the village elders and dignitaries and important families from nearby villages. And each one knows, already, where they should sit. Those in positions of power and respect, such as the religious leaders, get the choice seats. These are the ones near the front, close to the bride and groom. They get the food and wine first. They’re closer to the action. And they’ve arrived at this prime seating location most likely by virtue of birth more than anything else.

There is, in short, a known pecking order. Those with a sense of self-importance sit up front; those who sit near the back arrive knowing that this is their location. The whole society rests on these positions of power, authority, respect, pride. The hypothetical situation Jesus describes, where someone up front gets moved to the back, or where someone near the back gets invited up front, may not have happened often. But the power of the image would not have been lost on his audience. To be humbled so publicly by such a removal would be humiliating. The person would not only have their own sense of self-importance deflated, it would be happening in front of the whole community. The shame of having everyone know that you are not the person of authority we all thought would linger. They would not likely make the same mistake again, and would take their place at the back in the future. They would be brought low, and their humiliation would stick.

Similarly, for the person who assumes their place at the back only to be brought forward, their sudden shift from the margins to a place of importance would have a significant impact on the community. We can imagine the rumblings and murmurs. We can also imagine the mixed sense of embarrassment and elation the person might feel. Yet again, it is happening in front of everyone. The person’s status in society would be forever shifted. They would now know, as would everyone else, that they should take their place toward the front from here on out.

Have you ever had an experience like this? One where you thought you deserved one thing but found yourself getting another, whether it be far below or far above what you expected? What did that feel like? How ready were you to accept what it is that you got? If it was more, did you feel unworthy of the attention, even maybe feeling a bit of a fraud, like the college freshman who is sure that the admissions office made an error in letting them in? And if it was less than you thought you had earned, did you as though you had been slapped in the face, like the employee expecting an end of the year bonus, only to get a “Thank You” note instead?

The implication in Jesus’ parable, of course, is that these people deserved the shift in their social standing. But for each one of us here, by reflecting on our own experiences, knows something of that sense of injustice the humbled or exalted person must feel. And each one of us can imagine how that feeling is amplified by virtue of happening in front of the community.

I’m reminded of a more literal version of this parable in my own life. It was during our time in Palestine where, as you know, Elizabeth and I worked and lived among the Christian community. Our primary work was with the Roman Catholic church in the little village where we were based. We had developed amazing partnerships during our time there. And yet, I was surprised when the Catholic priest invited me to stand next to him during the Mass. I was stunned when this invitation became my permanent place on Sunday mornings. I was floored when, on Easter, he handed me a vessel of communion wafers to distribute to the faithful. I was a stranger, an alien, and a Protestant one at that. And yet, in front of that packed church, I was brought into this position of honor.

These moments happened time and time again. There was the Greek Orthodox priest who literally brought me from the back of the church, where I had taken my place among the non-Orthodox, the place historically referred to as the Narthex, to what would roughly be considered the choir loft; the Greek Catholic priest who asked me to rehearse and recite prayers in Arabic at Sunday services. There was the time in Cairo that Elizabeth and I were attending the service at the Coptic Orthodox church. The liturgy suddenly shifted into English for a while because the Bishop had noticed a couple of Westerners in the congregation and wanted us to feel welcome.

And each time one of these things happened, I remembered this parable of the wedding banquet.

I also vividly remember one time when it didn’t happen. I went back to visit our little village a few years ago. There was a new Catholic priest at the church, but one whom we knew quite well and considered a good friend. I dutifully took my seat at the back, remembering Jesus’ caution about assuming a place up front for yourself. And there I stayed throughout the whole service. And yet, rather than being satisfied with sitting where I knew I belonged, I was upset. I had experienced so many moments of such incredible hospitality, times when I was brought from a low position to one of honor, that I had begun to believe that I deserved it. In my mind, I had already assumed my place would be up front. My humility in sitting at the back was only for show. And while I was the only one who knew it, I felt as though I had been dragged to that back seat and stripped of my dignity in front of the whole congregation. I had taken Jesus’ parable to a whole new level of mental assumption.

It might be tempting to domesticate the meaning of the lesson, that it is simply one about where we choose to sit. And if we do so, we might assume that the moral of the story is that we need to choose another seat for a while, that we might need to be ready to move. And there may be some truth in there. But the gospel is rarely willing to be domesticated so easily.

The parables of Jesus are about the kingdom, the reign of God. They’re meant to show what life is supposed to be like when lived the way that God intends. There’s a part of them that’s always somewhat unrealistic: it would be a rare day in Jesus’ time, or even in ours, when a Pharisee would be moved to a back seat or a peasant or leper moved to the head table. And that utopian vision is probably part of the point: the reign of God is not something that is to be taken for granted. And neither are we let off the hook for things not being the way that God desires. So let’s take to heart what Jesus is saying here, what the shape of this wedding banquet is to which we are invited.

This banquet is a table of community. The whole village is invited, whether our place is at the front or at the back. And while shame may be a word out of favor in our society, through this parable of those lifted up and those removed, we are reminded that we are accountable to one another for how it is that we live in this world which God has created. After all, the reason this community gathers is for a wedding banquet, a celebration of joy and thanksgiving. This banquet is a table of community.

This banquet is a table of humility. We cannot assume a place of self-importance, whether that be a literal place or one we only occupy in our heads. Instead, knowing that we are creatures worthy of dignity, rooted on the bedrock of knowledge that we are created in the image of God’s very self, we must be ready to be those who are eager to serve, just as Christ served. This banquet is a table of humility.

And this banquet is a table of justice. As Jesus ends this parable, he charges the crowd to have feasts and invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Friends, he says, will simply pay you back. You invite them and they invite you and you all eat well together. But these others, the outcasts, the ones who get the scraps at the outer edges of society’s pecking order, they cannot repay you. It is an act of mercy, of kindness, of grace that reflects some of God’s very character. This banquet is a table of justice.

My friends, my sisters and brothers in Christ, my prayer for this church, this congregation, is that our life together would more and more reflect this banquet. As we gather next week to begin our Fall program season, we will gather around this table. May it grow more and more to be that table of community, that table of humility, that table of justice that God so desires. And as it does, we will surely see glimpses of the reign of God.

May it be so.


sermonsMarthame Sanders