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Morning sermon
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 1, 2013
 
This parable of Jesus is often treated as a call for humility. When invited out for dinner, stand aside and let others be seated first. If that is its purpose it seems to be much ado about very little. But to interpret his words as a teaching on self effacement is to miss the point of the parable. Jesus told parables to describe the kingdom of God not to give lessons in social etiquette. Here, Jesus apparently used the occasion of his sabbath's dinner invitation to tell yet another parable about the kingdom of God which he frequently likened to a feast. What moved him to speak this time was his observation of how the invited guests ungraciously sought the seats of honor, and then were asked to move to make room for those for whom the seats had been reserved. The point of the parable is that, in the kingdom of God, one’s place or position in the kingdom and in the church is not a matter of stepping up, but a matter of stepping down. And Jesus, particularly in today’s reading, is not only concerned about the place one takes, he is also concerned –– I would say, primarily concerned –– with the reason one takes that place.
Martin Luther understood that. As arrogant as he could often be, or at least appear to be, he understood that the way of humility and service is the way of faith. In his Small Catechism, every explanation of the last six or the Ten Commandments ––honoring your parents and the prohibition of murder, theft, adultery, false witness and coveting –– conclude with a rousing call to humble service, making the commandments as much about serving our neighbor as they are about prohibiting behavior. Likewise, Luther’s famous aphorism, “the Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,” and “the Christian is a dutiful servant of all, subject to all,” perfectly states the call to freedom and service in Jesus Christ.

But it was on his deathbed that Luther most clearly stated the reason for such humble service and made the strongest case for “taking the lowest place.” Among his final words are these: “We are beggars, that is true.”
Those are fighting words to most of us today; just as Jesus’ advice to the upwardly mobile dinner guests were fighting words to them. Our psychology, our sociology, and, more often than not, our theology have conditioned us to treat any kind of inadequacy, any kind of dependency, as anathema. We are the resourcers! We are the providers! Even the most liberal-minded among us bristles at the thought of being on the same level –– at the same place –– as those who are in need. If all Jesus had to say at this dinner party is “take the lowest place” so that we would all be called to “move up higher,” our pride and our modern sensibilities would stay intact. But when Jesus goes on to advise inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” and treating them, not as our guests, but as our equals, we have a problem. It’s one thing to be called to “move up higher.” It’s quite another to find our permanent seat among “the least, the last, and the lost.” Yet that it is precisely the stance Jesus invites us to take, to take our place permanently among “the least, the last, and the lost,” to say with blessed Martin, “we are beggars, that is true.”
There are two effects of such a stance. The most obvious is that it creates a community of equals, sharing resources with one another, recognizing one another’s gifts and graces, seeing one another as “signs of God’s gracious love.” As the church moves relentlessly to be more inclusive, to erase the walls that divide us along any number of fault lines –– there still is that toughest divide, the one that continues to rear its ugly head, the divide between the (relatively) rich and the (relatively) poor. From the days of the prophets to this day, that wall has been the most stubborn to tear down. It comes back for us again and again. When we see ourselves as “beggars,” when we take our rightful place among “the least, the last, and the lost,” the Spirit of God builds community, and shapes community life in a new and creative way.

To take our place among “the least, the last, and the lost,” to say, “we are beggars, that is true,” is also to place ourselves in a posture of thanksgiving, which is the very posture Jesus advises his listeners to take.
To recognize ourselves primarily, not as the givers, but as the receivers, not as the resourceful, but as the hungry, not as the advantaged, but as the needy; and to approach our life as thanksgiving, and as worship for our God, recognizing our experience in the presence of God as nourishment for our need and power for our service and love for all others.

Of course, that is exactly the stance we assume at the Eucharist; it is precisely for that reason that we call it by that name. For here we gather in a posture of thanksgiving. Here we admit that we are “beggars, that is true.” Here we take our place among “the least, the last, and the lost,” those we see gathered around us, and those who have already “moved up higher” and are gathered in the nearer presence of God. Here we see our Lord, face to face, as he comes to us as guest and giver divine.
Here there is no higher or lower; here there are no “cheaper seat.” Each place, and each place taker, is priceless, purchased and won through the blood of the cross. Here we sit, face to face, with “the least, the last, and the lost,” whose name is Jesus, the dutiful servant and perfectly free Lord of all.