Sermon preached at St. Luke's, Madison, and St. Francis House. These are the readings for the day: Proverbs 25:6-7; Psalm 112 ; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14.
In the gospel today, Jesus is at a party. Not just a party, a party. The kind you dress up for. It’s swank. And the fanciest of the fancy people just arrived at the swank-fest and handed his topcoat and hat to the help on his way to a large mahogany chair, up by the head of the table. It’s impressive: the ritual raising of knowing eyebrows between the host and this particular guest. The exchange of subtle smirks. The whole room is watching, and not just watching, but murmuring, flowing, moving around the interaction in the same way all the birds of the sky scatter when a bald eagle breaks the horizon; in the way that fish in the aquarium keep a bead on a shark’s location, at all times, you know, for informational purposes.
It’s mesmerizing. It’s social hierarchy. It’s the food chain, baby.
Jesus is also watching the dance. And, after watching the dance, Jesus does what most guests in his position would not do: he critiques it out loud. “You know,” Jesus says. “That guy who just came in with the certainty that he’s all that? He might be wrong. But a modest entrance leaves room for elevation.”
Jesus goes on to instruct his followers, and his host, to defy social convention. Invite to your parties, he suggests, the ones who don’t have parties to invite you to later. There’s a problem with Jesus’ party instructions to his followers: he’s saying it all the middle of the party he’s already at. While he’s still at the party. Jesus has only been at this swank-fest for a few minutes, but he’s already made his modest assessment: it’s a perversion of right relationship and an anti-kingdom of God.
Now, you and I both know that naming the emptiness of social pomp and circumstance, with all its predictable posturing and jockeying for status and social position, doesn’t make Jesus even mostly original. Lots of people have done that. Plenty of people throughout history have pointed out the pointlessness of living one’s life for the pat on the back, for the approval of others or the company promotion or the praise of one’s peers. In an ironic twist, some of them have even formed clubs in which rejection of conformity to the games of society becomes leverage for achieving social standing within their own new subcultures!
In the most interesting of these critiques, and count Jesus in them, it’s not that approval, promotions, and praise are bad in themselves, but divorced from one’s telos, one’s ultimate aim and objective, their emptiness is exposed. Without the telos, life becomes just a long line of appearances and pressure to keep them up. And that pressure can be overwhelming, can lead well-meaning people to hide the parts of themselves they’re afraid aren’t up to snuff. And hiding can be hard work. That pressure is the beginning of the recurring nightmare you have in which you’re making the big presentation, but you forgot to wear pants. It’s the fear of being found out. It’s the story of Adam and Eve and their hiding, all over again, up all night sewing fig leaves. Again and again, lived out in so many fears and maneuvers and vain appeals for affirmation, whether through test scores or Facebook likes or positive journal reviews or sermon feedback.
Or good seats at swank parties.
This is where Jesus breaks new ground, though: at the very end of the lesson, when Jesus connects his yet-to-be-published revised party planning instructions - about inviting the ones who can’t repay you - when he connects inviting those people to the resurrection of the righteous, Jesus reveals that he doesn’t just think the game of self-worth through social standing is empty; he thinks it’s idolatry. He thinks it’s about God. Jesus thinks that how people regard one another in relation to the personal benefit they think they’ll reap from the relationship, seeking prizes and approval, cozying up to some and leaving others behind, is a statement of faith. Idolatry, because the things the fancy people hope to score from one another are things they think they can substitute for the love and identity God gives all of God’s children as gift. In other words, competing for the the fancy chairs at the fancy parties allows the fanciest people to believe they have a standing or identity that transcends their standing and identity as children of God.
This campus [The campus where I work], with our cities, even most of our churches are full of people, clergy and lay, who have been made to believe they need to manufacture a standing and identity apart from the love of God in Christ Jesus for them, in order to have worth. The pursuit of an identity of their own construction is sold to them as freedom, but this so-called freedom quickly becomes an unbearable burden: the fanning of their suspicion that they aren’t yet enough and that they might never be enough. In such a climate, extracting personhood from performance is next to impossible, even when it is not clear who is performing for whom. Even worse, when we inevitably hide what we are sure are the weaker parts of ourselves in order to bolster the strength of the performance, we find ourselves alone and mistrustful even of those who love us.
This is the fruit of the poison of the anti-kingdoms of God. But the burden of that poison can be healed. There is another party. There is a party that undoes the fancy parties of the anti-kingdoms. There is a party convened by a crucified king with a towel around his waist whose manner of life makes identifying, much less claiming, the high places of honor impossible. There is a table around which the guests in attendance become holy friends, sisters, and brothers, through the love of the host whose love makes them lovely. At this feast, at this party that undoes the anti-kingdoms, the saints find reconnection to their telos. As they grow in love and trust of the host they even risk becoming blessings for others. Though they know all too well the temptation to hide, they lift up their hearts and their lives and they offer themselves because they know, by his love, they are enough. When they offer themselves, they experience this truth through the kindness of God. Self-offering, for them, becomes almost an act of defiance to the lies of the anti-kingdoms. Loving others, they do not fear them. More than that, they make space around the table even for the ones who despise them. They are convinced there is always room at that table, just as there is mercy and forgiveness in the cup. They have tasted and know that the cup of salvation is also the cup of forgiveness. They are learning to trust the blood in the cup. And they pour out the cup for others.
In case you were wondering, this is that feast, and this is that table. This is the kingdom of love’s overcoming your preoccupations and fears about whether, in a moment of disappointment or crisis, you were wrong or right or in the right and whether God’s forgiveness and love are possible any longer for you. This is the kingdom of remembering. This is the kingdom of encounter with God. This is the kingdom of healing, laughter, acceptance, and trust. This is feast of victory for our God! Let us sing God’s praise and remember this table and keep the feast and love one another, with grateful hearts and joy.