Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Jesus, Last One Picked

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Do you remember when you first walked into this this sanctuary after we moved all the chairs around? I bet the very first thing you thought was, “where is ‘MY seat? Where am I going to sit NOW?” Maybe your next thought was, “gosh it looks like there are a lot MORE front row seats now! Yippee!” But, I’m guessing that’s probably NOT what your next thought was.

But think about the last time you were a visitor in a new space. You walk in and stand awkwardly in the doorway, wondering where it’s “safe” to sit, who it is acceptable to sit with, and whether or not anyone wants you to sit with them. So you chose a spot and pray that someone will actually talk to you, or at least not notice you if you decide to sit in a corner all by yourself.

It’s the dreaded high school cafeteria, all over again. All these years later, we can be taken right back there – is everyone staring at me? Is what I’m wearing ok? What if no one talks to me?

When I was in high school, there was a Christian band I really liked called Superchick. The first song on their album called “Last one picked” – which is how we all felt sometimes - goes like this: “High school is like the state of the nation. Some people never change after graduation, believing any light you shine makes theirs lesser. They have to prove to everyone that theirs is better.”

And after graduation, you slowly realize that it still matters what you wear and where you live, who you’re friends with and what you watch. There will always be someone with better grades than you, with a bigger house or better spouse or nicer vacations or smarter kids or newer gadgets. We may think that we leave prom court and popularity contests behind us the minute that diploma hits our hands, but the mindset that is ”high school” is never something we actually get to leave behind us. Even after we graduate, there are still jocks, nerds, popular kids, winners, and losers, and the “last ones picked.”

…If I were to ask you to pick someone, anyone from now back through history, to invite over for dinner, how many of you would pick “Jesus”? Anybody? My next question would be… “Are you really SURE about that?” Jesus would LOVE to be invited over to your house, I’m sure…. But then he would probably say some really challenging things… AND THEN he would probably want to bring over some of his friends… sort of like in the vein of that well-known children’s book – “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” Jesus’s story might go something like– If you give Jesus an invitation, he’s going to want to bring his friends along….

Illustrator Daniel Erlander drew a picture of this exact thing: A person is praying and says to Jesus, “Why is it that whenever I ask Jesus to come into my life, he always bring his friends?” And standing next to Jesus are people who are poor, hungry, in wheelchairs, and whose skin is darker than ours.

Are we REALLY SURE we would want to pick Jesus to come over for dinner?

I think that the leader of the Pharisees must have been asking himself this exact same question. You may be wondering why Jesus was over at the house of a Pharisee in the first place. Weren’t they enemies? Well, not exactly. True, they often went toe-to-toe. But the Pharisees were the ones who were keeping the Jewish traditions alive in a very uncertain and violent world. They were not the “bad guys.” But they sometimes got too carried away with keeping all the rules.

Somehow Jesus was invited into the life of this leader of the Pharisees. And of course, one of these “friends” of Jesus shows up at the party. In the verses we didn’t hear from today, Jesus heals a man suffering from unsightly swelling caused by excessive water retention. This healing happens on the Sabbath, AGAIN, so Jesus again is in hot water. So they watch Jesus closely, to see what other trouble he decides to stir up.

And in perfect Jesus style, Jesus flips the script and is also watching THEM. He sees these men – because after all only men were invited- and observes them jockey for position at the table, desperate to NOT be the “last one picked.”

Here Jesus is addressing how we are to act when we are both GUESTS and when we are HOSTS. But he is not simply being “Miss Manners.” He is actually proposing a way that is a complete reversal of the way we are used to things: Don’t sit in the places of honor. Instead, take the lowest place for yourself. When you give a party, invite those people who would never get an invitation, like the “last ones picked” by the world. Because that’s who God invites to the table.

We are GUESTS at God’s banquet, not the hosts. We are NOT in charge of the seating arrangement or the guest list. But we still try our darndest to keep some people out of the banquet, when they have clearly been invited and picked by Jesus.

 I remember participating in a cross cultural class based in Chicago where we learned about some of the diverse contexts and great ministries happening in the city. I stayed with a host family – friends of a good friend of mine, and I was happy to hear about a homeless ministry that their church was a part of. Their church would host homeless people in their building overnight in their gym one night a week, and provide them a meal. Their night was Saturday. So Saturday night, I got to help serve the meal and talk to a few of the people staying there that night.

The next morning, when I went to my friend’s church for worship, I walked through their gym to get to the sanctuary, where only the smell of bleach revealed that just a few hours before a dozen people had spent the night there. Not a single person who stayed the night stuck around for worship. I later learned at as a term of being part of this ministry, the council has stipulated that ALL SIGNS of the previous night MUST BE long gone by morning worship. Of COURSE these people were “welcome” to stay for worship…. But not surprisingly NO ONE ever came.

On the flip side, someone like the Pope has plenty of reasons to be very strict about who he gets to spend his time with. But just last April, Pope Francis invited some very special guests over for lunch. Not anyone famous like Desmond Tutu or President Obama. He invited refugee families from Syria to eat with him. Then he let their children sit with him as they showed him pictures they had drawn, both of their harrowing escape from Syria, but also of their hopes for a better life.

These homeless people are Jesus’ friends. The Syrian refugee children are Jesus’s friends too. People like them not only get to tag along when we invite Jesus into our lives, but they are also given seats of honor at God’s table.

And you know what? WE are Jesus’s friends too. We have a seat at the table, too. Because at some point in our lives we have been made to feel like the “last one picked” by the rest of the world too.

As shame researcher Brene Brown has written, we all “hustle for our worthiness” by putting on a stellar PR campaign about ourselves, including only the good or “acceptable” parts, the parts that would get us good seats in the High School cafeteria. But I think many of us long for a place where we can be loved and accepted: flaws, rough edges, and all.   

When Pastor and author Nadia Boltz Weber began a church in Colorado, she writes about how she baffled at how many “socially broken” people showed up to her church – sexual abuse survivors, paraplegics, and many others, not exactly “people like her.” Then she realized she WAS attracting HER “kind of people” – broken, self-conscious, and needy, because we are ALL broken in some way. We are all broken, beautiful, and loved by God. Nadia realized Jesus SEES all the parts of ourselves we try to hide from others, the parts we don’t put on Facebook, and those parts are welcome.

As a high schooler, I always felt welcome at my church. My church youth group only attracted youth like me, those who never had any plans on a Friday night. But the adults never wondered where the “cool kids” were. They were just happy I was there, and nurtured and cared about me.

I recently went to a women’s clergy conference in Boston. There were a hundred and ten of us. I knew five before I got there. But every time I sat at a table, I was sitting – not with strangers I just met and wondering if they liked me or not – I was sitting with people who were already friends, friends that I just haven’t met yet. Because we all knew that we were there together to support each other as fellow women following God’s call.

Imagine that the Lord’s Table is the exact opposite of a table in your high school cafeteria. The Lord’s Table is where, instead of being “the last one picked,” you have been specifically invited by Jesus. A table where, instead of wondering where it’s safe to sit, you find you have a place next to Jesus… though you may be surprised who ELSE gets to sit next to Jesus.

We don’t have to earn our place there, or try to hustle and social climb our way in. The invitation is already ours - along with all of Jesus’s ‘friends’ who get come along - the homeless along with suburbanites, minorities along with the privileged, those who are gay and transgender next to those who are straight, single moms and dad next to nuclear families, the “losers” and “last picks” of the world next to “first picks” and “winners.” All gathered together at the big beautiful party that God is hosting. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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