Rev. Mark Schaefer
Metropolitan Memorial UMC
August 28, 2016
Luke 1, 7-14

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.

Parable of Wedding Feast 2When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “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; 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 honored 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.”


In the 19th Century, the Methodist Episcopal Church was becoming more well-to-do, more established, more bourgeoisie. We had come a long way from our frontier camp-meeting days and were becoming respectable. All the tents we used to build at camp meetings like Chatauqua, Rehoboth, Ocean City, Asbury Park, and Martha’s Vineyard were now yielding to comfortable little cabins and summer houses. The revivals were turning into vacation spots for the middle class Methodist.

During this time, certain pews at church began to be highly sought after commodities. The wealthier families would purchase the good pews up near the front of the sanctuary (to be closer to God, one assumes). This state of affairs got to be so obnoxious to some that they launched a movement—the Free Methodists—that exists to this day as one of our fellow Wesleyan denominations. The Free Methodists’ slogan was “Free grace. Free men (they were abolitionists as well). Free pews.”

There are a couple of things that strike me about that history. The first is that it’s hard to imagine anyone who’d been paying attention to the gospel or to John Wesley’s presentation of it could ever think that a wealth and privilege based system of preferential treatment in church should be tolerated. The second is: the pews up front are the good pews?

Perhaps it’s just my sixteen years of experience as a campus minister talking, but you could’ve fooled me. There was always a one-to-two pew “buffer zone” between me and any students sitting in the pews. But it’s not just on college campuses. There are plenty of church front pews that go empty. And even where they don’t there’s no longer the sense that the pews up front are “better” than the pews elsewhere. At least they’re not worth paying for any more. I guess the Free Methodists would be proud.


But while we may no longer understand the pews up front to be the preferred location in church, we certainly do understand the idea of some seats being better than others. We’re willing to pay for the better seats at a concert or a show (although at this point most of us would take an obstructed view in the back row balcony to be able to see Hamilton).And we recognize the placement of our seat as commensurate with our status. In a famous TV commercial from the 80’s, upon being told he’s in the wrong seat at a baseball game, Bob Uecker, having bragged about getting complimentary tickets to the game because of his fame remarks, “I must be the front row!” before being ushered to the nosebleed seats in the upper deck.

We all understand the concepts of privileged places of honor. When we go to a wedding and see our table assignment, we all wince a little bit when we see a number in the double digits. It’s not just because we’re not as close to the bride and groom, it’s also because we know we’re not going to get fed as quickly.

It’s precisely this sensibility that Jesus is addressing in the gospel lesson this morning. Jesus has been invited to a dinner at the house of a prominent pharisee. He notes that other guests are jockeying to get a good seat close to the host. So Jesus tells them a little parable:

 “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; 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 honored 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.”

It’s one of those teachings of Jesus that is simultaneously a profound theological insight and a clever social strategy. He reminds you that you have nothing to lose by taking a place lower than you’re entitled to (and everything to gain) but everything to lose by claiming a spot higher than you’re entitled to.


This is one of many instances of Jesus preaching a message that follows on this pattern. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” ““For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35), and so on.

We see this pattern in the Beatitudes as well, especially the version in Luke’s gospel, where “Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry now… Blessed are you who weep now…” and “Blessed are you when people hate you…” are all followed by “But woe to you who are rich…Woe to you who are full now… Woe to you who are laughing now…” and “Woe to you when all speak well of you….”

This is a common pattern found throughout the gospels and may be at the heart of our resistance to follow Jesus’ instructions to give up our place. We hear this as a binary: those who are in will be out and those who are out will be in. Why would we willingly give up our place on the inside?

But these parables and teachings do more than just set up an us-versus-them kind of dichotomy or describe a “someday they’ll get what’s coming to them” kind of revenge fantasy. They are about so much more.

These passages and the teachings behind them are frequently identified as describing an inversion. The turning the world on its head that is a central part of the gospel proclamation about the Kingdom of God. But it upends more than we’re expecting.

See, we look at this parable about the banquet guests and the other teachings of Jesus and still imagine them in terms of winners and losers. We still are inclined to see the world in zero-sum-game terms.

When we read the parable of the day laborers, for example, we are outraged that those who only worked for an hour got paid the same as those who worked all day. Somehow the exercise of grace on behalf of some feels like a loss for the rest of us. We can’t get past the idea that in order for some to win, others have to lose.

But that how our world works. It’s not how the world that Jesus is describing works.


The inversion at the heart of the gospel is an inversion of the entire system. It is the establishment of a different order. And has to be understood in a different way.

When we give up our seat of honor at the table, it creates room for someone who might not otherwise have access to that seat. We should not consider that a loss. Jesus isn’t telling us that we have lost our place, he is saying that when we give up our place, we have the opportunity to “move up higher.” And there’s a lot more involved with that than simply getting an upgrade in our seating.

I was born a white male into a middle class home and baptized a Christian. I am able-bodied, straight, and cisgendered. In short, I lucked out. Because I am the beneficiary of white privilege, male privilege, middle class privilege, Christian privilege, able-bodied privilege, heteronormative privilege, and so on. I didn’t do anything to deserve those other than be born into them. I was born with a seat close to the place of honor. But what am I being honored for? Good luck?

Because there are many people, who have struggled long and hard who were not given those good seats in life. They long to get a place at the table, a place that I, by virtue of the accidents of birth, can take for granted.

Now there are some who confronted with the demand of others for a place at the table see relinquishing that place as a kind of loss. What do you mean that my holidays no longer get automatic preference? Why won’t they wish me “Merry Christmas” at my favorite box store any more? Why is that group always complaining about the police? What do you mean I can’t tell Janice in accounting that that dress really shows off her nice figure? I’m just trying to compliment her. Why do we have to allow Muslim women and Sikh men to wear special headgear when they serve in the police or the military? Can’t they just dress…normal? Like the rest of us?

We feel that every little accommodation for those who have been on the outside is somehow a loss for those of us on the inside. All this inversion stuff just sounds like a way to take everything good from me and give it to someone else. I don’t want to give up my seat at the banquet. It’s a really good seat!

Today is the 53rd Anniversary of the March on Washington, properly known as the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” It is one of the seminal events of the Civil Rights movement and has made an indelible mark on the national story. It is encouraging to know that in spite of the disappointingly large number of white Christians who opposed civil rights, there were a great many white Christians who supported and were a part of that march. Those allies understood that their privileged place in society required them to work for the justice and inclusion of those who were not so privileged. They understood their Black brothers and sisters as not seeking to displace them, but simply seeking to join them at the table.

Because they understood that Jesus was not calling us to become the losers in the great game of societal musical chairs. He was calling us to make room.

What’s so interesting about the parable is that in it, the person who has exalted themself is asked to move to make room for a guest of honor. But the person who has humbled themself is told to “move up higher” without any mention of displacing anyone. That is, the self-exalted is brought low, displaced by another, but the humble is raised up without having to displace another. By having made room for others to be honored, the humble has added space at the table. In the Kingdom of God, it is no longer a zero-sum game.


We are so accustomed to thinking in those terms that it can be hard for us to see it. When we are asked to confront our privilege and to make room for others, we wail as if we are losing something. And yes, those of us who have some kind of privilege do stand to lose that privilege. But that’s all it was: a privilege; not a right. We hadn’t earned it. We didn’t deserve special treatment as whatever privileged group we happened to find ourselves in. Not any more than those who just happened to be excluded from that same privilege, anyway.

The reality is that when we make a place at the table, when we are willing to forsake our privilege, we “move up higher.” For we not only find that the places at the table are increased, but that we have helped to build something wonderful, something better. We may lose some measure of privilege, but what we gain is so much more valuable: genuine human community that celebrates the strength that comes through unity in diversity, and a powerful witness to what the Kingdom of God is like.

We are a jealous lot, we human beings. We are jealous of grace. Jealous of love. Jealous of our blessings, whether earned or unearned. Jealous of all the things we imagine to be scarce.

But the Kingdom of God is not a dominion of scarcity. It is a dominion of gracious abundance. When we foresake our place of honor, we do so out of trust that there is enough honor, enough grace, enough love to go around. When we make room at the table, we do so confident that there will always be more room that God will make available. And when we lower ourselves, it is out of a firm conviction that only by lowering ourseves can we truly “move up higher.”

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