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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
You May Not Want to Invite Jesus for Dinner

Pentecost 14     Luke 14:1,7-14

The introduction for the sermon today is a story that I told several years ago. In preparation for any sermon, I follow a systematic process. That is, I read several Biblical commentaries written by Biblical scholars. I examine my old exegetical notes. I also read my old sermons on a particular text. The following is an old story that goes with this text. I told this story twelve years ago, and I actually had forgotten that it happened. I would like to tell the following story because it is so symbolic of self prestige and a feigned self importance.

This is a story about my wife, Jan, and myself. It occurred a number of years ago when I was a pastor in Eugene, Oregon. I am not sure how it happened that Jan and I got on the guest list of Ms. Jones.

I need to tell you about Ms. Jones. In those years, Ms. Jones was THE patron of the arts in Eugene, Oregon. Ms. Jones was the “hostess with the mostess.”  Whenever there was a concert in Eugene, a guest conductor or guest musician would often be brought in to perform with the Eugene Symphony. Ms. Jones would normally have a private party for that guest conductor later during the same evening of the concert. These elegant parties would be held at Ms. Jones villa which was located on the banks of the Willamette River. Ms. Jones would always invite a photographer from the local newspaper, the Register Guard. The photographer would take the appropriate pictures and then in the next Sunday paper, in the Society Section, there would always be pictures of the guest soloist with Ms. Jones and other dignified people from Eugene. When it came to sophistication, Ms. Jones was Ms. Culture in Eugene.

We still don’t know how it happened, but my wife Jan got on Ms. Jones guest list. And we were invited to our first society party in Eugene. The party was to be at the Eugene, Hotel. The Eugene Hotel was the classiest hotel in the city in those years.

We knew that there would be many important people at Ms. Jones private party. The professors, the doctors, members of the Eugene Symphony, instructors from the music department at the University of Oregon were all going to be there. Also, the guest conductor and the guest violinist from the Pittsburg Symphony were going to attend. The guest violinist was to be the honored and esteemed guest of the evening.

Yes, Jan and I were invited to this private party at the Eugene Hotel. It would be held after the concert. I was to give the opening prayer for the evening fete. So Jan and I were going to be seated at the head table, along with the violinist. And this man, the violinist, was exceedingly handsome. You should have seen the pictures of this man on the evening program for the concert. He was “drop dead” handsome, just gorgeous. I could imagine how charming he was going to be. My wife was definitely thrilled to be seated next to this “dude.”

I am getting ahead of myself with the story. I need to backtrack. Jan was at home, busy getting ready for the party, in full anticipation of this event awaiting her. She was dressing herself up so lovely. She had this long, new green dress, with a fashionable cut and colors and a nice low neckline. She had her pearls out for this one. Jan really looked classy for this party.

Meanwhile, if you know anything about me, I am late for everything. I was late for this event as well. I had been on a youth retreat. I was coming home from the youth retreat, driving the yellow church school bus. I was so late for the evening concert that I did not have time to leave the bus at church. I didn’t have enough time, so I drove the bus home to our house. I parked the school bus out in front of our house and dashed into our home. I quickly showered, shaved and coloned and came out in seven minutes and said, “I am ready to go to the concert.” 

My wife gave me that icy smile. Of course, we were ten minutes late by now. We jumped into my car, turned the ignition, and the battery was dead. I thought, “That’s no problem.” I asked, “Where is your car, Jan?” “It is being fixed,” she replied. “Well, how are we going to get there,” we both asked. “Well, the church bus,” I suggested.

So I escorted my wife Jan across our front lawn and she elegantly climbed up into the yellow church school bus, wearing her lovely evening gown. I then drove us down to the Eugene Hotel. As I told you, it was a classy hotel for classy occasions and there were several classy cars in line, waiting for the valet. Mercedes. Cadillacs. Porches. Women were in furs. The valet was helping each of the ladies out of their cars. I was watching what happened and thought I knew how to do this. I then pulled up our church yellow school bus to the valet station. The sign on the side of the bus said, CENTRAL LUTHERAN CHURCH in bold letters. I hit the brake. I opened the door. I looked the valet in the eye and nodded for him to escort my wife out down the steps of the school bus. My wife looked elegant as she was stepping down from the bus, pretending that she was not at all embarrassed by all of this.

I said to the valet, “I hope you wouldn’t mind parking my bus, along with the other Mercedes.” He thought that was inappropriate so I drove the bus two blocks away and I parked it near the city jail.

Things did get worse.

That is, we walked into the area where there was an hor’derve table. It was a lovely table. I had on a nice suit, shirt and tie. I probably was not watching carefully and the tip of my tie got into the mayonnaise bowl and I didn’t see it. A short time later, I had to get up in front of everybody and say my prayer. I said to the lovely crowd seated before me, “Let us bow our heads in prayer.” I then bowed my head and looked down and saw the mayonnaise on the bottom of my tie for the first time. So I prayed with my hands over the spot of mayonnaise. What do you do in a situation like that? 

Well, a short time later, we were sitting at the head table. The table prayer had gone OK and I had covered up the mayonnaise quite well. Not everyone could sit at the head table with this guest violinist and the conductor of the Pittsburg Symphony, but Jan was elated that she was sitting next to this handsome violinist. I was sorry to hear that they spoke in French. The conversation was primarily in French that evening, and my wife simply cocked her little beautiful blonde head and smiled while I was miserable through the whole thing. My wife absolutely enjoyed that conversation and enjoyed that evening. But to be honest, I didn’t. I am more like the school bus driver.

It is with this mood of the Eugene Hotel, society, Cadillacs and Mercedes and head tables and guests of honor and trying to be prestigious and trying to cover up one’s sense of self importance; it is with this mood that we approach the mood of the gospel story for today.

Jesus had been invited to a society party. It was a society party among the leading citizens, perhaps of Jerusalem, and they were Pharisees. They were the “rich cats.” All the important people were there. The professors. The politicians. The high priests. The chief priests. Members of the Sanhedrin, the senate of the day. This particular Pharisee had a beautiful home located high in the hills overlooking Jerusalem and its candle lights at night. The ladies came to the gala party with their gold necklaces and their strings of pearls draped around their lovely low cut evening gowns. The man looked stately in their purpled linens, with their gold rings displayed prominently on their fingers. There was the small talk that goes with all sophisticated parties, with the sophisticated hor’derves and toothy smiles. Everybody was being witty, disarming and ever so clever. People were all having a good time.

Jesus was the guest of honor at this local feast, just as the violinist was the guest of honor in Eugene. Jesus was the guest of honor that night, and everybody who counted for anything wanted to be seated near Jesus. These people all wanted to be at the head table with Jesus, there up in front, where all the important people are seated. Ms. Jones was there and she ushered everyone in to be seated. The last person to be ushered in was Jesus himself, the most honored guest of the evening. Jesus was at one end of the table and Mrs. Jones was at the other end of the table. All the important people were there at the head table. Everyone was envious of those at the head table, but surreptitiously so. Everyone wanted to be at the head table, but pretended they didn’t.

Then Jesus spoke.  Hmmmm. You are not sure that you want to turn Jesus loose at a party like that. Jesus said to everybody but to nobody in particular. “Why are all of you people trying to be so important? Why are you so anxious to be seated at the head table?” Everybody was a little embarrassed by his opening remarks. Then Jesus went on, “For a person who exalts himself in this life will be humbled. When a person humbles himself in this life, will be exalted.” The people in the banquet room all laughed nervously. It was a nervous coughing sound. “Augh. Augh.” It was a little nervous laugh that we all laugh on similar occasions. The people thought to themselves, “Psychological type. He is pretty sharp on the edges but there is a bite to his words.” People were starting to feel uncomfortable and a bit embarrassed. Jesus looked down at the end of the head table and said to Ms. Jones who was dying a thousand deaths, “Why did you invite all of these people to the party? Why didn’t you invite some of my friends? Some of the prostitutes? The homeless? The beggars from downtown? The widows over at the nursing homes? The street kids? The really sick people? The really poor people? The garbage collectors? Ms. Jones, why didn’t you invite some of my friends to the party and to be here seated at the head table?”

Ms. Jones was upset. She pursed her lips. She furled her brow. She slightly tightened the muscles around her eyes. She took a quick sip of water. She said nothing, but she thought to herself, “This is the last time I will ever invite Jesus of Nazareth to dinner. He has no manners. No sense of etiquette. No siree. He will never be invited to one my parties again.”

From that social scene, we hear that classic line from the lips of Jesus, that classic line which has been memorialized into the literature of the human psyche. Jesus said, “A person who exalts himself will be humbled, but a person who humbles himself will be exalted.”

What is the greatest of all the Christian virtues? What is the most important of all the Christian virtues? If I asked you, of all the important virtues in the Bible, which is the most important? Wouldn’t almost all of us answer that question with the word, “love.” We would say with the Apostle Paul, “So faith, hope and love, the greatest of these is love.” If you were asked to name the most important virtue to be found in the Scriptures, would you not say with the Apostle Paul, “love?”

It is important to remember that Jesus didn’t.

One time, the disciples of Jesus were with each other and they were arguing about who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom of God. They were arguing about who was going to the Secretary of State in the kingdom of God or the Chief Justice on the heavenly Supreme Court. Jesus responded to their arguments and said, “Whoever humbles himself like a little child is the greatest in the kingdom of God.”

Jesus said, “Like a little child.”  Before they get to first grade. In a little child, there is no conceit. In a little child, there is no need to be number one. In a little child, there is no need to be better than other children. We often learn that stuff about conceit in first grade.

Usually, when we hear the teaching, “whoever is greatest in the kingdom of God,” we hear that we are to have the “faith” of a little child. But in this story for today and in other stories of Jesus, what makes a child great is not their faith but their humility. What makes a child great is the profound awareness and quality of life where there is no need to be better than other human beings. Where there is no need to use the gifts that God has given us to elevate ourselves above other people, ever so subtlety.

Humility. Three times in the Scriptures we hear this teaching of Jesus. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever discovers humility will be exalted in the heart and mind of God.”

If we are to be a follower of Jesus Christ, we are to learn this quality of humility. It is so important to Jesus, and so important to us as well.

Well, what is it? What is it to be a humble person? What is Jesus talking about? It sounds so old fashioned. It sounds so fuddy duddy. It sounds so 1910ish. What is it to be a humble person?

To be humble. Does it mean to feel inferior?  Does it mean to put yourself down? Does it mean to compare yourself to others and come up short? Does it mean to have a walking inferiority complex? Obviously not.

To be humble. Does humility mean to be timid? To be a mouse in the corner? To be a Melvin Milktoast? To be afraid to say anything to anyone? To be afraid to stand up and be counted? Is that what it is to be humble? Obviously not.

Well, then, what is humility which was so crucially important to Jesus? And is so crucially important for your life and mine? What is it to be a humble person?

Humility is the opposite of pride or conceit. We need to first talk about pride and conceit. It is easier to talk about pride and conceit. What is a conceited person? What is a proud person? Think of images of conceit in your mind? When you or others around you have struggled with pride and conceit, what is it? We all know what it is. Pride is to take the gifts that God has given to us, and use those gifts to compare ourselves with others and elevate ourselves above others around us. We use our God given gifts in such a way to elevate ourselves above another person.

According to our ancient church fathers, pride is the first of the seven deadly sins. Pride/ conceit is the source of all other evil. It is the source of greed, envy and covetousness. It is very closely related to selfishness. A conceited person, a prideful person is often a very selfish person. Such a person thinks, “I want the world to center around me.”

What is the result? What is always the result of conceit or pride? It is division. Division and conflict.

Recently, I was on a seventh grade retreat and we had a wonderful time. The theme of the retreat was “Cliques or Community.” I asked the seventh graders what a clique was. These kids knew what a clique was. They said, “A clique is when all the popular kids get together and feel that they are slightly better than everybody else.” And what is the result of this? The kids replied, “It just splits up the group. We are not all one. We don’t feel comfortable with each other.” We all remember what it meant to be part of a clique in seventh grade. We all know how divisive it was and is.

When you are in seventh grade or seventeen or seventy years old, the price is the same. The price is divisiveness. No matte what age, the result of pride or conceit or self elevation is always division within the community. There is always a division between outsiders and insiders, those who think they are better and those who are not.

But when you have a little child who is one or two years old, they do not compare themselves to anyone and elevate themselves over others.

Jesus asked, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of God?” Jesus answered, “Whoever humbles themselves like a little child.”

At the heart of this quality of humility is an attitude of the heart which realizes that all of my gifts come from God. All of my talent. All of my money. All my personality traits which allow me to advance in life. Everything that I have is a gift from God. Humility is grounded in this deep psychological awareness. You cannot have genuine humility without it.

And so I will repeat it. Humility is grounded in a deep core psychological awareness that everything I am and everything I have is totally a gift from God. Therefore, how can I boast? How can I use these God-given gifts as a measuring stick to elevate myself above others?

Do you remember the following limerick? “Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie. He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum, and said, ‘O what a good boy am I.’”

But what if little Jack Horner had stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said, “I have the best Christmas pie in the whole wide world. My Christmas pie is better than your Christmas pie. My pie is redder. My pie is bigger. My pie has more whip cream. I have a freezer full of Christmas pies and you just have a small slice. Nah. Nah. Nah. Nah. Nah. Nah. I am better than you are.” 

Down deep inside, we all know that it was little Jack Horner’s mother who made and gave him his Christmas pie. It was his mother who filled the freezer with Christmas pies. Down deep inside, we know that it was Jack’s mother who made each and every pie and gave them to her little boy. Deep down inside, we have this psychological awareness that everything we have is a gift from God. We all know that.

Let’s move in a slightly different direction. This quality of humility that Jesus is talking about also has a sociological dimension. By that I mean to say, that in this story, Jesus is inviting us to associate with the so-called “lowly of society” who are often referred to as “one or two classes down.”

Do you remember when Jesus addressed Ms. Jones at the banquet and said, “Ms. Jones? Why did you not invite my friends to the party? Why didn’t you invite the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame? Why didn’t you invite the lepers? The prostitutes? The homeless? Why didn’t you invite all these people, Ms. Jones?”

To be a Christian and to walk the Christian life is to break through the sociological barriers of status. Christ wants us to break through our sociological barriers of status where our friendships, our sociological patterns and our Christian companions are primarily and only with middle class people.

As I mentioned to you last week in the sermon, in this Biblical passage from Luke chapter ten through Luke chapter eighteen, Jesus is the counter-revolutionary. Jesus is the most radical revolutionary who ever lived. In these chapters, Jesus is not trying to win votes in Peoria, Illinois, (to use a line from last week’s sermon.) But Jesus is inviting you and me, sociologically, psychologically and personally, to break out of our middle class only status. Jesus wants to turn your world and mine upside down. You see, there is not only a psychological dimension to this story of Jesus. There is a sociological dimension as well.

I would like you to imagine with me that it is the year about 1860 CE. I would like you to imagine the time of the Civil War. I would like you to go to the movie, GONE WITH THE WIND. Would you go to the movie, GONE WITH THE WIND? We are going to visit a southern plantation.  We are going to the plantation called, Tara. Tara is lovely with its long rows of trees on either side of the road leading up to the mansion. The mansion at Tara is lovely with its tall colonnades and its gardens and its lawns and its cotton fields stretching away from the mansion. It is Saturday night and a big party is going on. The owner of the plantation has thrown of banquet and who is there? Who is present at the party at Tara? In Jesus’ story? All the rich friends? No. In Jesus’ story, all the people who were working that plantation are present. The black slaves. The cotton gleaners. The poor people. Because Jesus turns everything upside down in his stories.

Today Jesus invites us to change our social patterns, whereby we start to connect with the homeless, the street people, the handicapped, the elderly, and the impoverished of our community and world.

Today, if Jesus were telling this story, he would not use the word, “leper,” who were the social outcasts of his day. Today, Jesus would say, “The man and the woman infected with Aids? Make sure they are at the head table.”

I am really glad Jesus wasn’t down there in Eugene, Oregon for the banquet that night at the Eugene Hotel. I can see it right now. I can see the school bus pulling up to the party at the Eugene Hotel. I can see my wife walking down the steps of that school bus to be greeted by the valet. I can see the people who were at the head table. I can see Ms. Jones who was there. The conductor. The guest violinist was as well. I am so glad that Jesus didn’t show up for that banquet. I mean, you just don’t know what Jesus would have said to Ms. Jones. And you just don’t know what Jesus would have said to you and me and everybody else in the room. I suspect that his words would have made us all feel uneasy, uncomfortable and embarrassed. You may not want to invite Jesus to dinner after all. Amen.

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