Sunday, August 29, 2010

Guests at the Banquet

This week’s sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14... for those friends who were curious how I might put together Achievement, Wedding Banquets, and Grace. :-)

A couple weeks ago, while driving to church, I drove past a fitness center that had one of those little sandwich-style signboards out on the side of the road. In an effort to drum up business, they were putting cute, pithy little sayings up. This particular week, the saying was something like, “Discover the meaning of life: ACHIEVEMENT.”
I suppose most people probably didn’t even slow down. Those sorts of pithy sayings are almost always chosen for their universal agreeableness – the kinds of inspirational verbiage that doesn’t offend anybody. But maybe because I was on my way to church, it hijacked my attention completely.
Is it true? Can true meaning in life be found through achievement? Certainly it’s what our culture holds up as the highest good: My children’s educational success is measured through their performance on achievement tests. Job promotions usually focus on what we have achieved in the past year. We turn on in huge numbers for the Academy Awards and other awards show that focus on the achievements of actors, actresses, movie directors and producers. We hold parades and send trophies touring to celebrate the achievements of championship sports teams.
And yet… reading today’s Gospel, I get the distinct sense that achievement is not what Jesus is pointing to as the true meaning of life. Despite the fact that he sounds like Miss Manners, I think Jesus is trying to point his listeners towards something much more significant than questions of etiquette. This isn’t the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God looks like.
In Jesus’ world, social status was perhaps even more important than it is today. The seating arrangements at a casual dinner party were more carefully choreographed than most modern weddings. Where you sat sometimes even determined the food you ate: those at the head table would not uncommonly be served a better wine and more gourmet dishes than those at the lower seats.
So Jesus’ instructions here sound like simply good sense and manners. Don’t embarrass yourself by claiming a space too high: better to let your host reseat you higher than to be asked to humble yourself by moving down below the salt.
But taken in their full context, they push beyond simply good sense. Because Jesus goes on to instruct his hosts in who to invite, and it’s not the leading citizens of the town. It’s the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind – in other words, people without prestige, without status, and without achievement. What are you supposed to do if you go to this banquet? Even here, are you supposed to seat yourself below the salt? Surely here, at least, you can feel confident of your superior status? If achievement is a valid way of measuring the meaning of a life, then it’s not hard for almost all of us to feel confident that we deserve a place higher up the table than the blind, the lame, and the beggar.
And I think that is Jesus’ point – our achievements don’t matter at all. At the Heavenly Banquet – which all our earthly banquets are foreshadows of – the last will be first. This is not just a veneer of humility, designed to exalt us in the eyes of others when we are asked to sit higher at the banquet. God means it – the people we are uncomfortable with, the people we regard as failures, the people who don’t have much in the way of achievement are the ones who will be welcomed first, and shown to the highest seats.
Jesus is not giving us a set of achievements to strive for in order to earn an appropriate seat at the Heavenly Banquet. It is easy to focus on the instructions part of this passage – don’t take the highest seat, invite the poor to our dinners – and miss what it is truly about. It’s about grace. It’s about God’s love that invites us to the banquet and exalts us even though we haven’t earned it. We are the poor, the lame, the blind, and the crippled who are invited to the banquet, who are led past the well-connected and the successful to take a seat at the head table.
In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey tells the story of a young woman and her fiance who book a wedding reception at one of Boston’s fanciest hotels. The deposit alone is several thousand dollars, but they’re in love and they gladly hand over the money. But as the big day approaches, the groom gets cold feet. “I’m not sure I’m ready to make this kind of commitment” he tells his bride, and breaks the engagement. The bride goes to the functions manager at the hotel and pours out her sad tale, and finds the woman sympathetic and kind, but unable to refund the money already paid for the reception. “You signed a contract,” she apologizes, “and we can’t refund your money. So you have two choices: you can just walk away from the deposit, or you can go ahead and have the party.”
Rather than waste the thousands of dollars already spent, the former bride decides to throw the party anyway. Years before, she herself had been homeless. And even though she now had a good job, a nice home, and excellent prospects, she remembered what it had been like to live in a shelter. So she sent invitations to every homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Boston, inviting the homeless and the lonely to her high-class celebration. Tuxedoed waiters served boneless chicken – in honor of the groom – to a ballroom full of Boston’s homeless and hungry.
It is, Yancey says, exactly what it means to be a recipient of God’s grace. We are the guests at the feast, even though we have no claim on the host. The meaning of life is not about our achievements – not even those of mercy and charity – it is about being invited guests at a great Banquet. We are the ones who are served by tuxedoed waiters and thanked for coming -- not because we have earned our right to sit down to dinner, but because the host is amazingly generous.
It is this generous outpouring of grace to us that we are called to remember as partake of this Eucharist, this foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet. In our lives together as disciples of the Risen Christ, fed as we are on his Body and Blood, we become the hosts, the people Jesus addresses in his instructions, telling them who to invite. It becomes our task to share the feast with everyone we meet – young and old, famous and unknown, successful and down-and-out. Because that’s what the Heavenly Banquet, the Kingdom of God is like. All are welcome at this feast. All are welcome at this table.
Achievement, when it is a reflection of our joyful offering of our gifts to God, is a good and joyful thing. But it is not the meaning of life. The true meaning of life is found in knowing that whatever our failures, we have already been invited to the feast by the Host who loves us regardless of our achievements – or lack thereof. The Heavenly Banquet awaits us, and the last shall be first, and the humble shall be exalted. Amen.