Me First! …and other ways we forget to give way to others.

Luke 14:1-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Children’s Time: Me first! Hey, no budging! How does it feel to have someone cut in front of you when you’re standing in line? Or, when your sister or brother takes the last pop tart at breakfast? Do you ever wonder why the last box of cereal on the shelf is never the one with the most sugar? And when that box is down to the last bowl, you need to share or there’ll be some other unhappy campers at the breakfast table. Jesus, in our lesson for today calls us to put others first – to give up the seat of honor – to let others go first. Lets remember that the next time we dig in to our Lucky Charms.

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

There are a couple of themes going on here today: one revolves around honor and disgrace (that Jesus describes at the dinner table). And the other revolves around the question: who will I associate with or invite into my home? Jesus says, “Invite those who could never repay you.” Then, finally, we get a glimpse at how to do that from the 13th chapter of Hebrews that challenges us to love each other as families do. Let’s start there.

The Greeks have a word for this kind of love: Philadelphia. (which is the city of… brotherly love). Just as the Eskimos have several words in their language for “snow” so too the writers of the Bible had several words for “love.” There was philios (what we often refer to as brotherly love), eros (erotic, romantic love full of passion for a lover) and agape (that sacrificial love, that puts others first at the expense of our own desires).

In our lesson from Hebrews today, we have philios, the kind of love between family members. Now, I don’t know about you, but my brothers and I fought quite a bit growing up. On any given day if you were to peek in on us, you might be hard pressed to find an example of brotherly love. Snide remarks, bullying to get the last pop tart or bowl of Lucky Charms, and a few atomic wedgies thrown in for good measure. Of course, I never started it. It was usually one of my brothers who started it. To which my mother would be quick to remind me, “Yes, John, but you finished it!”

And yet, for all the fighting siblings do, there is still a bond that is forged in the family – a bond of family love and loyalty (Philadelphia). Oh, it’s not there in all families. Some have deep divisions over painful memories and incidents that will require much love, prayer and truth-telling before healing can begin. But the writer to the Hebrews gives us a glimpse of what this love is like.

It is described as showing hospitality to strangers, visiting the prisoner as if you yourself were in prison, tending the tortured as if you yourself were being victimized. There are instructions for keeping the marriage bed holy, for guarding against the love of money and for imitating the faith of one’s religious leaders.

But the kicker comes in that last line: “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” What?! Do you mean tell me, Jesus, that if I bust my butt to put others first today, I have to wait till I’m dead and raised again to get what’s coming to me? Why should I give up that last bowl of CapNCrunch to my little sister today when I won’t get my bowl till I go to heaven?!

And, of course, the whole point is not to be motived by “what’s in it for me.” The point is to show love – simply for love’s sake. There is honor in putting others first. And disgrace in thinking only of oneself.

In his Newberry Award winning novel, The High King, Lloyd Alexander recounts the story of young Taran, an assistant pig-keeper who has dreams of becoming a valiant knight someday. His advice from his farmer-mentor, Coll, was this: “There is more honor in a field well planted than in a field steeped in blood.” The bald-headed Coll ought to know, for only later in the story does Taran realize that his farmer friend was once a mighty warrior.

Honor and disgrace have been around a long time. Jesus knew the pecking order was firmly in place. He even encourages his followers to play the system: “If you want the seat of higher honor, start at the bottom – you can only go up from there! But if you immediately take the best seat in the house, you can be sure that someone else more distinguished than you will come along and you will be escorted to a lower seat in disgrace.”

Maybe this is why we joke about Lutherans always sitting in the back row. But there’s a problem with self-deprecation, too. God didn’t create you to crawl under a rock in humiliation. You were made in the image of God for good works! You have been invited to the banquet at his heavenly feast. Your name is on the guest list! And that’s good news!

Just as budging in line to get to the front is a sin, so too is crawling to the back of the line and hiding your light under a basket.

When we were in Africa we met Josephat at the Neema Craft store. Josephat is deaf. He speaks in sign language; but he’s also got a hunched back. And so the sign he was given as his name was a hand motion for a hump. In essence, he was defined by his defect. Once he came to work at the craft store, they found out his gift: making paper out of elephant dung! No one could make paper like Josephat. He soon became the best at it. So his friends re-named him in sign language with two fists coming together, which means “he is able.”

What a beautiful way to honor someone – to define them not based on they’re disability, but rather based on what they’re good at. You see, Jesus didn’t just tell us to play the system… he redefined it for his host sitting there that day: “When you throw a party, invite the poor, the lame, the blind and the crippled. All those poor schmucks who could never ever pay you back by inviting you to their shindig, because they got no shins to dig!”

When we lift others up we give them the opportunity to join us at the table. Because if we’ve been paying attention at all… we know in our heart of hearts, that none of us deserve to be there in the first place. None of us could ever repay the host, Jesus Christ, for his sacrificial love on the cross.

Karl Barth, that renowned Lutheran theologian from WWII Germany, once said that the gospel only has its full effect when it comes into the hands of sinners. “It is only now that the gospel, having been put in our sinful, unclean hands, really works itself out, fully shows itself for what it is, the actual joyful news for actual sinners.”

You know that old familiar jingle: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing?” Well, our faith don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that sting. There’s a sting involved in taking the lower seat – in realizing that we neither deserve God’s love, nor this invitation to Jesus’ table.

So, how will that affect the way we treat our brothers and sisters? How will that affect our attitudes at work among newcomers and trainees? How will that affect the way we craft immigration policies in our country – knowing full well that none of us deserve citizenship, but that it is a privilege granted by those who have gone before us?

So, the next time you have the urge to say “Me first” remember the one who put the needs of the whole world ahead of himself. Then listen to what God is calling you to do. Receive your place with humility – then invite others generously to the table of the Lord. Let us pray:

O God, we give you thanks that you have invited us to your table. It is an honor we did not seek. Help us in humility to invite others into that holy fellowship by your Spirit. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

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