Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 22), September 1, 2013
Proverbs 25:6-7, Psalm 112, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Early this week I got sent a link to an article on cracked.com about psychologists studying what power does to people. It turns out that if you take a group of random people give some of them power and not others, it will change how they think. The power is meaningless—a few hours of interaction made up solely for a psychological experiment, with participants selected at random to be either leaders or followers. It doesn’t matter what the scenario is. After time leading, people are more likely to lie, steal, cheat, and manipulate others for their own gain … and then feel they didn’t do anything wrong, because they deserved whatever benefits they got. They believed were more worthy of good things than the people who were randomly assigned to be followers. The old adage that power corrupts has been proven true time and time again by modern research. There are good and bad people at all levels in society, of course, but having power works to degrade your morals.
I’d probably have forgotten that article quickly if I hadn’t read the lessons for this Sunday almost immediately afterwards, and been struck by how the article fit! Here Jesus is at a party watching the leaders of the community jockey for position. We’re told it’s the Sabbath, so their minds should be on worship and fellowship and the rest that God has divinely ordained. Instead, they’re politicking to get the best seat at the table. Now, we don’t pay much attention these days to who has the best seat at most meals, but think of it like a wedding reception: you can tell how important someone is to the bride and groom by how close they sit to the head table.
Think of it like a school lunch room. You can tell who’s popular by where they sit. The cool kids sit together, and the kids who aren’t lucky enough to be popular get left all alone. There is a pecking order, and it changes on a daily basis, altered by rumors, jokes, verbal sparring, the sports season, social media, class standings, and other things. The social battles to figure out who sits where leave emotional scars on both the winners and losers … and there are always losers. The scars on the ones who lose are obvious to see: they feel alone, abandoned. They’re more likely to be bullied, and more likely to be depressed. The damage to the winners is less obvious. They’re more likely to be arrogant, to hurt others, to think they’re a better person just because they’re good at sports and dress in the right clothes and have the right phone. They deserve the best seat, right? They deserve to be popular. They deserve the best. If other people get hurt by that, well, that’s just too bad.
So imagine you’re in a high school cafeteria. The quarterback of the football team sits down at a table, and his friends sit down with him, filling most of it. The quarterback sees a kid he wants to talk to, so he calls him over. But in order for the new guy to sit down, somebody next to the quarterback has to be kicked out of his spot … and the only place left is on the edges. In front of the whole school, he has to move out to the fringes of the group. Maybe he even has to change tables. You know kids are going to be talking about it all day, in person and on social media. If he doesn’t do something to get back in the in-group pretty quickly, well, he might find himself on the fringes for good. Because hey, if he deserved to be popular, he’d never have gotten shoved out, right? It’s a lot better to be the person who gets invited in to the middle than the one left out in the cold. So Jesus’ advice in today’s Gospel makes sense: act humble so you’ll get invited higher instead of getting kicked out for thinking too highly of yourself.
But what about the ones who are already on the outside? What about the girl who tries to sit down at a half-empty table only to be told there’s no room for her? What about the boy who regularly finds nasty things on his Facebook page? What about the ones who will never be popular, never be part of the in crowd, never have friends until they leave and start a new life somewhere else? What room is there for them in Jesus’ words today?
First of all, they’re not there at the meal Jesus was attending in today’s lesson. Jesus ate with all people, sinners and saints, the righteous and the broken, the popular and the losers, the good people and the jerks, the cream of the crop and the bad apples. But this particular dinner was given by the leaders of the community, and so only the popular crowd was invited. So Jesus was talking to the popular crowd, the ones who are good at climbing up that social ladder, who believe they deserve the best seat. The Pharisees, by the way, were religious leaders as well as big shots in the village. They were the pillars of the community, the ones who decided how the rules should be interpreted. They decided who got invited to speak in worship and who wouldn’t even get in the door without people whispering to one another, “What’s she doing here?”
Jesus’ advice is aimed at the leaders, but the second part is where it gets interesting. The first bit was just common sense … and the second part throws common sense out the window, along with the whole social ladder. Sure, if you want to play the game, Jesus gives you a pointer … but then he says we should stop playing the game altogether! Don’t focus on trying to be in the “in” crowd. Don’t spend your time and money scrambling after power and influence. If you do, you are missing the point, because all that scheming, all that manipulating and planning, all that self-satisfied belief in your own righteousness is not worth anything in God’s eyes. If you want to be the one everyone looks up to in this life, you may be able to achieve it … but God won’t care. As far as God’s concerned, it’s just wasted effort. So stop playing the game, Jesus says, and start using your time and money to help those who can’t help you because they can’t even help themselves. Instead of cultivating the ones who can do you favors in return, reach out to the ones who can never pay you back. They, too are God’s children.
Do you remember the old Sunday School song “I cannot come?” It’s taken from a parable about a wedding banquet. The master—that’s God—invites all his neighbors to come to the wedding banquet of his beloved son. When they all respond with excuses of how busy they are, the master orders his servants to go out into the streets and invite everybody they see: the beggars and the robbers and the lame and the blind, everyone is invited to the great party.
Because, you see, God’s kingdom is not just for the winners. God’s kingdom is for the losers, too. God’s kingdom is for the ones who are lost, the ones who are forgotten, the ones who are shoved out to the margins. God’s kingdom is for the screw-ups just as much as it is for the ones who seem like they have it all together, because from God’s perspective we are all losers. We are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. If the only people who could go to heaven were the ones who deserved it, the ones who earned it? Not one single human being would ever go to heaven. We are saved because God loves us, not because we’re worthy of it, and thank God!
Playing the power game, trying to make ourselves look good and righteous … none of it matters to God. All it says to God is that we’re losers who think we’re winners. And the things we do to climb that ladder and get ourselves in the “in” crowd, well, we can deceive ourselves, but not God. God sees through our self-justifications.
In God’s eyes, we’re all losers … but in God’s eyes, we are also beloved children, and to God that is infinitely more important. That’s why God became human and died for our sake. In God’s kingdom, we’ll all be welcome, the first and last, the best and the worst. All our categories of in and out, winner and loser won’t matter. So what if we actually lived like that now? What would it be like to invite a kid who seems always to be alone to sit with your group or give up your seat on the bus to someone who got on late? What would it be like to reach out to someone who is very different from you? What would it be like to stop someone from bullying someone else? Or to post something kind on Facebook about someone who rarely gets noticed? What would it be like to invite someone that doesn’t often get invited to a party? What would it be like to tweet a quotation about looking out for others? And what would it be like, if someone asks you why you’re doing this, to say it’s because it’s what you think God wants?
What if we all acted out of mutual love for one another instead of jealousy or cliquishness? What if we welcomed the strangers who have come to live among us? What if we visited prisoners and walked a mile in their shoes? What if we allowed ourselves to be content with what we have because we trust God to care for us? What would the world be like then?
I can tell you one thing, it would be a lot more like God’s kingdom.