Jesus Has No Barriers – August 28

A sermon based on Luke 14: 1, 7-14
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 28, 2022 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Believe it or not the text Pastor Robb just read so well reminds me of theatre cast parties at my college. Drama majors came from all sorts of backgrounds. Some were from wealthy families, but lots of us were from the lower class and raged edge of the middle class – and many of us were college kid poor. Some of us were white, some people of color, some LGBTQ+ , some straight, some geeks and some beauty queens. Old people and young people. Christian and Jew, Agnostic and Atheist, techies, actors and ushers, all sorts. Really it was a rainbow spectrum of people.
At my college that wonderful mixture of folks used to go for pizza after performances– I mean, like, every performance. Somewhere along the line we started randomly singing “Happy Birthday” to someone at our table– it was rarely actually their birthday. Unsuspecting costumers and staff often joined in the fun. Sometimes the barkeep would even send over a free pitcher of beer without our asking. We were guests of honor, the beer flowed, regardless of whether it was someone’s special day or not. For us ragtag theatre folk, it was a blessing for which we were grateful. Everyone at that cast party table was special simply because they existed. All the social barriers to gathering had been let down. And all were honored.
That’s why the Lectionary reading reminds me of college cast parties. Both are about banquets where all kinds of folks are welcome and blessed with no obligation or reason or regard to class. In today’s reading, Jesus attends a banquet and sees folks looking to get the best seat at the banquet. Like many modern folk, people back then liked to be in the best seat. Today best seats are often reserved for those who pay more. Airlines call them first class tickets, and first class gets treated with honors the lesser classes don’t get. Instead of a handful of old pretzels and a half glass of cola at a cramped seat, first class folk get meals and champaign in kick-back overstuffed chairs. When you are first class you get extra honors . . . if you can pay the price. That’s kinda close to what it was like in Jesus’ day. They didn’t have airplanes but, the better seats at banquets typically went to the special, first class kinda folks, only it was usually just the powerful and the rich, not someone who lucked into or saved up for a first-class seat.
Banquets were a big deal, all the rage in Jesus’ day. And like I said, attendees were invited and seated according to who they were in the class strata. Some in the culture were honored more than others just because of their class ranking, some were not honored at all and not even invited just because of their class ranking. One of my seminary professors calls these uninvited outcast types,“expendables.” To the culture such folks were expendable, people who could be done without, abandoned, discarded, even destroyed without regard. 1. Eighty-percent of the people were peasants in Palestine in Jesus’ time living on “the margins of existence.” 2. Many of them were viewed as having little or nothing to offer the empire and so had no value to the empire. They were the expendables. Most who were not already expendable were a day’s wages away from being expendable, worthless to the earthly powers. 3. The culture Jesus was in consisted of very few “haves” and lots and lots “have-nots.” For the eighty percent getting invited to a banquet meal meant you got fed and maybe even something to eat besides bread.
Jesus was popular. People wanted him around, the rich and the poor. The Bible evidences he was invited to banquets a lot. So much so the Gospels indicate he had a reputation as a glutton and drunkard. But the Gospels don’t otherwise evidence he was actually over-indulging, rather the Gospels evidence that meals were a very important part of his ministry. When he ate at banquets all classes of people ate, including outcasts like the sick and the poor and aliens and criminals and even the second class to the empire people, women, were there. At least everybody’s supposed to be welcome when Jesus has His Way.
But actually, Jesus wants his followers to think even broader than that, it’s not just “When I eat at banquets all manner of others ought to eat,” it’s, “God eats when all manner of others eats.” God eats when the hungry eat. God is visited when the sick, and stranger and criminals are visited at the table, in the community. That’s the Matthew 25 story of the sheep and goats. God’s at the table – in the community– being tended to when the expendables are tended to.
Jesus re-did the exclusive way meals were done in the Roman Empire. He started a counter-culture meal practice where not just everyone is allowed in, but you go out of the way to invite bottom classes of people in the culture and make the place welcoming and safe for them. You don’t struggle for seats; you struggle to care for everyone. Jesus defends and protects the oppressed. He stands by their side. He welcomes and honors them. It’s crazy stuff. So crazy that if Jesus owned the pizza parlor we theatre folks visited, free beer would have been sent not only to the table of misfit theatre folks, but to all the outcasts, and they wouldn’t even have to sing “Happy Birthday” for it.
We hear in the story today that Jesus is studying the way a particular Sabbath banquet was being played out. Jesus noticed that folks were vying for the first-class seating, the place of the highest honor. He instructs folks to not vie as usual for the best seat, but to do the opposite, to humbly sit in the lowest class seat. His lesson is that when you are humble, you will be honored. Jesus explained it like this
“when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 14:10-11
Those who humble themselves will be exalted!
Note that it is the person themselves that must do the humbling, not the culture. We are NOT to humble OTHERS. WE are to walk humbly with God. (I’ve read that somewhere before!).We humble OURSELVES; we are to not to humble others or be humbled by others. We personally choose as a matter of spiritual practice to be humble. And the humbling of self is to include reaching out from one strata of people to the others so that there is no stratification of people anymore. We are all the same. All equal. Jesus makes this clear in the very next part of the lesson.
“He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ (Luke 14:12-14 NRSV)
Jesus’ Way of doing banquets is radically different than the culture’s way of doing them. Just a few verses later he tells the story of a wedding where the doors are opened wide to everyone on the street. All barriers are down at Jesus’ banquet. At his table anyone regardless of status, history, occupation, health, gender, sexuality, color, creed, nationality, disability, citizenship, criminal record, belief or unbelief gets in.
Some folks don’t cotton to the idea of Jesus’ table and community as a place where no matter who you
are, no matter what you believe or don’t believe, no matter what you’ve done or plan to do, you are
welcome. I’ve heard it observed that UCC churches, while claiming to be open to all are not actually
open to all because those who reject the idea of inclusivity feel they don’t fit. In other words, those who
want to exclude others can’t. If I understand the argument correctly it boils down to, the exclusion of
exclusivity is not inclusive. I suppose on a purely academic level inclusivity is impossible then, because
inclusivity by definition can’t include exclusivity. But that’s a specious argument when it comes to Jesus’
community and table, because the reality is, that inclusivity welcomes the exclusives, they are the ones
who choose to exclude themselves. Self-exclusion is not an exclusion by Jesus or for that matter by UCC churches.
Jesus did not discriminate when someone chose to NOT follow him because he included the “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” and everyone else on the street. Those who could not abide by inclusion excluded themselves. The choice to not follow Jesus is self-exclusion, it’s not exclusion by Jesus. The practice of Jesus’ wide-open table and welcome is as inclusive as a functioning Christian community could ever hope to be. And in the UCC that’s how open most churches try to be, but like any organization mutual respect and harmless conduct is a necessity, for safety reasons, as well as functionality. The choice to stay is based on the present conduct of the participants, not on how they are made or what they once did or even what they believe. That’s why every communion Sunday I stand up here and make it as clear as I can that everyone is invited to communion, that there is no bar to who may partake. It doesn’t matter what you believe or don’t believe, it doesn’t matter what you have done in the past or are planning to do in the future, if you want to come you can.
That’s true of communion in this church, as well as being a part of this church community. The poor, crippled, lame, blind, rich, healthy, seeing, conservative, liberal, libertarian, literalist, Christian, non-Christian, Agnostic, Atheist, men, women, children, friend, stranger, criminal, straight, LGTBQ+, people of any color, inclusives and exclusives are invited to the table to and to the community. Those are all folks Jesus would and did invite and told us to invite. If you are in this room, heck if you are not in this room, you are invited here. All barriers are down at Jesus’ banquet. At his table and his community anyone gets in and respected and loved and protected.
And we come to this church on Sundays to remember and to reenact Jesus’ loving, open, compassionate,
justice oriented Way, where we strive to make the world a place where all get enough, all get love and
respect in the world. All are invited and welcome. That’s what the Lectionary reading is about. That’s
what Jesus’ table is about. That’s what this church is about. That’s what Jesus’ Way is ALL
about. And that my friends is THE Good News. AMEN

ENDNOTES:
* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2013.
1. Professor Stephen Patterson at Eden Theological Seminary during the Fall term of 2005. See also, his book, The God of Jesus, 63-68.
2. Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, 63.
3. Ibid. at 63-65.
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