Reserved Seating

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, LA
August 29, 2010 – Ordinary 22C

Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:6-10 (sung with cantor)
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1-14


For those gathered who are not young children, go back in time with me for a moment. I would like for us all to think about what life was, or is, like for us as children. Particularly, I want you to consider the playground. It may be hard to remember, but think about those kids who just didn’t get it, the ones that didn’t fit in. Maybe you were that kid sometimes. I know I was. Think about the things that separated that kid from the others. Was it something they did or did not do? Was it their clothes or their heritage?

The playground can be a brutal place sometimes, so let’s come back to the present moment. Let us find comfort in the worship of God, and the fellowship of God’s people. Let us find healing for our wounds in the words of scripture.

Perhaps Jeremiah can come out and play! That’s how it was when most of us we were kids, right? When you needed another person to do things with, you would go to their house or have your parents call. When you met up with your friend nothing else seemed to be happening except for what you were doing. I think that is how God wants us to attend to scripture.

Now in our text from Jeremiah we find God involved in a role play. God is pretending to be the plaintiff pleading a case to the heavens. God is wounded deeply by the rejection he has felt from those he trusted. The people have turned to fertility Gods, and the priests, wanting to maintain status and influence, have gone with them. God has become the child in the corner of the playground to the Israelites, even though it is by God’s grace alone that they have a place to play. God cries out to the heavens and rests his case on the fact that not only have they turned from God, they have tried to provide something for themselves that will sustain them without God’s help. Their cistern, their water, their source of life is cracked and eroding because they have turned their devotion away from God.

All of us do this at times and in different ways. It is so easy to become something we were not, because the things we give our devotion to become the way by which we are known. He is a pilot. She is a mother. He is a dad. She is an editor. He is an accountant. She is a sales representative. Most of you are retired! It is impossible to avoid the temptation to be identified by what you do or once did. Sometimes that isn’t even enough, though. Sometimes we need more.

I think that is why the letter to the Hebrews is so important to us. Last week the passage just before this ended with, “Our God is a consuming fire,” and I suggested that the fire we are consumed with is love. Today we begin with, “Let mutual love continue,” and we are reminded of the opportunity of hospitality, that we might be entertaining angels (literally, God’s messengers) without knowing it.

The next part is not something we like to ponder. It is about as uncomfortable as remembering that time when you were stuffed in a locker as a kid (or whatever your childhood wounds come from). “Remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them.” Do you know anyone who is in prison? Sure you do. There are as many prisons as there are people. You may be in one yourself. We make places in our hearts and minds that keep us safe, but they can also become places of torment and seclusion where we replay the recording of our losses over and over again. We are also limited by disease or economics or anxiety. Hamlet, in that classic Shakespearean play, once declared Denmark a prison, and when Rosencrantz denied it he replied, “Why then 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.”

For some of these prisons, there is no way to know if we are even in the same cell with someone else unless we take the time to get to know them. Most of you know each other pretty well here, though I am sure there are still stories you have kept from one another. The greater challenge this text throws at our feet is the opportunity to suffer with others whom we do not yet know. Why would we want to do that? How on earth could that be an opportunity?

I mentioned a few weeks back one of the many life changing events I’ve experienced when I shared with you the staff I picked up in Ghana. Treva and I were blessed to experience this trip together, and for a portion of the time we were the guests of the Pastor in a village called Vakpo. After the service they had a tradition of bringing forward items to be auctioned to raise additional money for a new church building. Some oranges were presented, and a bidding war broke out between a man and a woman. In the end the woman won, paying three times the value of the oranges. This was amazing for many reasons, but particularly because women had no source of income except for what they may be given or what they might make or pick to sell while raising children, keeping up the house, and raising whatever crops they might have space to grow.

We returned to the Pastor’s house to find the oranges waiting for us. God only knows how this decision impacted her life, but showing hospitality to us was worth the risk for her. She was moved by love to love. She made herself vulnerable because loving is its own reward. And though we were the rich Americans by comparison, those oranges met us in a place of need beyond description. She did not do this to be nice. She did it because she wanted us to feel cared for. She reached into our place of isolation and sat with us, providing for the hunger of our bodies and souls together.

Hospitality and empathy of this sort go hand in hand throughout Jewish and early Christian traditions. Even in the Levitical code they were told, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” Indeed, Israel’s lack of hospitality and empathy for others is often at the heart of God’s anger as expressed by the prophets. Jeremiah is more concerned with their allegiance to other gods, but one can assume that the two go hand in hand since adherence to the law was the way they expressed their faith in God.

So, it should come as no surprise that a leader of the Pharisees invited a homeless vagrant to dinner. We often talk about the Pharisees as the bad guys, but in their society they were the pillars of the church. They kept order and decency. Of course, they were not offering hospitality, or even charity; they simply wanted to find a weakness to exploit. They were watching, waiting, and Jesus gave them what they wanted, just not the way they wanted it. First he demonstrated God’s love by healing a man with dropsy. This was no parlor trick or party game. It was the love of God that rested upon the one that no one else wanted to see. After showing them what they did not want to see in someone else, he turned the spotlight on them. Surely these Pharisees were familiar with the proverb Jesus was referring to about not going before a king unannounced. Even for those of us who have no idea about scripture or tradition, Jesus makes it clear that when we choose a place of honor for ourselves we are always subject to being displaced. Kind of like the way that “King of the Hill” is a fun game for a little boy until his sister knocks him off and becomes “Queen.”

Then he goes even further to tell the host not to invite people because of the benefit. In fact, it’s not even about “quid pro quo” in the kingdom of God. Jesus tells them that, “If you really want to throw a party that offers you some reward, invite the people who could never benefit you in any way.” Note that Jesus isn’t just talking about a soup kitchen or a food bag. He is talking about a banquet. He is talking about the kind of social event that you prepare for like there is nothing else going on in the world. The kind of thing that might motivate a host to consider using place cards to designate the seating to ensure honor, encourage polite conversation, and create a more hospitable environment.

Can you imagine such a thing? Can you imagine polishing your silverware and getting out the fine china for a homeless person? Every time I see the cup and chalice I am reminded that the finest bread and wine has been availed for me, a person who, without God, without the church, has no home. Yet, it is still hard to imagine becoming so vulnerable that I might risk the things I have, the things I love, to comfort someone who may not deserve it the way that I do.

And that’s the kicker, for though we may have become trustworthy enough to receive things or industrious enough to earn them, all any of us deserve is the opportunity for success and support during distress. That is what Jesus is pushing us toward. He wants us to know that we are loved beyond measure, and for us to love him we must love others. We who are consumed by love are moved by love. Love means vulnerability and risk. Love is it’s own reward. This congregation knows what this means.

A few Sunday’s ago I asked for emergency food bags, and now we have a pantry full, more food to back it up, and funds to buy more when needed. Programs that you have developed like the baskets for Christmas and Easter, and the way you redistribute usable stuff through this facility is tremendous. It was so much fun stuffing care bags for college students a few weeks ago. You guys get it. You really do!

But Jesus wants still more. Jesus wants us to find ways to interact personally, regularly, and intimately with those in need. Jesus wants us to give up our seats for someone more important, and that is anyone who is not here. Anyone who does not know the peace and joy of being part of this fellowship, of being a forgiven sinner through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ!

The seat you are in is reserved for you today. It is reserved for you to give away. We need not be concerned with attracting the right kind of people. If our hope is placed in those who can financially contribute or who have children, then our hope is placed in blood and money and our cisterns are cracked. In fact, we are called to do the opposite. We don’t need to worry about being taken advantage of. Our hospitality will be taken advantage of, and to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.

Additional Resources
Website -
http://www.textweek.com/yearc/properc16.htm

Reference Books -
Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday's Texts : The First Readings, The Old Testament and Acts; Eerdmans, 2001.

Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Second Readings, Acts And the Epistles; Eerdmans, 2001.

Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday'sTexts : The Third Readings, The Gospels; Eerdmans, 2001.
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