As a warning: I wrote this sermon in two sittings. The first bit came during the day on Wednesday. That night, I woke up at 1:55 a.m., and the second half was there. You may end up preferring that I don’t write sermons late at night.
Little Johnny’s family was having dinner with his mom and dad on Friday night at Granma’s house. Once seated around the table, little Johnny dug into the food immediately.
“Johnny!” his mother shouted. “You have to wait until we say a prayer.”
“No, we don’t,” Johnny replied.
“Of course we do,” his mother insisted, “we always say a prayer before eating at our house.”
“That’s at our house,” Johnny explained, “but this is Granma’s house. She knows how to cook.”
In almost all of the images of Jesus, he is portrayed as a very thin man, but I’m not sure how that is possible when you think of all the meals he attends in the Gospel of Luke. There are eight specifically mentioned and a few additional ones where it is implied. He’s having meals with tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees, Mary and Martha, Zacchaeus, the disciples, and more. All of which tells us of the significance of the meal and the breaking of bread together. It becomes even more important when we consider that the meal and gatherings like it were a source of entertainment and socializing. They couldn’t have a meal and quickly wash up the dishes (or just pile them up in the sink) and dash off to watch something on Netflix. The meal and the time spent together were important, so there was more significance placed around specific details that we don’t often consider, like who sits where and what their position at the table signifies. Perhaps the closest image of this comes from the artist Norman Rockwell with dad at the head of the table getting ready to carve the Thanksgiving turkey.
In our reading of Holy Scripture, we must also remember that one of the greatest gifts Jesus is going to give us is a meal, the Holy Eucharist, which was instituted at The Last Supper, so it is essential to have that meal in mind when reading about other meals in scripture. Today’s reading is no different. It began, “On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.” You may have noticed that we skipped verses two through six. They described the healing of a man on the Sabbath, then Jesus spoke to them about choosing the best seats: “When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor…’” What’s this all about, and how do you know where to sit?
Simon Kistemaker, in his book, The Parables, Understanding the Stories Jesus Told, explains. He writes, “Couches at a feast were arranged in the shape of an elongated horseshoe consisting of a number of tables. The man receiving the highest honor was at the head table, with second and third places to the left and right of this person. Every couch accommodated three people, with the middle man receiving the highest honor. The couch to the left of the head table was next in order of priority, and after that the couch to the right. Consequently, Jewish guests were governed by the social etiquette of the day to find the correct place at the table. However, if the privilege of choosing seats was given to the invited guest, they could very well display selfishness, conceit and pride. And this is exactly what happened at the house of the prominent Pharisee to which Jesus was invited.”
There are tables with long cushions to sit on. Each cushion will accommodate three individuals. The person who sits in the middle of the cushion is the most honored. The persons on the same cushion to the left and right of the one in the center are honored next. This may help further understand the request made by James and John’s mother in Matthew’s gospel: “Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to [Jesus] with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’” When asking for those seats, was she wanting her boys to be allowed to sit at the head table on the same cushion as Jesus?
Whatever the case, with the Pharisees, with James and John, in their pride, they were seeking to exalt themselves. Why? Very simple: they saw themselves as better than the others. Are they the only ones? Hardly. Consciously or subconsciously, we are all looking to elevate ourselves at the table, whether that be at the table of our personal lives (security, comfort, toys, etc.), our work lives (salary, position, promotion, recognition, etc.), and even in our faith (holiness, devotedness, service, and so on)—think of the story of the Pharisee and the publican praying in the Temple.
The Pharisee looked back and said, “I’m glad I’m not like that poor sinful schmuck.” He was elevating himself. He was taking a higher seat. So, with this teaching of Jesus in mind, we attempt to quell those desires. To take a more humble position, a lower seat. I think we all want to be that person, or we wouldn’t be here on a Sunday morning, but here’s a question: should we, as followers of Jesus, even seek to sit at the table? Jesus said, “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”
Ok… so now we come to the 1:55 a.m. bit, and I won’t put you into it.
Hearing all this, I say, “OK. I won’t seek a seat at the table. I’ll be one who serves.” Jesus says, “That’s good,” but then he says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” So then I’m being asked to lay down my life, to give it all away in humble service to our God. If I can say “OK” to this, Jesus still doesn’t stop because he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” So now Jesus is asking me to die to myself so that I might bear much fruit, many good works. Again, if I can say, “OK,” Jesus still isn’t done with me, for he says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” Do you see what Jesus is saying and what he is asking?
He who was seated on the cushion with Our Father in Heaven humbled himself through his incarnation, he became a servant to us all, he died, he rose, he ascended, and through the giving of the Holy Eucharist, the food for our souls, he became not only the servant at the table but the meal itself. That is the extent to which Jesus humbled himself. And what is so difficult us is that after humbling himself in such a way, he then turns and says, “Follow me.”
Jesus says, “You are jockeying for and squabbling over a good seat at the table, but you should be giving of yourself in the proclamation and building of the Kingdom of God to such an extent that you are like a meal that is being consumed.”
No more 1:55 a.m. sermon thoughts, please, because I’ll be honest: I don’t know how to live like that. For now, I’m falling back on Jesus’ statement to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you,” but I can’t help but wonder what this kind of life we are all being called to would look like, even though I already know the answer: it would look like Jesus.
I don’t know that any of us will ever attain it, but it’d feel like an accomplishment if I could stop fretting over my seat at the table and be at peace. We all must start somewhere, so ask yourself, “How much do I truly resemble Jesus?” And then go to work because that’s what it means to become one of his disciples.
Let us pray:
God, our Father,
You redeemed us
and made us Your children in Christ.
Through Him, You have saved us from death
and given us Your Divine life of grace.
By becoming more like Jesus on earth,
may we come to share His glory in Heaven.
Give us the peace of Your kingdom,
which this world does not give.
By Your loving care, protect the good You have given us.
Open our eyes to the wonders of Your Love
that we may serve You with a willing heart.