This sermon was originally given in a hybrid online and in person joint service of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square and Grace UMC on Sunday, August 28, 2022.
Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.
You are cordially invited. To a dinner party.
This is real. It’s a real invitation. And I’ll get you more details soon.
But first –
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus is invited to a fancy dinner party hosted by the religious leaders in his community. It’s noteworthy that Jesus is invited into such a space. Many of us have been taught that Jesus and the Pharisees were always at odds, something that Jewish scholars remind us contributes to antisemitism. Instead, we often see Jesus and the Pharisees pushing and pulling back and forth…the kind of close relationship where people can challenge one another. Jesus and the Pharisees had many overlapping values, even as they disagreed. Some of Jesus’ followers were Pharisees and some scholars even think that Jesus may have been a Pharisee himself.
So Jesus was apparently on good enough terms with these Pharisees that he was extended a dinner invitation. And Jesus accepted that dinner invitation.
When he got there he noticed there was all kinds of jockeying for position within the arrangement of polite society at that dinner party. He warns everyone present against climbing the social ladder, scrambling for a place of privilege and esteem. Instead he does the sort of thing that Jesus often does – he challenges us to subvert our ingrained social hierarchy.
He advises those fighting for higher places of honor to take their seat in a lower place of honor.
Jesus isn’t advocating for false modesty here. This isn’t the sort of midwest politeness game that we sometimes play – being self deprecating, fishing for affirmation. “Oh no, Pastor Elle, please, take this nice seat up here.”
That’s not what this is.
Instead, Jesus casts a vision where those who are high up are brought low, those who are low are brought up high. If someone typically in a high place of honor moves to a lower place and then is invited to a higher place..this kind of musical chairs, fruit basket upset might just up-end the entire social order anyway by displaying how completely absurd it all is. Because as Gloria Steinem said, “As human beings we are linked…not ranked.”
We do this thing, often even subconsciously, where we evaluate one another based on a million tiny micro impressions of one another. We notice people’s teeth, their waistline, their shoes, their mannerisms, and we make judgments. There are a million unspoken rules about the right way to be. We grade one another by how well we each fit into standards set by so-called “polite society.” And these standards are almost always ableist, Euro-centric, patriarchal, classist, and heterosexist.
After challenging the party guests to a subversive game of musical chairs, Jesus turns to the host of the banquet and tells him, “The next party you throw? Instead of inviting the Who’s Who of Israel, the most respected rabbis, the top community leaders and officials…instead of inviting your friends and family and your inner circle…instead of throwing a dinner party like this one? Next time, extend your invitation to the people among us who are crushed by economic oppression and ableism.”
I am the pastor of South Loop Campus Ministry, a ministry for young adults in downtown Chicago. The most vibrant part of that ministry is something we call South Loop Community Table. Community Table began when, in trying to recruit college students, a pastor advertised free meals. And a handful of college students showed up…and about 30 unhoused people. Years later, we like to say that Community Table is less like a soup kitchen and more like a dinner party. As much as is possible this side of the eschaton, we seek to break down barriers between “us” and “them.” The community came up with the purpose and description of the gathering … they declared it a space of community, sanctuary, and celebration. College students, volunteers, unhoused community members, we all serve together, feast together, play together. There is a twice monthly primary care medical clinic put on by Chicago Street Medicine, a twice monthly free store for clothing and toiletry items, and regular parties for everything from Thanksgiving to the Super Bowl. On a given Sunday you might find me playing Jenga with Malachi or using colored pencils next to Larry or dancing as Big Mama sings along to YouTube.
It’s definitely not perfect.
But it reminds me a lot of the parables Jesus talks about.
Gustavo Guttierez said, “So you say you love the poor? Name them.” Sometimes those of us who aren’t suffering under poverty think of the poor as an abstraction. An issue. Or something faceless that we have some kind of vague compassion for.
But you can’t love people that you don’t know. Not really.
“So you say you love the poor? Name them.”
We love people well by getting to know them, and we get to know people by spending time with them. By gathering around a table and breaking bread together. By laughing and crying and praying together. That’s how The Poor ™ become real people whose names we know, whom we love, who are a part of us.
People suffering under poverty created by capitalism are that. People. Real people with …favorite colors, with inside jokes, with pet peeves…with…personality flaws, with a particular fashion sense, with songs that make their face light up and hustle to the dance floor.
So here is your invitation.
You are cordially invited to our dinner party – South Loop Community Table.
Sundays, downtown, 6-9 pm.
Think about coming by our weekly dinner party sometime. Connect with me and I can get you signed up. Pastor Erin has gone several times, and members of the St. Luke’s youth group and other volunteers. They can tell you what it’s like. It’s a different kind of dinner party. It is full of people suffering under white supremacy, capitalism, the cis-hetero patriarchy, ableism, and all kinds of systems of oppression. There’s not monogrammed napkins or fancy name plates or seating arrangements or anything.
But there’s a lot there for you.
Because I disagree with Jesus here, actually. Jesus says that the oppressed, “Cannot repay you,” for inviting them to dinner. But I have been repaid thousands of times over through these relationships. First off, Calvin brought me and my daughters each a rose. And when I was sick with COVID on Mothers Day I got a card from the community full of the most encouraging, fervent blessings.
But even more than that, I have met people I love and who love me. I have learned more about God and myself. I understand much more clearly what the Heavenly Banquet might look like because of these experiences and each Sunday evening I get glimpses of the world we are fighting for, of Heaven on Earth.
Jesus said that the poor and oppressed cannot repay us for our dinner invitations. But I wonder if he said it with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, knowing that if these fancy religious leaders built real relationships with the suffering people in their community, that the whole concept would be inverted and the system of repayment would be turned upside down anyway. Subversive musical chairs.
Cuz let me tell you. When you get to hang out with Lorenz, dressed like a hippy Santa Clause, with his thick glasses taped together, squinting at his phone while he tries his damnedest to record Ms. Deb singing MoTown karaoke on the stage in a historic Presbytarian church’s fellowship hall?
You’ll know exactly what I mean.
Thanks be to God.