September is here and another school year has begun.
For some, this time of the year is filled with excitement and anticipation—who’s going to be in my classes? What should I wear on the first day of school? For others it is a wistful time, wishing the summer hadn’t gone by so fast.
For some parents it is a time of sadness—walking home after dropping your child off on their first day of kindergarten, or driving home after dropping them off at their first year of college—Where did the years go? Of course, for other parents this is the most wonderful time of the year ☺.
Perhaps you remember your first day at school, your first teacher or the kid you sat next to at the cafeteria. If you were an introverted kid, the first day of school often involved sweaty palms and knots in your stomach.
The first day of school has often been portrayed on film. One of my favorites is the 90’s classic, Billy Madison, but I’ll save that for another sermon ☺. Toward the beginning of another 90’s film, Forrest Gump, there is a moving scene that captures the anxiety that often accompanies the first day of school.
Forrest is sitting on a park bench reminiscing with a stranger: “I remember the bus ride on the first day of school…very well.” The film flashes back to a scene of young Forrest with braces on his legs as he awkwardly clunks up the stairs onto the bus and begins clunking down the aisle, the bus lurches down the road and he struggles to keep his balance as he looks for a place to sit.
“Seat’s taken,” scowls one boy. He continues down the aisle and sees another empty space—but another boy, who refuses to even make eye contact with Forest, sneers, “Taken,” as he puts his books down in that empty space.
As Forrest continues clunking down the aisle, a girl with long hair simply shakes her head at him and looks out the window.
As Forest approaches the back of the bus, he sees another empty space, but the boy sitting next to it covers that space with his arm, “Can’t sit here,” he drawls.
As the bus continues moving, Forrest continues to struggle to keep his balance. His face is dripping with panic. He turns around and begins walking back toward the front of the bus.
“You know it’s funny what a young man recollects,” the adult Forrest continues as he narrates, “’cause I don’t remember being born, and I don’t recall what I got for my first Christmas and I don’t know when I went on my first outdoor picnic…but I do remember the first time I heard the sweetest voice in the wide world…”
The film then shows young Forrest beginning to head back toward the front of the bus, when he hears the voice of a little girl named Jenny, who gently and reassuringly says to him, “You can sit here if you want.”
We all need a safe place to sit, a place where we are welcomed, a place where we are invited, especially in the times when we feel alone clunking down the aisle of the bus, struggling to keep our balance as life continues speeding down the road.
In today’s Gospel passage from Luke, Jesus is at a dinner party at the home of a Pharisee. Pharisees were religious leaders who focused on one thing and one thing only: keeping the law, specifically the laws of the Old Testament. Pharisees tended to be highly educated, wealthy, and quite concerned with their social status. This was particularly the case when it came to dinner parties—both regarding who would be invited, and where they would sit.
We often see this same scenario at wedding receptions or banquets. Sometimes when I officiate a wedding, I attend the reception, and I must confess that when there is assigned seating, I feel bad for those assigned to my table—nobody goes to a wedding reception excited about the prospect of partying with a priest ☺.
Back to the passage…Luke notes that the people at this particular dinner party “were watching (Jesus) closely,” which I’m sure was fun for Jesus, but Jesus was watching them too, and “noticed how the guests chose the places of honor.”
Jesus teaches about humility, about taking the lowest seat instead of the seat of honor, but he takes it one step further and addresses the host of this dinner directly:
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, 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” (Luke 14:13-14).
Jesus’ words flew in the face of all the Pharisees held dear, both their preoccupation with obedience to the law and their concern for social status—because the Pharisees considered the poor, crippled, lame and blind as not only the last people you should ever invite to your house for dinner, but also deemed their suffering as being due to their disobedience to the law.
Yes, you can take this passage at face value, and be on your guard against intentionally taking the seat of honor at the next banquet you attend, or make sure you invite people you wouldn’t ordinarily invite to your next party, but this passage goes way past that, because it points us to the gospel.
The gospel is not about social status or the law; the gospel is about grace.
And the reality is that you and I are the ones who are poor, crippled, lame, and blind, that as Paul preached last week, you and I are like the woman with the crooked back Jesus healed, you and I are bent in on ourselves because of our sin.
And the gospel is good news because in spite of all that, Jesus has personally invited you to his dinner party.
Singer-songwriter Bill Mallonee puts it this way:
“We’re blind men, sad men, dreamers with wishes
Paralytics, lunatics, and the backstreet fringes
All find a place in Your home, at Your table
And you make them well ‘cause You’re willing and able”
(“Who Knows When the Sunrise Will Be” from the 1996 Vigilantes of Love album, V.O.L.).
When my kids were little, my wife Steph and I used to read to them a lot. One of their favorite books (and one of mine too) was Go, Dog, Go!, the 1961 classic children’s book written and illustrated by P.D. Eastman. (For some reason our kids weren’t as interested in reading Crime and Punishment or As I Lay Dying ☺). Throughout Go, Dog, Go!, various dogs are frenetically driving from place to place, always on the go. At the end of the book, however, the frenetic going comes to an end in a surprising way:
Go dogs go! There they go.
Look at those dogs go.
Why are they going fast in those cars?
What are they going to do?
Where are those dogs going?…
They are all going to that big tree over there.
Now the cars stop.
Now all the dogs get out.
And now look where those dogs are going?
To the tree, to the tree
Up the tree, up the tree
Up they go to the top of the tree
Why? Will they work there? Will they play there?
What is up there on top of that tree?
A dog party! A big dog party!
Big dogs, little dogs, red dogs, blue dogs, yellow dogs, green dogs, black dogs and white dogs…are all at a dog party!
What a dog party!
Like the dogs in Go, Dogs, Go! we often find ourselves frenetically going from place to place, or like Forrest on the bus, clunking up and down the aisle, we run from relationship to relationship, or from job to job, or from fraternity to fraternity or sorority to sorority… even from church to church—looking for a place where we are actually invited, where we are accepted, where there is a place for us to sit.
Rock ‘n roll icon Tom Petty puts it this way: “And it’s hard to say who you are these days, but you run on anyway, don’t you baby? You keep running for another place to find that saving grace” (from the song “Saving Grace” on the 2006 album, Highway Companion).
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus has personally invited you, all of you—the poor, crippled, lame and blind—to his party, because he loves you unconditionally.
Jesus’ words are Jenny’s words, “You can sit here if you want.”
One of my favorite Christian writers and speakers, Brennan Manning, died this past April. In his final book he wrote this: “My message, unchanged for more than fifty years, is this: God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be” (All is Grace, p. 192).
In his most famous book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Manning gives an illustration of this unconditional love of God in the following story from a surgeon named Richard Selzer, who recounts what happened once after performing surgery:
“I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be thus from now on… to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve.
Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, greedily? The young woman speaks, “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, “it will…because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent.
But the young man smiles.
“I like it,” he says, “It is kind of cute”…Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works” (106-107).
On Good Friday, Jesus walked alone down the Via Dolorosa, not with braces on his legs, but with a cross on his back. There was no place for him to sit and rest.
The Bible tells us that, “Jesus came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11). In other words, Jesus was not invited to the party.
And the people Jesus came to save nailed him “to the tree, to the tree.”
And on that tree, he gave his life to express once and for all his unconditional love for the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and yes, for the Pharisees too, his unconditional love for everyone clunking up and down the bus aisle or frenetically going from place to place—in other words, for you and me.
And on that tree, as a nineteenth century hymn puts it:
Grace and love like mighty rivers poured incessant from above
And Heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love
(“Here is Love,” by William Rees).
The good news of the gospel is that his kiss still works—Jesus invites you to his party.
- Luke 14:13 - 14