Scripture: Luke 14:1, 7-14
Every so often regularly scheduled programs are interrupted for celebrity events: the Oscars, CMA, Miss America pageants, or the now infamous Video Music Awards. Each of these events have un-televised banquets, pre-parties, and after parties associated with them that are just as coveted to attend as the public show. Many people for a price can attend each of these events. There are other events that are held by politicians where for hundreds or thousands of dollars you could eat in the general vicinity of the next president… at least in the same building. Celebrity events are money making opportunities, people with pay a great deal to be near and if you attend you might have an opportunity to find yourself in a different social class than you were before the event.
Events such as these are not new to our contemporary age. There have always been royal feasts and banquets throughout history. If you were to read about the tributes the tribes of Israel paid their kings it is astonishing. The amount of livestock and grain would be enough to feed a nation, yet it was for one family. When the queen of Sheba visited Solomon she was astonished not only by the wisdom of Israel’s king but the wealth. There was more gold, food and spices readily available for them to enjoy than she had seen. These banquets and feast were not only in Israel; the feasts in ancient Rome would last days where the attendees would engage in gluttonous activities. They would gorge themselves, and then purge, so that they could again eat. Yes its is a disgusting thing to speak about but that is how things were and unfortunately still are.
Feasts are to be enjoyed. But as with all things moderation is the key. But why do we go to events, parties, and banquets? About a year ago most of us attended a feast celebrating the union between two of our members. We went because it was a time to share the joy of two people joining their lives together in marriage. Marriage is something to celebrate, one theologian wrote this about marriage:
We do not even remember today that marriage is, as everything else in “this world,” a fallen and distorted marriage, and that it needs not to be blessed and “solemnized” – after a rehearsal and with the help of the photographer- but restored. This restoration, furthermore, is in Christ and this means in His life, death, resurrection and ascension to heaven, in the Pentecostal inauguration of the “new eon,” in the Church as the sacrament of all this. Needless to say, this restoration infinitely transcends the idea of the “Christian Family,” and gives marriage cosmic and universal dimensions… Here is the whole point. As long as we visualize marriage as the concern of those alone who are being married, as something that happens to them and not to the whole Church and, therefore, to the world itself, we shall never understand the truly sacramental meaning of marriage: the great mystery to which St. Paul refers when he says, “But I speak concerning Christ and the Church.” We must understand that the real theme, “content” and object of this sacrament is not “family,” but love… It is the sacrament of divine love, as the all-embracing mystery of being itself, and it is for this reason that it concerns the whole Church, and –through the Church- the whole world. (For the life of the World, Alexander Schmemann, 82.)
We celebrate marriage, not because it is just a happy thing shared between two people, but because it is a happy thing shared between the Church, and the world. It is a mystery that links us into the life of Christ and to the very foundations of the world. It is a means of grace that sanctifies and forgives all of our relationships, and should give us a glimpse into the Kingdom of God. Marriage is not about family, although families are often a product of marriage, but it is about Love. Love of God to humanity, love of men and women, love of parents and children. We celebrate because marriage and all that it entails is worship. With that being said, marriage can become an empty ritual that is void of all meaning if we do not keep the focus in the proper place.
In the passage Jesus is invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal. They are watching Him closely, and he is watching them. He notices that people are trying to get the places of honor, trying to get as close to the celebrity as possible. Who knows they may have spent $10,000 to eat this meal and they want to at least be able to see this leader chewing his food. Jesus begins to speak and teach. Through his story he encourages us not to assume a place of honor, but to be humble and to sit with the common people. I thought about this quite a bit this week. I struggled with the meaning, is it about honor or is there something else? I got to thinking that we put a lot of stock in honor in our culture. Jesus goes on to say if you are inviting people to the feast, not to invite the rich neighbors. Which made me realize that if this is about honor it is not the type of honor that we often hope for.
We spend money to have a chance to eat with the famous. It would be an honor to come home and say that I was there. But just like marriage in our culture today we have a distorted view of honor. Honor is not something that we can obtain, but it is something given by others. This is what Jesus is getting at. In the first section he says to sit with the lowly and let the host lift you up if the host desires. If you were to take the place of honor or to demand honor it will cause a scene, and only embarrass you. Who is honored at a wedding celebration, usually the man and woman that have been married, but then they ask those that have been important in their life to sit with them. It is not something that is demanded but a gift. When Tash and DeWayne were married, it was an honor to be asked to participate with them. To be honest I did not think that I was going to be asked oversee the ceremony, I only wanted to celebrate, but when DeWayne asked if I would be willing to participate I was overjoyed. In that simple invitation they honored me, in that simple invitation they told me that I played a significant role in their lives at that point. Of course I was not the only person they gave honor to that day, and by attending we all gave them honor as well.
I was thinking about this as I walked the labyrinth in the parking lot, praying. We cannot demand honor. Honor is not given to people merely because they hold a position in an office. Honor is given because of some connection within a community. It is given to those that serve. This is why Jesus tells those at the party to invite the poor, the lame and the blind. Because if you invite only the people that can repay you, all you are doing is trading favors, but the lowly in the community you lift up and honor. Again I walked in the circle thinking about this, thinking about honor, the poor, and weddings.
I began to realize that this had very little to do with individuals but just as the theologian said about weddings, this passage deals with the church as a whole, and the world with it. It is a story of the restoration of honor, the restoration of the community, and the restoration of love. We as the church are the bride of Christ, invited to the wedding banquet. These are all images that Jesus uses in speaking of the Kingdom of God, or heaven. The one that gives honor is the one that invites us to the party, or God. This parable is about our relationship with God as individuals and as a meeting. How do we determine our standing in relation with God? Can we waltz into heaven demanding the seat of honor?
Jesus in his story encourages us to sit in the lowest place so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher.” We as Friends could get a big head right now, but before we do let us think about whom Jesus calls friends. The passage of our namesake, John 15:14, “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” is preceded by the command to love one another as I have loved you. He goes on to say, “ No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” To have honor with God, we must follow Christ, not only in word but also in action, to live our lives the way that Jesus would live his life. We cannot do this on our own because within all of our efforts is our twisted ideas of honor based on the “world’s” standards. Even the command that Jesus gives can be twisted, “lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Does this mean that we should sacrifice ourselves only for those people we like? Not if we were to follow Jesus’ example, Jesus was often said to be the friend of the sinner and the tax collector. He would be found with the marginalized and the dishonorable people of the communities’ standards. One of his closest friends, and one of the gospel writers was one such man. Yet Jesus went down into those low dark areas to lift them up. To honor them as people loved by God.
What brings us honor as a community and as individuals within this community? It is closely tied to how we respond to the least of the community in which we live. If we want to be close to God, Jesus encourages us to give up our lives for the people he calls friends. The apostle Paul tells us that none of us can lay claim to that title, because while we were still enemies of God Jesus died for us. While we were still missing the mark and trying to do things our own way Jesus gave his life for us. We cannot lay calm to any honor in ourselves. We can only honor others and only others give true honor to us. I am not worthy of the honor of this position within this community in myself. I know this because I am human, I want to make demands and to twist things to go my way, even as a pastor of a church many times I find myself on the wrong side lining up against God, still living as an enemy and not as a friend. That is because if we rely only on our own abilities, if we rely on our own finances, and our own wisdom we will always be like the people at the wedding feast seeking to sit in the high places only to be moved down by our host and our seat given to someone else.
As a community, as a Meeting, and as individuals Jesus is urging us to let go of honor. Let go of the things that give us status and power over others, and in the place turn to the lowly of our community and lift them up, to treat the lowest in our community with dignity and respect. He is calling us to leave our pride behind us, to leave all that worldly wisdom and to trust that he is going to do something great for us and through us. He wants us to truly believe that through Him all things can be made new and be restored. He wants us to truly believe and live in and with him as we walk through this distorted world filled with darkness and sin. He wants us to truly live like we believe that the power that raised him from the dead is available to each one of us. This is not just some fair tale magic but truth. It is when people live in this way that community and cultures change.
I am often intrigued by the history of the Irish people, I often sit back and wonder how St. Patrick and the others early Christian leaders could go into a culture and see an entire nation turned totally away from one religion to another. I asked one friend of mine what he thought, and he said, “Patrick demonstrated a more powerful magic.” Patrick lived a life fully devoted to God, fully committed to the gospel of Christ, he sacrificed everything he had to go share the gospel to a people that once held him in slavery. He showed them through his life and devotion to Christ that there was only one true God, and that one true God did miraculous things that cause all the other religious activities to look like cheap tricks. Imagine if that were to happen here.
We began today speaking about banquets and weddings, I read a passage from an orthodox priest’s understanding of marriage as being not between a man and woman but that it was instead a celebrations of the Church and Christ in divine love, which is a relationship that brings about a new age. I spoke of honor and how often the world twists our understanding of true honor. I spoke of what God sees as being honorable. I now ask as we enter into this time of open worship and Holy expectancy, are we going to be a meeting to which God can say, “friend, move up higher?” Are we going to be a meeting that will live up to our name of Friends? Are you willing to lay down your life for the sake of your friends? Are we willing to enter into the holy mystery of love, and do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit and consider others more highly than ourselves? These are tough questions but how we answer those questions first as individuals and then as a Meeting will dictate if we will participate in the new age that Christ is bringing about in the world around us.