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The Most Interesting Person in the Room

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Sep 01

Luke 14: 1-11

One of the many benefits of getting to know the late Peter Gomes, longtime minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, was that I would be invited to some of his dinners at Sparks House where he lived across from Sanders Theatre.  Peter loved to entertain, would throw fabulous parties and three course sit-down meals regularly, whether for staff, guest preachers, or students. Lest those dinners seemed exclusive, each week he would fling wide his doors and open his private living space for a community tea on Wednesday afternoons where literally anyone could and would show up, no Harvard ID required!  It was an amazing gesture, one that I came to learn was grounded in a deeply biblical and spiritual practice of Christian hospitality.  


There other ways that Peter would pridefully showcase his high-class flare which may come more from the book of Martha Stewart than the good Book. When hosting sit down dinner parties, whether for 8 or 28 people all gathered around his seemingly endlessly leafed dining room tables, he would place the evening’s menu and name cards at each setting. He’d never fail to ring the dinner gong in his entrance hall when it was time to be seated.  And he would always say a traditional grace, often something like: “The eyes of all wait upon thee, O Lord, and thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest thine hand and fillest every living thing with blessing. Amen.” At some level, he knew all this lavishness was over-the-top and that the scene itself could be intimidating or intoxicating for his guests, some of whom would be meeting each other for the first time So, he would say a remarkable thing every time!  He would say: If you are tempted to take issue with my seating chart for our meal, just remember: the person sitting next to you is the most interesting person in the room! Think about it. Enjoy!” And just like that, his guests would take a breath and a sip, and inevitably turn to their neighbors with relaxed and renewed curiosity.  


Think about it, though!  And please go ahead now; it works for every setting where people are gathered!  Think about who is sitting next to you right now, whether you know them or not, and consider that they are the most interesting person in the room!  And now, consider that they are thinking the very same of you. In one beautiful line, Gomes would level the playing field, simultaneously deflating and decentering the egos of some and building up and centering those of others. Our text for today makes me think.  If Jesus were at Gomes’s table, I have to imagine him giving the good Rev a knowing smile and a nod. He might even raise a glass to this albeit enigmatic gesture of hospitality because. Regardless of the setting in the heart of the campus of one of the world’s most elite universities, it’s as biblical and Christ-like as they come!  


In case you don’t believe me, let’s look at the text we just read.  Jesus shows up for dinner at priestly leader’s house. He notices people taking issue with the seating arrangement, jockeying for seats of honor.  He then tells a parable. Talk about an enigmatic gesture. Parables are by nature intended to confuse and stick in your craw and this one is no exception.  If we aren’t listening carefully, we may miss the confusing part. In his book Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Timothy Cahill captures it well when making the case that Luke’s version of Jesus was especially keen to fit in with gentile traditions of social conduct and sometimes in ways that were decidedly not Jewish or Christian.  Cahill writes that our passage presents Jesus “as a more typical pagan “wise” man, cautioning his followers on their manners at a banquet. ‘Do not’, advises Jesus,’ elbow your way to the best seat.’” We get that part but now listen for why! “Better to take the most humble seat and when your host will says “Friend, move up higher” then everyone at the table will see you honored!,” Cahill continues: “Good advice, no doubt, for the upwardly mobile, but not much to do with the Gospel - and saved only by Jesus final comment: Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”


Strange that Luke’s Jesus if not Jesus himself would offer such strategic guidance to those seeking social advantage. Here’s where we need to remember that this is a parable and not all parables are exemplary in nature. That is, not all parables are intended to model behavior as a one-to-one, go and do likewise guide. This one appears to be more allegorical, with some moral ambiguity in the middle to keep it relatable but ultimately its all in service of the deeper message that comes at the end.  The exalted will be humbled. The humbled will be exalted.  


Still, we may quickly assume the parable is all about humility.  Fair enough maybe, but in fact its really about both humility and exaltation!  It all depends on where you are sitting. And this is what I love about Gomes’s gesture, for no matter what seat we are in, we can all use the double-edged reminder that the person sitting next to us is always the most interesting in the room!


This kind of reminder about the virtue of humility is helpful at any time but perhaps especially at this time of year, when programs are starting up, when orientation events are in full swing, social calendars may be filling up and there may be a host of new people to greet whether in church, in classroom or on the street.  Just last week, I met with one of you and we were talking about the dramatic uptick in traffic in the city now that school is back or almost back in session. Jim Rissling, bless you! Jim shared with me a new spiritual practice that he’s been using when driving and I’ve tried to adapt it since. Instead of singing “Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart!”  He’s been using “Lord I want to be a Christian in my car!” Think about it! And imagine that the person who just cut you off really does a have a more interesting or urgent place to go! Think about it, sing this out even as I’ve done once or twice, and your experience of driving, rather than sinking you into a steaming cesspool of rage and profanity will lift up your very soul and leave you feeling far more calm that you would otherwise!  


Humility, as our text would have it, invites us first to imagine that others are more distinguished than us, more interesting than us, and why shouldn’t they be?  It can also remind us not to be so sure of our first impressions, and to be curious about our neighbors. Who was it that said “Be kind always for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”  Amen and amen!  


But then what of the exaltation?!  For those who struggle, especially at this time of year, with self-doubt - new students wondering “Do I have the stuff to make the grade?”  “Will they pick me as captain of the team? Will they like me? And how much more are these pressure real in our age of social media. Or for those who decades later still carry whatever anxiety or insecurities or overcompensating cockiness in social situations, herein lies a gift of assurance, that in God’s eye, you don’t have to strive to be someone, to be interesting, to be exalted, because you are already!  In God’s eyes, you are the most interesting person in the room, always, for God is always, always right by your side What’s more, God in Christ is always inviting you to a seat at their table, at this table! Think about it! Believe it! It’s true!  


If you still aren’t sure, we should consider this table a rehearsal, call it a rehearsal dinner, a chance to practice for whatever real world wedding banquets you are heading into in the coming days, whether it’s on the job, at the school cafeteria, in the board room or at the Friday Cafe which starts up again this week and which has this model down!  I’m reminded that next to Jesus and Mary, sits another model of humility in the New Testament cast of characters. Its not a disciple but John the Baptist who says in the Gospel of John, “ You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.”  What a mantra! 


 If you are struggling to really, actually believe the person next to you is more interesting than you, then try this one. Come to this table with that running through your mind...I must become less and less!  I must become less and less! This is the way of Jesus, friends. At some level we know this self and ego emptying way is true and good in our minds. When it comes to really thinking about it, to really believing it, there’s a questions we all have to ask.  Are our egos strong enough to risk losing that seat of honor? Can we afford to miss that amazing opportunity for networking even if we have some idea that its for the greater good? Can we afford to not, however gingerly step on others fingers as we climb our ladders?  And are those ladders even on the right walls in the first place?   


Hearing someone offer instruction at a dinner party is one thing! Actually living this stuff, in our daily walks, or drives, is a taller order.   Always take the lowly seat !Work to become less and less, so that to God can be the glory and your joy will be complete! Our own exaltation can’t be the goal but that’s what Jesus promises.  Its in daily gestures of exalting humility or of humiliating exaltation that we will let yet learn to be Christians in our hearts, in our cars and in our neighborhoods and in our country. Can we risk it? 


Before we make the invitation to try it out at this very table, we need on this labor day weekend and on every day, to not only consider those seated next to us, but those who make our meals possible. The carpenters who framed the table and steel workers who made the screws, laundry workers who wash the table linens, the farm workers who pick the fruit we eat and drink, the bakers and the makers those who provide the bread and the plates, the service industry writ large, and the sanitation workers who usually come from the trash on here Mondays, but not tomorrow! For all the Saints indeed, who from their labors may they rest tomorrow, we pray, who fight battles each day some of us know nothing about.  May their collective power be strengthened and may we all know a living wage!


Here’s the rub: when we humble ourselves and decenter ourselves from whatever tables, we are opening ourselves to see the wonder and diversity in the stories of those whom God has brought us near to.  When we turn our attention away from ourselves, and focus on those who are near to us, we will not miss the opportunity for true connection, new relationship, new understanding of the stories of others.  When we become less and less, they become more and more, and not only more or most interesting, but more and more who they really are, in God’s sight. When we come to this table, let’s call it a rehearsal dinner, we can try it out right here, right now.  Once you’ve been served and we are gathered up here in the round, go ahead and think about it, again and again. Remember and believe that the person right next to you is the most interesting because God is right next to and inside of and between us all. And just like that:  the exalted will humble and the humbled will exalted. Remember! Think about it! And enjoy! Amen.

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