Rev. Dr. Jenny Copeland
Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14
First Weekly Eucharist of the 2013-14 academic year
I’ve been to some weddings this summer; maybe you have too. So, I know wedding banquets—receptions we call them now—are interesting affairs. The table seating is quite complicated and placement of the tables tells you everything you need to know about who’s who at the wedding. The head table is for the bride and groom. Sometimes the bridesmaids and groomsmen, but I officiated a wedding a few weeks ago where the bride and groom sat all alone at the head table. In either case, the rest of us, family and guests, can generally judge our importance to the bride and groom by how close our table is to their table. We know where we are supposed to sit based on numbers and nametags. A high table number not only gets you close to the bride and groom; it also gets you first in line for the food.
This would not so much be the case for the wedding banquet Jesus is referencing in today’s gospel. Things were probably a bit more chaotic for this wedding. Weddings and banquets lasted for much longer, days even in those days, with people coming and going all the time. Lamps running out of oil—see Matthew 25; stewards running out of wine—see John 2; and grooms being duped by the father-in-law into marrying the wrong daughter—see Genesis 29. It’s a mess. No one knows where to sit.
Think of that mess when you hear Jesus say: “when you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor…” Jesus could be helping us save face. In all that chaos without nametags and table numbers, you might think you’re best friends with the bride and should be sitting close to the head table. But you’ve only known the bride for the years you were in college together, even if these are some of the most intense years of your life. What about all those cousins she grew up with every Thanksgiving and Fourth of July, visiting grandparents, celebrating anniversaries? What about those teammates from high school who won the state championship in the 10th grade, or the two best friends from kindergarten? It is true that you’re close to bride, but are you that close?
Here’s a way to make sure. Sit down low; sit at the back of the room; sit where no one else wants to be; and wait to be invited closer to the front. Wouldn’t that be a lot more fun than plopping down at Table 2 only to be told, “Oh so sorry. My third cousin once removed has to sit there.” Heck, in North Carolina, you can marry your first cousin; but who even knows their third cousins? It would be embarrassing to have to give up your seat for the bride’s great-grandmother’s brother’s great-granddaughter’s daughter. That would be a third cousin once removed… I think…
By talking about wedding reception seating arrangements, Jesus is really teaching us about humility. Humility? We’re going to talk about humility here at Duke? “Duke Humility” would be a great answer for your high school English teacher’s question: “Who can give me an oxymoron?” We all should raise our hands and say, “Duke Humility.” All joking aside, Duke is not a humble place. We strive to be the best medical center, have the best sports teams, assemble the best student body. And we should. But because of this, because of being told by Christoph Guttentag every year at freshmen convocation just how great we are, it’s sometimes hard to understand what Jesus is talking about. How does humility fit into a place like Duke with a slogan like “Outrageous Ambition”? Fun fact: I was an undergraduate here when then President Terry Sanford coined the phrase “outrageously ambition.” Dear old Uncle Terry…
How do we think rightly about humility in the middle of ambition? Jesus knows how hard it is to think rightly, so he focuses on some basic behavior—things to do that we don’t have to think about:
- Sit there, not here.
- Invite those folks to dinner, not these folks.
What we do can become who we are, if we do it long enough.
John Wesley offered similar advice to his early circuit riding preachers who were sometimes confused about complex theological matters. He said to them, “Preach faith until you have it.” Wesley is saying, “Speak faithfully, behave faithfully, until you become a faithful person.” Jesus is saying, “Do humble things until you become a humble person.” Jesus and Wesley want us to form good habits that lead to faithful behavior.
Jesus does not want us humble for humility’s sake, but humble because this is an accurate representation of God’s desire for our lives. It helps us remember that all these things we have—intelligence, meal plans, medical care, national champions, may all be things we work to achieve, but we can only work at them because we have God-given ability enabling such work. Our ambition, outrageous though it be, is carefully contained within the humble acceptance of God’s good gifts. Since humility does not come naturally to us in this place of the great oxymoron, we have to consciously practice it.
- Sit there, not here.
- Invite those folks to dinner, not these folks.
It’s a simple thing. Sometimes I think we want our faith practices to be really hard, so we can toil over them, get the desired results, and then rest on our laurels. We want it to be like all those hours we spent studying for the SAT or ACT and were rewarded with a perfect score on the critical reading section. But then once we got our perfect scores, we never looked at the test study guide again or attended another Kaplan review session. Faith is not a goal we reach and then move on to the next thing: GREs, MCATs, LSATs. Faith never comes to an end. It’s the continuous patterning of our lives.
Some of us who reveal in challenge and accomplishment want our faith to be some kind of endurance test with a climatic ending. Something like:
- The Apostle Paul writing from his prison cell in Rome
- Bishop Polycarp being burned at the stake for refusing to worship Caesar
- David Livingstone crisscrossing the continent of Africa until he finally dies from malaria
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer hanged in a Nazi concentration camp
We want to do great things and Jesus tells, “Just sit here at the back of the room.” Turns out we can’t be burned at the stake until we’ve learned to sit at the back of the room. Most of us won’t have the chance to be burned at the stake anyway, but we can all think more carefully about what it means to sit at the back of the room.
What it doesn’t mean is we sit there with an ear cocked toward the front, waiting for a summons to move up. We sit at the back of the room because this is the place where we encounter God. God is always the host of the banquet, checking on our comfort, offering us the best bites, ensuring that everyone feels included. We receive this hospitality, even at the back of the room, especially at the back of the room. And if we’re asked to move up closer to the front it’s not because we’ve accomplished anything, it’s because God is calling us to a new place and offering us the chance to learn a new faith habit.
Until that happens we stay at the back and practice being humble until being humble is a way of life. We practice inviting people to dinner who can’t return the favor until hospitality without expecting anything in return is a way of life. We practice being faithful until acting faithfully is a way of life. Sometimes we even practice without knowing what it will look like when we finally become the way we’ve been acting. Today we get to practice eating at a banquet, this banquet where all you can do is sit at the back of the room and receive, receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation. And you will be blessed. Amen.
United Methodist Chaplain, Duke University