A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield
29 August, 2010

Proverbs 25:6-7, Psalm 112, Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16, Luke 14:1,7-14

For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 14:11

A longstanding military custom at a regimental or unit Christmas dinner is for the most junior private to exchange places with the commanding officer. The two will exchange their uniform tunics (often an amusing spectacle if the two are physically mismatched) and then the young soldier, blushing and smiling, will take his place at the head table where he or she will have the place of honour for the evening. Like the other Christmas custom of having the officers and senior NCOs serve the troops, this inversion of protocol reminds those present that every soldier, from the CO to that blushing private at the head table, are all part of the regimental family and therefore, in a profound sense, equal and deserving of respect and dignity. Of course, when that regiment goes back to the parade square or to the field, the hierarchy of rank and authority will be firmly back in place, for that’s how armies work. However, through the year to come, the lesson of the Christmas dinner will be there to remind the superior to treat his or her subordinate fairly and justly.

Today’s gospel story from St. Luke finds Jesus at a banquet. Like a regimental dinner, it was the kind of affair where every guest knew who was who and sat accordingly. Unlike the regimental dinner, there was no idea of calling the lowliest person up to the highest table, at least, not until Jesus opened his mouth. In the world of Jesus’ day, people were constantly reminded of their status. Your family, your wealth, and your connections to the rich and powerful determined what you could where, where you could go, and what you could do. A banquet, such as the one Jesus attended, literally put people in their place by seating them according to the amount of prestige and honour that they had in society. If you have trouble imagining this idea, just think back to the last time you went to a big airport. If you left your car in the Park and Fly lot, struggled onto the shuttle bus with all your luggage, and then waited in long lines and uncomfortable seats until you board the plane and go to your cramped seat in Row 29, you were one sort of person. If you were whisked to the airport in a limo, went through the VIP security line to the executive lounge, and then got the first boarding call with all the elite and superelite passengers, then you were another kind of person. I’ve only been seated in First Class once, but every time since then, I’ve shuffled past the few in the big cushy chairs in the front of the airplane, with their free drinks and cloth napkins, and wished I was one of them.

So is Jesus saying that if we only act humble and meekly, then God will include us in the preboarding announcement and call us to the first class seats? If we focus on verse 10 of today’s gospel, we might get that impression. “But 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.” If we just focus on this line, then we might only take away the message that good table manners will get you far in the world. But what if Jesus is saying something much bigger and even something more dangerous?

What if the message isn’t “act humble so you can get ahead in the world” but rather “act so that the world is the humble?” If it’s just about a lucky few getting called up to the head table, then nothing has changed much, but if it’s about getting rid of the head tables altogether, then the world is changed altogether. At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus warned that God’s kingdom would not be about head tables of super-elite preboarding calls. In the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus opened up the pages of the prophet Isaiah and read this:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4:18-19)

You may recall that as St. Luke describes it, Jesus wasn’t too popular in Nazareth when he read these lines and then took them as his own mission. Jesus’ whole ministry was dedicated to the folks who didn’t matter in the world’s seating plan. Jesus had a different seating plan, God’s plan, and it kept the best places for lepers, cripples, sinful women, tax collectors, the people who settled for table scraps and who never mattered to the few in the places of honour.

At the end of his parable, tells his host and his fellow dinner guests that they have a choice. They can live their lives according to the seating plan that works for them, or they can embrace God’s seating plan, which gives to those who have no place, no prestige, and no way of returning favours. Jesus does not offer this choice as a suggestion, as an “it would be nice if…”. Instead, Jesus reminds his hearers, as he reminds us, that this is a choice on which they will be judged for all eternity. “ And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:14). If God’s seating plan matters to us, then we must do what we can to honour the flood victim in the refugee camp, the child soldier, the unwed mother, the illiterate, the unemployed, and the homeless.
Let me finish with a story related by the
Dominican preacher, John Boll. He tells the story of Bruno Serato, the owner of a fancy restaurant that “feeds the rich and famous in Orange County, not far from Disneyland. He is also on the board of the local Boys and Girls Club, which is a national organization that helps poor children”. As a local news story describes it, “In 2005 Serato was visiting the Boys & Girls Clubs in Anaheim in 2005 with his mother, Caterina, when they noticed a small boy eating potato chips for dinner. When she learned that his parents couldn’t afford to provide a real meal, Caterina insisted that her son feed the child, who lived with his family in a low-income motel nearby. “Children have to eat” Serato recalls his mother saying. “So we went back to the kitchen and made pasta.”

That was the first of 250,000 meals the owner of the upscale Anaheim White House restaurant has served to children in need. Five nights a week, Serato, who grew up poor in Italy, delivers fresh pasta to 150 so-called “motel kids” at the club, all free of charge. “Nobody has a greater passion for the people he`s serving” says Anaheim mayor Curt Pringle.

One grateful recipient: Katlin Hadley, 12, who lives with her brother, parents and an uncle in a one-room motel room. “I get hungry sometimes,” she says. Adds her mom, Mandy 32: “What Bruno is doing is absolutely amazing.”

“I can’t stop helping these kids,” says Serato.

Bruno Serato is a concrete example of someone who understands and lives by God`s seating plan. He seems to derive real joy from what he does, reminding us that joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, and that the rewards of abundant, eternal life can begin now, and not just in the hereafter. We each have opportunities in our lives to live and act in a way that takes God`s seating plan off the pages of scripture, and into a world that longs to see the coming of God`s kingdom. Our Eucharist today is a reminder that God`s banquet table is open to all who hear and believe his call. May we enjoy God`s generosity, and may we carry that spirit of generosity into the world.