Sunday, September 1, 2013

Take a seat

A sermon from September 1, 2013 at the Church of the Epiphany

My experience in the church has been one of consistently being asked to take a “higher” seat—at least as is often perceived, if “higher” means closer to the altar. I began as a child in a pew, and then sang in my church’s children’s choir starting when I was six, and moved up to the choir pews. When I was 11, I became the first female person to read a lesson at my church (we were pretty conservative) and got to stand at the lectern. After college I was invited to preach, and learned what it was to stand in the pulpit; and then I was ordained and got to move up to the altar; and then you all invited me to move from being an associate rector here to being your priest in charge. “Friend, move up higher” indeed.  

This theme of “invitation” keeps leaping out at me in today’s gospel. Jesus is teaching about how to receive an invitation to come to his Table; and also how to extend our invitation to those who are not yet seated. It’s also good to point out that Jesus offers this parable from the position of guest himself. He’s at the Pharisee’s table as a guest who has been invited… it makes me wonder where Jesus is sitting as he tells this parable. Has he taken a high place because he is the great rabbi who everyone is watching closely? Or did he sit in the lowest place, and is this parable inspired by his own experience of being asked to take a higher place?  

This parable is about God’s table—but Jesus isn’t the host, even at God’s table. Jesus is a guest, and Jesus is the meal. The place of host, the ones who must actively invite people to God’s banquet, whether it be the Eucharistic feast or the community of Christ’s body, is placed upon us. And while we’re out inviting the poor and the lame, we also must remember to invite Jesus. As it says on many popular wall hangings, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present,” but we must be conscious of Christ’s desire to be actively invited to our table—not because Jesus won’t be there if we forget, but because we must remember to leave a place for Jesus in the midst of our busy-ness of being church, and must remember that the food we are serving and consuming is God’s Word, which is the reason for gathering in the first place. Sometimes it’s good to step back from the business of church—the meetings, the fundraisers, even the worship, and consciously ask ourselves, “Have we actively made room for Jesus here, or are we so focused on our goals of getting stuff done that we haven’t had time to pray, or to read, or to listen, or to notice his presence?”

So we start by first consciously inviting Jesus. And we need to think about what it means to be a guest—because we are guests as well. But since we are also often hosts, how do we invite others into our table fellowship—both in the church and elsewhere in the world?

I wish that my experience of receiving steady invitations were true for all in the church and the world. But I suspect that most of us have some experience of being on the other side; the side of feeling excluded, like we aren’t welcome, and like an invitation that should be offered has not been, and the host, whether an individual, an institution, or a church, has fallen short. And then what? Jesus doesn’t really offer an answer in today’s Gospel for what the poor and the lame and the marginalized should do if the host fails to invite them… nor for that matter what the brothers and friends and rich people should do if they’ve been ignored by the host in preference to the marginzalized masses.  

Getting Christ’s church around a table takes more than just a good guest list—for some of us it requires asking for a place at that table, too. The only reason I was invited to “come up higher” to read a lesson on that Sunday morning 25 years ago is that women throughout the church were asking, nay, demanding their place at the table in the leadership of the church. How can you get a seat at the table if the lowly are not invited, and nor do they ask to be seated out of fear that their plea for a place at the table will be greeted by the shut down verse of “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” which is a verse I’ve personally had thrown at me as a barrier to my serving in a role I had earned fair and square. Now, I certainly wrestle with embracing humility, but I assure you that this was not one of my many times of being full of myself. I know I’m not alone in that experience of running up against this verse. By asking to be at the table, those who are marginalized are often told that they are exalting themselves—they’re asking for too much, they’re being uppity, they’re obnoxious and demanding. They should be patient and quiet until they’re invited, even if no invitation seems to be forthcoming.   

It was poignant to be reflecting on this Gospel while watching the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Talk about all the challenges of taking your place at the table; being told to wait; insisting again and again on the justice of having a seat. Or think of the labor struggles that resulted in this weekend’s observance; to let workers have a voice in their pay, their benefits, their hours, their working conditions.  

Asking to be a full person at God’s table is not exalting yourself. It exposes the sins of our churches and institutions, showing the limitations of our own hospitality, but we must ask for our place at the table. African Americans didn’t always even have a place at the communion rail next to their white brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Church; women didn’t have a place at that table right there within living memory. Laborers still in many parts of the world do not have the ability to advocate for being treated with dignity and as human beings—there is no place for them at the table of 

You often don’t get anywhere in this world without asking, because we do fall short in offering invitations, which makes this gospel far more challenging than it might at first appear. Perhaps we’re afraid that once the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind show up and sit down, we won’t recognize what the gathering looks like—because it will look different, and sound different, and smell different, and speak a different language. 

And what of the friends, the brothers, the relatives and the rich neighbors, who have seemingly been replaced at the table by the poor, the crippled, and lame and the blind? Is Jesus asking us to replace one group of people with another group of people, swapping those marginalized by society for those somehow marginalized by God?

I have confidence that God marginalizes no one; but God does balance out the powerful and the lowly, bring the one down and the other up so that both are sitting, perhaps, at a perfectly round table, where there is no high or low, there are only neighbors encountering one another as equals. There might be less elbow room once everyone is there—but at a feast, why not be close to your neighbor? That’s what God’s table looks like—and that’s the invitation that we are called to extend as much as possible to this part of God’s table. Come take your place at the table. Come sit and eat, as both guest and host, partaking of the meal which is Christ’s body and blood, binding us in communion with one another and with Him. And as the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” There are angels in our midst, at this very table. 

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