“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at 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 the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Imagine the scene. You arrive at the wedding reception and everything is beautifully arranged-- spotless linen table clothes, perfectly set with crystal and glass, with gorgeous floral centerpieces spilling out onto the tables. The overhead lights are dimmed for dramatic effect, bringing attention to the rows of colorful paper lanterns strung from the ceiling above and the tea light candles that flicker all around the room. A small chamber ensemble is playing light classical music as people file in, looking around for their seats, peering at the name plates which are printed in perfect calligraphy at each table setting.
As people enter the space, they have a general idea of where to look for their table. The distant cousins and old high school friends know to look for their places at one of the outer tables--maybe towards the back. The bridal party, on the other hand, heads directly to the head table in front. One extended family member is annoyed that she is seated so far away from the head table-- having expected a more privileged place. While a college friend is pleasantly surprised to find himself at a table near the front. As people take their seats, waiters and waitresses appear with shimmering glasses of champagne perhaps thus compensating anyone who might have been unhappy with their seating assignment.
It’s not hard to imagine this scene because we’ve all been there. It’s likely that many of us have been to weddings where we enjoyed seats of honor--perhaps it was the wedding of a sibling or close friend-- maybe even the wedding of a son or daughter. And I would imagine that most of us have probably also had the experience of going to a wedding where we didn’t really know anyone-- where we were stuck at that table in the back corner-- you know the one I’m talking about--the one where they put all the other random people who don’t know anyone either--which, incidentally, can either end up being the most fun table at the party, or the most awkward.
But either way, we go with the flow, because we understand that this is just way things are done. There’s a certain etiquette to these formal events a certain established order, a way of doing things that has been in place for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Indeed, in today’s Gospel reading, this is exactly the kind of scene that Jesus evokes when instructing the Pharisees about the “proper” way to throw a party. Imagine their surprise,therefore, when Jesus tells them that those seated at the head table--the father of the bride--the groom and his groomsmen-- the lovely bride herself-- ought to have taken their places in the back of the room. Or that instead of inviting family and friends, they should have invited strangers from the street-- the poor, the lame, the outcasts. It’s easy to imagine the shock and dismay that Jesus’ unusual wedding planning suggestions may have evoked. Perhaps we imagine outrage and disgust--the typical Pharisaical reaction. Or perhaps we imagine the Pharisees getting defensive, or at the very least, irritated at Jesus’ lack of regard for etiquette and tradition.
Yet if we read just beyond today’s lectionary passage, we discover that Jesus audience immediately understood that he wasn’t really talking about weddings at all. The very next line in Luke’s gospel describes how one of the dinner guests, upon hearing Jesus’ words, cries out, “blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” For once, it seems, the Pharisees get the metaphor. The wedding banquet is the heavenly banquet. The head table is God’s banquet table.
Many of you know that Barrett and I just returned from vacation in San Francisco. While we were there we did many of the touristy activities--we rode the cable cars, we walked along fisherman’s wharf, we made our way to the top of Telegraph Hill for a beautiful panoramic view of the city. But on Sunday morning while we were there, we ventured into a neighborhood where I doubt many tourists go--it's a neighborhood called the Tenderloin. The Tenderloin--if you are unfamiliar with it-- is one of the more impoverished areas of San Francisco, with high populations of homelessness, high rates of drug related crime, and made up almost entirely of low-income housing projects and social service agencies. It’s not exactly listed in the tourist guidebooks as one of the top 10 places to see. But we were there that morning for a very specific purpose--to visit a church called Glide Memorial on the corner of Ellis and Taylor streets. The church is technically affiliated with the United Methodist denomination, though I guarantee it’s unlike any Methodist church you’ve ever been to. The Sunday we were there, they happened to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of their preacher and minister--a man named Reverend Cecil Williams. Cecil and his wife had arrived at Glide 50 years before, to a church that was struggling to keep its doors open in the midst of the growing poverty that surrounded it. The small congregation had practically barricaded itself against the growing numbers of immigrants and homeless people outside. And the church was dying. But Cecil was not content to pastor a dying church and so he took his place outside the walls of the church-- in the streets. He opened up the church doors to the most marginalized people in the city. He began to remind them of their dignity and their humanity. And the more he did this, the more they believed it. And the more they believed it, the more others believed it too, and the church began to grow. Because it wasn’t just the poor, the homeless, the beggars and the immigrants who needed to hear Cecil’s message of dignity and radical inclusion. It was everyone.
At the service Barrett and I attended, I was amazed to look around and see people from every walks of life all gathered together in worship--people of every color and ethnicity you could imagine--representing every place on the economic spectrum. It was one of the most diverse gatherings I’ve ever been to--and also one of the most joyful and deeply moving. It was just like being at that table of misfits in the back of the wedding reception--having more fun than anyone else at the party.
For 50 years, Cecil embodied Christ’s teaching to take the most humble seat at the banquet table, to invite not those who had something to offer in return, but those who literally had nothing to give. For 50 years this was the work Cecil did. One can imagine it was often thankless work. But on this particular day, the day Barrett and I were visiting, there was a special guest in the congregation with a very special and unique gift. At the end of the service, the mayor of San Francisco made his way to the microphone with a large and rather awkwardly shaped gift, which stood about 5-6 feet tall, narrow at the bottom, long and thin at the top covered with a piece of bright orange cloth. The mayor spoke of the important work Cecil had done, not only in the Tenderloin district, but also for the entire City of San Francisco, in creating this remarkable community of radical compassion and hospitality. And as he concluded his words, in a dramatic gesture of thanks, the mayor unveiled the gift. It was in fact a street sign entitled “Reverend Cecil Williams Way.” This man, who had taken his place among the lowest and the least, doing the most unglamorous and thankless work there was had the corner of Ellis and Taylor streets in the great city of San Francisco named for him. He took the humblest place and he was elevated to a place of great honor. This man, who invited guests to the banquet who could never ever pay him back was repaid with the gratitude of an entire city. Gratitude for everything he did, certainly, but I think even more than that it was gratitude for who he was-- his generosity of spirit his open and welcoming presence--his way of making everyone feel that they mattered.
In their 50 years at Glide, Cecil and his wife created many programs, served countless meals,, housed hundreds of people. But more importantly, they created a place where the image of Christ was reflected in every single person. They created a community of radical inclusion and reckless hospitality-- an earthly banquet that was reminiscent of God’s heavenly banquet--a modern example for all of us who strive to follow Jesus in the path of grace and compassion.
It’s not an easy calling, and let’s be honest, I doubt any of us will have streets named after us in major metropolitan cities. But that’s not really the point. The point is how our hearts and spirits can be transformed by Christ’s love and compassion, especially when we share that love with others. The point is how our communities can be transformed by radical inclusion at God’s table. The point is that when we invite the last and the least to join us at the table, we invite Christ. Our table becomes God’s table, at which point every place becomes a place of honor and all are equally gifted with God’s presence and grace.