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When I decided to teach middle school, no one warned me of the challenge of seating charts. Trying to place a class of 8th graders in thirty individual seats with the talking friends separated, the learning needs accommodated and the two or three students who move the most near the edges of the room is a puzzle of great sophistication. Each time I created a seating chart, I had a lot of power. And, that power was rarely used for good…at least in the eyes of my 14 year old students. I learned early that there was no way to make everyone happy. In fact, I am sure that I usually made very few people happy.
As I send my own kids off to school this week, it’s with a little tiny prayer for their own classroom seating charts. I know their teachers are caring for them as they plan for a new year… or at least nodding to the age-old-first day-strategy of alphabetical seating arrangements. 5th grade is the year that my last name was the most painful. I was seated next to Robbie Cropper. A boy. I was seated next to a boy, after several years in an all girls class. This was not something that I experienced with joy or calm or aplomb. No. Robbie was my foil. He had one of those binders with loose leaf papers overflowing. And his desk, his desk was a mess of papers and schools supplies. It probably housed last week’s lunch and spiders, maybe small rodents… and I don’t know what else. Because I didn’t really know Robbie and I never really got to know him. My 10 year old self didn’t deign to talk to him. Rather, I scooted my seat– and my things– as far away from him as possible with my neatly organized binder perfectly placed on my desk.
And so, today’s story of the dinner party, with its theme of seating and structure and habit, is near to my heart and I think may be to your experience as well. Do you sit in the same spot each night at dinner? Or at work in meetings? Or at church ? I know I have an assigned seat here; no one TOLD me, but I land on the south/west side, closer to the back. I wonder if you find yourself falling into a similar seat each week and why you sit there.
It is probably good for all of us that it isn’t my intention to unveil a church seating plan this morning… although Doyt would probably like it so we could take even better attendance each week.
It is my intention, however, to ask you to consider the table where you sit and who sits there with you.
Luke calls this story a parable, and yet, the story narrates a rather wordly situation, that Jesus is watching unfold. A Sabbath meal would carry a strong social context. Who invited you to the table and where you sat affirmed your social value and rank. Jesus watched as guests took the seats of honor. And, so, Jesus warns: do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host;
Following the social norms of the time, each guest would HOPE that someone better than they would arrive, for this would speak to their own elite status. And yet, if someone arrived higher than you, the host might ask you to move, which would create a social situation worse than the horror of someone saying you’d stolen their seat in a church pew. (Have you ever heard of that happening?)
Here, deference is shown to others by offering a better seat. Humility would say that we should always leave at least one space, if not more, from the highest end of the table. But, it may be our human nature to get as high up as we can. Darwin taught of this– survival of the fittest– To purposely put yourself lower on the totem pole is dangerous
And at the dinner table, the danger is your relationship status. Your sitting lower means that someone else sits higher. And, in a system ordered like this, your place at the table and your value suffers when more and more distinguished guests arrive. It’s a zero sum game. To sit far — or farthest– from that place of honor may bump you off the guest list for next time. This orientation creates a world ripe with fear and competition, a world of division and other.
Which isn’t healthy, of course, and we’d all do well to avoid the anxiety that comes from grappling for the best place. However I’d also like you to consider something richer… that the foot of the table might actually be where the action is.
I experienced this when I visited my mom’s family last Thanksgiving. As we set up the meal and did the headcount, it was quite clear that all 35 of us couldn’t fit at one table. And so we proceeded to set the dining room table, as well as a kids table in a different room. And, as the complicated calculus of the guest list unfolded, I realized that I would be at the kids table. I hadn’t quite made it to the distinguished guest list, even after 40 years and a stable adult life and, of course, three kids of my own. This was a little annoying. But, my table– the kids table– ended up with wildly interesting conversation; one younger cousin is a med student in Italy and just joined the Italian national lacrosse team. Another cousin just started college and so had some quality freshmen drama to share. And, my own kids had the table in stitches with their well-rehearsed and much-loved joke routine. It was a meal to remember, with people to remember– and the place at the table without distinction was the reason why.
This kids table is like the messy desk of Robbie Cropper. I saw myself as too distinguished, or in my 5th grade case, too teachers’ pet, to get to know anything about Robbie, besides the conclusions that I could draw from looking at him. A messy binder doesn’t define a person and I missed an opportunity to know someone who is now an artist, a father, and, I’d wager to guess, someone whom I’d be better off knowing.
This lesson — to choose the kids table…. to avoid the distracting trappings of social status in order to be in deep relationship with others– seems the stuff of Jesus’s work. It is an example of the type of servant leadership that Jesus taught and that is elucidated in today’s letter to the Hebrews. “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” The leader to imitate is not the one at the head of the table, with the most riches, the loudest voice. The leader is the one of faith, the one who shares the word of God. This isn’t the way that we are taught to gain power and to gain influence, and surely, this is not the way that some of the loudest voices of Christianity live in the world. But, it is in the spacious, quiet places the space of invitation and imitation– where true leadership arises. For our God, who is always there, has space to show God’s presence and to be part of the voice and the actions of the true leader when space is left at the table.
I could wrap this sermon up here with the simple and clear message– give up your higher place at the table for better conversation, for a new perspective, and lead in a way that keeps space in all relationships for God.
But Jesus didn’t deliver this story as a narrative, he delivered it as a parable. And so, we need to use a different lens, a more radical lens, to consider the message.
That message is clear and action-oriented — move to give space for those higher than you.
Is this really what Jesus would say, though? Honor social status. Make room for others who society recognizes as better. Maintain the system where power is rewarded and power stays in the hands of those few with power.
This isn’t the dinner table that Jesus would plan.
Let me give you the world-altering, the kingdom-framing, orientation:
Keep giving up your seat. Keep moving lower and lower at the table. If every person insists on leaving room, where you sit at the table is irrelevant. The entire concept of an ordered hierarchy vanishes, enabled by the simplest of acts – letting someone else go first. Letting someone else’s voice be heard or their leadership grow.
When the world begins to look like a round table…or maybe a picnic, then this world begins to orient a bit more like the Kingdom of God.
For, a core operating principle in the Kingdom of God is that we are each beloved by God, created by God in the image of God. And so, when we look at the things that give social value in this world– money, race, education, nationality– we set the table in a particular way. But the way of God is different. There is no top or bottom, there is no better or worse. Rather, there is God, and there is love, and there is each and every one of us in the world. And God loves us all, and at God’s table, we all have prime seats.