I Must Be in The Front Row

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.When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and 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. But 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 honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ He 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 neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ Luke 1, 7-14 (NRSV)

Let’s begin with our Gospel message.  I think we can best understand this as the Bob Ueker passage.  How many of you recall who Bob Ueker is?  After many years playing professional baseball, and hall of fame inductee for his years in the booth as an announcer for the Milwaukee Brewers, I remember him best for the Miller Lite Commercials.  Particularly, when he is sitting in good seats with his friends at the Yankee’s ballpark when the usher checks their tickets because they are in someone else’s seats and his famous line… “I must be in the front row”.  I can relate to this.  Not only do we find ourselves wanting to enjoy watching the game from the good seats, but we have this desire to impress those around us—because I am important.

Jesus is at the table, again, eating this time with the Pharisee’s.  We know from earlier in Luke, that the clash between Jesus and the Pharisee’s has reached the point where they are out to get Him.  They are out to get Him for things such as healing on the Sabbath, his claim to be the Messiah.  In the first verse here it states that they were watching him closely.  Jesus knows this.  So what does he do… right away he heals a man, on the Sabbath.  Then right after healing this man, noticing the guests choosing the places of honor at the table, he tells a parable challenging not to sit at the places of honor.

For some background, the setting of this passage is a Palestinian wedding feast.  If one were to turn to the cultural ‘Miss Manners’ guide for 1st century wedding etiquette, you would find the male guests reclining on couches.  Similar to wedding receptions today, the center couch would be the place of honor.  The place of honor would have been based upon status determinant upon wealth, power, and position.  If someone of more prominence were to show up late, those with less prominence would be asked to move.  There is a practicality of choosing the lowest place, but Jesus is speaking to something deeper. 

God’s invitation at the table is not earned through our own display of worth.  Getting ahead with who we know does not earn favor in our forever innate desire when the usher checks our ticket.  “I must be in the front row!” can be better understood in terms of church where the places of honor are typically reserved for the back.  If we are honest with ourselves, we like sitting in the front row.  We like being picked first.  But in God’s kingdom, God asks us to know ourselves in light of the other.  It is a kingdom where it is a privilege to serve, where the first shall be last, and the last first. 

Jesus is talking about humility.  The Pharisee’s are working within a patronage system.  You get ahead, or maintain your social status not by what you know, but who you know.  Jesus is witnessing how important everyone thinks they are trying to situate themselves at the places of honor at the table.  Essentially Jesus is saying to them, you are not as important as you think you are…  It’s a message of humility, importance of being humble.  Here Jesus says, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus after saying, you who think you are so important, be humble, and while you are trying to position yourselves in the seats of honor, you are missing the whole point by who you even choose to invite to the table.

Jesus sharing the idea of blessing saying you will be blessed because you do not expect something in return.  Blessed to be a blessing is not easy.  To bless is to do so without conditions.  The table fellowship that Jesus is sharing is a precursor, a metaphor, for the Kingdom of God—a kingdom that is in the present when Jesus is in our midst.  When blessing is accompanied by scurrying into spaces of favor with conditions asking, ‘what’s in it for me?’—misses the exact point, and happens to be the table that Jesus finds himself. 

Today, the prosperity gospel attracts a lot of people.  There are many sharing a popular message that if you are good and believe, you will be blessed, and with this blessing you will receive worldly wealth.  What does this say to those who believe, follow this preaching, and then something bad happens…  Scripture doesn’t promise this.  This breaks down when we understand that we seek our own favor, or higher seats at the table. 

What’s this look like? In many ways, it looks like the oddest game in football history.  It was Grapevine Faith High against Gainesville State School.  For Grapevine, this was a home game.  As the opposing team was taking the field, Faith fans made a human tunnel for the opposing team to run through.  A tunnel including a “Go Tornadoes” banner for them to crash through.  This was a game where half of the home team sat on the visitor side cheering for the visiting team.  Gainesville quarterback recalls, “I never in my life thought I’d hear people cheering for us to beat their kids…I wouldn’t expect a parent to tell us to beat their own kids. But they wanted us to.!” 

Although Faith won, 33-14, this has to be the first time the losing team, a team 0-9, celebrated by giving their head coach a Gatorade bath. 

But this was no ordinary game.  At the games conclusion, the Tornadoes were met by uniformed officers to escort them back to their bus.  At the conclusion, you saw the score was more than what was on the scoreboard.  Gainesville is a maximum-security correctional facility. 

Faith was 7-2 going into the game, while Gainesville was 0-8 with only two touchdowns scored all year.  Faith had 70 players and 11 coaches on the sideline, and Gainesville troubled teens—many disowned by their families.  So the head coach for Faith saw the score before the game even began and asked the fans, what if half of us cheer for them.  He sent an email to the community, “Here’s the message I want you to send—‘Your are just as valuable as any other person on planet Earth.’”  To a player who didn’t understand, coach responded “Imagine if you didn’t have a home life.  Imagine if everybody had pretty much given up on you.  Now imagine what it would mean for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.”

Gerald, a player for Gainesville shares, “We can tell people are a little afraid of us when we come to games.  You can see it in their eyes.  They’re lookin’ at us like we are criminals.  But these people, they were yellin’ for us!  By our names!”  

After the game, both teams met at the center of the field to pray.  Surprisingly, Isaiah from Gainesville volunteered to lead the prayer as he prayed, “ Lord, I don’t know how this happened, so I don’t know how to say thank you, but I never would’ve known there was so many people in the world that cared about us.”  As the Gainesville team was being escorted to their bus, their coach shared with Faith high’s coach, “You’ll never know what your people did for these kids tonight.  You’ll never, ever know.” 

And as Gainesville drove away, all of the players were crammed to one side with their hand pressed to the window as they saw the opposing team waving and smiling.[1] 

Mother Theresa shares: “God has not created poverty; it is we who have created it. Before God, all of us are poor” (p92., No Greater Love).  She goes on to share, “Poverty doesn’t only consist of being hungry for bread, but rather it is a tremendous hunger for human dignity.  We need to love and to be somebody for someone else.  This is where we make our mistake and shove people aside.  Not only have we denied the poor a piece of bread, but by thinking that they have no worth and leaving them abandoned in the streets, we have denied them the human dignity that is rightfully theirs as children of God.”  The world today is hungry.  We are hungry.  We long for relationships, a kind word, time with friends.  We hunger to be wanted, to be loved.  We hunger for the presence of Christ. 

This Sunday, we hunger as we come to the table.  We hunger for love, for a kind word.  We hunger for peace within our busy lives.  We collectively hunger, at a table reserved for all of us.  This is the great paradox of the Pharisees who sought the places of honor…big for their britches, with inflated sense of self-importance.  At the table, each of us important, beautiful in God’s eyes.  And it is here, that Christ, on the night he was betrayed, after blessing the bread said, he raised it saying ‘this is my body, broken for you.’  In the same way, he raised the cup saying, this cup is the everlasting covenant sealed in my blood, whenever you take this, do so in remembrance of me.’  For all who hunger, welcome. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen

 



[1] Rick Reilly, ESPN The Magazine,  There are some games in which cheering for the other side feels better than winning’, http://sports.espn.go.com/espnmag/story?id=3789373, accessed 8/30/2013. 

 

 

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