Seating Charts

September 1, 2013   Luke 14: 1, 7-14

Rev. Catherine Purves

      Weddings are tough.  I’ve been involved in more weddings than usual this summer, helping with the planning, if not actually officiating at the services.  In my opinion, when it comes to weddings, the devil is in the details.  It’s easy to be driven to distraction by the multitude of little decisions that have to be made.  Nothing is easy, but perhaps one of the most challenging things to work out is the seating chart for the reception. 

     Who should sit where?  Great Uncle Harold is a pain in the neck.  Who can we put next to him to jolly him along without ruining the wedding for that other poor guest?  Cousin Evelyn still isn’t speaking to Cousin Eleanor, so they need to be at opposite ends of the room.  Closest friends and family will want to be nearest the bridal party’s table.  Then there’s great grandmother in her wheelchair, friend Barry who shouldn’t be seated too close to the bar, and Aunt Anne who has been surprisingly helpful with the wedding preparations.  Trying to sort out what people might have in common or what they would find to argue about, while balancing men and women, young and old, family and friends – what a nightmare!  A flustered bride and groom might be tempted just to open the doors to the reception hall and let everyone in, allowing them to find their own seats.  That was precisely the solution to the problem that Jesus suggested, but with a warning to both the eager guests and to the calculating hosts.

     One thing that we may not often appreciate about Jesus is the fact that he was keenly observant.  He had a lot of social sense and he understood how people think and feel and act in all sorts of situations.  He was equally well attuned to the physical world and the workings of nature, but today it is his ability to read people and their interactions with one another that is highlighted in our Scripture reading.  Not only could Jesus perceive the inner thoughts and motivations of people, and not only was he a sharp social critic, but he could also then apply those observations to far larger issues of faith and God’s purposes in the world. 

     So, he arrives at a sabbath dinner at the home of a leading Pharisee, and he is immediately aware of certain social dynamics that are taking place.  In that instance, there was no seating chart.  Various and sundry people were trying to claim status by choosing the best seats.  They were contriving their own seating chart and making sure that they had pride of place at the table.  Jesus’ warning to them almost sounds as if he is recommending that they be even more calculating.  If they chose more humble seats for themselves, then their host would undoubtedly urge them to move up into a better spot, displacing the pushy, self-promoting people who had rushed in and grabbed the best seats. 

     But Jesus is only secondarily concerned about actual seating charts.  He is making a comment on human nature and revealing something about the ways of God.  That is why Luke calls this a parable in verse 7, even though it doesn’t sound like what we think of as a parable.  Like all of Jesus’ parables, there is a surprising twist at the end of his observation that ties this ordinary event to the workings of God.  In verse 11 he concludes, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  This is almost identical to another well-known pronouncement of Jesus, “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19: 30)

     This is God’s answer to seating charts and our human inclination toward self-promotion, pride, and the preservation of appearances.  Jesus reveals all of that as a hollow pretense which masks an unrepentant heart that is unacquainted with the virtue of humility.  And he then prods us to reflect upon how much our lives are dominated by seating charts and the dividing of people into classes of the privileged and the unprivileged.  He urges us to look more closely at the inclinations of our own hearts.  Do we operate with secret seating charts that place some people above others?  Are we assuming that we have a favored status with God and that others are not so well-loved?  Do we treat people differently depending upon their class, their race, their age, their disability?  Jesus warns us about these seating charts that misunderstand the abundance of God’s love and that disregard our calling to live humble lives guided by grace and not by our secret desire to get ahead or to put others down.

     We all know that this week marked the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington at which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.  The purpose of that march and the message of that powerful speech (or sermon) was to reveal the pervasive and destructive power of our national seating charts.   Those not-so-secret seating charts forced Blacks to sit at the back of the bus.  They restricted their right to vote.  Those seating charts kept African Americans out of restaurants, hotels, schools, sports teams, and churches.  Yes, we have come a long way since 1963, but the dream of freedom, justice, and equality has not been fulfilled.  There are still seating charts.

     It is important for us to recognize that Jesus was not just concerned about converting individual hearts.  He was also a critic of societal sin.  His message was that the Kingdom of God was being established, and in that Kingdom, in God’s recreated humanity, there was no place for our seating charts.  Society itself must be transformed, and certainly the corporate fellowship of the church must reflect God’s will that all would be invited to the banquet table.  Jesus’ second warning, which is directed to his host, reflects this remarkable change that we are required to make. 

     The Kingdom of God is a topsy-turvy society, and in the church we are called to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame, rather than just reaching out to the rich and the powerful.  Even if it is not reflected in the nation, the church should mirror that Kingdom dream that was so powerfully articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr., so that, like Jesus, we might provoke society to abolish the seating charts that are still upheld in our law, our economy, and our community.

     I recently had a conversation with another minister who told me that one of his elders had written a letter to the Presbytery complaining that their pastor was spending too much time doing evangelism.  This outreach was being done among really needy people:  the poor, those struggling with addictions, the homeless, those burdened with mental problems, and African Americans.  It was a ridiculous complaint, and it was dismissed out of hand by the Presbytery.  But it highlights a secret fear that we might all have and that goes along with our desire for seating charts. 

     If we fling the doors wide open and invite everyone in, with all of their problems and needs, things will change.  We might lose our seats, or our feeling of comfort here, or our sense of control.  I think that’s why that elder sent his letter to the Presbytery.  Without a seating chart and without written invitations to the people we want to have in our church, then who knows what will happen.  That’s kind of frightening.

     But this was what Jesus was saying all along.  The whole purpose of seating charts and engraved invitations is that they keep us in control.  Guess what.  We’re not in charge.  This is Christ’s church, and that’s why Jesus urges us to abandon our seating charts and to throw open our doors.  In fact, we are to go out into the highways and byways and bring those people in.  Jesus invites us to dream of the Kingdom when ALL people will gather before the throne of Christ offering praise and continual prayer together.  We in the church are to strive to live that reality now. 

     That means change, and change is hard.  It’s kind of messy without seating charts, and anything can happen.  But we need to remind ourselves that Jesus is our host and that this is his table.  We are blessed to have been invited to his Kingdom banquet.  Let us humbly take the lesser seats, seeking only to honor our Lord and Savior.  And let us try to see with his eyes the promise and the demands of his Kingdom.  By his grace, we will then be able to open wide the doors of the church, to provide a ministry to all and a witness to society of how God calls us to order our world.  And let us continue to dream of that Kingdom without seating charts which will surely come.