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Choosing a Place

Rev. Phil LaFollette
Sun, Sep 01

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Luke 7:1, 7-14

If you’ve read Robert Coles’s biography of Dorothy Day, you probably remember him telling about the day he met her, the woman who had by then guided the Catholic Worker movement for 19 years—a movement based on acts of mercy, on feeding people, on advocating for working people, and on living a life of nonviolence. One day Coles was traveling around Manhattan, wondering about the direction of his life, and he decided to see about volunteering to help at the Catholic Worker “Hospitality Center” that she had in the East Village. Although Coles was a medical student, he’d heard about Day from some lectures he’d attended at the Union Theological Seminary, lectures by Reinhold Niebuhr. Sure enough, Dorothy Day herself was there at the Hospitality Center that day, and soon he was taken to a room where Ms. Day was in conversation with a woman who was obviously drunk. He stood waiting for the time when he himself might get to talk with this famous Dorothy Day.

As he waited, it began to look as if the conversation of the two women would never end. It seemed to him that there was just a lot of tiresome ranting on one side, and on the other side an occasional nod and maybe a brief question. But he waited with some patience to get to talk with the famous Dorothy Day.

Finally there was silence, and Day asked the other woman whether she would mind an interruption. Day got up, came over to Coles, and asked him, “Are you waiting to talk with one of us?”

In that moment, Dorothy Day modeled for him a way of being and acting, in which she assumed that she was equal to her conversation partner, and a visitor could equally be seeking out either of them.

We’re in Chapter 14 of Luke’s gospel. If you read this part of the Bible, I’ve got to say you get an awful lot of the “bad” Jesus; the stories where he takes our values and our good intentions and gives them a good shaking. Here we find ourselves in the part of the story when he’s turned himself toward Jerusalem and the Cross, but had not come near that journey’s end yet.

Jesus, invited to dinner by a Pharisee leader, looked around at how the other guests arranged themselves, taking the places of honor, and “told them a parable,” it says, so it’s going to be something with a double meaning: one meaning on the surface, and another meaning beyond or within.

First Jesus had some advice to the guests, common-sense advice: don’t walk into a wedding reception and go sit down right up front where you have a good view of everything. You’re going to suffer the embarrassment of being politely told, “This place is for … the wedding party, or the parents of the happy couple, or something.” It might be one of those moments when you just hope the earth will open and swallow you up. Don’t take the highest place, go to the lowest place, and your host may tell you where you belong. That’s common sense advice, and it’s also in the Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible.

But this is a parable, so there is a deeper meaning. Jesus says, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” That’s Kingdom of God talk, talk about God’s ways, talk about what we pray for each week when we say, “Thy kingdom come,” in church: a world in which the hungry are filled, in which those who are last become first.
Jesus, you know, the grumpy Jesus, couldn’t leave without a word of advice to his host, questioning the whole proceeding. Don’t invite to dinner those who will repay you with their social influence or their own hospitality! “Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” The part about taking the lowest place and waiting to be moved up, that’s common sense, but this! If it makes sense, it’s got to be uncommon sense.
But ever since Jesus spoke that parable, there have been people who’ve done just that. Dorothy Day (“Do you want to talk with one of us.”)
It’s about the places we choose to put ourselves into.

In the past week people have reflected on the 1963 March on Washington, in gatherings or in the media, and perhaps reflected on the phase of the Civil Rights movement that the March has come to symbolize. Only four and a half months before that march, on Good Friday, demonstrators were put in jail in Birmingham, among them the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from Atlanta, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy from Montgomery, and later the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth from Birmingham. (You know, now in Birmingham they’ve named their airport after Fred Shuttlesworth.) They filled the jail with kids, too. People were shocked that those folks were in jail. I wonder how many remembered that Jesus, the week of his Crucifixion, told his disciples that he was fulfilling the text: “And he was counted among the lawless.”

And they weren’t the only ones. Over and over again in the movement those who practiced civil disobedience were “counted among the lawless,” persecuted and imprisoned; but the arc of history bends toward justice and their work was rewarded in keeping the dream alive.
***
I love Jesus, and one of the things I love most about him is that he knows us. He knows what we need and what we want, and he speaks to us in terms we can understand. When he told us to take our place with people who are in poverty, disabled, sightless, people we think cannot repay us for taking our place with them, Jesus promised us that we would finally be repaid. He said, “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” It’s a matter of self-interest. It’s about what is eternal. What out of our whole messy lives is eternal. If you believe, as I do, that what is eternal is the things Jesus was talking about when he talked about God’s ways, God’s eternal reign, then placing yourself in the last place and truly regarding yourself as the equal of the outcasts of the earth – is a matter of self-interest. And Jesus went there before us, put himself in the place of the powerless and the shamed, leading by example any who will follow him into this place.

Here at First Church Cambridge, we attest that here is found an “Open Table:” Open to building a more diverse community, to be challenged and transformed by the radical hospitality of Jesus. Here as we gather in a circle around the Lord’s Table, we remember that we come as we are, regardless of what we have accomplished; we experience here the friendship of Christ, who has deigned to be with us sinners at his table; and the exalted are humbled, and in a circle everyone has a place and “can … hear the jokes and feel the laughter and celebrate hope and the wholeness in the family of God.”

Amen.

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