Last week we spoke of declaring a church-wide ministry of hope and presence; taking stand in our neighborhood. Today let’s talk about the kind of attitude we need in order to get there. Let’s talk about chairs; specifically where we sit in church. When it comes to our chairs, some of us get pretty possessive. (Cartoon) Our church ancestors used to make money off this behavior. It was called “pew tax.” It was pay to play; or really “pay to sit.” Want a prime seat where you could show off your fine wardrobe or your stylish do or bonnet? All you had to do was pay. Talk about ignoring the Gospel. When someone had a better seat or showed more bling, we’d improve our space; add doors to the pew, special cushions, or even heated seats.
Today we’ve evolved; sort of. We don’t pay for our seat anymore. We think it unseemly to discuss our income or how much we pledge or whether we consider ourselves better or worse than the next guy. Still, many hold on dearly to their seats all the same. We can sit in the same place for years. We create a kind of church within the church; building exclusive friendships with those around us. We surround ourselves with people who act and think much like we do. Just as the pew tax perhaps unconsciously valued wealth and status; letting the importance of where we sit, with whom, and why go unchallenged can quietly create our own little hierarchy, our own special clan. The chairs we pick matter. And the behaviors that follow those choices far from supporting humility and righteous living can put distance between us and God.
Psalm 112 sets God’s table for where our hearts and minds should be, “Happy are they…who go the extra mile to show generous living. They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and right before God. (They)…deal generously and lend (without taking interest), (and) conduct their affairs with justice. They’ve distributed freely…and give to the poor.”
In our public life every choice of seat is a decision to associate with one group or person possibly at the expense of others. But community; free access to anyone who gathers under Christ until the entire world is united in one giant bond, that’s the Good News. Jesus purposely picks a wedding feast to drive home his point. In the first century everyone was invited to a Jewish wedding feast, but you couldn’t just sit anywhere you wanted. There was a pecking order. The men reclined at table and sat in the order of their social importance. The central seat reserved for the most important man. A great shame is heaped upon anyone placing himself in a seat of honor he couldn’t justify. When a more important man appeared, the host might ask a lesser man to move.
One of our members recently told me a story, the story of an experience in her life that spoke to her about this Gospel. She once attended a community meeting. It was her first time with this group. When she arrived she was warmly welcomed and invited to take a seat anywhere she wanted. It was only when the meeting began that she realized she’d taken a seat at the head table. And there she sat in a seat of honor for the entire meeting. No one ever asked her to move or made her feel uncomfortable. “Come to me all who labor and find your life heavy with burden,” its Jesus who speaks, “and I will give you rest. Being connected; yoked to me will put you at ease. For my burdens, unlike the things of this world lighten hearts.”
The heavenly banquet has no pecking order. There’s no need to impress. We don’t need possessions, only to possess the right attitude. When Jesus tells stories about banquets he talks about being “dressed properly” or in this case picking seats for the right reasons. It’s not about wardrobe or choosing chairs, but our attitude. Kate Huey summarizing N.T. Wright says “Jesus is referring not just to seats at a dinner (or a church) but our position before God…, a position that can’t be earned by good behavior or claims to superiority over others.” At the heavenly banquet, like the first century wedding feast all are invited. But unlike those feasts and our more modern pecking orders, when God is the host we can sit wherever we want; no one will tell us to move. The rich man will learn what it’s like to be poor from the woman to their left. The hungry will be fed by the well-to-do person on their right. The sick and lonely will be embraced and warmly welcomed and together with the well-born will laugh and sing like old friends. Those with disability or mental illness will be cared for with the utmost generosity and kindness. Guests of a different race, ethnicity, and religion or gender identity will be warmly regarded in a united community.
In the movie, “Dead Poets Society” a new teacher at a prep school for the son’s of social climbers immediately sets out to teach the boys to see things beyond their families’ stodgy ways. He stands on his desk (Slide) and says, “Why am I standing up here…because you must constantly see things in a different way. The world looks very different from up here. Come on see for yourselves.” As they come forward he continues, “Just when you think you know something, you’ve got to look at it in a different way.”
Jesus says, “Follow me;” two words, two very challenging words. He wants us to change seats every once in a while so we see things in a different way. The chairs we select speak volumes’. It’s not the name Christian or the church we attend or number of years we’ve loyally attended that define us. What we do or say or belong to doesn’t matter as much as how we act and why.
So, as we begin preparations for a ministry to this neighborhood, the first step is to change seats and see things God’s way?
I had quite a vacation trip. My first stop on my 2100 mile car trip odyssey was Toledo, Ohio. I didn’t have a problem finding my hotel. But the next morning I got lost leaving town. Maps are great; even digital ones. But they aren’t any good if the path isn’t clear. Finding our way in this wonderland of life can be hard with or without a well-marked trail. But before we can be found, we first must accept being lost. It didn’t take me long to admit I couldn’t find my way alone, so I turned on my GPS and soon I found my path.
“Sin” and “sinners;” we cringe when those words come up as if they’re reserved for Bible thumpers or for anybody else other than you and me. I’ve had conversations with church members where I paraphrase the words of Martin Luther, “We’re all sinners saved by God’s overwhelming love.” Too often the other person walks away in a huff. “I’m not a sinner,” they say. “Yes, you are…and so am I.” The sooner we admit that we stray, the sooner we can be found. But to embrace our sin we’ve first got to understand what the word means. The ancient Hebrew notion of sin was like a permanent black mark from God for bad behavior. Back then, if someone was disabled or diseased and was begging on the street the ancients would ask, “Who sinned this man or his parents.” Sin was something unforgivable and God’s punishment was swift and permanent; neat and tidy.
Today, “sin” is a word that’s either tossed around like a life sentence or quickly dismissed as an outdated idea. Both are wrong. Jesus helps us unpack it. Sin, rather than a permanent condition imposed by a vindictive God, is instead a fluid state created by us and can be undone by us. God seeks out the lost in relationship and welcomes anyone wanting to come home.
The criticism of Jesus for welcoming the “permanently outcast and punished” around his dinner table is predictable. The Pharisees and religion scholars scoff, “This Jesus takes in sinners and eats with them, treating them like old friends.” Jesus does what he’ll do time and again. When we point the finger at a behavior or a person or a situation and cry, “Unacceptable” Jesus takes his finger and quietly writes in the sand all our own mistakes, social flaws, and errors in judgment right in front of our faces. (Point to communion table) Jesus uses the table as the ultimate symbol for God’s new relationship. Of all the Gospels, Luke’s has most stories of Jesus teaching around a meal. To invite someone around the table for dinner was the ultimate act of hospitality. In the ancient world sharing food is sharing life, because one meal each day meant survival and sharing such a limited resource was a true act of acceptance and generosity. No wonder we remember Jesus with a meal. And no wonder feeding ministries are so popular for churches today.
Paul in his Letter to Timothy openly admits his shortcomings without shame explaining how God’s generosity helped him forgive himself and get a fresh start. In Jesus all our fits and starts in life are acceptable if we own them. None of us are above this teaching. We’re all sinners…and that’s the Good News. We all lose our focus at one time or another in big and little ways, and in admitting it that’s when we’re found.
Jesus makes this point with a story. “Suppose one of you had 100 sheep and one got lost. Wouldn’t you leave 99 wandering in the wilderness unattended and go after the one that was lost?” Alright, does anyone else see how illogical this question is? Would anyone then or now leave 99 percent of their herd to wander around unattended in wild country while they go off in search of one sheep? No way! But this absurd logic is exactly how valuable we are to God and how valuable we need to be to each other. It’s not whether we have perfect skin, say the right things, or hang out with the right people. In fact, Jesus complains bitterly about people who look and act acceptable, but inside are a neglected mess. The Holy One cares so much about every person, every believer who seeks out God our Creator will walk away from the rest of the flock and put every resource into a “search and rescue operation” to get us safely back into the fold. God’s graceful love defies human logic…and so must ours if we want to share in the Holy Ones joy. Like a woman who loses a coin and turns her house upside down; God will never tire of searching for us, never. But we excel at playing hide and seek.
This summer God has come seeking Lake Edge. We’ve been wandering for some time; trying to find our way back to God’s sheepfold. Our Shepherd’s ever ready to scoop us up and rejoice. Together with our Leadership Council and I have heard the call and we believe the path leads us across the street to establish a new weekend nutrition program with Frank Allis Elementary School; its principal, staff, parents, and this neighborhood along with ecumenical church partners. It’s an exciting opportunity and a return to the historic relationship with our neighborhood elementary school. (Point to communion table) This ministry at Frank Allis is an extension of this meal; a connection to a generous God who invites us to table so we remember what sharing a meal truly means. It’s experiencing God’s joy found here, and taking it outside the safety of our property line in generosity to others.
Sin isn’t a death sentence or a black mark on our good name or something we should deny. It’s an invitation; an invitation to spiritual discovery and renewal in the faith. Each and every one of us is intensely valuable to our Still Speaking God, and it’s time we were found.