I don’t know if it’s still a popular thing to do anymore, because I don’t hear young people talk much about it, but when I was in middle school, for two LONG years, every Thursday night I would put on a white dress shirt and navy blue blazer, try to remember how to tie a tie (again), and my Mom would drive me and my buddy Justin in her white minivan downtown to a stately looking a building that housed our town’s cotillion.
I know NOW (because I looked it up on the internet) that the goal of cotillion is to teach children ballroom dancing in a organized and professional, yet fun environment; making youth aware of the importance of social etiquette among young ladies and gentlemen, while at the same time emphasizing the values of kindness, courtesy and mutual respect, but at the time, it just felt like torture.
Jesus must’ve known that we’re not all born into the world foxtrot-aficionados and so skilled at Smalltalk that our dance partners don’t even notice that our hands are all sweaty.
And so, at a dinner party where he is being watched closely; and where he is also watching closely enough to observe the all-too-human tendency to seek the best for ourselves, Jesus begins to give his lesson on social etiquette.
Teaching at one of these banquets would not have been out of the ordinary, rather it would have been expected and appreciated.
So, when invited to a wedding banquet, he says, unless you are the bride or the groom or the parents, don’t sit at the head table, or a place of honor, but instead and look for your name plate on one of the tables and just see where your host wants you to sit.
“How Not to Be Embarrassed 101” we could call this lesson.
Jesus’ teaching on ‘Being a Good Guest’ is not much out of the ordinary. It falls right in line with the Scriptures themselves and other religious and secular writings of the day.
It is when he gets to his philosophy on ‘Being a Good Host,’ that Jesus is much less conventional.
What always felt strange to me about cotillion is that it was so self-referenceing:
We were at a party where we were being taught about what makes a good party and how to be at a party.
In retrospect, as many things do, it makes sense…our Cotillion leader was showing us what she thought a great party looked like.
Likewise, it’s at a party, that Jesus tells us what a party should be:
Jesus says that to be a good host and to throw a great party is to overlook friends, ignore brothers and sisters, discount relatives and rich neighbors and snub Everyone You Would Want To Have On Your Guest List, and as we listen to this teaching together today we might ask…
Does Jesus even means for us to take him seriously.
This suggestion is audacious to anyone who hears it, but even more so in the first century.
For the Palestinian throwing a banquet in the first century, the guest list meant everything. It was the way for a family to proclaim their status – their elite status in this case – and having other wealthy and cultured people at the party showed you were accepted in the circle of the elite and maintained your standing in society.
For us, when planning a party, the guest list matters because we want to enjoy the company of our family and friends, we want to have a good time, and the family table connects us to the past and to loved ones who are no longer with us…
But, if you can imagine it, it was even more audacious for those listening in the 1st century.
The suggestion is for the leader of the Pharisees to disavow the elite community of which he is a part, is the suggestion to throw away everything he and his family have acquired and built up for themselves – all their work, all their relationships, all their hopes for their children’s future.
But Jesus goes further.
Jesus says, instead of inviting those who can help you, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind…those who have nothing to give you.
Those who can’t being a bottle of wine, perhaps don’t have the ability to make stimulating conversation over your meal, who would perhaps be in need to your constant care and attention.
But Jesus goes still further.
Speaking to us today, the Lord gives us an opportunity to ask ourselves where we fit into the social scene….
Who do we want to sit down at our table?
Who do we want to invite to our parties?
Would we prefer to identify ourselves with the wealthy elite or with the outcast?
As a community, as families, and as individuals we feed the hungry, we collect school supplies for those children in our community who could use them, we gather books for children at VCU’s Children’ Hospital, work with veterans and refugees and more.
But are their ways in which God may be calling us to care even for others and to make a place for the poor and the outcast in our midst?
This is challenging, but as we witness a baptism today, we remember God loves us before we can do anything…
We don’t do good works to receive God’s kindness – that is just a gift. But as Luther reminds us, “We need to do good works because our neighbor needs them.”
The good news for the poor, for those who are humiliated, for the suffering is that you will be exalted…
This is the PROMISE from the One who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
The Humble One who is now exalted at God’s right hand will exalt you who are bent low with life’s heavy burden.
You know, it may not even be surprising to us anymore that Jesus is first on the side of the poor.
What may still have the capacity to surprise us is that even after being accused by Pharisees of being, “a drunkard and a glutton and a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” that he is happy to eat at their table too.
And there is also good news for the wealthy elite: As you humble yourself and identify with the poor and outcast whom God loves so much, you will be blessed.
The very, very good news is that Jesus is happy to eat with anyone and everyone – both the poor and the rich, those who are well and those who are sick, those who are connected and those who are outcasts.
The good news is that TODAY we have been invited here to God’s banquet.
Brothers and sisters, as we stand before the Lord, the King of All Creation, Awesome in Majesty, we are the poor. We are the crippled. We are the lame. We are the blind. And graciously, generously, he invites us into his banquet.
Today we welcome you Jasper Phillip Martin, and we rejoice that God has set a seat for you at his table, as he claims you as his own forever.
Today Jesus invites you and all of us to his banquet, where he humbles the exalted and exalts the humble, where he invites us to watch closely, and see all of life is a gift.
So Jasper, welcome to the party. This is the party unlike any other party. This is the party where we learn about how to have a party.