Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last summer – the summer of 2000 – Marsha and I led a trip to The Passion Play in Oberammergau Germany. There were 30 of us traveling together for two weeks, and on the way home, the flight from Copenhagen was overbook, so we offered to be “bumped.” It’s an airline term, being bumped. We offered up our seats in exchange for a later flight and another free ticket. So when we got home, just one day late, we had in our hands two tickets to anywhere in the world that Scandanavian Airlines flies. Remember when we went to Paris last spring? That’s why. The only reason we were able to go is because we had free tickets.
And that’s what I want to talk about this morning, because when we boarded the plane for our flight to Paris, we had to walk through the first class section to get to our seats. They were already comfortable in their extra-wide leather recliners. They were already sipping on wine or soft drinks, or coffee served on real china, and wiping their hands on warm, moist linen towels. I think the flight attendants were even prettier in first class. Meanwhile, back in coach class, we were scruntched into our tiny cloth seats and handed a bag of peanuts that we had to open with our teeth. You’ve flown on airplanes, you know what I mean. And after nine hours of captivity, I began to resent the passengers in first class, who were sleeping comfortably in their recliners.
On the way back from Paris, Marsha and I again offered to be bumped. We were thinking that, if our luck held up, we’d never have to buy another airline ticket again. Just before our flight was to leave, the attendant told us that the flight was not full and we could board. But because we were thoughtful enough to offer our seats, they were upgrading us to first class! Now we were sitting in the extra-wide leather recliners. Now they were serving us the fine wine, or as much Diet Coke as we could drink. For nine hours, it was the lap of luxury.
Somewhere, I think, over Nova Scotia, I stood up to stretch and I noticed a coach class passenger coming in to first class to use our rest room. I was incensed! That was OUR rest room. Pretty soon, he would be drinking OUR wine, eating OUR finger sandwiches, and talking to OUR flight attendants. He didn’t belong here! And then it hit me: that I didn’t deserve to be seated in first class either. I didn’t pay for that seat, I didn’t earn it. Marsha and I were there by the invitation of our hosts, and only by their kindness were we treated like royalty.
And that, my friends, is a picture of grace: being invited into a place we have no business being. By grace, we are lavished with gifts that we did not pay for and do not deserve. And only by the kindness of our Host have we even been allowed to enter and to stay. That’s grace, and it is only ours by the mercy of the One who invited us.
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Unfortunately, after we have become accustomed to grace, we tend to take it for granted, most of us. We begin to think of ourselves as religious, and that that’s why we have been blessed. We think that the church is ours, and we can determine who’s in and who’s not. In short, we develop an attitude of distinction. And it is that sort of thinking that Jesus addresses sharply in the parable that is told today in Luke’s gospel.
He’s at a party, Jesus is, and he notices human nature at work. As people begin to seat themselves for the meal, they naturally take the best seats available. Of course they do. So do we. If we are attending a concert where the seating is “General Admission” we always try to sit as front and as center as possible. That’s what Jesus was noticing at this banquet. But what if it’s assigned seating? What if there is a seating chart and you have placed yourself more front and more center than what the host intended? Then everyone is embarrassed; the host, the person who is called forward, and you who is asked to take a different seat.
When Jesus told this story, I wonder if it hit its intended target? The Jewish Pharisees thought themselves to be the upper crust in God’s Kingdom. They were the most religious people they knew, if anyone deserved places of honor at God’s table, certainly it was them. They too had developed an attitude of distinction. But in this parable, if they caught it, Jesus says “Guess what? There are other guests that are just as important as you. They might not look religious. They might not have all the right table manners. But I’ve invited them to the banquet as well.”
The implication to the 21st century church is a very subtle one, but it is very significant. Jesus doesn’t like pride of any kind, but religious pride is the worst of all. When we, like the Pharisees, believe that we have a special place in God’s family because of something we’ve done, or the particular theology we embrace, or the length of time we’ve been in the faith, it is that that Jesus says “Guess what?” These other guests of mine are just as important as you.
Some time ago, a man was asking a pastor in a distant church if his church had parking spaces near the door that were marked “Visitor Parking.” The pastor said rather quickly “No” and then, after thinking for a moment, added “Why would we want to do that?” The pastor seemed to be implying that, since the members of his church paid for those parking spaces, they had the right to them first. Visitors, who often show up at church late, by the way, would have to park at a distance. (As an aside, it has always amazed me that worshippers generally seek the front row in the parking lot, and the back row in the sanctuary, and I wonder why?).
When Jesus had finished telling his parable to the guests, he turned his attention to the host and asked him to consider something. “Isn’t it interesting” Jesus began, “that when you have a party like this, you only invite people just like you? You invite your relatives, and your closest friends, and people who have already hosted you in their homes…sort of a payback.” By implication, Jesus was saying “Shouldn’t you be inviting people from coach-class?” Shouldn’t you be inviting those outside your normal circle of influence, who cannot repay you…like the poor, or the very young, or the very old, or the very isolated.
He’s right, you know. We tend to stay in our comfort zones, to circulate with people who are most like us. And it isolates us…and insulates us from those of different cultures, or colors, or socio-economic stratas. Martin Luther King once called Sunday morning at 11:00 o’clock, the most segregated hour of the week.
Now that’s not so true of this congregation. Somewhere along the way, members of this congregation have learned to reach out to those of different circles and welcome them in. Last Sunday, as I looked out over the 10:00 AM service, it was like a mosaic. Sprinkled among our white faces were Vietnamese faces, and Filipino faces, and black faces, and the “sharing of the peace” was like a family reunion. I was reminded of Dr. Paul Brand, who began a Christian hospital for the leper colonies in India. He said that, of all the things they were able to do for their patients through science and technology and medicine, the most powerful thing they had to offer those lepers was touch. When the staff touched those patients, it restored their sense of humanity, and dignity, and worth.
I mention that, not because we did it last week, but because next week presents a new opportunity. On Rally Sunday, visitors will descend upon Our Savior’s in significant numbers. Some of them will be like us, and they will easily fit in. But others will seem out of place. They will be dressed differently than us, or they won’t know where the bathrooms are, or they won’t know the Lord’s Prayer, or they won’t have an offering, or they won’t know when to stand and when to sit. We can make them feel like intruders, our outsiders. Or we can welcome them to the Table in the same way that Jesus has invited us: with warmth and mercy, and grace. By our very attitude of hospitality, we can say to them “Go sit in the corner.” Or we can say “come sit in a place of honor” where Christ has called you. These…these chosen friends of Jesus will then become friends of ours. Thanks be to God. Amen.
— Copyright 2001, Steven Molin. Used by permission.