Seating Arrangements, Jesus Style.
I had a meeting once with our former bishop, Margaret Payne.
It was a required meeting to re-up my ordained status, as I was not serving in a parish at the time. We chatted about my interests and call to ministry especially the justice work that claimed my attention:
racism, debt relief for the world’s poor countries, community building in my own socio economically mixed neighborhood.
The bishop suggested I might enjoy attending a training in community organizing;
she was planning to attend a training herself. So I said, “When are you going? Maybe we could go together?” By her response, I realized I had stepped over a social boundary.
She said that she was planning to attend with another bishop I might contact this other pastor who might be interested in going. Oops. In the camaraderie of the conversation I had forgotten that even in the church there is a hierarchy kind of assigned social seating
I had just picked a seat too high for me, and like Humpty Dumpty I came crashing down.
Jesus knew a thing or two about seating arrangements.
It was a small village culture, so people noticed who you sat with at dinner. IN fact, who you sat with reflected on you. If you were invited to eat at the table of good upstanding people,
then you were considered good and upstanding too. On the other hand, these observant Jews would also notice if you ate with people who didn’t keep kosher; they were considered ritually unclean, and therefore you would have been too. Even worse—if you sat with a known sinner, in the eyes of your neighbors you would be guilty by association.
So today in our Gospel lesson, while observing guests at a dinner, Jesus refers to the seating arrangements. “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” Jesus says. lest the host “come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,'
and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.” At first it seems that Jesus is supporting the cultural practice. He echoes a piece of wisdom from Proverbs about not putting yourself up too high lest you take a mighty fall.
But if you remember that the wedding feast is for Jesus a metaphor for the kingdom of God,
you start so see something additional in his words.
You start to see what is known as ‘the great reversal’--
Jesus is telling the upstanding people, the ‘clean’ people that they better watch out
because they might find themselves sitting next to someone unexpected at God’s table.
They might find that the seating arrangements there are different.
Then Jesus goes on to make plain how different God’s seating is.
“When you give a banquet,” Jesus instructs, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” This is like being used to flying first class, with its wide seats and free drinks
and suddenly being rerouted on Southwest and having to wait in line for general seating. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s like going Greyhound, because most anyone can afford a bus ticket. Jesus indicates that the seating of the heavenly banquet is general seating
and that we here on earth are supposed to imitate it. So we don’t focus on inviting the upstanding and successful, we don’t make it a point to include people who increase our social standing. Our job is to include the people that never get invitations
the kids who are too loud, the autistic adult who can’t quite look you in the eye
the guy who collects cans and turns them in at the grocery store to supplement his fixed income. Invite the people who can’t repay you, Jesus says, and you will have the best seats in the house.
We had a reminder this past month of a time in our country where a whole bunch of people put their lives on the line to imitate God’s seating. July 2nd was the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The civil rights movement that pushed this legislation was galvanized by unjust seating arrangements: White only lunch counters and park benches, the systematic discrimination against black people. When Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus, it touched off a revolution All kinds of people joined sit ins, white and black side by side; they sang together, protested together, went to jail together,
all so that nobody would be forced to take the backseat in our free land.
That generation was successful in many ways;
Jim Crow laws went down, and many attitudes changed.
But we still are a long way from Jesus’ vision of seating arrangements.
Because in his way of operation, there are seats for all.
This is still not the case in 2019.
There are not enough seats at good schools for all kids— we have unequal educational opportunity.
Our own state has one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation in academic performance between poor minority students and their wealthier peers.
I have seen the difference first hand in my own decision making about schools for my kids
As we investigated public, magnet, and private schools in Manchester, Hartford, and W. Hartford: What is available to those with means is very different than those with fewer financial resources And knowledge of the educational system.
There are not enough seats at the decision making table for everyone.
Women and people of color are under- represented in politics and
African Americans account for under 1% of CEOs at fortune 500 companies.
And there aren’t enough seats at the economic engine-
In 2016 Black families' median net worth was less than 15 percent that of white families
Meaning that the typical white family had $171,000 when all debts were paid,
while the typical black family had only $17,600.
Jesus said to the host of the party, when you give a banquet invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. He was saying, you have some choice in the seating charts.
The work of the civil rights era is far from over. The work of Jesus’ kingdom overlaps with that struggle for equity and continue. As a community of faith, it is at the top of our list to live like Jesus and to provide seats at the table for everyone.
You might be scratching your head as to what this might mean for us at SM.
We’re not about politics here, right? We are a community of faith, we focus on spiritual matters. This is right in one sense: we are a spiritual community.
Jesus was a spiritual leader, and he talked about the kingdom of God.
But he clearly enacted that kingdom of God in the now. Jesus’ teachings had implications for every aspect of life and human dignity Including how people lived as a society, who had power, and who was excluded. He wasn’t crucified by the political and religious authorities for preaching a Kingdom of God in the life to come. He was taken out because he threatened the powers of day and their way of doing things. We who are housed, educated, and privileged to live in a safe community, We who have a place already in this community of faith: We are the hosts in this story. We have a say in the seating arrangements.
It starts right here in our church.
We can look out for new or new-to-us folks at SM, and give them the red carpet treatment—
Greet them in church, invite them to have a cup of coffee with you, sign up to take cookies to visitors. Maybe it’s meeting for coffee with a young adult or new member
Just to learn more about them. It will help you to know what to invite them to next.
You are making space for others at the table, making them feel like they got front row seats.
Jesus’ seating arrangements extend for us beyond our community at church.
We can enact that same welcome in your neighborhoods, schools, and work.
One of our members baked muffins and brought them to a neighbor who had recently lost a spouse. Another looks for parents sitting by themselves at school functions with an eye to meeting them. Another has shared with me about mentoring women and minorities at work,
giving them what they need to move up the corporate ladder. Who could you reach out to with a seat of honor? And lastly, we can embody Jesus’ values in our civic life.
We vote and we spend money. We can organize both people and money to work for Jesus’ seating arrangements So that the laws of our land promote basic values of equity and freedom for all.
If you want to catch a glimpse of what that looks like at the local level, speak with me:
There is an informational meeting at Shepherd of the Hills on faith based community organizing later this month And the launching of a broad based effort of people of faith to tackle issues of education, housing, and racism.So brothers and sisters: The banquet is prepared—the feast is ready.
Who will you be sitting next to?
We may find, like Jesus’ listeners, that there are some surprises.
But may we be like Jesus, scooting in to tables where we don’t belong
offering free seating
and with Jesus’ spirit of welcome, make a place for all.