Unbound:Part 2

[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/sermons/08-29-10.MP3] How many of you watched the Braves’ game on Friday night? If you read my blog two weeks ago while I wrote about hockey, you might be wondering if I’ve got any other metaphors that don’t have anything to do with sports. Not today.

But anyway, two days ago the Braves were playing the Florida Marlins, trying to recover from their embarrassing loss to the Rockies on Wednesday, where they were up 10-1 and lost 12-10. They weren’t faring very well this night, either. The result ended up being a 7-1 loss for the Braves.

But that’s besides the point. The Braves’ closer and future Hall of Famer Billy Wagner had come into the game in the late innings. This time was a bit unusual; he’s usually there to seal up a win, not staunch the bleeding of a loss. In the midst of his outing on Friday, he strikes out one Mike Stanton, one of the Marlins. Not so remarkable; Wagner strikes out a lot of people. But, it turns out, that was the point. At that moment, he became the all-time strikeout record holder for left-handed relievers. A typically specific baseball stat, almost too focused to really be all that interesting; but it is impressive nonetheless: more than 1000 strikeouts pitching 1-2 innings at a time. Usually, when you break a record in baseball, you toss that ball into home plate and they set it aside for you to take home as a souvenir. The catcher, David Ross, and the umpire, Tim McClelland, both tried to get Billy Wagner to do just that. Wagner refused, and kept on pitching with that ball. He walked the next guy with the same ball, and then, after Hanley Ramirez fouled it down the third base line, Wagner picked it up and tossed it into the stands.

After the game, he was asked about the whole scene, to which he said, “We’re getting our (butts) kicked” – he didn’t say butts; that’s what the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said – “it’s raining, let’s go. It’s stupid. Who in their right mind makes a big deal out of doing something they’re supposed to do in the first place?”

I love that quote, that seemed to come so off the cuff: “Who in their right mind makes a big deal out of doing something they’re supposed to do in the first place?”

Actually, Billy, I think the answer is, most of us.

I think we like to think we’re willing to brush accomplishments aside as “no big deal”. We may even say as much, but that’s usually when people are making a big deal out of them. For most of us, we do like to be noticed:

  • “Yes, indeed, I did get straight A’s this semester, and thank you for noticing.”
  • “My sales numbers are up this quarter, and yes, everyone else’s numbers are down. Thanks for mentioning it. I have been working hard.”
  • “Yes, you’re right; retirement is a big deal. I was kind of hoping for more than a watch, but the farewell party is a nice touch.”
  • “Thank you, Mom. I did clean up my room every day this week, just like you want me to. And I would appreciate it if my allowance would be adjusted accordingly.”

When we do excel, even if it’s in an area where we’re supposed to be excellent, we tend to crave the attention. We expect to be honored, or at the very least, thanked, for doing so.

And it doesn’t have to be as grand as all that. I remember Elizabeth and I were going somewhere, stuck in Atlanta traffic. The right lane next to us was blocked, and cars were trying to merge into our lane. I waited before moving forward, and the car next to me pulled in front of us. I was feeling particularly magnanimous for this generous act, expecting some kind of acknowledgement in return: a wave of the hand, a flashing of the brake lights, something. What I got, instead, was nothing. I don’t remember what I said, but it was probably an ecstatically sarcastic, “You’re Welcome!” To which Elizabeth said, “Let me get this straight: you let that person in front of you not because it’s the right thing to do, but because you wanted them to thank you?”

I’m sure I must’ve had some brilliant retort to her observation, but for the moment, it escapes me. In any case, I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only one here this morning who has borne a grudge, even if only for a few moments, for not being recognized, even if it’s something we ought to do anyway.

So guess what? Jesus is talking to us this morning. In the lesson from Luke, he is wandering from village to village, teaching. And in the custom of that time, he is invited to the house of one of the village leaders, in this case, a Pharisee. As with most wandering teachers, Jesus was being tested. The village notables would gather and ask their visiting guest a series of questions, all of them designed to determine whether or not his teaching was in line with acceptable wisdom.

But before they get to do that here, Jesus takes note of how they choose their seats based on assumptions of honor. Those who are the most powerful sit closest to the host, while those who are of marginal or no authority sit on the fringes or are waiting outside. And Jesus comments on all this, even offering some practical suggestions for host and guests alike: “If you’re invited to a banquet, sit at the back. That way, if the host brings you forward, you’ll be that much more impressive to everyone there. On the other hand, if you sit up front, the host may send you to the back. How humiliating that would be! And, if you’re hosting, don’t just invite people you like, or people from whom you expect something in return. Invite the outcasts, those whom you see peering in the window right now: the poor, the lame. And if you do that, you show true hospitality. Because true hospitality is borne of generosity, not out of quid pro quo.”

At first glance, Jesus is simply making observations about the cultural norms of the day, and suggesting that a very different kind of social ordering ought to be at work for faithful people. A banquet where the hosts and guests behave this way would very closely mirror the social justice that the prophets envisioned and preached. It’s not based on who your ancestors were, or your family’s place in society. It is based in something else entirely: the reality that all of these folks, no matter how great or small we might think them, are children of the God whom we serve and are, therefore, worthy of dignity.

It would be a convicting thing to stop right there today, to examine our own habits of invitation and social ordering, to see if we behave more like the Pharisees, or more like the scene that Jesus paints. I think it is fair to suggest that there are parallels with our own time, where some are tempted to believe that by virtue of who their ancestors were, or because of their citizenship, or faith, or political identity, or denomination, that they are due some sense of honor, that they ought not only to have a place at the table, but the best place at the table.

And yet, I think most of us would reject those kinds of assumptions, knowing full-well that it isn’t race, or nationality, or confession, or good breeding, or good politics, or good theology that makes us righteous. But I think we tend to replace these kinds of out-moded notions with a sort of meritocracy. That is, we deserve our place at the table because we have earned it. We have worked hard. We have studied at the highest level and gone on to get advanced degrees. We have been given status by our colleagues, whether that’s passing the bar, or being ordained. We are good people, never harming anyone, and doing our best to treat everyone right. In fact, we do a pretty good job of doing the things that Jesus says we ought to do. Surely that grants us a seat at the table! Or maybe you find yourself saying, “Nobody has given me anything; everything I’ve accomplished, I’ve earned. And now I just want to sit down and eat.”

Here’s the sobering reality: none of these things get us to the table. Or borrowing Billy Wagner’s words, we don’t get to make a “big deal out doing what [we’re] supposed to do in the first place.” None of these things make us righteous. The only thing that gets us a ticket to the banquet is the invitation of the host.

And that’s where the story gets interesting. On the surface, Jesus is simply talking about a meal in a village, and critiquing the social order of the day. But the reality is, and everyone at that table knew it, Jesus is talking on a much deeper level of what it means to sit in the presence of God. There were visions that the prophets had laid out; Isaiah spoke of that great day when all of the nations, not just the Israelites, will feast on the mountain of God. That vision of Isaiah had fallen out of favor by the first century and had been reinterpreted. Instead, it was taught that the Israelites alone would be invited, and not even all of them: the crippled, the blind, the lepers would not be welcomed.

And as for the vision that all nations would be welcomed, the idea that was more comfortable to those of Jesus’ time was of the angel of death coming to wipe out those other nations so that the feast wouldn’t be disturbed.

This isn’t just Jesus’ commentary on the way one particular host decided to draw up his guest-list, or even the way that the guests jockeyed among themselves for the positions of privilege. Instead, Jesus is giving us a glimpse of the heavenly banquet, the table that sits in the middle of the kingdom of God, and who it is that makes God’s guest list.

It isn’t anything we say or do that makes us righteous. It is God’s invitation to join in the feast that does; and anything we say or do after that ought to be a reflection of the joy of knowing we’ve been included.

And that, I believe, is good news. Because ultimately it means that the guest list is long. And you, no matter what anyone else might say, are invited to the party. You can’t earn your way to the front, or even to the table at all. And you can’t out-jockey someone else for position. And, here’s the most surprising thing of all: even if you’ve done all these things, assumed your place, pushed others out of the way, then this table is still for you, too. You might want to rethink how it is that you got your invitation, but you’re still invited.

This is the idea that is at the very heart of the faith we proclaim. Christians are not Christians because we deserve to be, or because we’re better than those who are not. Christians are Christians because we recognize how imperfect we are and yet, even so, God has reached out to us. It’s neither a false humility nor a lesson in how worthless we are. Instead, it’s a self-worth that is rooted in being beloved of God, no matter what anyone else might say.

Can you know that? Can you embrace that?

Because once we really know that we are invited to the party, that’s when we start throwing parties of our own, feasts and banquets that look a lot more like the ones that Jesus himself would throw.

That’s what church is supposed to be, not a respite for the self-righteous, “holier than thou” crowd, but a community that does its best to mirror heavenly celebrations, casting aside assumptions of privilege and honor and merit for the sake of being sure that all have the chance to be fed.

If this is what we do, if this is genuinely the feast that we seek, then we begin to get a glimpse of freedom in Christ. We begin to know what it means to be unbound from what society or habit or tradition or conventional wisdom tells us is proper and good and decent and in order. And that’s true for us whether we typically find ourselves shunted to the sides or tend to assume our place at the front of the line.

We are free from all that. And when we know that we are free, we can really turn loose, climb up onto the mound, even in the middle of a losing game, and even when it’s raining, no longer bound by the approval we seek or the records we break.

Oh, and by the way, just to finish up that story: Billy Wagner may not have thought that that particular baseball was worth the fuss. But the Braves front office thought differently. They tracked it down immediately and bartered with the fan who had caught it. So Wagner ends up with the ball anyway, whether he wanted it or not. May we live our lives so freed to serve God that if those acknowledgements do come, it’s not something we expect, but rather a surprising gift, one that gives us the desire to invite more and more to the feast that will ultimately feed us all.