This message was given at First Congregational Church of Lake Worth, friend and Pastor Jason Fairbanks was out of town and gave me the opportunity to cover Sunday morning todos at his congregation, a most excellent group there. The message is a reflection on the text from Luke 14:1,7-14. Enjoy!
Show of hands, who here has ever planned a wedding reception? Or at least been married and played a role in planning your reception? Many of you, right? Weddings, and the receptions that follow them, are part of the fabric of our culture. It’s been fifteen years since my wife and I planned ours, tho after chatting the other day about our planning the memories came rushing back. As the host, for the big day, you want things to go just so. Thus all that planning.
For our reception first there was the booking of the site. We wondered, would our guests be willing to drive from the church we married in, in Michigan City Indiana, for half an hour to the reception site, in Valparaiso? We didn’t know, and nervously booked the room hoping they would. Most, but not all, of our guests did. Then there was the task of selecting food. For hors d’oeuvres would a tray of cheeses and a tray of fruit do it, or did we need to add a veggie tray too? For the meal were two options ok, or did we need three? And did any of our guests need a vegetarian option? Then there was the music. We ended up having a Jazz trio during hors d’oeuvres and the meal, and then had a DJ after that so everyone that wanted to could dance the night away.
A big decision, at least for us, was whether to have, or not to have, an open bar. Financially, that’s no small thing. After some debate with my now-wife, and some shuffling around of our wedding budget, we decided to go with an open bar. Reflecting back on that night, and considering our friends and family, at least many of them, that ended up being a very good call.
And then there’s the important task of assigning guests to tables. At least that’s how we did it for our wedding. But before you can assign people to tables you have to hone in on who plans to attend. Who’s RSVPed, who hasn’t, who needs to be bugged, again, and again, and again, for their answer. My wife and I reminisced about putting all our guest names in an Excel spreadsheet and trying to figure all this out with precision.
The task started out simply enough, initially we aspired to assign tables based on who would get along together and who wouldn’t. After that initial sort we found ourselves considering all sorts of other criteria, and asked ourselves all kinds of questions, all designed to yield, we hoped, the optimal table assignments for everyone. We asked questions like who did we think would dance? They should be near the dance floor. And who did we think would leave first? Perhaps they should go closest to the exit doors. And – this is a fairly important one – who among our guests had temperamental bladders? They, of course, should be seated closest to the bathroom. It was our attempt at making a perfect, wedding utopia.
In speaking with my wife about our wedding reception, which ended up being super fun and memorable, we couldn’t remember any overly large drama when it came to seating assignments, at least as far as we know. But that isn’t always the case.
To help prepare this message I asked Facebook friends to think about the wedding receptions they’d organized and to share stories about how people were assigned to tables, and how it all worked out, be it good, bad, or ugly. And share they did, within a few hours of posting on Facebook I was knee deep in anecdotes, some of them insightful, others just plain funny. Here’s just a small sampling of wedding reception seating stories that people shared.
Friend Mary remembers that her son was not too good with RSVP’ing for weddings when he was in his 20s. Once, he showed up at a reception, after driving for three hours, without an RSVP. This wedding reception also assigned guests to tables, and there was no place for him. The bride’s family, not wanting to turn him away, squeezed him in at the back table with the band. And even tho he was seated at what some might consider a lower ranking table it turns out he had a pretty good time. Last summer, when her son had his own wedding to plan, and needed to assign guests to tables, Mary tells me he finally understood the purpose of sending in that RSVP. Lesson learned.
And while not quite a wedding, seminary friend Sara describes a high end diplomatic function she went to in Eastern Europe once, where her American boss, who was aiming to impress, selected three ‘low number tables’ for colleagues and families to sit at. But the organizers of this function didn’t do things the way Americans do – low table numbers at our events are often for the important people. Table 1 is the wedding party, that kind of thing.
Instead, the tables were numbered somewhat randomly, and those low number tables had no special meaning. Even worse, it turned out that tables one, two and three were right next to floor-to-ceiling, loud, humongous audio speakers. All that effort to select what was assumed to be the best seats in the house, Sara tells me, and they ended up at tables where they couldn’t even hear themselves speak. She describes that night, and that experience, as embarrassingly awful.
College buddies Joel and Kate recall accidentally placing a vegan couple with the daughter of a chicken farmer. You can almost imagine what kind of conversations they had.
But not all wedding receptions have assigned seating. Shari remembers going to a wedding reception, without assigned seats, when her youngest daughter got married. The reception was the first mandatory post-divorce gathering she’d had with her ex. She watched, and chuckled a little, as her ex’s family all clamored for the best seats at the reception. Meanwhile, Shari and her husband walked around visiting guests and enjoying the company of friends. Her ex and their family got their seats of honor, she remembers, but were surrounded by others who also mostly cared about snagging those special seats. She on the other hand, had the freedom to enjoy the company of the entire room, seeing many friends and neighbors she hadn’t seen in years. Let them have the seat she concludes, freedom to travel is so much richer.
Friend Nicole chose not to do seating arrangements for her wedding, including not having assigned seats for herself and her husband. She figured if her own guests wouldn’t let her sit, well, then they shouldn’t be at the wedding anyways. And, what do you know, when the newly married couple arrived at the reception they found themselves without a seat, at least until some friends got up so they could sit down. But that didn’t end up mattering much, Nicole tells me, because mostly she and her husband, that special evening just danced and danced and danced.
So what do you make of all these wedding reception stories of who sits where on the big day? Thinking on this some it almost seems like there’s a certain social order we tend to be drawing from, or at least our own personal versions of a social order. As hosts we draw on this assumed order when assigning guests to tables. As guests, when we get to pick where we sit, there’s a decision to make – do we try and snag those primo spots, or just sit wherever and enjoy the festivities? Decisions, decisions, decisions.
Two thousand years ago many people of Jesus’ time placed a similar value on where they sat for wedding receptions. The gathering Jesus found himself at in our gospel reading also did not have assigned seats. And, while scripture doesn’t specify, I’d wager that the wedding that’s described didn’t use RSVPs either. But, similar to modern-day receptions, ancient reception-goers also loved to vie for the best seats in the house.
Palestinian wedding feasts in biblical times often featured couches where guests would recline, with the center couch being the place of honor. Similar to our weddings, the host got to pick who sits where. The center couch went to the social elite, according to their wealth, power or office.
Jesus, at this gathering noticed people coming in and choosing the places of honor, and told a parable about going to a wedding reception. “Don’t sit down in the best spots, in case someone more distinguished than you arrives,” he says. Why not? Well, because then the host may come to both of you and say hey, give this person your place. That sounds like an incredibly uncomfortable social situation, at best.
It reminds me of stunts I’ve tried to pull in airplanes at times, and this is a bit of a confession. Every so often, when stuck in the middle airplane seat on a long flight, I’ll try to casually get up and slide into another open seat, hoping to go largely unnoticed. Those aisle seats are the best, they really are. But then, on occasion, the person holding the ticket for the seat I just plopped into arrives. Oops! That seat wasn’t ever mine to begin with, and now I’ve got to sheepishly get out of that great aisle seat, lower my head in shame, and head back to the middle seat I really didn’t want in the first place. I hate it when that happens.
This moment, of embarrassment, of shame, of being put in my rightful place, which sometimes really is the middle airplane seat, is exactly what Jesus is trying to help us avoid. And really, that middle seat entitles me to those same crappy airline pretzels anyways, what was I thinking trying to pull this stunt?
Instead, Jesus offers us this: sit at the lowest place, so that when the host comes, they may say, friend, move up higher, and you will be honored. Keeping with our airplane seating shenanigans, that’d be like choosing to sit in the back row of the plane, picking that middle seat, you know, the one near the bathroom, and hoping, really hoping, a flight attendant will come up and offer you a spot in first class. That, my friends, this alternate way to live into the world around us that Jesus suggests, is radical, radical thinking.
Jesus concludes the parable by saying that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. In a way, this passage is the biblical doppelganger to the parable of the laborers, in the vineyard, of Matthew, chapter 20. In that passage Jesus concludes that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. This kingdom he keeps referring to, one that humbles the exalted, exalts the humbled, puts the last first and the first last, it’s so very different than what we’re used to. In our culture it’s all about number one, and looking out for number one, a notion that Jesus time and time again turns on its head.
Pay It Forward
But Jesus wasn’t quite done with teaching at this wedding reception just yet. Next he turned to the host that had invited him, saying, “when you host a meal, do not invite your friends, or relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return. With that guest list, you would be repaid. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid in heaven.”
This concept, of doing something for others that can’t possibly be repaid, is the central theme of the movie Pay It Forward that came out in 2000. To give you a sense of what this film is about I’d like to play the trailer for the movie.
“Is it possible for one idea to change the world?” this trailer asks. Is it? In the movie, the boy, played by actor Haley Joel Osment, has an idea for a 7th grade social studies project. His idea is simple, help three people, who in turn help three others, and so on, but there’s a catch: the help has to be something really big. Something the person you’re helping can’t do by themselves.
We watch as an unemployed reporter witnesses his car being totaled. Within seconds, out of nowhere, a lawyer walks up and gives him a brand new Jaguar. Trying to figure out what this is all about the reporter tracks this pay-it-forward movement, and from that learns:
• The lawyer’s daughter, suffering horribly from an asthma attack, was helped earlier by a gang member. The gang member had given up his place in line in the Emergency Room, even though he was bleeding from a gunshot wound.
• The gang member was helped earlier by a homeless woman. This homeless woman helped him escape being arrested by the police.
• The homeless woman had been helped earlier by her daughter. The daughter had sought out her mom in an effort to reconnect with her grandson.
• And finally, the daughter, played by Helen Hunt, was helped by her son, the seventh grader that came up with the idea in the first place. What did he do? As part of his efforts to begin to pay it forward, indirectly, he’d helped mom get back on the road to recovery from a nasty addiction to alcohol.
What if this idea, of helping others that can’t possibly repay you, what if that, as Jesus tells us, is the key to being blessed in the here and in the hereafter? When we volunteer at the homeless shelter, we pay it forward, to those many in society deem as less than. When we tutor a child, on our own time, without pay, because we feel called to give back, we model Christ, letting the children come to us to be blessed. When we give to aid organizations, to help people halfway across the globe – people that we’ll likely never meet – again, we help to pay it forward, and play our part in healing a broken world.
In these moments, when we help others, without any expectation of being repaid, and without regard to age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, orientation, social status or creed; we invite them all to the grand reception Jesus describes. Perhaps in these moments, where all are not just welcome, but all are present, and are cared for, all have a seat at Christ’s table, perhaps in these moments we catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God that is to come. And perhaps, in these moments, we bring that kingdom a little closer to earth, in the here and in the now. May it be so. AMEN.