Preacher: Jeff Davidson
Scripture: Luke 14:1, 7-14
This passage is one of my favorites in the Bible, and it always reminds me of one of my favorite sermons. It’s a sermon by the Rev. Peter Marshall – not the old host of Hollywood Squares, but the former chaplain of the US Senate. Marshall was 46 years old when he died in 1949, but his sermons foreshadow a lot of what became more common preaching practice 50 years after his death.
I don’t remember the name of the sermon, and my book of Marshall sermons that has it is packed away someplace. It’s a sermon delivered in the style of a story, set in the 1930s about a rich man who gives a banquet and invites the poor, the outcast, and the humble. One line from that sermon has always stuck with me. This is from memory so it may be off a little, but basically Marshall says, “The problem isn’t that we don’t know what Jesus wants us to do. We know perfectly well what he wants. The problem is that we don’t want to do it.”
That’s not intended as a judgment although I recognize it might feel like that. It’s intended as a challenge. We all know that we fall short of what
we’re called to do. That’s no surprise. We need to reflect on how we can do better, and then we need to do better.
The passage from Luke today is in two parts. The first part is about how you act when you go to a party. It actually has application to a party Julia and I were at a few weeks ago.
I performed a wedding for my friends Jennifer and Rob Castillo. When it came time for the reception, we were told there were no assigned seats. They said we should just sit where we wanted. Julia was in her wheelchair, so she wanted to be at a seat that backed out onto the dance floor so there wouldn’t be tables and chairs behind her, and that’s what we did.
I’ll tell you, though, there were a couple of other seats that I thought would have been better. They were at a small table directly in front of the wedding cake. The table only had two chairs at it, and it had some extra decorations and gold glitter around it, and there was a special candle and maybe some champagne or something. I don’t drink so I would have had them remove the champagne, but the special chairs and not having to share a table with everyone else and the extra decorations and everything would have made me feel nice and special. We really should have taken that table.
If we had, how do you think it would have gone? Of course it was the bride and groom’s table. We would have been politely asked to move to another table, probably the worst one in the tent, and would have been snickered at throughout the rest of the evening.
That’s exactly what Jesus says would happen. “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.” Jesus knows how weddings work.
This is good, sound advice about Christian living and about life in general. Take the lower place. Take the place or the role of a servant. Robert Greenleaf has developed an entire philosophy of organizational management called “Servant Leadership” where the main goal of the leader is to serve both clients or customers and her employees. Expensive consultants get hundreds of dollars an hour to tell you lessons that Jesus taught for no money and that preachers like me have traditionally preached in return for a chicken dinner or something.
The imagery of this part of the passage is repeated throughout the entire structure of the New Testament. Things begin with Jesus, born in a
manger, “no crib for a bed” as the carol says. Jesus assumes the role of a servant and goes even further downhill status-wise, being crucified like a criminal on a hill with two thieves. The Gospel story ends with Jesus ascending upwards into heaven, and there are many prophecies about Jesus being at the right hand of God, the place of honor, in heaven at the end of time.
The lesson is straightforward. Take the role of a servant. Don’t worry about status. If some sort of elevation in job or position will allow you to better serve more people then that’s worth thinking about, but always approach things from the perspective of wanting to serve.
The issue changes in the second part of the passage. Jesus stops talking about what you should do when you’re a guest at someone else’s party and switches to who you should invite when you throw your own party.
Tony Campolo’s an evangelical preacher and professor I’ve heard preach a few times over the years. Twice I’ve heard him tell this story that fits in with our passage today. It’s a long-ish story so here’s a shortened version of it from Brian McLaren’s book “The Secret Message of Jesus.”
My friend Tony Campolo tells a true story that also serves as a great parable in this regard. He was in another time zone and couldn’t
sleep, so well after midnight he wandered down to a doughnut shop where, it turned out, local hookers also came at the end of a night of turning tricks. There, he overheard a conversation between two of them. One, named Agnes, said, “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be thirty-nine.” Her friend snapped back, “So what d’ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake and sing happy birthday to you?” The first woman replied, “Aw, come on, why you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?” When they left, Tony got an idea. He asked the shop owner if Agnes came in every night, and when he replied in the affirmative, Tony invited him into a surprise party conspiracy. The shop owner’s wife even got involved. Together they arranged for a cake, candles, and typical party decorations for Agnes, who was, to Tony, a complete stranger. The next night when she came in, they shouted, “Surprise!”-and Agnes couldn’t believe her eyes. The doughnut shop patrons sang, and she began to cry so hard she could barely blow out the candles. When the time came to cut the cake, she asked if they’d
mind if she didn’t cut it, if she could bring it home-just to keep it for a while and savor the moment. So she left, carrying her cake like a treasure. Tony led the guests in a prayer for Agnes, after which the shop owner told Tony he didn’t realize Tony was a preacher. He asked what kind of church Tony came from, and Tony replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” The shop owner couldn’t believe him. “No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. Yep, I’d join a church like that.”
I love that story. A lot of people would join a church like that, if we were really able to be a church like that. I don’t mean “church” as in this particular congregation, although I do think that Washington City in particular and the Church of the Brethren in general have a unique message that we don’t tell as well as we could. I mean “church” in the sense of the whole body of people who believe in Jesus. If all of us were the kinds of people who would throw surprise birthday parties for prostitutes that we don’t even know then Christian churches would all have multiple services and be filled to overflowing. But they aren’t filled to overflowing,
because we really aren’t that kind of people. At least I’m not, although I want to be.
A couple of months ago Pres. Trump was on his way back to the White House on a Sunday morning after a round of golf at his country club in Ashburn. He stopped by the McLean Bible Church, which is on Leesburg Pike between Tysons Corner and Leesburg. I’ve been there several times over the years, for meetings, for worship, and for a memorial service. While the folks there are more conservative theologically and politically than I am, they’re good people and I appreciate their ministry very much.
Anyway, this was back in early June. Some Fundamentalist leader – I think Jerry Falwell, Jr. but I’m not sure – had declared it “Pray for President Trump” Sunday. Presumably the President or someone in his staff heard about this and suggested stopping at the McLean Bible Church on the way back from Ashburn for prayer, and that’s what they did.
A lot of the pastors that I follow on Twitter said they wouldn’t have allowed Pres. Trump to stand up front and receive prayer. Some said they wouldn’t have let him into the service, others said they would have let him in only so they could preach to him about his sin.
I get that. There are also some pastors who would let a prostitute in only so that they could preach to him about his sin. We all need to be
preached to about our sin, and we all need to confess, and repent, and do better. Prostitutes. Presidents. All of us.
Who would be more welcome here walking in the back door of our sanctuary – the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, or the President? Which one would we be happier to see? Which one would we be more likely to seek to have a friendly and inviting conversation with after worship? Which one would we be less likely to give a hard time to about their public failings?
I’m not trying to give a pass to Pres. Trump. I picked him because of where we are and who we are in our general political stance. This same question could be asked about Sen. Sanders, or Rep. Omar, or Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. I hope that in more conservative areas more conservative preachers than me ARE asking it. The people and the issues change depending on our perspective. The principle does not change from God’s perspective.
How do we party? We party as servants, as people of humility dedicating themselves to the glory of God and our neighbors good. With whom do we party? With anyone who wants to come, anyone we can get to come, making sure that we let people know that they are welcome to come as they are, no matter who they are. From prostitutes to politicians to
preachers and everyone in between. And if they won’t come to our party, we bring the party to them. Amen.