Sermon: Proper 17 RCL C – “Take a Seat”

A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?”

The man says, “Methodist.”

St. Peter looks down his list and says, “Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”

Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. “Religion?”

“Lutheran.”

“Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”

A third man arrives at the gates. “Religion?”

“Episcopalian.”

“Go to Room 11, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”

The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?”

St. Peter tells him, “Well, the Baptists are in Room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”

To begin, I would like to briefly recap what we discussed last week. There was a woman who had been stooped over, crippled for eighteen years. She came to the temple on the Sabbath day and encountered Jesus. Without hesitation, Jesus reached out and healed her. The religious leader who was present had a little snit fit over this, because Jesus healed or worked on the Sabbath, which was a violation of the Law. It was at this point that Jesus strongly rebuked the religious leader, essentially calling him an idiot. Jesus accused him and the other religious leaders of erecting barriers that prevented God’s people from coming to Him, saying, you care more about your animals than you do for the people. In concluding this episode, Luke said: “all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

Today, the first verse of our Gospel reading stated: “On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.” So we are back on the sabbath, but if you looked at your bulletin insert, you probably noticed our reading skipped over verses 2 through 6. What happened there?

A man arrived at the house of the Pharisee where Jesus was dining who had dropsy. Seeing the man, “Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?’  But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away.” Recalling the previous tongue lashing, the religious leaders wisely kept their mouths shut.

From here, our Gospel reading picked up with the parable of a wedding banquet and where a person should sit. These two events, the healing of the man with dropsy and the parable at first don’t seem to be related, but they are. The key to understanding is knowing the assumption that Luke’s readers would have made, that we may have missed.

In the parable, Jesus says, when you go to a party, don’t go and sit at the head table, thinking you deserve such a seat of honor, because you risk the one who is giving the party coming to you and asking you to give up your seat to a more distinguished guest. Instead, Jesus says, “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.”

This seems like good social advice, maybe even something Miss. Manners, Emily Post, would write, but Luke has already told us that this is a parable, not an advice column. And, as we know, parables are tools used to point to something higher. In this case, the parable is speaking to us about how we view ourselves in the eyes of God. How we can rank ourselves as being better than others, and thus, more deserving of God’s favor and grace. This type of thinking leads us to believe that if we are well off, in good health, have all the toys we want, then God must surely be happy with us and is blessing us; but if we are poor, sick (maybe even have dropsy), then God is not pleased with us, and is punishing us by not showing us His favor.

Moses said in the book of Deuteronomy: “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.” In Proverbs it becomes even more clear: “The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous.”

This is the key to understanding the relationship between the man with dropsy and the parable. Luke assumed that his reader would understand the attitude that the religious leaders had about the sick man. He is poor. He is sick. He is wicked. We are rich. We are healthy. We are respected, therefore, we are the righteous. We may take a seat at the head table, because we are the ones deserving of God’s favor, whereas the lowly wicked ones may wash our feet. Jesus says, You may want to rethink that. Jesus knew the hearts of those he was seated with. He knew that when the man with dropsy arrived, that those gathered would look down on him, thinking his ailment was proof of his wickedness and their blessings were proof their righteousness. Through the parable, Jesus said, be careful or you may lose your seat at the table.

I opened this sermon up with a joke about the Baptist, but in doing so, I made the same mistake as the religious leaders. I implied that the Baptist are narrow-minded, judgmental, and less intelligent. Poor sods. It’s too bad they are not as educated and sophisticated as me. Clearly I am superior to them. Clearly the host of the banquet is about to ask me to give up my seat.

There are some who hold to the doctrine of universal reconciliation or universal salvation. The doctrine holds that everyone, through God’s love and mercy and regardless as to whether or not a person has confessed Jesus, will be saved. Will attain heaven. This is not a doctrine that I subscribe to, because I know a few people that are most certainly going to hell. In addition, the doctrine of hell – whether that be a fiery lake or complete separation from God – seems true to me. Without it, the sacrifice of Jesus was unnecessary. That said, I’ll tell you a story by Leo Tolstoy: The Archangel Gabriel.

Once upon a time, the archangel Gabriel heard the voice of God speaking from Paradise, blessing someone.

Gabriel said, “Surely this is some important servant of my Lord, God the Father. He must be a great saint, a hermit or wise man.”

The archangel went down to earth looking for the man, but he could not find him, neither on earth nor in heaven. Then he addressed God and said, “Oh Lord, my God, please show me how to find the object of your love.”

God answered him, “Go to this village. And there, in a little temple, you will see a fire.”

The angel went down to the temple, and he found a man praying before an idol. Then Gabriel went back to God and said, “Lord, how can you look with love upon this idol worshipper?”

God said, “It is true that he does not understand me properly. Not one man living is capable of understanding me as I am. The wisest of the whole human race are just as far from really understanding me as this man is. I look not at his mind, but at his heart. The heart of this man searches for me, and therefore he is close to me.”

We live in a society that is always seeking to be first. We want our teams to win, our salaries to be the highest, our houses to be the largest, and so on. By that same token, we want to be first in the eyes of God as well, and we can wrongly think that if we have all these things, then God has in fact placed us first. But this is not a competition and God does not play by our rules. God says the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and the least among us is the greatest. Our standing, our rank, our place at the table is not based on our opinion of ourselves and our perceived successes. Instead, it is based on God’s opinion of us; therefore, instead of seeking status in His eyes, we are to seek after him, his heart, with all our hearts. Jesus said, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” We are not looking to have the best seat at the table. We are seeking to have a seat at the table, and it is by seeking His heart that we are given that seat and honored in His sight.

Let us pray: Heavenly Father, look upon our community of faith which is the Church of your Son, Jesus Christ. Help us to witness to his love by loving all our fellow creatures without exception. Under the leadership of our Bishop keep us faithful to Christ’s mission of calling all men and women to your service so that there may be “one fold and one shepherd.” We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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