In our Monday evening Bible study group, we read the scriptures for the following Sunday, and then we always start discussion by noticing what comes up for us in this text. What provokes questions? What catches our attention?
What caught my attention in this reading from Luke is that Jesus’ advice on choosing your place at the table is introduced as a parable. How is this a parable? A parable usually comes across more like a story, e.g., the Good Samaritan, or the Prodigal Son, or “A sower sowed some seeds, and some fell on the path, and some fell on the rocks,” etc. There’s a once-upon-a-time aspect to it. Choosing your seat at the table hardly sounds like once upon a time.
So we can read this literally and seat ourselves at the humble-pie end of the table, waiting for our host to come along and say, “Oh no, come sit at the head—you’re the guest of honor!” But apparently we are supposed to apply this advice to other areas of our lives as well.
What, you mean we have to be humble all the time? We have to consider who might be more important than us in every situation? Darn!
But wait, there’s more! Jesus goes on to say, if you are the host, don’t even throw the party for the head-of-the-table kind of guests. Throw it for all the humble-pie folks, the ones who don’t usually get invited in the first place. Throw it for the people who can’t throw parties themselves and have no way to pay you back. This picks up on Jan’s sermon theme from last week of paying things forward.
The thing about parables is that you’re given multiple entry points, and there is no one absolutely right interpretation, no single moral to the story. So you notice that we’ve already got two entry points: first we’re the guest who learns to take the lowest seat; then we’re the host and we’re inviting the blind, the lame, the outcasts.
In other words, we are invited to get over our own importance and the whole social status scene, and instead focus on serving those whom the rest of the world forgets. And I want to tell you four stories to show what this might look like.
The first story is about Jeanne Bluechel, who died recently in her nineties. Jeanne grew up poor with a demanding mother. Her mother approved of classical music, so Jeanne threw herself into her piano lessons. Piano became her escape from things that were difficult in her life. Having this outlet saved her. It also drove her, as an adult, to ensure that as many children as possible had access to lessons and instruments. She became the education coordinator for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. She started the Saturday morning family concerts at the symphony. She served on countless boards. And she started a drive to round up instruments. If you had an old French horn sitting in the closet and you didn’t use it anymore, Jeanne would take it. Or a clarinet, or violin, or whatever. Her goal was for all Seattle schools to have enough instruments on hand and so that any student who wanted to take lessons but whose family couldn’t afford the instrument could still have something to play. Music had saved her as a young person, and she wanted to pay the favor forward. She was a concert-level musician. But rather than focus on her own glory as a performer—that is, rather than take the seat of honor at the banquet—she created a musical “banquet” to which every child was invited, regardless of their ability to pay.
Some of you know I used to work in the Education Department at Seattle Symphony. This was after Jeanne had worked there—she was in her 70s by this time—but she was still involved as a board member and volunteer. Part of my job was to take instruments out to schools and demonstrate them. Then the children got to try out instruments, and their faces lit up when they made any kind of sound on a violin or clarinet or trumpet or whatever. They got excited about learning music.
One day I visited an elementary school somewhere in the Rainier Valley. This was a low-income school, and all of the students were children of color. And there was Jeanne, hardly taller than they, with her trim white hair and bright red lipstick. One might think that with her croaky old-lady voice and small size she would be quiet and somewhat helpless, fading and forgetful. And one would be wrong. She was a dynamo, passionate about these kids, and they knew it. Because she invited them to the banquet of music and made sure they had a seat at that table, there are countless young people out there today making music.
God bless Jeanne. May she rest in peace, and may her musical legacy live on and on.
The second story comes from the musical Hairspray, which I saw last week on my vacation in Ashland, Oregon. Perhaps you recall the story: Tracy Turnblad, a high school girl in Baltimore in 1962, wants more than anything to dance on the local teenage dance show. But all the kids on that show are trim and beautiful, and Tracy is more than a little overweight. Still, she decides to go for it. Other kids make fun of her. The banquet host in Jesus’ parable says, “I’m sorry, we need to re-seat you at the far end of the table.” These kids go a step further: they tell her she’s not even invited to this party. It’s for kids who fit the social norms: White, beautiful, trim. She’s White, but they can’t see her beauty or what she has to offer.
This rejection does not stop her. She meets other kids who want to dance on the show but can’t because they’re Black. Because of activism in their community, they are allowed to have “Negro Day” on the show once a month, but they can’t be on with all the other White kids the rest of the time. Tracy and these Black kids becomes determined to integrate the show. She does get accepted onto the regular show, and then she kind of stages a coup and all these Black kids come on as well. Of course there’s a huge happy dance number at the end. Justice wins the day—everyone is invited to the table.
The extra cool thing about this particular production in Ashland is that they didn’t stop with issues of weight and race. They included in their cast people with a variety of disabilities. In the performance I saw, there was a girl in a wheelchair and a boy with autism, as well as a main character with partial paralysis in her legs. In a dance musical. Which, I have to say, was just really joyful to see. This is what the realm of God is supposed to look like: all colors, all weights, all abilities, dancing their hearts out, singing—together. Because that’s what God’s love looks like for us.
The third story is related to the second. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been intentional in recent years about inclusivity. It has been casting lots of people of color. It has been seeking out and even commissioning plays by and about people of color, LGBTQ people, and others whose stories we may not have heard much on stage. The newest artistic director, who just started this summer, is a Black woman. And one of the best plays I saw last week was called “Cambodian Rock Band,” which was about a rock band in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge. Have you heard that story before? I had not. It isn’t part of the mainstream in our culture. And at the end of that powerful, harrowing play, the whole audience was invited onstage to dance to the music. It is a triumph of joy, life, and healing in the face of trauma, oppression, and death. Life wins.
Here’s the fourth story, which was on NPR this morning. In Kashmir, recent tensions between India and Pakistan have resulted in the Indian government imposing a curfew and shutting down internet access in the region, which has left hospitals dangerously low on supplies. So this one man has been making trips to other parts of India and coming home with duffel bags full of medicine. It turns out he is a cancer survivor, currently in remission. In a sense, he had his seat at the banquet, received the medical treatment he needed, was served the finest medicines. Now it’s his turn to host, and he’s serving medicine to those who have no way to repay him for it but who need it desperately.
These are all examples of Jesus’ parable about the banquet. We worship a God who invites us to the banquet, who feeds us well, and then tells us to invite everyone else and feed them even when they can’t ever pay us back. This is what the realm of God looks like.
We may get discouraged when we see how mean people can be in cutting back funds, in eliminating programs, in shutting people out at the border or incarcerating them in concentration camps. So let us be about building the realm of God. Let us be known for throwing a great banquet to which everyone is invited. It may look like musical instruments for the poorest students, or people of all colors and abilities invited to the dance show, or hearing everyone’s stories in ways that heal trauma and celebrate life, or bringing medicine to an area that has been cut off.
You are invited to the banquet. And you, and you, and you, and all of you. Who are you going to invite to come, too? Jesus’ parable is going to play out differently for each one of us. It’s not about duties and obligations. It’s about a party. It’s joyful and life-giving. Let’s be planning, individually and collectively, to throw that party. Amen.