Take the Low Seat

Luke 14:1, 7-14                                                                      August 28, 2022

When you go to a dinner party, take the low place.

You can be in my club if you feel inept at receptions, cocktail hours, and networking events. My club has no receptions, just one-on-one meetings for coffee, lunch, or a good walk. Or you get to stay home and read a book. This aversion is unfortunate since part of my job is to get out into the community. I like people, but I don’t like crowds as an introvert. Small talk with numerous people feels exhausting. What I really dislike is all the posturing. When the conversation becomes about name-dropping important people you know, how much you love your new Mercedes, or all the little ways we politely tell people how important we are, I want to leave.

When I became a coach, part of the training was about networking. I was taught to go to events with business cards, introduce myself as a coach and have a 30-second elevator speech about how I could help people. People didn’t give elevator speeches in my small hometown. I said, “Can’t I just pray and ask God to send people to me who need coaching?” They laughed and said life doesn’t work that way.

So, when Jesus calls out people for seeking all the status seats at a banquet, I love it. Stick it to all those showboats, status seekers, and social climbers, Jesus. Tear up their business cards. But before I get too self-righteous, I notice that Jesus did go to this party. Are you surprised he went to a party at a Pharisee’s house? In fact, this is the third time in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus accepts a dinner invite at a Pharisee’s house. We read about his conflict with them, yet Jesus still went to their homes. You could say he networked and gave 30-second parables like elevator speeches. Jesus is not afraid to mingle with people from different parts of society, and they keep inviting him to parties.

But before we start writing the book on Jesus’s networking skills, let’s look at what happens at each of the three parties. At the first party (Luke 7:36-50), a woman known to be a sinner (if you know what they mean) brings an alabaster jar of ointment and weeps at Jesus’ feet, then wipes her tears with her hair. Please do not do this at coffee hour! This behavior is not the New England way. You can always meet Jesus at his office, confess your sins, and he will get you into rehab or something. But Jesus notes that his host didn’t offer the hospitality of water to wash his feet. He tells a little parable about the joy of being forgiven, and then he blesses and forgives the woman.

Despite this shocking performance, he gets invited to a second Pharisee’s home for dinner (Luke 11:37). This time, he doesn’t go through the ritual of washing before dinner. They are appalled Jesus doesn’t observe the elaborate cleansing rituals of purification, which are as much about piety as cleanliness. Jesus then insults all the Pharisee guests by saying, “You Pharisees, you wash the outside of the cup, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.”

I’m surprised he gets a third invite to a Pharisee’s home here in Luke 14. Once again, Jesus gets into the club, creates a scene, and delivers a stinging message that calls everyone to self-examine false piety. So, is Jesus a good networker? He will certainly make your next party the talk of the town. We get this paradox in Luke, where Jesus accepts all invitations to dine with people who don’t eat with each other, Pharisees, tax collectors, and sinners. We may approve of Jesus calling out the narrow judgementalism of Pharisees, but that is not the whole story. He keeps going to their homes to eat, and they keep inviting him. How is that possible? How would this work in our polarized time? Who would Jesus call us to eat with? Notice that Jesus doesn’t go and make nice with the Pharisees. He tells it like it is, as a truth-teller, but still shows up at social gatherings where people are divided about what to think of him.

This third dinner party brings home the point of inclusion and hospitality in all our social interactions and situations. This message should not surprise us, especially in Luke’s Gospel. In the very first chapter, we have the example of Mary’s Magnificat:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior….
51 God has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;

In Luke 4, Jesus begins his first sermon in his hometown:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

Jesus’s words to the dinner party are nothing new. “Take the low place.” Last Advent, many of you read together John Pavlovitz’s devotional titled, “Low, An Honest Advent Journal.” The 40-day devotional is organized around this idea.   Faith calls us to consciously choose the low place as the location of God’s grace. Pavlovitz’s stories highlight the wide variety of low places. It is not just paying attention to poverty, but acknowledging grief, visiting the sick, offering comfort when someone is hopeless, listening well to someone who has a different opinion and learning from it, and being patient with a committee process. Here is my definition of taking the low place. It is a conscious effort to recognize where God’s spirit works amid the mess.

In the 1990s, I was on the board of a housing nonprofit. We raised several million dollars to rehabilitate a half block of abandoned housing, three apartment buildings, and eight triple-decker Queen Anne Row houses. We were proud of the work, but moderate-income homebuyers could not get mortgages to buy these homes, which was the goal. We weren’t trying to gentrify the neighborhood. People said the banks were redlining a majority black neighborhood. Our board was divided over writing editorials to condemn this or asking the Mayor to intervene when the ED said, let’s talk to the bank.

When we met with the bankers, they said they had tons of money they were required to loan to moderate-income homebuyers, but no one signed up for their program. That sounded weird. So we asked how they promoted these loans. The bank said they took out ads in the newspaper and held seminars in the Grand Hotel, the most expensive place in town. To us, the problem was obvious, their target audience didn’t all read the newspaper, and the only people of color at the Grand Hotel were cleaners, cooks, and bellhops. So we urged the bank to come to Saturday breakfast at the Smith Metropolitan AME Zion Church and make their pitch. We would get the crowd through the black pastors. They were skeptical but agreed. Two weeks later, 100 people came to breakfast, and 30 signed up for the program. After that, we could sell our houses.

This story illustrates taking the low place in meeting people where they are. That includes talking to bankers and allowing them to see things differently. And I credit the loan officer who left her comfort zone to be the only white person in the room. Good things can happen if we meet each other at the low place, where we are humble enough to drop our prejudices toward each other.

I learned to be a pastor as much from low places as from seminary. Early in ministry, I spent a few days in the hospital recovering from abdominal surgery. It drove me nuts to let people care for me. It was embarrassing to have people checking my incision and helping me to the bathroom. I didn’t want congregation members to visit me and see me like that. Besides, I was on opiates, and God knows what I would say. When I could walk, I took my IV pole and wheeled the hallways looking for people who needed a pastoral visit. Giving up control and being vulnerable was hard. I was a young pastor and worried that the congregation would turn on me for being vulnerable and unable to perform my duties.

A wise Deacon came to visit me, and I did my customary look on the bright side song and dance. The Deacon cut through the surface and said, “Todd, I know this is hard, and you will need time to recover. The church wants to help and support you. We are old and know what this is like. We appreciate that you will be an even better minister for your time in the hospital because you will understand our pain and vulnerability more fully. She came to my low place and raised me up by teaching me that vulnerability was necessary for compassion.

The take away is a two-parter. God will meet you at your low place. Wherever you feel vulnerable, uncertain or lowly, God’s spirit will draw close to you in compassion. Part two of this assurance is a call. Where do you need to go to the low place? Welcome the stranger. Make room at the table. Cross the social boundaries of suspicion. Grace meets us in the low places.

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