The Best Seat in the House/ Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 14:1-14

Now He told a parable to those who were invited, when He noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him,

In our society, we have a unique obsession with following the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” There are TV shows and websites and magazines that focus on the homes and wardrobes and parties of the wealthy and well-connected. And so many of us like to take a sneak peek into this world that we will never experience in real life.

Back before the pandemic, a book was written that shared insider details on the parties of the super-rich. The author got access to the most exclusive parties on earth because she was a model was invited to all these parties. So, when she writes about the party culture among the super-rich, she knows what she’s talking about.

According to her, the super-rich throw extravagant parties to impress their peers. It’s all a status competition. Which is why exclusive clubs have a VIP area that is elevated above the other tables. The more visible the VIPs are, the more likely they are to spend ridiculous sums of money. A common status symbol at these clubs is huge bottles of champagne with glow-in-the-dark labels. VIPs compete to see how many bottles they can order, and club employees create a conga line to deliver the bottles, even decorating them with lit sparklers. The more attention they can draw to the VIPs, the more they can encourage them to spend.

One VIP said, it’s crazy, I mean, do you know how many people you could feed or give water to in Africa? All of us are tempted to mock the VIPs of this world for being so status-conscious, but we aren’t that different, are we? That’s why we’re so fascinated with their lives. What makes them different from us? And how can we be more like them? People have been competing for status since the beginning of time. That’s why it’s so easy to relate to our Scripture lesson for today from Luke 14.

Our story begins one Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, He was being carefully watched. When He noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, He told them this parable.

When I read this passage, I couldn’t help but laugh. Picture this scene through Jesus’ eyes. Jesus is invited to the home of a prominent Pharisee. We don’t know how Jesus got picked for this particular dinner party, but Luke tells us that while He was there, He was being carefully watched. The Pharisees were an influential religious group within Judaism. They were legal experts who stressed personal piety and strict observance of both Mosaic Law and oral traditions.

But this dinner party wasn’t being hosted by just your garden-variety Pharisee. This man was a prominent Pharisee. A VIP. And what do people do when they’re invited to an event with a prominent person? They jockey for the best seat at the table, the one closest to the host. Can you imagine how funny this was to Jesus? And how sad? The King of Kings and Lord of Lords watching this crowd compete for the seat closest to the prominent Pharisee. What could the best seat in the house get them? An ego boost. A sense of importance. The envy of the other guests. Shallow, vain, temporary pleasures.

But what could Jesus offer them? Knowledge of God, eternal life, unending love, unspeakable joy, unquenchable peace. That seat next to the dinner host doesn’t look so great in comparison, does it?

It’s only my opinion, but I think Jesus was amused and saddened by this attempt to get the place of honor at the table. Because He understood that the desire for status is rooted in fear. There’s a medical school in Switzerland where the students and faculty believe in cooperation, not competition. All classes are pass/fail. There are no grades, no awards, no Dean’s List, and no first or second place in the class at the school.

An American doctor wrote, some of us just couldn’t take it. We became almost paranoid. We thought there must be some kind of trick here. A few American students transferred to other schools. But those who stayed learned to enjoy an environment in which all the students helped one another succeed.

Jesus knows that our need for status is rooted in fear. Fear of our inadequacy. Of not being enough. Of not being worthy of love and respect just as we are, made in the image of God. Fortunately, Jesus also has the cure for our fear. We can find it in the parable He shared at this dinner party.

Remember a few weeks ago when I said that Jesus’ parables are a glimpse into the heart of God? Keep that in mind as we read His next words. Jesus said, when someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

According to Jesus, humility frees us from the burden of fear. Putting others’ needs ahead of our own. Seeking to honor others instead of seeking status for ourselves. It seems counter-intuitive, but humility is the secret to breaking the cycle of fear and comparative anxiety in life.

Humility is risky. Others may take advantage of us or look down on us. We may miss out on the temporary rewards of our society. But we will discover a joy that we couldn’t have discovered any other way. A joy that only comes from following Jesus’ example.

Back in 1989, a couple named Reb and Jackay were preparing to open their own restaurant in North Carolina. They had worked hard and saved up their money for years to realize this dream. But on the morning of their final inspection, Hurricane Hugo—the worst hurricane in North Carolina’s history—swept through the state. The hurricane destroyed homes and businesses and tore down power lines. But somehow, Reb and Jackay’s new restaurant was still standing. A deputy sheriff stopped by and told them that theirs was only a handful of buildings still standing in their town.

So, Reb and Jackay decided to share their good fortune with the community by giving away all the food in their restaurant’s freezer. At first, they advertised free sandwiches and coffee for police and first responders. They quickly drew a tired but grateful crowd of police, fire fighters, electrical linemen and EMTs. But when Reb and Jackay learned that a restaurant down the street was charging a high price to feed local residents, they decided to offer free food to anyone in the community that needed it.

And a strange thing happened after that. Inspired by Reb and Jackay’s generosity, folks from neighboring communities emptied out their own freezers and pantries and sent food to the restaurant. So did local grocery stores and dairies. As hungry community members filled the restaurant, they also looked for ways to help. Without being asked, people began cleaning the counters and mopping the floors. Soon, the atmosphere felt more like a family diner than a restaurant meal. Within a few days, Reb and Jackay served 16,000 meals to members of their hard-hit community.

In the midst of devastating circumstances, two people put the needs of the community before their own needs. And in doing so, they filled their community with joy. Humility is the secret to overcoming fear and unlocking joy.

If we want to experience the humility and joy that Jesus experienced, then we need to see life the way Jesus did. In Jesus’ eyes, life is not a competition; life is a celebration. Our Bible story for today ends with these words: Then Jesus said to His host, when you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

What would change in our lives and in this church and in this community and in this world if all those who follow Jesus viewed life as a celebration? As an opportunity to love others as generously and joyfully as possible. An opportunity to tear down walls of prejudice and status and just celebrate each other. This isn’t a challenge to be nicer or more neighborly; this is a challenge to do what God does. God is love. And where love is present, joy is present. And that’s how celebrations begin!

A priest, professor, who was also a famous author and who taught at some of the most prestigious Ivy League schools in the nation, gave up his prestigious position to work at a community for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. He wanted to find God by serving the most marginalized members of society.

He became friends with a young man named Trevor. When Trevor was sent to the hospital for an evaluation, he made plans to visit him. The hospital officials were so excited about the famous priest and author visiting them that they asked if they could have a special luncheon in the Golden Room, the executive dining room, to honor him.

When he arrived at the luncheon, he couldn’t find Trevor. When he asked about him, the other attendees said that patients were never allowed to eat in the Golden Room with the hospital officials. He said that he would leave if Trevor wasn’t allowed to eat with them.

So, someone found Trevor and brought him to the Golden Room. As the hospital officials gathered around their guest of honor all trying to catch his attention, Trevor stood up and began singing: If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass. If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass. If you’re happy and you know it, if you’re happy and you know it, if you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass.

At first, the hospital officials got awkwardly quiet. But then the priest began singing too. Then hospital officials joined in. Soon, the whole room was filled with joyful voices belting out the song, if you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass!

Jesus didn’t come to stop the party. In fact, the opposite is true. He saw life as a party, and He wanted to invite everyone in. We are the only thing standing in the way of knowing the unquenchable joy of the kingdom of God. Life isn’t a competition; it’s a celebration. And the best way we can experience this truth is by living with the humility, joy and love that Jesus showed to the world.