Friday, September 7, 2007

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

14th Sunday after Pentecost (September 2, 2007)
“Invited to the Feast” (Luke 14:1-14)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our text this morning is today’s Gospel lesson, from Luke 14. Please listen to God’s Holy Word as I read it one more time:

One Sabbath, when [Jesus] went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” And they could not reply to these things.

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in 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 table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

Thus far the Word of the Lord.

By the time most people reach Stewart’s age, they’ve been to a wedding or two...or three. But, believe it or not, Stewart had never been to a wedding. Not even his own, being single and a confirmed bachelor. Relationships just weren’t on his agenda. And he was quite particular. No woman ever quite measured up to his high standards.

Most of Stewart’s friends were married with children by now. They always remembered to invite Stewart to their nuptials. But it always seemed as though he had other plans that, for one reason or another, couldn’t be changed.

Finally, the day arrived when one of Stewart’s co-workers was to be married. She worked in the office right next to his, and they shared a laugh or two now and then during their coffee break. This time, he was able to attend the festivities. After the ceremony at the church, everyone drove to the reception at the local community hall. Stewart was famished, so he looked for the best seat in the house. He figured if he could snake his way up to the head table, he would be sure to be one of the first in line at the buffet. “Besides,” he thought to himself, “I’m good friends with the bride. She won’t mind me sitting here.”

Stewart hadn’t been seated more than 10 minutes when one of the catering crew approached him.

“Sir,” she said, “you’ll have to find another seat. This table is reserved for the wedding party.”

“But I’m good friends with the bride,” Stewart insisted.

“That may be so, sir, but you can’t sit at this table. It’s only for the wedding party.”

Feeling put out, Stewart begrudgingly got up from his seat, cursed under his breath, and looked around for another seat. By this time, all the guests had arrived and were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the bride and groom. The only seat available was a rickety folding chair right next to the door to the men’s room. Gingerly, he sat down, his stomach rumbling, his nose irritated by the smell of bathroom cleanser wafting from the men’s room, and his face red with embarrassment.

You could almost forgive the guy. After all, he had never been to a wedding reception before. He didn’t know the proper protocol. But don’t most people know that you’re not supposed to sit at the head table of any gathering unless you are the guest of honor? Our protagonist had also never heard Christ’s words from our Gospel lesson today about not sitting in a place of honor and being asked to vacate your seat and move down a notch or two...or seven.

However, I don’t believe that Jesus is acting as Emily Post here. His words are not meant to teach us the proper etiquette about how to arrange guests at a wedding reception, how to choose your seat when you arrive, how to arrange and invite the guests at your own dinner parties. No, Jesus is teaching us something much more significant, much deeper. He is teaching us about his grace and mercy. Christ is teaching us that our place at his “Feast” has been earned for us because he humbled himself for us and for all sinners at the cross. He graciously invites us to the “Feast.” This “Feast” is the eternal wedding banquet described in Revelation 19: “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.” The bliss and joy of heaven is described as a wedding feast. In the meantime, you and I are invited to a very real “Feast” here on this side of heaven. Every time you and I come to the “Feast” we call the Lord’s Supper, we get a foretaste of the feast to come as we dine on Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith.

Our sinful nature leads us to believe that we deserve a place at the Feast. We measure ourselves against others and think we are better. We expect to be repaid when we help others. We exalt ourselves, even if it’s only in our minds. But God’s Word says that when we exalt ourselves, we will be humbled. We will be shamed into taking the lowest place. In eternity, that will mean hell...the place of utter shame and contempt. You and I are like the ones who are poor, crippled, lame, and blind. Our sins spiritually impoverish us. Because of sin, we are emotionally and spiritually crippled and lame. We are spiritually blind and cannot see the truth unless it is revealed to us. And you and I are like the son or the ox who has fallen into a well...helpless, in the dark, with no way out. Our best efforts at attempting to rescue ourselves will fail, as we try to climb the slippery, slimy walls. We are as good as dead.

But our Lord Jesus has prepared a magnificent Feast for us. We have nothing to offer him in return. We have no way of repaying him for what he has done for us. After all, you and I are poor, crippled, lame, and blind...a pretty sorry lot, if you ask me. Not a very attractive dinner crowd. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, “I wouldn’t want to attend a dinner party with me as one of the guests.” In spite of our miserable condition, Jesus graciously invites us nonetheless. Although we have fallen into the well, Jesus does not overlook us, saying, “Sorry, it’s the Sabbath Day. Can’t exert myself, you know. That would be working. Can’t help you.” Instead, Jesus immediately pulls us out of our sinful condition and heals us with his forgiveness. He blesses us with his love and presence. He humbled himself when he became Incarnate in the Virgin’s womb. He humbled himself all the way to the cross and the tomb. He went and sat in the lowest place for us. When Jesus broke the bonds of death on Easter morning, and when he took his rightful place as King of the Universe at the right hand of the Father, it was as if God the Father said, “Friend, move up higher.” Or here’s how St. Paul puts it in Philippians 2: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” Jesus is honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with him...yet he is the one who still continues to humble himself and serve us, stooping down to our level to give us his very own body and blood in our hands and mouths. Now, we come before him in all humility and repentance, acknowledging our unworthiness, sitting in the lowest place, and Christ is the one who exalts us. “Friend, move up higher,” he says to us. “Come, eat and drink in my presence. Receive from me life and salvation. You are honored in the presence of angels and archangels and the whole company of the apostles and prophets and saints and martyrs who are in my very presence even now.”

Exalted by God at his Feast, we can continue to humble ourselves. We can act in all humility in our relationships. We can place the needs of others before our own. We can invite sinners like ourselves...poor, crippled, lame, and the Feast. We can reach out to others without expecting to be paid in return. Jesus has promised that we will be repaid in the resurrection of the just. Baptized into Christ, we have a share in that resurrection. We are just because we are justified...declared not guilty through the shed blood of Christ Jesus for our sins. We will be repaid...not because we have done things that deserve payment...but because we will then see the results of our labors for Christ. We will see how our loving actions for Christ’s sake affected others. All those simple acts of kindness and love that you thought were insignificant really weren’t. They meant something. They helped to open hearts to hear the Good News that Jesus is the Savior. What greater payment could you get, than to see someone you once helped on earth be in heaven forever? So never think that what you do doesn’t matter. And never stop inviting people to the Feast.


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