Monday, September 3, 2007

Turning the Tables

This was Sunday's sermon/communion meditation.
The text is Luke 14:1, 7-14

How many people have email? And how many of you have received a message from Ms. Mary Williams? Or Joseph Smith? I bet you have. These people are officers in a bank in Nigeria, in charge of the accounts of a rich and corrupt government official who has died, with all his family, in a plane crash. At first Mary, or Joseph, planned to just take the money for themselves, but their conscience – of course! Their conscience! – began to bother them, and they have been led to give the millions to . . . guess who? a church. All I have to do is send them the bank account numbers, so that they can transfer these funds. Now, like me, you probably just delete those messages, probably before even reading them all the way through. But, incredible as it seems, enough US citizens are conned by this sort of thing that $200 million dollars is lost to this fraud.
But recently I heard about someone - a man named Mike - who wasn’t content to just delete the message and go on. Instead, he wrote back, saying that he would be happy to help, but that he worked for a church that only could not do any business with people not of their faith. And signed it “Father Hector Barnett of the Church of the Painted Chest.”
Soon, of course, the scammer asked about the church and how he might join. Mike wrote back about how this church was founded by an early missionary to the Masai people in West Africa, who had painted his chest red to establish trust with those people. So everyone who joins paints their chest in a particular way. He sent a photo shopped picture and sure enough, soon received a picture of the bare-chested, painted Nigerian scammer, asking how soon Mike could send him the $18,000 processing fee for these millions. Mike said the church had plenty of money, but required an $80 withdrawal fee to access it. The scammer sent the $80.
The story goes on and on. Apparently, the correspondence is still going on. There’s something really interesting about a situation in which someone “turns the table” on someone else.

That’s what we love so much about what happened in Ann Arbor yesterday. The Michigan Football Team, like many other big, rich football programs around the country, opened their season yesterday by playing an opponent from the Division 1AA. A small school, which Michigan paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of beating up on the smaller, slower players. It was one of those so-called “cup cake bowls” in which the invited team has no chance at all, but comes for the money, knowing they are going to be lose. Badly.
But yesterday, Appalachian State turned the tables on Michigan. Rather than being embarrassed – like the 94 pound weakling at the beach who gets sand kicked in his face by some big muscle man – the little guys embarrassed #5 Michigan. It was a classic case of turning the tables.

The expression “turn the tables” is really really old in English, and none of my usual sources of etymological wisdom could say where the expression came from. But you know what it means: When two people, or two groups, are in a situation and one of them seems to be in charge, directing and controlling things, then the other person does something to reverse the positions and take the lead . . . that’s turning the tables. When the scammer gets scammed. When the cupcake makes the big guy look like a Twinkie.

One of the cool things about our scripture lesson this morning is that in it Jesus “turns the tables” not once, not twice, but three times!
The first time the tables are turned, the Pharisees who have invited him to dinner are closely watching him, They are watching with squinted up eyes and bated breath, for Jesus to betray himself.
But verse 7 says, that, while they were watching for something that wasn’t there, Jesus had been casually, but keenly observing them, too. He’s seen how they are jockeying for position, trying to get the best seat, trying to make themselves look important, trying to get a leg up on the social ladder. He notices the games they play to curry favor with one another. All their petty little jibes, all their scheming to undercut their rivals. He sees it all. Jesus turns the tables on the guests at the dinner party.
Jesus turns the tables and sees them much more clearly than his dinner companions see him.

I wonder how seriously we take this “turning of the tables” that Jesus does. It seems to me that we in the church do an awful lot of talking about looking to Jesus. Maybe that is good. But, occasionally at least, the question we ought to be asking ourselves is, “What does Jesus see when he looks at us?”

The second instance in which Jesus turns the tables is when Jesus offers some very old, very good advice to the guests at the party. Now, most parties we have here in the Midwest are pretty casual affairs. Usually, we go through a buffet and sit wherever there is an empty seat. Sitting beside the host is less important that sitting by someone who will laugh at our jokes. But dinner parties in Jesus’ day were very status conscious affairs. The banquet table was arranged in a U shape. The host sat (or reclined) in the curve of the U. The most important guest sat to his right. The next most important sat to his left. And people arranged themselves by rank accordingly. It was really a bad faux-pas to take a higher seat that you should. And being asked to move down a bit would be public and very humiliating.
So Jesus advises them to turn the tables themselves: to take a lower place at the table than would rightfully be theirs, and wait for the host to say, “Friend, come up higher.”
This is not really very revolutionary advice. It’s found in the book of Proverbs and in the Apocryphal book of Sirach. It’s like “How to Get Ahead without Really Trying” type advice.
Jesus turns the tables by showing that He knows more about how to get honor and how to play the social game than the social climbers he’s with at dinner.
But it’s a game he doesn’t consider worth playing. Instead, he just uses it to point to the character of the kingdom of God: Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. And those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Now we know it doesn’t always work out that way in this life. It seems that often times the bullies get the best seats, and the meek are left standing in the back. God says he’s going to take care of that someday.
But it seems to me that the rare occasions on which a person who humbles himself is exalted on this earth, that it is a sign of the kingdom shining through. It’s a little epiphany of what is to come. So, for me it was a religious experience when I opened the paper on Tuesday night and saw that Jim Evans had been honored with an Abraham Lincoln Excellence in Agriculture Award. Jim would never in a million years have wanted me to say anything about that in church. And I wouldn’t, except that I want everyone to see how God exalts the folks he says he’ll exalt – those who put others before themselves. Some people will not know that honor until heaven. But God keeps us hopeful by signs like this one on earth. We ought to rejoice and be thankful, and be encouraged to trust that God will keep his promises.
The humble will be exalted and the tables will be turned.

After advising the guests on their manners, Jesus turns to advise the host that when he is having a dinner party, he shouldn’t invite his friends and neighbors and family. Those people are in a position to invite him right back.
Jesus advises the host to invite those who are poor and blind and disabled. They can never repay the host’s hospitality.
There are two ways to understand what this means for us: The first is that, as Jesus’ agents, the church should be careful to invite those who we might not want to put very high on our guest list. If we were drawing up a guest list – people we’d love to have here in this church, we’d probably come up with folks that would add a lot to the church, and not require very much from us. Jesus’ advice to the host is a clear warning against explicitly or implicitly being choosey about whom we invite.
But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. The Gospel is not about what we do, or what we should do, or what we’d like to do. The Gospel is about what God has done, and I think that’s what this advice to the host is about.
How many times does Jesus say, “The Kingdom of God is like a banquet . . .”? And in the kingdom of God, who is the Host? In the kingdom of God, the host has issued an engraved invitation to those who can never repay his hospitality. When Jesus turns the table, it is to invite us to take a seat.
Those who are poor, whose “hostess gift” is the tiniest token of a poor little life.
Those who are crippled, by the pain of unhappy families, by the memories of unkind words, who come to the table so disabled they can barely feed themselves.
Those who are lame, hobbled by regrets over the dream that died, the potential that was wasted, who slowly and painfully limp to the party.
Those who are blind, who do not see what God is doing in their lives, who do not see in each other brothers and sisters in Christ.
Those who do not deserve a place at the table are invited and encouraged to come. Those people who are invited – those people are us. We come to this table as honored guests, not because we deserve to be here. But because at Christ’s table,
we are invited to share
in the bread of life and
the cup of salvation
that we could never earn and never can repay. Thanks be to our Host, Jesus Christ

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