Saturday, August 28, 2010

Moochers at the Table of Grace

Trinity Lutheran Church, Moorhead

Installation of Pastors Alexis Twito, Colin Grangaard and Rick Reiten
August 29, 2010
Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely…. 7When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12[Jesus] said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

These waning days of August are such a nostalgic time…reminding us of the end of so many summers, the beginning of so many autumns….and always, always the return to school.

In the next ten days thousands of students will return to classes in Fargo and Moorhead….from pre-schoolers to graduate students….so different in so many ways, and yet also so similar: all of them pondering the same question: “How will I fit in? How will I make a place for myself in this class, this school, this community of learning?”

It’s a question, really, that we bring to every moment of life: How do I fit in? How do I fashion a place for myself?

And sometimes that question gets very specific. My son-in-law who attends law school in St. Paul told me that he has a very, very definite “place” among his peers-- because they’re all graded strictly on a curve. Every student occupies exactly one spot on that Bell curve, depending upon their performance. Every class, every discussion, every test influences just where that spot is….and that in turn influences where you wind up, how good a position you will win for yourself in the dog-eat-dog world of lawyering.

How do I fit in? How do I fashion a place for myself?--questions that are as old as the hills. In fact, they form the backdrop for this gospel lesson from Luke 14.

It is the Sabbath, and people are at table in the home of a Pharisee. Jesus is present, and everyone is watching him like a hawk. Why? I think it’s because Jesus had a way of shaking things up, wherever he went.

Jesus just didn’t “do” idle chit-chat. We Midwestern Lutherans can talk for hours about nothing—the weather, our tomato plants, where to pick up the best sweet corn, and—“how about those Twins?” You know the drill.

But Jesus didn’t know the drill. Jesus only “did” purposeful speech, usually disruptive speech. Having Jesus over to dinner was always risky—he often ignored conventional etiquette, he wasn’t a keep-your-opinions-to-yourself-please guest.

So people were watching him…and Jesus, in turn was watching them, observing especially how they positioned themselves in the context of this meal.

Now here we’re at a disadvantage, because we’ve reduced “being at table” to little more than consuming the carbs and proteins we need to keep going.

For Jesus and his fellow diners, though, eating a meal together was sacred time, in holy space….which is why so much of the action in Luke’s Gospel happens “at table.” For Jesus and his fellow diners, eating together was about table fellowship, a profound way of sharing life together.

So people are watching Jesus, and Jesus is watching them, and then--true to form—he opens his mouth and says something wild, uncomfortable, and world-turning.

First, Jesus addresses his fellow-guests. They would be wise to aim low, head for the humblest position in the pecking order. After all, if you take the lowest place, you have nowhere to go but up on the social ladder.

But what sounds at first like advice from Miss Manners is so much more. The giveaway word here is παραβολη—parable, which means kingdom talk—Jesus is opening up a vista on the kingdom of God.

Taking the lowest seat isn’t a reverse-English way of jockeying for power: “After you….no, after you….no really, I insist, after you….”

Taking the lowest available seat goes beyond prudential choice. It is God’s way, as Jesus himself was forever demonstrating. Jesus always “aimed low”—headed right for where the no-accounts were seated. Jesus consistently positioned himself with the gap-toothed, knock-kneed, could-use-a-bath crowd.

Jesus’ place was and still is with those who can’t make it on their own.

Speaking of whom….Jesus offered his host a little more unsolicited advice: When you give a luncheon or a dinner… invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

It’s not just about how you position yourself, but who you position yourself with.

Our natural tendency is to hang out with our social equals, or, if given the chance, to surround ourselves with power-people who can do something for us in return. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, and we both come out ahead…although I’d be delighted to come out a little farther ahead, thank you very much!

So we’re at a party, talking with someone who all the while is looking over our shoulder to see who else is at the party. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and reciprocity is the coin of the realm.

But not in the kingdom of God. In God’s astonishing but gentle way of ruling over all things, everyone is equally beholding to the Host of the feast. Our differences are really trifling, the tie that binds us all—our common need for what only God can give.

So what if we started acting as if that were true, right here and now? Well, our meals and our parties and—come to think of it—our weekly worship gatherings would look so very much more like the “duke’s mixture” that in fact we are.

And how could we picture that more wildly, more imaginatively, than if we constructed our guest lists by starting with all the folks who could never in a million years, pay us back. People whose need outstrips their ability to pay. People who might even be a drag on us—might hold us back, might reshape us, might refashion how we look at everything—through kingdom eyes for a change.

In other words: remove reciprocity from the equation, and in its place substitute the gratuitous grace of God, the overflowing unmerited mercy of the One who took the lowest place imaginable, a Roman execution cross, for us and for our salvation.

Now, I could go on and on, but the home stretch is beckoning, so let me close by shining the light of this text on you three—Alexis, Colin and Rick. What does this all have to do with you, and the ministry partnership that we launch here this morning?

We are here to install you, after all. And installation involves putting you in your place.

The double entendre in that phrase can serve us well.

I know that none of you fell off the turnip truck yesterday. In the hothouse environment of the seminary, each of you has been a shining star. You landed on the cheerful side of the Bell Curve.

But this morning, I invite you to regard all of that as sheer gift. Your gifts are God’s gifts to you, and now here at Trinity, God’s gifts through you. If I believed in luck, I’d say: “Aren’t we all so lucky to have you!”

But there is more. As you begin your ministry here at Trinity, I invite you to aim low.

Bet you haven’t heard advice like that—you high achievers, you.

But this is kingdom talk, don’t you see? “Aim low” is kingdom talk for: situate yourselves where Jesus would be. Let God position you where you can do the most good—with those who know they can’t make it on their own. And doesn’t that really describe us all—even the brightest and best shining stars, sitting here in the pews this morning?

Trinity is richly blessed with a wonderful spectrum of folks who all share two things in common: first, they’re sinners and, second, Jesus has saved them in order to send them into God’s mission.

And you three new pastors will have entrée into their lives when they need God most. I love that old line from C.S. Lewis: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains…[Pain is God’s] megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Aim low—be where Jesus would be—and, as you help Trinity to serve God’s mission—finagle ways to keep making sure the guest list always includes folks who can never repay God for his goodness.

Last Wednesday your “Music on the Blacktop” event served over 900 people. What an amazing “Jesus party!”—truly, one of the very best things you do here at Trinity.

And I certainly hope that many of those 900 showed up just to mooch some free ice cream and bask in camaraderie…because, you know, we’re all moochers at God’s table of grace.

If Christ’s church has a future in this 21st century, it will be shaped by parties that bring all of us moochers together, positioned by God—put in our places by God--to partake of a feast we will never deserve.

So, welcome, Alexis, Colin and Rick….welcome to this table. On behalf of all the other moochers gathered here this morning, we call you to be wherever Jesus would be, surrounded by all the ragamuffin kingdom people who are simply amazed to be here.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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