Sunday, August 29, 2010

Seating Charts and Guest Lists

Luke 14:1, 7-14
Ordinary 22
August 29, 2010
William G. Carter

"For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

The only way to get into this text is to tell you a true story about something that happened this summer.

This year the hot concert ticket for my age group was a Troubadour Reunion with James Taylor and Carole King. The two singer/songwriters reunited on the fortieth anniversary of their first concert together. They announced a world tour, stretching from Melbourne, Australia to three sell-out dates in Madison Square Garden. It was exciting news for a lot of us old-timers.

So when I got advance notice in February that the tour was coming to Wilkes Barre, there was no question that we were going to get tickets. I circled the concert date: June 28. I asked my wife to circle the date and write “Date Night” in Valentine Red ink on her calendar. We were talking to our friends Barbara and R.C., and they wanted to go, too. Since I’m on the Official James Taylor E-mail Fan List, I offered to get us four tickets at the best possible tickets, just as soon as they went on sale.

There I was, sitting at my home computer, waiting for 10:00 a.m., ready to click through the Ticketmaster site with my credit card in hand. I wanted to get us good tickets, so I was ready to pounce.

The moment came, I selected “four bargain tickets at the best price,” and there they were: $120 a seat. I was ready to click and purchase, except just then a familiar hand descended upon my shoulder, and a very wise voice declared, “We can’t afford $120 a seat.” She was right. It has been a particularly tight stretch for us, with three of our four in college and some necessary repairs around the house. So I clicked around to see what other options might be available.

There they were: four seats at $39.50 a piece. With Presbyterian prudence, I clicked and purchased, only to discover at checkout that an additional $12.50 per ticket surcharge was added by the website. I swallowed hard, but thought of how much fun it was going to be. I made the purchase, told my wife a little white lie that I got the tickets for less than $40 each. Then I called our friends, told them how much they really owed us, and forgot about the whole matter until June.

A few weeks before the concert, we began to make dinner plans. We had learned that two other friends, Jim and Jan, had also picked up tickets. So the three couples agreed to meet at Revello’s for Old Forge pizza. We would get there at 5:00 for a 7:30 p.m. show, and that’s what we did.

As we waited for the pizza to come to the table, Jim mentioned they were splurging for great seats in honor of their anniversary. They were going to be down on the floor, pretty close to where the original $120 seats had first tempted me. I confessed that I didn’t know where our seats were going to be located. It was probably somewhere up in the nosebleed section. But it didn’t matter. It was a nice night out, and we looked forward to hearing that old-time music from the 1970’s.

We paid the bill, parted in three different cars. I made sure Barb and R.C. had their tickets. My wife mentioned that we had to make a stop at a drugstore, but we would right behind them. “See you there!”

It was, of course, a sell-out crowd. That became really obvious about two miles away from the arena. Bumper to bumper traffic, stop and go, impatient concert-goers making risky traffic moves. I don’t do well in such a situation. My normal level of impatience increases exponentially. I start driving with my horn – and I have an embarrassing little horn on my Toyota. It wasn’t doing any good any way.

We were being steered toward the Wyoming Valley Mall to park somewhere near Sears. It would be about a ten-minute walk to the arena. And to make matters worse, the cell phone began to ring. It was Barb. Something strange had happened with the tickets, she said. She and R.C. had arrived before us and found our block of four seats. Indeed they were up high, near the next to last row, a few yards away from a blinding spotlight. “We will meet you by the East Gate,” she said, “and then we’ll tell you what happened.”

We looked at one another, shrugged, and trudged on foot past a sea of parked automobiles. The concert was ready to start when we got there. The usher scanned our tickets at the East Gate, and found Barb and R.C. “It was the strangest thing,” she said. “We were sitting way up there, waiting for you, when some kid with a security pass around his neck came up. He said, ‘Do you like James Taylor?’ Dumb question. ‘Are you looking forward to seeing Carole King?’ Two for two. Then he motions toward the floor and said, ‘I have two tickets down there in upgraded seats if you want them.’”

Well, I have to give my friend Barb a lot of credit. She held her ground, motioned toward our two vacant seats, and said, “We are waiting for our friends Bill and Jamie. They are running late, but they are going to be here any minute."

The young man looked at her, looked down at the floor, looked at our empty seats. He said, “Well, OK, I have two other tickets on the floor next to yours, but that’s it.”

That’s when they called us. We met them at the East Gate and they are telling us this story. The concert is about ready to start. An usher pointed us down toward the floor. We went down, and further down. We got to the floor, saw a sea of seats, wondered where our seats were. The backup band was cranking up, the people were on their feet cheering. We can’t hear anything, we can’t see anything.

We ask another usher. He says, “Oh, over here.” He takes us down past Jim and Jan, past a number of Presbyterians now convinced that I am overpaid, all the way around the circular stage, and into the VIP seating. We are stools immediately next to the stage, on stools at little round tables, no more from here to the first pew from the rotating stage. Our seats are immediately adjacent to the bullpen where the musicians are hanging out. When Jamie pulled some M&M’s out of her purse, I offered some to Arnold McCuller, the backup singer. He said, “Thanks, man.”

Later we found out the four seats cost $350 each, not counting the Ticketmaster surcharge. Apparently they couldn’t move a lot of $350 seats in Wilkes Barre. So randomly, out of the blue, they offered the four seats to us. It was amazing – the music was right there! The musicians winked at us every time the stage spun around. The whole experience made me feel -- it made me feel -- it made me feel like a Natural Woman!

We sent text messages to our kids during the show. One of them wrote back, “Wow!” Another said, “Good for you!” A third said, “You are so lucky,” and I wrote again, “I am a Presbyterian. I don’t believe in luck, I believe in God.”

Now, that is my way into this scripture text. Jesus said, “When you’re invited to a big party, take the cheap seats. Don’t presume that you are important. Remain modest, so that you are not embarrassed if you have presumed too much. And should somebody ever say to you, ‘Why are you sitting in those lousy seats? Move on up closer,” you will be exalted.

Jesus says this is a principle of the kingdom of God: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” At the center of that sentence is the experience of humility: choosing the unimportant spot, going to the insignificant places. He gives us his word: if we have not learned humility, we will. Sooner or later the lesson will be taught to you. The door to God’s kingdom is a very low door. You can only get through if you kneel. If you stay small.

Now, I realize that my story of the concert tickets is not a perfect analogy. It would not take a lot of poking to find it full of holes. But that recent experience serves as a reminder for me and a suggestion that sometimes grace happens. Sometimes when you aren’t expecting it, God breaks in. Sometimes when you have done all you can and it isn’t enough, God finishes what you cannot. Sometimes when you find yourself pretty low, God lifts your up.

I say “sometimes” because Christian faith does not offer a magic formula, a secret handshake, or a hidden secret. But faith announces a God who is a God of grace. And one of the signs that this is true is that things have a way of working out better than they should. Lost job, lost child, lost love, lost security – all of these losses are real. They come to us all, and they tend to level us.

But then, something happens – over there, or right here. Something good. And you realize all over again that the universe does not orbit around you. Rather, all of life is infused with this hidden goodness. We name it as a personality trait of the kind of God that we have. God is full of grace; and the first ones to see it are those who stayed low.

Jesus uses the seating chart of a wedding banquet to teach a spiritual truth. He sees how people will thoughtlessly scramble for the best seats, as if they deserve them. He knows how the high and mighty are often tempted by their own abilities and resources. They might start thinking they are better than everybody else. This distances them from their neighbors, and obscures the fact they are creatures. They go to a wedding banquet and forget that it’s not their party. Everybody is a guest! When we forget this simple truth, we may quickly discover there is a thin line between grace and disgrace.

Before he was even born, Jesus’ Momma sang about this. She attributed it to God’s justice: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (1:52-53).” The theme verse is this: “God’s mercy is for those who fear him (1:50).” Or to put it another way, “Watch where you sit.”

There is a mercy for all the people who honor God more than they honor themselves. This is the Gospel in our text. Today it would be enough to simply pause and name the truth of it. But Jesus doesn’t pause there, and neither do we. He keeps speaking of God’s kingdom as a party, as a blessed banquet. It’s a celebration full of bread and wine, where the main courses are forgiveness and joy. And he says it is a lavish feast!

Well, try to remember the last lavish feast you attended. You dressed up, took a gift, and looked for the little place card with your name on it. This time you sat where they told you to sit. You didn’t have any pretenses. But when you got home, there was the weight of obligation. Have to send out the thank you card. Better put them on the guest list for your next party. It can become this endless little circle, airtight and suffocating, always the same people saying the same droll things, comparing their last vacations, describing how successful their children have become, downplaying their peccadilloes, giggling together at the misfortunes of those at the very next table. You know, I think I’ve been to that party – what a complete and utter bore!

So you know what Jesus does? He’s sitting there at the Sabbath banquet at the house of a major religious leader. He taps his drinking glass with a dinner fork, and clears his throat. Then looking at his host, in a voice loud enough for the church to hear, he says something we should never forget: “Next time you feast, invite those who could not repay you. Invite the poor to a table with linen napkins. Welcome the crippled and the lame to a party that has forgotten them. Host the blind who cannot see what they are eating.”

You know why he said it? He said it because every last one of us is a guest at God’s Table. We don’t deserve the invitation, but we are included anyway. And the very grace that welcomes us must be passed along to everybody else.

(c) William G. Carter
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