September 1, 2019, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Luke 14:1-14) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000151
I want to begin by thanking everybody who worked so hard yesterday to make the service and the reception for Al as good as he deserved it to be, a tribute to what he meant to so many of us, and a fitting celebration of the hope in Jesus Christ that Al always held so strongly. It was a real labor of love, if not an outright miracle, that we were able to serve so many people fairly comfortably in our little parish hall – we probably had 80 guests for dinner, or maybe more. But you, and others as well, provided food in abundance, and you presented and served it beautifully. Jacob kept our guests moving along smoothly. And then, there were so many willing hands to help with all that dishwashing – so much dishwashing. I really can’t thank you all enough.
And now, today, in the gospel reading we find ourselves at yet another dinner party. Only this dinner party, as Luke describes it, is one of those situations where the tension in the air is so thick you could cut it with a knife. Jesus has basically been invited to have Sabbath-day dinner with an important and influential leader of the Pharisees. But Jesus hasn’t been invited just for the pleasure of his company. The host, and his important religious friends, have an ulterior motive. He’s there so they can keep an eye on him. Luke says in verse one that “they were all watching him closely”, hoping to catch him in some error or breach of law, hoping for an excuse to condemn him, and his teaching.
So that’s awkward, to begin with. Jesus, on the other hand, has his own purposes for this particular dinner party. As the meal proceeds, Jesus turns the tables on them (no pun intended). He has his eye on them as well, all those people reclining at table with him, and he challenges every single one of them. I like to call this chapter “Jesus Attends a Dinner Party and Offends Everybody”.
First, he notices that there is a man there who is sick, suffering from something called dropsy, which is a condition in which there’s swelling in various parts of the body. It’s not life-threatening, but it’s very visible, and it’s uncomfortable and unpleasant. Jesus sees the man, and he poses a question to the lawyers and Pharisees around him, who are all very careful observers of the law, which included the observance of the Sabbath day. “Speaking of the Law,” Jesus says, with one eye on the sick man, and another on the faces of his dinner companions. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” They most certainly do not think it’s lawful, but not a one of them dares to say anything in reply; Jesus has a reputation for coming out on the better end of such disputations.
And so Jesus simply reaches out and heals the man and sends him on his way. And then he says, “So, let me ask you another question: if your son, or even your ox, fell into a well on the Sabbath day, how many of you would think twice before running to pull them out?” And still, no one has an answer.
And as an uncomfortable silence hovers over that table, Jesus begins to comment on the behavior of his fellow guests. He notices everybody looking around as they come in, wanting to choose the most prestigious seats. Most of them would have been important men in the community, wealthy citizens, highly respected among the rulers of the synagogue. No one questioned their right to the best seats. Except Jesus. He looks right at them and tells a little story, about people who attend a wedding and sit in the choice seats. “If you pick the best seat for yourself, as soon as somebody more important arrives,” he tells them, “you’ll be asked to make room for them and you’ll have to move down to the cheap seats in disgrace. You’d be a lot smarter to sit in a humble place, where the host might come and invite you to move up. People who exalt themselves end up getting put down. It’s the people who humble themselves who are raised up.”
Then Jesus turns to his host. He has a word for him as well. “And you, when you give these parties,” Jesus says to him, “don’t invite all your rich, influential friends. These people are sure to invite you back and you’ll be repaid. No, invite people who can’t pay you back instead. Invite the poor, the disabled, the blind. Then you will really be blessed, because you will be rewarded by God himself.”
If we had been there at that dinner party, I am absolutely sure that we would have found ourselves squirming in our seats at some point or other, just like the guests that were there that day. Because the truth is, the teaching of Jesus sometimes makes us uncomfortable. When we sit down to read the Bible, or pray, or meditate, we generally have the expectation that it will be a comforting or uplifting or encouraging experience. Especially when we are reading the gospels, I think, because we like Jesus to be nice. But a lot of times, if we are really paying attention, the words of Jesus make us uncomfortable. It makes us uncomfortable when he sounds harsh to us instead of gentle. It makes us uncomfortable because we begin to suspect we are falling short of his goodness and love and grace. And we fall short all the time.
We can comfortably sit back and point our fingers at the hard-heartedness of the Pharisees, or the pride of the wealthy guests, or the self-centeredness of the host. But just let Jesus look you in the eye – and suddenly the finger is pointed at you. Have you ever seen someone suffering, or in need of help and you just didn’t want to get involved? Have you ever thought of yourself as being a little more important, really a little more respectable, than that poor schmuck over there? Or what about this: have you ever seriously considered inviting the lame and the blind and the poor into your home instead of “nice people” – your good friends or your beloved family? Can any of us honestly hear the voice of Jesus at this dinner party and not recognize that he is speaking to us? Can any of us recognize that he’s speaking to us and not feel a little – or a lot – uncomfortable? That’s OK. The perfect goodness and wisdom of Jesus are our joy and our hope – but they are also a challenge to us to search our hearts and to confess our need to change and grow.
Jesus says in no uncertain terms that he does not come to condemn us. We should never read the words of Jesus and feel like we are being rejected or condemned. We should never feel that we are too flawed or too weak or just plain old too bad to be worthy of his love. You are loved. You are loved unconditionally. You are loved absolutely. But that doesn’t mean he never wants you to change or grow. The Pharisees at the dinner, his host, the wealthy men who plunked themselves down in the very best seats – Jesus loved them, and it was because he loved them that he called them out in their pride and their selfishness and their hard-heartedness, just like he calls us out when we are proud and selfish and hard-hearted. God’s discipline is an act of love, as the writer to the Hebrews said, ““My child, pay attention when the Lord corrects you, and do not be discouraged when he rebukes you. Because the Lord corrects everyone he loves, and disciplines everyone he accepts as a child.”
There are a lot of things we could learn from Jesus’ teaching at this particular dinner party, but the first, maybe, is to learn to love his teaching, even when it offends us – especially when it offends us, especially when it makes us uncomfortable. Max Lucado and Ann Lamott and who knows how many other people have said this: God loves you just exactly as you are, but he loves you too much to leave you there. But he very rarely stops us with that traditional bolt of lightning when we are messing up. Much more often he speaks to us by troubling our minds and hearts. He speaks to us through that inner voice we call our conscience. He stirs us up through his written word in the Bible, but also through the still, small voice of the Spirit inside us. Sometimes he opens our eyes to something in ourselves that we just haven’t been able or willing to see before. Or sometimes he just unsettles us, so that we’re suddenly uncomfortable in the comfortable rut we’ve made for ourselves. Have you ever gotten a glimpse of yourself, and realized that you really don’t like what you see? Have you ever recalled something you said and only then realized how hurtful or arrogant or manipulative it really was? Sometimes God catches us in our worst moments so that he can help us grow into our best selves.
We have so many blind spots: not only what we think of as the usual sins, like lying and stealing and swearing, but things like the prejudices our parents passed on to us, or the mindset of the community we grew up in, or the traditions of the church we grew up in that just seem normal to us – not to mention the personal habits we all fall into in our daily life. All those things make up the comfortable little universe that we can’t see out of by our own efforts; until the Teacher comes to dinner and shakes us up. That discomfort is his gift of love to us, the same as it was to the people at the Pharisee’s dinner party. We should open the door of our hearts gladly to him, even when he makes us uncomfortable – maybe especially when he makes us uncomfortable. Because it’s a sign that you belong to him, and that it matters to him – not just what you do, but who you are becoming. “The Lord disciplines the one he loves. And he troubles the spirit of the one he accepts as his child.”