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Check the guest list

Luke 14:1,7-14

I’ve been thinking about guest lists a lot this summer.

Part of that is the number of weddings I’ve done. When you’re the only one of your childhood friends who decided to become a minister, everybody asks you to officiate.

The other part of it is being newly engaged myself. And now that my partner and I are well into our latest adventure in New York City, we finally have the bandwidth to start planning our own wedding. And that question of whom to invite looms large: how big do we want this thing to be? Where do we have it? I think both of us wished we could invite everybody we know, and then some, but cooking for that many people quickly becomes a logistical nightmare.

Who’s on the guestlist? And just as importantly: who’s not?

That’s the question that Jesus is asking in today’s story from Luke’s Gospel. He’s not at a wedding per se – rather, he’s at a Sabbath meal at the home of a prominent Pharisee. Although, to be fair, later Jewish tradition conceived of Shabbat as a bride whom we welcome every Friday at sundown: “Lecha dodi likrat Kalah p’nei Shabbat n’kabelah! “Let us go, Beloved, to greet the bride, and to welcome the presence of Shabbat.” So, a kind of wedding banquet – and anyway, we know how fond Jesus was of that metaphor for the Kin-dom of God.

So: Jesus is at table, as often he is. And he’s looking around the room at who’s been invited, and how they’re behaving. He sees the guests—all, we can presume, prominent men (mostly men), well-educated and respected in their community. And, like “respectable” people of all ages, the guests are jockeying for position, trying to sit as close to the head of the table as possible. For then, as now, your proximity to the host (or the President, or the Emperor, or the CEO) indicated your social standing. Journalists would call it access.

Jesus notices this; and being Jesus, who also notices who’s not at the table: “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” (14:13) That is to say, precisely those who were least respectable, precisely those with the lowest social standing. You could add to that list the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the foreigner, the outsider, the oppressed.

And, being Jesus, he calls it out. Playfully, of course, by means of a parable, puncturing the vanity of the guests’ power plays and drawing attention to the fact that everybody at the table comes from a similar, relatively privileged social location. He tells his guests that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (14:11) For what if a more “distinguished” guest arrives and the host demotes you to the foot of the table with the riffraff? God forbid! Don’t invite your guests because they look and think and act and believe like you, nor because their presence will reflect well on your prestige; fill your guest list with precisely those whom the powerful and well-respected would never dare to invite. “And you will be blessed,” Jesus says, “because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (14:14)

Jesus draws an implicit link between the “distinguished guest” of the first half of his parable with the “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. The person you’d least expect to see in polite society will be the guest of honor.

And why, do you suppose, would that be?

On the campus of my alma mater, the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, SD, a group calling themselves the American Identity Movement recently placarded the student center with flyers spreading their ideology. The group, known previously as Identity Evropa, describes themselves as “an identitarian activist organization… [who] stand opposed to mass immigration and anti-whiteness.”

That’s an awfully anodyne way of saying white supremacists.

Oh no, surely you misunderstand us! the group contends. “We reject all political violence and racial supremacism.” We don’t believe White people are better than other races. We just believe that people ought to stick to their own kind, you know? After all, a society needs a common foundation in order to function. There need to be shared values, shared culture, shared identity. For, as one of their posters states above a depiction of a racially-charged, bombed-out inner city, “DIVERSITY DESTROYS NATIONS.”

Let’s leave aside the uncomfortable (and, I would argue, not unintentional) resonances with Nazi ideology here. Let’s even leave aside the fact that White supremacist ideology, no matter how innocuously it is packaged, itself functions as a form of political violence because it creates an atmosphere of fear and creates—indeed, encourages and legitimates—the conditions for right-wing terrorist attacks and mass shootings. Instead, let’s just consider their claim that diversity destroys nations.

Does this white supremacist vision of community bear any resemblance whatsoever to the Kin-dom of God that Jesus imagines in this week’s text?

Of course it bloody doesn’t. When Jesus sees a group of people who have constructed social hierarchies that place them over and above their neighbors, he echoes the song of his mother Mary in the Magnificat: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53) The very people whom white supremacists like the American Identity Movement want to exclude from the table are the ones whom God would have sit in the seat of honor. Where the white supremacist project “stand[s] opposed to mass migration,” Jesus, and the God in whom and on whose behalf he speaks, proclaims “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

And not just as an act of charity, of noblesse oblige. Not just because “we have, and they have not, and they want what we have got,” to quote the (amazing) musical HADESTOWN. Rather, because those who are different from us have something to teach us about what it means to be human, what it looks like to live in the Kin-dom of God.

That’s a lesson I learned at the United Church of Christ of Vermillion, SD, where I preached a version of this reflection on September 1, 2019. I’ve never been part of a predominately White community that is so thoroughly and un-self-consciously committed to setting another seat at the table. Just a couple examples:

  • The congregation helped found and continues to support the Welcome Table, a free banquet for the Vermillion community, at which guests are served by volunteer servers and the people who prepare the food dine with those who have come to be filled. Anybody is welcome, no questions asked.
  • Over decades of committed relationship-building, UCCV has made friends with the local Native community, cooking food for their yearly sundance, working with Native elders to teach local college students about indigenous spirituality, and offering the church up for funerals, ritual, and community meals.
  • The congregation also reached out to the local Muslim community after the surge in Islamophobia that followed the 2016 election, hosting friendship meals and holding joint study groups for Christians, Muslims, and people of other faiths to form friendships and learn about each other’s traditions.

Those are just a handful of examples of the work of this congregation, which is where I first found spiritual community as a young adult and which continues to inspire me every day. Of course, the work of dismantling white supremacy and restoring right relationship is ongoing. There’s always more light and truth to break forth, more justice to be done, more to be learned.

But I’ve seldom seen a church as committed to that work of justice and education as UCCV. It’s one of the strongest spiritual communities—one of the strongest communities, period—I’ve ever had the privilege to be a part of.

Because here’s the thing. When we sit down with people who are different from us—people whose life experience has given them different insights into the nature of power, and relationship, and resilience, and community—when we sit down and eat alongside those with whom we are unaccustomed to sharing a meal, we learn that what unites us is stronger than what divides us. I don’t mean that our differences are inconsequential, or that people of varying genders, races, nationalities, cultures, and places of origin don’t have widely different and structurally unequal experiences.

What I mean is that, when we can come to the kind of table that Jesus imagined, one with room enough for everybody, we realize that there is a deeper truth, a deeper thread, that connects us all. We realize that in the face of the person across the aisle—across the table—across the border—we behold the very image and likeness of God.

Jesus invites us to open up our guest list, not as an act of beneficent charity that we render unto underprivileged “others,” but as a direct challenge to the very notion of the “other.” It is a practice of humbling ourselves and setting our implicit and explicit notions of “supremacy” aside long enough to encounter and learn from and be transformed by those other remarkable beings who live in this world alongside us. We are always and forever invited to God’s party, not on account of our social standing—nor, for that matter, on account of our “virtuous poverty” (yuck)—but simply on account of our foundational belovedness.

And that is the shared “something” that makes for strong community. Not race, or culture, or religious system, but the recognition of our inherent worth and dignity as the Children of God. Diversity doesn’t destroy nations, it’s what makes them great, opening our hearts and compelling us to solidarity and interdependence. Diversity is God’s intention through all Creation. Always has been, always will be.

And the American Identity Movement’s imagined, homogeneous community’s pales in comparison to real, imperfect, beautiful, strong communities like UCC Vermillion. Because the white supremacist vision is grounded in a lie about what it means to be human, and it is doomed, always and forever, to ultimate failure.

And when those of us who have put notions of “supremacy” into practice (whether intentionally or no) have been suitably humbled, the invitation to the Wedding Banquet will be waiting for us, as it always has been. And we will sing, “Lecha dodi, likrat Kalah.” Let us go, Beloved, to greet the Bride…

I guess the upshot of all this is that I am now spiritually obligated to invite literally everybody to my wedding. I’m sure Satya will be thrilled with the logistics of that…

In all seriousness, though, this work belongs to all of us. Especially to those of us who happen to be White, at this moment in history. But in the final analysis, this is the hard, beautiful work of being human. So let’s keep checking the guest list – noticing who’s in, and who’s out, and working always to build a longer table, not a higher wall. Because at God’s table…

…there’s always another chair.

Amen. –Tom

At God’s table, there’s always another chair. (Luke 14:1, 7-14)

A version of this reflection was preached at the United Church of Christ of Vermillion, SD on September 1, 2019.

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