Strange Seat Takers

This past May, Matt Vozar and Marine Beausergent, two truly wonderful young adults, were married here at Epiphany.
They grew up together here and discovered their love for one another in our youth group and so it was an honor to lead their wedding service with Pastor Phillip.
But to be candid, when they told me one afternoon over lunch a year before
that, that they were getting married, I kind of expected I would have a hand in the service.
The honor I didn’t expect was when I arrived at the restaurant for the wedding banquet on the night of the rehearsal and I looked all around for my name plate to see where I would be sitting, I discovered that in the midst of all their family and friends, which were considerable, we were sitting at the very head table with Matt and Marine.
I was so pleasantly surprised to be able to share this once-in-a-lifetime honor and to sit with them in this privileged place that I was truly so moved.
Not too long into the evening, however,
my phone started buzzing in my pocket in an unfamiliar way, at that same time everyone else’s phone started beeping and buzzing.
As it turns out, the dark clouds outside we had be watching were from a tornado somewhere close by and the restaurant staff announced we would all have to take cover and then hurriedly whisked us away to a partially-lit, seldom-used basement.
It just so happened that I ended up being the first one down the dark stairway and so I found myself going from the best seat at the party to being jammed into the furthest corner of a dingy basement, sitting between cardboard packing boxes and I remember thinking: Well, now this is a surprise!
Jesus cautions us against relishing places of honor too much, lest we be humbled.
And Jesus not only spoke about humility but embodied humility in surprising ways, especially in the way he was just as happy to be seated at a party next to shunned prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners as he was to sit next to admired Pharisees and society’s insiders, always bringing God’s radical openness to all people, no matter who he met.
At this particular banquet, recorded in the 14th chapter of Luke’s gospel,
Jesus notices some of the invited guests are putting their own name plate at the best table, in the highest and noblest position and he uses their self-focused action as a teaching moment to speak about the nature of God’s Kingdom and how God would have us relate to one another.
Like we also often do,the party guests on that evening were looking for the best seats and best places and best positions for themselves, but Jesus recounts the Hebrew wisdom that it is preferable to sit with a posture of humility, so that the opportunity to be called up higher might arise, rather than trying to secure that best place, having someone else snag it, and risk being publicly and embarrassingly demoted, perhaps to the corner of a musty basement somewhere!
In the first century, in this honor-shame culture of Palestine, there were all sorts of layers of meaning at work at any given social gathering.
At a party like this every person’s religious affiliation, social group, economic standing were on display and compared to everyone else.
A person’s place and reputation in the community were totally dependent upon not only getting invitations to these kinds of gatherings, but then once you were there, where you sat and who you were seated next to.
And it isn’t so different now, is it?
Today, at most schools there’s a table where the cool kids sit.
In the boardroom there is a seat at the head of the table and there are those who want to be near those in power.
I read an opinion peace this past week which suggested that most people who go to congress go wanting to help our nation and simply become intoxicated by the prospect of power so that in in the end even if these public servants know one course of action is best for the most people, they can be swayed to do something else if it will help them keep their seat in Washington.
Our society is full of people competing with one another for good places – including everything from the best, most lucrative jobs to the best, most convenient parking places.
We like seats of honor and to be thought of well; to be accepted.
We tend to like getting the best we can for ourselves.
But Jesus challenges everything we think we know about which seats are good ones, and what honor really looks like.
Jesus shows us that in the Kingdom of God the best seat you can have is the one you give away.
As a young man I lived in inner-city Baltimore and rode the number 9 bus to and from work each day, which is by far the roughest neighborhood I have ever lived in.
At the end of the day, the bus would be packed to the gills,standing room only,
with people filling the aisles nose to nose, but when an elderly person would get on the bus – those who were younger and more able – be they students, gangbangers or young professionals – they would get up to give their seat to that older, worn and visibly tired passenger with a nod and a kind word.
The Kingdom of God which Jesus describes and brings into reality
is a place where we learn to give our seat away – especially to the person who is poor, crippled, blind, elderly, disabled, indebted, in recovery, experiencing homelessness, lonely, sick, or in any need.
When I consider Jesus’ character, I think his instruction of taking a lower seat, or giving up our seat, is not about asking us to think poorly of ourselves, but rather to focus our energy and attention outward toward another person and to want even better for them than for ourselves.
Jesus, with his whole life, spent all of his energy and focus on others.
He healed and helped others, taught wisdom and God’s way to others, not for money or prestige or his reputation but because He loved the people.
On his way to Jerusalem and to the cross he was thinking of others and of you and me.
He prepared for his death thinking of us and on the cross he took the lowest seat possible, allowing himself to be given the furthest place from the power and honor of society, humiliated, naked, bruised, and killed without remorse.
He allowed himself to be relegated to the very last placeso that we can move up higher to be with God in his mercy and forgiveness and love.
We think of ourselves most of the time,
each one of us walking around believing we’re the center of our universe, but Jesus shows us that God prepares rewards and riches for those who follow him in the way of humility.
God has designed joy and health to come from thinking of other people.
When we ask: “How can I make myself happy?” And “What can I do to make myself happy?” …and if we pursue whatever that is, and if we might get what we think we desire, we won’t ever be really happy.
God has prepared joy for us in asking, “How can I care for my spouse, for my parents, for my children, for my family, for my neighbors, for my community, for the person who is hungry or lonely?”
These questions from Jesus put us on the right track, and it just so happens that when all the people around us
are doing well and are cared for, we too will necessarily find ourselves in a place of more joy.
God has prepared joy for us in seeing someone at school without a seat
and inviting them to sit down at our table.
God has prepared joy for us in helping someone who is experiencing a challenging time, spending time with someone who is in crisis, and in serving someone who may not deserve it.
On Friday, twelve youth from our congregation and some of their parents and other adult leaders made something like 600 sandwiches in partnership with “Moments of Hope” to give out to people in our community who are experiencing homelessness.
For many of them, on the very last Friday of their summer, they weren’t found at the arcade, not at the pool, not at the movies, not at a friend’s house, but in the Epiphany kitchen, slinging cheese and meat, making nourishing meals for our neighbors.
They gave up their front and center seat to an easy summer afternoon
to stand and serve.
And together we prayed that the bags they decorated with crosses and sunshines and words of encouragement, and the meal carefully placed inside, and the slip of paper with a prayer for God’s protection and guidance within the bag, would bring healing and restoration to those who received these gifts.
And more members of Epiphany distributed these gifts to members of our community, and prayed with them, and spent time with them, and embraced them.
And I would be willing to bet that every person who was there to serve, felt as if they were the ones who were blessed by the experience.
This is the power of Jesus’ humility –
The power of the one born into poverty to make us rich, to put our life in perspective and point us to eternal things.
We come to God in poverty, with nothing to give God which God needs.
We are the ones in need of God’s mercy and provision and favor.
And in coming to God in true humility
we come in right self-awareness, and God will always, always welcome us calling us up higher and restoring us to our seat at the table.
This is the way in which Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever.
He is with us in our real, everyday lives.
And he is dependable.
Our position in life fluctuates: we will be at the top and sometime at the bottom, up and down, young and then old, healthy and then sick.
Our life changes constantly but however it changes one thing remains the same – that Jesus will be there for us, with a place of honor at his table, seating us next to himself at the eternal banquet.
From this table, Jesus calls out to us, and to the world, and to the nations that rise and pass away.
Come to this feast of love, where God’s crucified and risen life has the last word of welcome for all who suffer and struggle.
Come and taste and see that the Lord is your helper and do not be afraid.
Your eternal seat here is saved.
So for now, until that great marriage feast of the Lamb, When we see God face to face…
Until that day, you and I are Strange Seat Takers, out in the world among those people God loves.
We take the last seat,
the least seat,
the one next to the person everyone else has overlooked.
We are Strange Seat Takers, even giving up our seats of privilege and power all together.
We are Strange Seat Takers, inviting the poor, and the sick, and those in need to God’s party, and pulling up a seat right next to them, trusting that this is the most blessed seat of all.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.
Texts from: Luke 14:1, 7-14
Proverbs 25: 6-7
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

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