Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Character of Christ: Humbly Hospitable (Luke 14:7-11)

When Jesus noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table, he told them a parable. “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host. The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. 10 Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11 All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

If you come to dinner in our home, we want you to be as comfortable around our table as you are around your own.  When we have overnight guests, we give them a room that is every bit as comfortable as our own, with fresh sheets and towels for their use.  All of these accommodations are part of the practice we call “hospitality.”  Hospitality is really more of an art than a science, and it includes all the measures we take to make other people, particularly our guests, feel comfortable and at home.  Showing hospitality to our guests lets them know that we welcome them, we value them, we are glad and honored to have them with us.

We are in a series of messages on “The Character of Christ.”  Each week, we’re taking a look at a different aspect of Jesus’ character, as we try to put those pieces together to gain a better picture of who Jesus is, what he’s about, and how we who follow him can try on those character traits for ourselves.  Today’s character trait is “Humble Hospitality;” Jesus practiced humble hospitality, and we are called to do the same.  May we pray.

At dinner, the seating arrangement can be as important as the menu.  A bad seating arrangement can set the stage for World War III, or at the very least, an unpleasant dining experience.  You try to keep in mind who is left-handed so you can put them on the corner, who can squeeze in to the chairs on the other side of the table, who has kids who need assistance, and so on.

As the event gets bigger, it gets more complicated – which members of the family aren’t on speaking terms this year, which uncle loves to talk about politics and assumes everyone is as staunchly whatever he is, and what IS the name of your cousin’s current husband, anyway?

There’s also this tricky issue of a social hierarchy, and a ranking, if you will, of seats.  Some people aren’t bothered by that at all, for others, it’s a very big deal.  The reality is, however, that SOMEBODY is going to be seated at the back of the room.  SOMEBODY is going to be closest to the bar.  SOMEBODY is going to be seated near the kitchen.  SOMEBODY has to sit next to Crazy Uncle Charlie, and SOMEBODY gets to sit next to sweet Aunt Edna.

When we attend a wedding as family or friends, we get seated with people in the same category of relationships – the “cousins” table or the “college friends” table or so on.  But when we show up to a wedding reception as pastor, however, we’re a bit more of an unknown variable.  Many times, the couple or their family are the only people who know us, and then we are sort of this wildcard in the seating chart.  We often end up at table of strangers, all of whom know each other because they’re either family or friends already, but who don’t know us.  Typically, as we approach the table, there’s a look of panic on the faces of the people already seated, that you can translate as something along the lines of, “Oh no!  The pastor is sitting with us!  There goes our chances for fun at this party!”

Jesus loved to gather around the table and share a meal, according to the Gospel of Luke.  Throughout the Gospel you’ll find him at many different tables, sharing many meals with many people.  He eats with his disciples and close friends and with great crowds of strangers.  He eats with tax collectors and sinners and with scribes and Pharisees.  Given that one of the images of the kingdom of God is of a great banquet, that makes a lot of sense.  A potluck supper may very well be practice for heaven, because a good meal is a foretaste of the kingdom of God.

In our text for today from the 14th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is at a dinner party, and based on what he observes, he offers some advice to both the host and the guests – showing honor and respect to our guests and to one another, in other words, about hospitality.

Growing up, everyone in the family had assigned seats around the dinner table.  I don’t know that they were ever actually assigned, but we always sat in the same seat.  Dad at the head of the table, then moving clockwise was my Mom, my little brother, me, and my two older sisters.

About the time I turned 12, we were about to sit down to dinner one night, and Mom and Dad announced a new seating arrangement – my oldest sister and I were to trade places, because apparently my appetite had grown to adolescent proportions, and by the time the food was passed to my sisters, they were not, in their opinion, getting enough to eat.  Never mind the breakfast cereal issue we talked about a few weeks ago, where my sisters always got to breakfast first and left me with only crumbs of my favorite cereals – and no I don’t want to talk about it – but the seating arrangement was changed to make sure everyone got enough.

Jesus was at a banquet, where he observed the guests jockeying for the best places around the table.  Into a world where everyone is trying to secure the best spots for themselves, Jesus says, “Hey, try something different.  Don’t take the best spot for yourself.  Take the place of least honor, least privilege, least convenience.  Make room, the best room, for someone else.”

I know a lot of people who have a really hard time with this particular teaching, especially those who have worked hard and climbed higher and done well for themselves in this life.  Rank has its privileges, after all, and why would I want to give those up?

Because that’s part of following Jesus.  Jesus tells us what life is like in his kingdom, where, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20:16), and “the greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11), right down to the concluding verse of today’s text:  “All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up” (Luke 14:11).  The life of faith involves coming to believe and practice these very things.

I guarantee we cannot practice hospitality without humility.  It means letting go of what we feel we’ve earned or deserve or are entitled to and giving that up so someone else can have it.  Humble hospitality is a character trait of Jesus, and of those who follow him – it involves making room for others, and not just any room, the best room! 

One of the best, most concrete ways a church can practice hospitality is in our parking lot.  Robert Schuller was once asked, “What is absolutely essential for a church to grow?” and he responded, “A good parking lot.”  And that’s true.  A church can have outstanding preaching, great music, wonderful programs, a heart for missions, and warm fellowship, but if people can’t even find a spot in the lot, they’re never going to get out of the car, walk in the building, and experience what we have to offer.  Hospitality starts before anyone ever walks through the door.

That’s why we added visitor parking back in the fall.  Other than the handicap spots, our visitor parking are the best spots in the lot – closest to the door, least amount of walking required, straight shot in whether to the fellowship hall for 9 am worship or the sanctuary for 10:55.  We have taken the best spots we have and handed them over to our guests.  We’re saying, “Those aren’t for us anymore, those are for our guests.”

If you are a guest here, from the very moment you pull in the parking lot, we want you to know that room, the best room, has been specially prepared just for you.  Our members care so much about you that they are willing to sacrifice a little of their own convenience so you can have the best spot.

Hospitality goes beyond designated visitor parking.  We’re starting to have a really good problem around here – more and more Sundays, we’re running short on parking.  I’ll take that problem every day of the week and twice on Sundays, which works out well for our schedule!

Last Sunday, someone came in and told me, “We got the very last spot in the very back of the lot!”  And that’s great, but I couldn’t help but think about the folks who pulled in after they did, the ones who didn’t get the last parking space, the ones who didn’t come in and join us in worship, the ones whom God loves very much and who need to be welcomed into a loving community like ours, yet who turned around and went back home, thinking, “I guess they don’t have room for me.” 

Friends, that’s a problem.  One that needs to be solved.  As far as the city is concerned, we’ve already built more facility and parking on these 2.5 acres than they would let us get away with now.  It’s a problem that’s going to get worse as we continue to grow.  It’s a problem that’s going to get worse when Horse Pen Creek Road is widened and we lose a dozen parking spaces.

Capacity isn’t determined by the size of the building.  It’s determined by the availability of parking.  We will run out of parking spaces long before we run out of seats.  Would you believe that parking could be the thing that limits our growth?

But there’s an easy solution.  One that doesn’t cost us anything, that doesn’t require us to build or buy anything at this time.  There are over 400 parking spots next door at the YMCA, and yes, though the Y is open and there is a church that meets there, they are nowhere near “full” on Sunday morning.  There’s even a sidewalk that connects the two properties.  I park over there every Sunday – rain, snow, or shine – one less car in our lot means one more space for someone else.

So here’s my challenge to you, should you choose to accept it: join me over there.  Especially if you are physically able, take a place of less honor and convenience for yourself, and make room, the best room, for someone else.  Instead of that person finding the lot full and turning around thinking, “I guess they don’t have room for me,” let them know that we do.

It’s good for us to remember whose church this is.  Not mine as the pastor, not the District Superintendent’s or the Bishop’s, nor the members.  This church is Christ’s church, and our aim here is to do what Jesus wants us to do.  Jesus already told us what that is – to go and make disciples.

It’s why we need to keep making room.  The Gospel is about making room – God making room for all of humanity in God’s family, everyone ending up with a better room than we deserve.  Jesus made room for us when we had done nothing to deserve that spot – amazing grace, indeed – and the Gospel continues when we make a place, the best place, for someone else to be welcomed into the family.

You see, in the kingdom of God, the best seats are the cheap seats.  Jesus is telling us to leave our ego-centric seats of man-made honor and privilege.   Jesus is asking us to give up our seats – our self-important seats, our judgment seats, and move to a better place, a godly place, a more honorable place.

Jesus invites us down to the place where he so often puts himself: in the seat of the servant.  It’ll be a new perspective, but I guarantee it’s one that will bring the kingdom of God a little closer.  Jesus said, “All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

If you really want to see Jesus, you can’t beat the view from the cheap seats.

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