Sunday, August 29, 2010

Take Your Seat

Take Your Seat

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder

August 29, 2010

Luke 14:1, 7-14

When Jesus noticed how the guests chose places of honor,

he told them a parable.

If we pay more than passing attention to the gospel stories about Jesus, we can’t help but be struck by the importance of mealtime and dinner table customs in his teaching ministry. His most profound mealtime action – which we imitate and celebrate any time we gather around this table with bread and wine – came when he and the disciples were gathered at what has come to be known as the “Last Supper.” He joined for meals at tables with his disciples and with other followers, with the curious, with Pharisees, with those who became his enemies as well as those who were his friends. And much of what we learn from Jesus we have learned because he had much to say when people sat to eat together. Mealtime can be a time when conversation is possible, when new perspectives can be tried out on dinner companions, when relationships old and new can be celebrated.

Think of the important things people learn around tables: at the dinner table, the breakfast table, the coffee table, the Session table, the picnic table, the negotiating table. I often think that if the people of the world didn’t sometimes sit down at tables together, there would be even less hope for peace in the world than there already is. It is so difficult to hold fast to animosity toward a stranger when you have to keep saying to him or her, “Please pass the butter,” “may I have the corn, please,” and “would you like some more green beans?”

Jesus did a lot of teaching while reclining, oriental style, at meal tables. After having spent my share of time in uncomfortable chairs in lecture halls trying to receive an education under the tutelage of those who were trying pretty hard to pass one along to me, I am hard-pressed to think of a good reason why the custom of teaching and learning over vittles has gone the way of the seven course meal. It seems such a natural place for passing along learning.

Our reading today describes such a table-teaching time, with Jesus’ characteristic determination to see the motivations behind the things people do. When we think about Jesus’ advice on proper ways to chose seats at a banquet, we need to remember that he was concerned to reveal not so much what people were doing when they chose to sit here or there, but why they were doing it.

Once I was booked on a long, late Saturday night flight from Las Vegas to Portland, and since Saturday is generally a light travel day in the airline industry, I fully anticipated that my flight would have lots of available seats, maybe even a whole row in which I could stretch out and snooze. Even so, I habitually book an aisle seat any time I fly to cope with crowding on full flights. I was so happy I had thought to do that when I arrived at my seat that night. Even though I was one of the first people on the plane, I had seen that the gate area had been very full – not a good sign – and a young woman was already seated in the middle seat in my row, another bad sign for my stretching-out plan. Soon, another person came to claim the window seat. People streamed onto the plane in heaps and gobs. It was a totally full flight, even though it was not due in to Portland until 1:30 AM.

I was so glad that I had a coveted aisle seat. Glad, that is, until I realized the young woman in the middle was pregnant. I had planned to get at least two or three hours of sleep on the plane, but this person, politely, even sheepishly, tapped my shoulder repeatedly during the flight so that I could let her out to go use the restroom. Inwardly I fumed over my bad luck. But did it ever occur to me to give up my preferred seat and sit in the middle so she could more easily come and go as her needs dictated? Heavens no! I had gone to the trouble to arrange for that seat, and by golly I was going to keep it, even though to exchange seats would have matched our respective needs so much better.

Jesus knew that even a sacred time for relationships can be twisted around by human pride. He had spent his share of time at feasts and banquets as well as at simple meals in the homes of the people, watching the social climbers clamoring for seats of honor nearest the host, seeing the disappointment in the faces of the late-comers who had to settle for the seats nearest the kitchen. He knew that mealtime, a potentially sacred time when people could seek intimacy with each other, even this time could be distorted into an occasion for scheming and jealousy, for misunderstanding instead of an opportunity for a higher level of understanding.

It has happened to all of us at one time or another.

A few years ago I was asked to deliver an opening prayer for a large banquet, sponsored by a local civic organization. Two friends, knowing that I would be going to the dinner, asked if I would like to sit at their table. I was delighted at the idea, but it occurred to me that I had better check and see if there was some plan to seat me at the head table since I had been asked to give that prayer. If not, I would be free to sit with my friends – clearly my preferred arrangement, but I wanted to be sure it would be OK with the banquet organizers who were, after all, my hosts.

Someone from the church office called them: “Dr. Elder wants to know if there are plans to seat him at the head table for the banquet,” was the way they innocently approached the question. But what followed was a real monkey chase. The people organizing the banquet hemmed and hawed and did the “we’ll get back to you” thing on the phone. I was told that the banquet folks had seemed embarrassed by the inquiry. “Oh, for goodness sakes, just tell them I was hoping to sit with friends, but would sit at the head table if that was the plan,” I suggested. Too late. A presumption had been made that I had been hoping for that head table seat of honor, when actually the truth was quite the reverse. The folks sponsoring the banquet, not wishing to seat me “too low” by the standards we have observed among the feast attenders in Jesus’ story and the inscrutable standards of civic organization protocol, had begun to move heaven and earth either to get an extra seat at the head table, or to move some other “dignitary” to the floor level (perhaps over by the kitchen) so that Dr. Pompous could have his seat of importance.

Naturally, I wound up at the head table, a hundred feet away from my friends, making small talk with the spouse of the guest speaker, blinded by spotlights, looking into the darkness of the banquet hall, feeling for all the world like an also-ran on display in a cubicle on the old “Hollywood Squares” TV program. After my opening, an unremarkable prayer to the chief civic deity of Salem – three, maybe four sentences which even I have long since forgotten — I had to remain seated in front of all those hundreds of people, prop my eyes open, and maintain an undivided interest in what the speaker had to say, missing a whole evening of fellowship with friends in the bargain. All because others had not wanted to insult me by seating me “too low.”

I’ll tell you, my experience is that these seats of importance at feasts, they’re not all they’re cracked up to be. And, to address Jesus’ other point of instruction for a second, I didn’t see a single person there who looked as though they would be hard pressed to pay someone back for a dinner invitation either.

Jesus’ word to prospective dinner party hosts in his parabolic teaching is that invitations should be issued to those who cannot repay us with their own dinner invitations, this in order to imitate more closely God’s behavior toward us, since no one can repay God, no matter how many resources we may have at our disposal.

Here is a story about a dinner party experience a little closer to Jesus’ intention in his teaching about table manners. Charles Rice was a pastor in New Jersey, and taught at a Methodist seminary there where I did my doctoral work. When we were together at a conference once he remembered a wedding held in the church he serves. The invitation asked worshipers to wear comfortable clothes and to bring a gift of food. After the wedding service, the bride and groom rolled up their sleeves and cooked a meal for the St. Peter’s kitchen, a “soup kitchen” run by the church. Charles remembered what he described as “the inarticulate joy” of people off the street as, along with the guests from the wedding service, they accepted plates of food dished up by the bride and groom, sharing equally in the wedding feast, concluding as the newly married couple distributed to wedding guests and homeless people alike the slices of the wedding cake. This was no joyless social service agency-style food drop. Here were people who had appreciated the reality and the joy of Jesus’ table teaching, and had recognized that hospitality is meant to extend outwards from Christ’s table, not focus inward.

In the wedding liturgy I most commonly use, the concluding prayer for the couple includes these sentences: “Strengthen this couple to fulfill the vows they have taken... Fill them with such love and joy that they may build a home where no one is a stranger...” This is a great teaching not only for marrying couples, but for the church itself. We gather around a table every week in our church, a spiritual banquet has been prepared by Christ for us. When we receive this banquet, we shouldn’t close the doors and keep the good news to ourselves. We should open the doors, invite others to feast with us, even the least, last, lost among us, so that in the end, when Christ’s kingdom comes, truly no one will be a stranger.

It is clear from Luke’s portrait of Jesus in his Gospel that “where some eat and some do not, the kingdom of God is not present.”[1] While we tend to think of baptism as the test for a church’s willingness to provide entry into the church, the Bible suggests that the church’s willingness to include people is more accurately measured by our eagerness to eat with them.[2]

Christian table manners have little to do with which fork or spoon should be used first, and everything to do with building a table large enough to seat everyone that God has in mind for this fellowship. Is our table big enough? I think it is. Let’s fill every seat!

[1] William Willimon, “At the Table with Jesus,” Pulpit Resource, July-September, 2001, p. 39

[2] Acts 11:1-3.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Bent Reed

A Bent Reed

© copyright 2004 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Sunday, August 22, 1010

Isaiah 42:1-3

Luke 13:10-17

Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham

whom Satan bound for eighteen long years,

be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

One all-American – perhaps even “all-human” – principle found in almost every culture holds that our possessions are ours, and that other people ought to keep their hands off them unless invited to do otherwise. This is an almost universal principle. But could there ever be a time when an alternative principle could set aside our attachment to our exclusive rights to our possessions to make way for expression of another principle?

Consider, for instance, something we take more or less for granted, the principle of exclusive ownership of our automobiles. Second to our homes, probably no place is more personal to us than our cars. If you have ever had your car broken into or stolen, then you know the sense of violation commonly felt in regard to that particular possession. A thief who smashes a window on his way into our car has transgressed something very basic, has presumed against our personal place and space. Yet for another perspective on the issue, consider the plight of urban dwellers in New York City, who endure almost legendary difficulties protecting their automobiles from theft and burglary. Oddly enough, one way that some New Yorkers have come to prevent excess damage to their cars from attempted break-ins has been simply to leave them unlocked. This works on the premise that anyone who wants to get into a locked car can do so with little difficulty, so a person might as well hold damages to a minimum by making sure they won’t need to break a window or lock to get in.

Now consider the story of David Black, a New York novelist and television producer. In order to realize an even fuller personal value from leaving a car unlocked for security purposes on a New York City street, he had to have his mind changed about his right to the exclusive use of his car. After a period of leaving the car unlocked he discovered that somebody had begun living in it. The car was always empty when he or his wife arrived to use it in the morning, but they knew they had a “tenant” because they found cigarette butts in the ashtrays, and the radio – one of those that work without the ignition key – was tuned to a salsa station that neither of them ever listened to. At first Mr. and Mrs. Black felt outraged and violated – as any of us would – until they realized that their tenant was doing no damage and was, in effect, serving as their car’s night watchman. Creatively altering their principles on the issue of ownership and use of possessions, they began leaving a pillow and a blanket in the back seat for their “tenant.” Every morning they returned to the car to find it in the condition they had left it, with the blanket neatly folded.1 They had to think a new way, see their principles from a new perspective to make this little symbiotic relationship work.

One of the unexpected gifts that Jesus granted people was in forcing them to imagine their principles on a larger scale than they had become accustomed to doing. I think he is still doing this for us. When our lives, our thinking, our praying fall into predictable ruts, Jesus’ ministry reminds us that the work of God is capable of a bigger truth than we had imagined, of continuous surprise, of taking us off in unexpected directions if only we would be attentive.

There’s an old story about a church that was rather nice, a respectable church, but one that was a little stuffy, one often caricatured by folks in other churches in town as “The Frozen Chosen.” One Sunday the people of that congregation had gathered for worship, all dressed out in their Sunday finest, when a man walked into the sanctuary who just didn’t seem to belong. There was a whiff of alcohol about him, and his clothes had that slept-in appearance.

The usher did give the man a bulletin, and motioned him toward an out-of-the-way pew, but the visitor staggered down the center aisle to the front pew, and planted himself there. So far, so good, the ushers hoped. Then the pastor began his sermon.

“Hallelujah!” shouted the newcomer, almost immediately.

The minister gave him a stern, quieting look, but pressed on. A moment later, the visitor interrupted him again. “Praise the Lord!” he proclaimed.

One of the ushers came over and whispered to him, as nicely as he could, “Sir, we don’t do that here!”

“But I’ve got religion!” the man objected.

“Yes, sir,” said the usher. “I’m sure you do. But you didn’t get it here!”

Jesus grants a new perspective to us if we will only be attentive. Street people in the city, wobbly “morning-after” visitors to church, these and others appear with regularity to keep us off-guard, to remind us that no matter how neatly we’ve drawn our religious circle, Jesus wants it drawn bigger. There is a world of stooped-over people out there waiting to hear his word, and he wants us to tell them.

Bible editors choose a variety of headings to set today’s scripture passage apart from those around it. Our pew Bibles entitle the story, “Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman.” The New International Version extends the idea calling the story “A Crippled Woman Healed on the sabbath.” Commentaries’ reference to the passage vary from “Jesus Heals a Stooped Woman,” to “Jesus and the Bent-over Woman.”

I remember seeing bent-over women on a trip in Eastern Europe. On the bridges of the city, in the marketplaces, along the narrow streets, travelers and citizens encountered these beshawled, bent-over women, with their hands extended in a mostly silent plea for alms. It is as close to a depiction of the meaning behind the word grovel as I care to see.

What is it that bends a person? What takes the proud stature out of us, pushes us down, demeans us, and sets us aside as if to say – as Jesus observed contemporary sabbath practice saying in his own day – we are of less value than ordinary farm animals, easier to ignore than livestock?

Time and again in his ministry, Jesus found himself in conflict with the status quo, the lifelong members, the upholders of tradition – the ones who remark in patronizing tones, “We don’t do that here.”

Jesus encountered high levels of controversy in his ministry in many settings because of his view of the sabbath. Of course, the sabbath of his day was the final day of the seven day week, Saturday, not the Christian Sunday sabbath. Many modern languages carry the memory of Saturday as sabbath day. The Spanish word for Saturday, for instance, is “sábado,” a form of the word “sabbath.” But early on, Christians remembered that Jesus died on a Friday, and was dead all day Saturday – the sabbath – being resurrected to new life on Sunday, the first day of the new week. So they thought of Saturday as a day of death. It was time for Christians to think a new thought and they moved their worship to resurrection day, Sunday, a day of life.

Now, rightly or wrongly, all this conversation about the sabbath is just not an earth-shattering issue for modern Americans. Most have made their peace with whatever is left of the Old Testament command to “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy,”2 sometimes in traditional ways, sometimes in self-justifying ones. Some claim to worship God in nature on the weekends, many churches offer Saturday or even weekday services to meet the needs of busy modern people. So the sabbath – if it is attended to at all – winds up being a matter of personal choice, a sort of randomly chosen day among seven for worship or recreation, or a day when there ought to be some thought of God.

In Jesus’ day, the regulation among the Ten Commandments to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy was taken with utmost seriousness by the religious leaders. It was what defined the people as the chosen people. To relax standards of sabbath observance would be to threaten the very essence of what called them together as a people of God.

Yet the fact is, the enforced observance of even a good thing can sometimes come to be oppressive. Jesus healed the stooped woman, even though there were sabbath traditions and Old Testament interpretations which defined such healing as work and therefor something forbidden on the sabbath. But Jesus reasoned, if in adhering to the letter of the law we violate some greater principle of our faith, shouldn’t the letter of the law be set aside? Isn’t God at least as interested in human beings as in livestock? Yet the law allowed the watering of livestock on the sabbath, why not the healing of a sick, bent-over, isolated woman?

One thing to remember is that if we are going to have principles – and I certainly think we should – we have continually to struggle to make certain they are big enough, far-reaching enough to be worthy of our faith so that they don’t ever seek to limit the unbinding, freeing, liberating work of God.

When Jesus said, “Come and follow me,” he didn’t say to leave our brains – or especially our compassion – behind. This is the way he transformed a bent-over woman from someone who was called, simply, “Woman,” into a person with the proud and honorific title which he gave her, “Daughter of Abraham.” No wonder she stood up straight for the first time in eighteen years!

We are sons and daughters of the King, we are people who have principles. Yet if any of us is finding ourselves bent over, stooped by the crush of life, beaten down by the withering crossfire of the judgment of others on us, Jesus calls out to us as he did that woman one day in the synagogue, saying “You are set free.” Free. And to do the work of God, we must get about the business of finding the bent-over people all around us, and setting them free. For they, too, are children of the King.

Copyright © 2004 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1 Edward Zucherman, "No Radio," Atlantic Magazine, January 1992, p. 42.

2 Exodus 20:8