Sermon preached for the Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
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.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.
“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; and 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. 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.
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He 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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
As a native Virginian, I grew up going to Colonial Williamsburg. I don’t know how many of you have visited, but it’s a sort of historical theme park, with men in tricorner hats and women in hoop skirts trying to recreate what the town of Williamsburg would have been like around the Revolutionary War. You can visit the governor’s mansion, the smithy, the dress shop, and more.
Just outside the bounds of this time warp is Bruton Parish, an Episcopal church. It’s a beautiful warm brick building, and it stays open for the tourists who come to see this historic place. The church was established in 1674, more than a century before the Revolution. The building came along in the early 1700s. The sanctuary is surprisingly small and intimate, with a lot of white paneled wood.
The pews are boxed in, with swinging doors on the sides. There are plaques on the pews to show who sat in each one, whose family claimed it as their weekly seat. Perhaps even the families who bought or rented that pew for their sole use—a common fundraiser in the church a few centuries back. Pay more, get a better pew—a closer pew, which believe it or not, used to be the preference.
The first pew in Bruton Parish bears a familiar name: Washington. When George Washington and his family worshipped in Williamsburg, they sat right up front. Closest to the preacher. Closest to the altar. In some ways, the other congregants might have felt, closest to God.
The pew behind Washington’s is also worth noticing. It bears the name Jefferson. Now, we all know that Thomas Jefferson’s brand of Christianity was a little dodgy, but nevertheless, when he came to church he sat right up front, just one step behind Washington.
But then there is the next pew. The pew behind Jefferson. It bears the name Burwell.
At this point, I imagine most tourists wander off to see the organ or the bell tower. But for my family, this is why we visit.
You see, the Burwells are my people. My ancestors. And it is hard not to feel a sneaky thrill of pride that they sat behind presidents.
As a child, I tried to imagine what it would be like to parade up that aisle in your Sunday best, turning heads as you took your place right up front. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be able to lean forward and poke Jefferson’s wig.
I am sure that my ancestors took a great deal of pride in their pew. In sitting so close to greatness. But I do have to wonder if they spent as much time listening well to scripture as they did looking good for the congregation.
“When you are invited by someone to a dinner,” Jesus says to us today, “don’t make a show of going for the best seat. Sit somewhere inconspicuous, and let the host lift you up. Better that than trying to be the center of attention and getting forced to the side instead.”
Somehow, my ancestors seemed to have missed the memo on this one.
It’s hard for us to fully grasp the weight and nuance of the shame and honor culture that Jesus lived in, but I imagine we all know what it is to feelashamed at a party or in a group. To feel like we don’t really belong. Like we aren’t really wanted. Like everyone else is cooler than us, smarter than us, more successful than us, more important than us.
And conversely, I think most of know what it is to feel honored. For me, I feel honored when I am listened to, when I know that my thoughts and ideas are appreciated. For others, it might be a compliment, a surprise invitation, an acknowledgement of all the good, hard work you do. And for many of us, I think we feel most honored when we get lifted up by someone who knows us deeply—the good and the bad. If you know me, truly know me, all my sins and shortcomings and failings, and still want me to sit beside you—then honored is precisely how I will feel.
There are many ways to try to make ourselves feel better about our place in the world, to boost our reputations, bolster our portfolios, and buoy up our egos. Fashion, cars, achievements and accolades, trophies, promotions, vacation photos you can tag #nofilter. But I don’t think any of this leaves us feeling honor. I think pumping ourselves up so high just leaves us feeling… well, honestly, kind of bloated.
Scripture says that Jesus noticed the guests at Sunday dinner picking their own seats of honor. Trying to exalt themselves, climb the ladder of their social circle until they were the envy of all. Trying to claim their own honor.
But listen to how Jesus frames the parable. It’s the host, not the guest, who gets to decide who is honorable. It’s the host who says, come higher up. It’s the host who says, come sit beside me. It’s the host who chooses whom to invite at all—and the best host, Jesus says, skips the cool crowd altogether, and welcomes in the lost, the lonely, and the lame.
Here is the neat trick about Christianity: we do not get to choose whether or not we are worthy. Our host does. Jesus Christ, our host at the table, gets to choose whether or not we are welcome. Whether or not we get to sit by his side. Whether or not we cower in shame, or bask in his glory.
And on the cross, Christ already told us: we are worthy. We are welcomed. We are wanted.
I spent much of my life believing I was unworthy. Unworthy of love, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of a place at any table. What finally broke through to me was realizing it wasn’t my choice to make: God chose me. God deemed me worthy. God called me to the table.
And so it is for all of us—and not just you sitting here in the pews today, but every person on this earth—God has deemed you worthy. God has deemed them worthy. Worthy of being lifted up, of being welcomed just as they are. No filters, no airbrushing, no resume padding. God is eager to throw a party for those who never get invited to anyone else’s. God is eager to throw a party for those who have nothing to wear to one. God is eager to throw a party for those who can’t bring a hostess gift.
As people of God, our honor does not come from our own perfection, or our own glory. Our honor comes from God, who perfectly and gloriously loves us, just as we are. Welcomes us, just as we are.
In a minute we’re going to sing a new song that our high schoolers learned this summer at Montreat. The song invites us to bring our whole selves to the communion table, to Jesus’ dinner party—not just our shiniest, holiest, churchiest selves, but all the rough and broken bits, all the parts we’d rather not anyone see. And the lyrics go on—come and remember who you are here—do this to remember who I am.
If we come to the table lying about who we are, trying to be cooler, holier, more important than we are, we are denying Christ. We are denying Christ the chance to welcome our whole selves, to offer a word of forgiveness to the deepest part of us, to show us that he is broken too. His body, broken for us, broken for broken people.
The feast of the Lord is not an exclusive club. It’s not a place for perfect people to rub elbows with power. It’s a place for all of us to come, to remember that we are broken, and to remember that Christ is the one who heals broken people.
Bruton Parish in Williamsburg may be a tourist attraction, but it is also still a working church. They worship at 11:15, so I imagine they are gathering for worship now, warming up the organ, checking communion supplies. Someone will sit in the Burwell pew this morning, the one my ancestors took such pride in so long ago.
I hope it is a college student wondering if she even believes in Jesus. I hope it is an older man wondering if he has a purpose for life post-retirement. I hope it is a young mom exhausted from trying to juggle too many roles. I hope it is a teen aching to know if they are really lovable. I hope it is someone fighting the lies of depression. I hope it is someone who came in just because there is air conditioning and coffee.
Because those are the people who need to be up front. Those are the ones who need to be closest to the preacher when they say “God loves you. God forgives you. God invites you to dinner, and thinks you’re the most important guest there.” Those are the ones Jesus loves to honor, to lift up, to pour love into.
We are Christians. We worship a God who was beaten and bruised, taunted and tormented. And so we worship a God who welcomes, with empathy and love, the beaten and bruised, taunted and tormented, alone and ashamed. We worship a God who throws not just crumbs to the least of us, but throws a whole dinner banquet for the least of us.
So come to this table, just as you are, scars and all. Come to this table, and remember who are worthy to come, simply because Christ says you are.
You are worthy. Full stop.
For Christ our host, and for the feast of grace, I give thanks. Amen.