Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
September 1, 2019
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
A man once received a promotion to the position of Vice President of the company for which he worked. The promotion went to his head, and for weeks on end he bragged to anyone and everyone that he talked with that he was now the Vice President of his company. His bragging became such a problem that his wife was becoming embarrassed. She looked for a way to end the boasting. Finally she said to him, “Honey, being named Vice President of your company isn’t really that big of a deal. These days, everyone is some kind of vice president. Why, at the super market they even have a Vice President of Peas.” The man was skeptical and thought that his wife was being quite foolish. He was certain that his position was indeed a unique and prestigious one. So he called the local supermarket just to find out if what his wife said was true. When his call was answered he asked, “Can I speak to the Vice President of Peas, please?” The response was, “Fresh peas or frozen peas?”
Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers opened in 2001. The most coveted seats in the stadium are not those directly behind home plate or even behind the home team or visitor’s dugout. The seats that everyone wants are the so-called “Uecker Seats,” seats behind home plate but at the very top of the stadium. The Uecker Seats are seats whose view of the game are blocked by pillars that hold up a portion of the ballpark’s massive roof. Sitting in the Uecker Seats means that you are the furthest away from the action and that the action is obstructed from your view.
Bob Uecker, for whom the seats are named, is the long time announcer for the Brewers. Many years ago he did some commercials for Miller Lite beer in which he got ousted from the seat where he was sitting. Uecker then assumed he was being taken to a choice seat in the front row. But the commercial closed with him in this last, distant, highest row of seats, sitting beside a sleeping man and screaming at the umpire for a missed call. When the stadium opened, the Brewers had a life-size replica of Uecker put in one of the most undesirable seats and put the other seats around it on sale for just $1. The trick is that you must stand in line on the night of the game to purchase a ticket for the Uecker Seats. There is such a high demand for these humble seats that people often get in line hours before the game just to ensure themselves of a cheap, distant, obstructed view seat.
In this morning’s lesson from the gospel of Luke, Jesus visited the home of prominent Pharisee. The host was obviously someone very high up in the religious leadership structure and probably lived in a large and fancy home. It was the Sabbath and an invitation to such a home from such a guest on the Sabbath was probably one of the hottest tickets in town. Jesus noticed that many of the guests were vying for a seat of honor at the banquet table.
Now, if you happened to be attending a fancy dinner in Jesus’ time, you usually didn’t have to worry about getting there early for a good seat. There was a certain pecking order or protocol to social events which everyone understood and followed. If you were a big shot, a pillar of society, you could arrive at the meal just before it started and be ushered directly to the front row. And unlike behavior in our Meeting House, the preferred seats at Judean banquets were in the front row, not the rear pews! The average person, the invited but unheralded guest, would have to find a seat somewhere in the back of the room. Consequently there was always some interesting maneuvering for those in-between seats. The common people wanted to be close enough to the front that they looked important. The self-important people like the Pharisees would sit as close as they could to the front and hope nobody of greater importance would come along and move them further back among the commoners.
Some people delight at this when attending sporting events or concerts. Regardless of the location on their printed ticket, they sit in an empty seat close to the front, waiting for an usher to come along and ask them to move. Then they just move along to the next best empty seat.
Jesus noticed all of this seat movement and anxiety and he used the experience to teach a lesson on humility and hospitality. And in his teaching commentary, he managed to insult both the host of the banquet and all of the guests! He criticized those who were seeking a better seat at the expense of others. And he criticized the fact that only people who would benefit the host’s social standing were invited in the first place. Pride and ambition fueled both guests and hosts. Jesus said, “When invited to a banquet, don’t sit in the best seat. It could be that someone more important that you has yet to arrive. Instead sit in a seat at the back of the room. Then imagine the joy when the host comes and invites you to a better seat in the front row.” And then he had advice for the host. “When you host a banquet, invite those who are in need, those who will not benefit you by attending.” Jesus then ended his teaching with these words, “Everyone who makes themselves great will be humbled. Everyone who humbles themselves will be made great.”
Unlike the modest banquet guest that Jesus spoke about, we tend not to desire the Uecker seats in life. We constantly race against others for the privileges and accolades that come with life’s circumstances. We prefer being the guest of honor. We enjoy the perks of first class. We want to be served first. We want our fair share and then some. We want recognition. We want to be acknowledged as right. We want to win.
Sometimes even the smallest of life’s tasks turn into competitions. Watch students line up for recess or for lunch. Contemplate your recent commute to work or your desire to find a parking spot at the mall. Think about the mad dash for overhead storage space on an airplane. Consider the lines of people whenever the latest and greatest IPhone or chicken sandwich is introduced.
I think about the local Good Friday service in which many of the area clergy participate. The most difficult part of the service is lining up for the processional. I find the same thing true of any installation services I have attended. There is all sorts of maneuvering and discussion among the robed clergy about who gets to walk in last. Evidently among processing clergy, it is the greatest honor to walk in last!
No matter who we are, or where we are, it is quite human of us to seek that place of honor. It is quite normal for us to want some attention. Our culture tends to encourage us to prioritize our own interests and see ourselves in some kind of competition with others over limited resources.
I have never flown first class in my entire life. Yet every time I walk on the plane on my way to my lowly, cramped seat in the back of the plane, I wonder what it must be like. Everyone in first class looks so comfortable in those extra wide leather seats with plenty of leg room. When I get on the plane they are already sipping a delicious beverage and eating snacks. All I have to look forward to is trying to open my bag of pretzels with my teeth.
Steven Molin tells the story of how he and his wife lead a group to the Passion Play in Germany. They were bumped from their return flight due to overbooking but received free tickets because of the inconvenience. Later when they used the free tickets, they tried to benefit from their earlier experience. They asked if the flight was overbooked and volunteered to give up their seats for another set of free tickets. Molin said he felt so good being so humble and gracious and benefiting from it. Just before the boarding process, Molin and his wife were notified that there were plenty of seats available on the flight but because they had volunteered their seats, they were being upgraded to first class. They spent the next five hours enjoyed what they viewed as the life of luxury. However in the middle of the flight, Molin noticed a regular coach passenger moving forward to first class to use the rest room. He said that he suddenly began angry and resentful. How dare this ordinary person use something that he/she was not entitled to use? And then it suddenly hit him. He didn’t deserve to be in first class either. He was there through the grace of others. He was enjoying his experience due to the kindness of and hospitality of the airline. Suddenly he was humbled.
This is what Jesus was teaching. If we live with our own interest as our primary motivation, striving for those front row seats, then we will always be in state of anxiety, limited by our own talents and success. But if we seek and support the welfare of other around us, we will learn to rely upon the grace that is God’s love, and we will see that grace as it blesses our lives and everyday situations. William Temple writes, “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people. It does not mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. Humility means freedom from thinking about yourself one way or the other way.”
Humility is an attitude of service which we develop as we understand our place before God. We cannot be that which God has created us to be when we flaunt our own self-importance. We cannot be that which God wants us to be if we place ourselves before others. In the Kingdom of God, the proud give up their seats. In the Kingdom of God, those who share in meeting the needs of others are exalted. In the Kingdom of God, those who find God’s love in the cheap seats know that there will be a place of ultimate joy and fellowship in God’s front row.