For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”
When I was 14, I was lonely, pretty sad, full of shame, and – when it came to the big things in life, really didn’t believe in myself.
Double those years, and by the time I was 28, I had love and purpose and confidence. I mostly felt good inside, and I was ready to greet my first child as a man I couldn’t have imagined becoming with a life I hadn’t dreamed of having.
Well, there was Sonny Pryor, my high school chorus teacher who told me in front of others, Hey, this guy can sing.
There was Pastor Harold Bussell, who baptized me and after communion would remind me that before a holy and just God, I am totally free and in the clear.
There was my PopPop, Bill Elliott, who when I was a singer told me I’d be the next Luciano Pavarotti. And then when I was thinking about being a pastor some day instead, told me I’d be the next Billy Graham.
There were Ken and Jean Jones, my high school English teacher and class advisor. One I’d seen get slammed by life’s greatest sufferings and held on to hope. The other was one of the kindest people I knew. Together they were on their second marriage, rebuilding a life together.
They invited me – a high school senior and my girlfriend, over their house for dinner. And when for a moment, Mr. Jones and I were alone in the living room, I had the temerity to ask him what it had been like joining someone else’s household, moving into her house with her kids. He didn’t take offense, but looked around and then looked into my eyes and said: Sometimes I can’t believe this life I’m in. All this, it’s so good. It’s so good.
I could go on. The college professor who offered to pay for my voice lessons when I was going to quit because I didn’t have the funds. That voice teacher who invested her time and talents in me, even when I didn’t appreciate her. My greatest ever boss, Bak Fun, who took a chance on me.
In my late teens through my late 20’s, I had this crazy-abundant string of people in my life who made room for me in their lives, who maybe saw some of the ways I was lost and hurt, and definitely saw hope and promise in me I could not see in myself.
They were the hands and feet of the hospitality of God, saying to me:
Friend, move up higher. Friend, move up higher.
Helping me embrace the love and hope of God and grow into a life where I could look around and say: this is so good.
You could say this is a story of privilege. A young, white, straight man – pretty working class but living in high resource communities – has person after person give him time and attention and opportunity, pushing him toward success. A story of privilege.
And you could say this is a story of grace. An outwardly fine but inwardly troubled kid finds grown-up after grown-up giving him time and attention and encouragement, with a couple of them helping connect the dots so he could see that these are the hands and feet of God. This is what a good and loving God is like. Until he’s gripped by the kindness and possibility of that God knowing his name and having room for him.
A story of privilege and a story of grace. Both are true.
Because this is a story about hospitality, where privilege and grace and status and shame and food and freedom and love and cost are all part of the conversation.
A conversation I hope to provoke with today’s sermon.
When we think of the qualities of God, stuff like love and power and mercy and justice all come to mind. But I’d say that one of the top 10, maybe top 5, qualities of the God Jesus worshipped is hospitality.
And when we think of the qualities of a faithful follower of God, maybe we think of other things too, but I think hospitality ought to make the top 10, or top 5 list there as well.
So as we spend this fall reading and talking about Jesus at the table and how Jesus gathers people, let’s read and talk about a little story Jesus tells about hospitality.
It’s from Luke’s 14th chapter, and it goes like this:
Common English Bible
7 When Jesus noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table, he told them a parable.
8 “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host.
9 The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place.
10 Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.
11 All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
Friend, move down lower for a time.
Friend, move up higher for a change.
This is one of the great social themes of the Bible – to exalt the humble and humble the proud. It’s one of the most frequent statements about what God is seeking to do in the world.
To exalt the humble, and humble the exalted.
God has an interest in freeing God’s children of the oppressive sin of pride – of the kind of too large vision of ourselves and our kind that leads to arrogance, to the hoarding of wealth and resources, to underpaying workers and overpaying ourselves, and to colonizing people and endlessly extracting from the earth. That the proud could be humbled.
And God has an interest in freeing God’s children from the burden of abnegation. Being reduced by ourselves or by others into a too small vision of ourselves and our kind that leads to humiliation and poverty and self-loathing, self-doubt, and self-harm. That the humbled could be exalted.
Jesus tells a little story, a parable. It’s a folksier, earthier way of getting at these grand, just intentions of God. This is Jesus’ way of telling stories that opens up conversation about what’s most important rather than closing it.
And here it’s a conversation about the just and kind hospitality of God Jesus urges us to welcome and imitate.
You friend, take a lower seat for a change. You, friend, come up higher.
My friend Dan likes to tell a story about the late Peter Gomes, who was for decades the in-house preacher and pastor of Harvard University’s Memorial Chapel. Dan says Rev. Gomes was the greatest of hosts. He’d throw these lavish gatherings of diverse guests, with carefully designed seating charts. And as people sat down, he’d remind them:
Don’t forget, the person sitting next to you is the most interesting person in the room.
In just a word, reminding the exalted to look and see who else was there, while reminding the humbled of all they brought to the table as well.
Sitting next to you is the most interesting person in the room.
Friend, come up higher.
I think the first word here is deeply personal. No matter who you are and no matter how high or low you are in your own eyes or anyone else’s, the first word over your life from God is:
I am here. I see you. I love you. You matter to me, child. Friend, come up higher.
In the scriptures, gatherings of food and wine and people are over and over again metaphors, images of the Beloved Community of God. And at the center of this community is God our host encouraging us:
“the person you’re sitting next to is the most interesting person in the room, to be sure. But also, to me, you are also the most interesting person in the room. I see you and I love you. I am here.”
The story I told you of how I was saved coming out of my teenage years is a story of people representing to me God’s loving interest in me and encouragement that my life matters. It matters to this world, and it matters to God.
Sometimes in the Christian faith, the heartbeat of it all – love of God with our whole being, and love of neighbor as ourself – has been twisted to imply the utter erasure of ourselves. As if faith in God leaves us empty or invisible. In Christian teaching on Jesus’ love ethic, and frankly especially in male Christian teaching to girls and women, the meaning and worth and dignity of our own selves has sometimes gotten lost. But self-love, welcoming God’s love for us, is part of this faith too. To believe that God is saying to each of us:
Friend, come up higher. Friend, sit closer to me. Friend, notice your worth. Friend, own your strengths. Friend, see your beauty. Friend, come up higher.
Welcoming this message is central to living as a child of God.
And alongside that, when life seems to give you a back seat, maybe even a seat outside the room entirely, where you can’t eat the food and can’t hear the laughter, I think this teaching gives us a way to make meaning of those personal experiences too.
I’m not saying God necessarily causes these experiences. I think mostly, God doesn’t. But when we hit a hard patch in any area of our life, it helps if we can say to ourselves:
this is a moment of suffering. It’s not my whole life, it’s a moment. It will pass.
And it’s maybe a chance to know a little fellowship with people whose whole lives are full of suffering. It’s a reminder that the meaning of life doesn’t come from endless success and non-stop victory.
Maybe someone else is up higher right now and I’m in a lower seat, and there are times for that too. I’ll be OK.
I was saved mostly through the ways God and friends and mentors saw me and loved me and helped me start to build a life for myself. But I landed where I did also because of things God helped shape in me through suffering too. Years of work dealing with some childhood hurt, an early career failure, a scary patch of unemployment, a need to rework some over-rigid aspects of my faith. All this helped humble me, keep me from becoming a too-big-in-my-own-eyes force for harm in the world.
The “friend take a lower seat for a while” message can come from a lot of places. Sometimes it’s a posture we have to choose for ourselves. But this too is part of God’s hospitality – God’s making room for us all.
So the first word in this teaching on God’s hospitality is personal. We each matter to God and this world as much as anyone else does. But we also don’t matter more than anyone else does either. There’s room for all God’s children.
I think the next word in this teaching is social. In fact, it’s the most obvious, literal meaning of Jesus’ parable. After all, he told this story after watching some obnoxious jockeying for the best spots at the table.
He might have been in the Senate. Maybe the Board room. Or maybe any ordinary workplace or social scene.
Back in the 90’s, when Grace and I were working for the same organization, our team read this great article on workplace communication and what the authors called one-up and one-down communication. The piece was from the 80’s, and I couldn’t track it down last week.
Anyway, the article – or at least what I remember of it – stirred a lot of thinking in me, in Grace’s and my relationships, and in the team that we were on.
The authors discussed two different types of communication people use in the workplace. One down communication, favored more often by women, seeks to build consensus, to share credit, and yield authority to someone else while talking or making a decision. Statements like, “I really like Mark’s idea.” Or “I don’t know. What does the rest of the team think is a good idea,” would be examples of one-down communication? It’s taking the lower seat, so to speak.
One up communication, favored more often by men, seeks to establish expertise or authority, and get a decision made and maybe to get credit for oneself. So maybe Mark says, “Based on all my time and experience, I think we should do so and so,” even if Mark is partly repeating the ideas that Mary first had.
The authors thought that both one-up and one-down communication sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but our team’s take away was to notice how much more often the men used one-up and the women used one-down communication, with the invitation to do something about this.
To, as a man, take a humbler, more gracious communication posture and seek to credit and involve others. And as a woman, to be free to assert one’s own experience and views, and have an eye out for a man not grabbing credit for those.
It was a really helpful insight. But not just about gender dynamics. Because my wife and others on our team pointed out that this isn’t just a gendered dynamic, it can be a racialized one too. They noticed that Asian-American members of our team tended toward more one-down communication styles, and White members of our team toward more one-up ways of talking. And this is just one of a hundred or more ways that sex and gender and race dynamics in American workplaces end of leaving white people and men with more credit, more power, and more pay.
Side note by the way: being married to a person who has the kind of insights and passions on feminist and racial justice that my wife does has been a transformative, critical influence in my life. Grace, you’re the best. I’m not who I am without you. And the rest of y’all, if you partner, partner well. Partner with people you’re glad to have influence you, because they will.
Speaking of Grace, though, and this whole social hospitality element of today’s passage, it’s not just communication where you can see these dynamics at play. It happens around literal meal tables too.
Where I grew up, if you went out to eat, everyone ordered their own dish, and you only shared with someone else if you personally agreed to that, or you know, if it was your kids and you had the right, or you were cleaning up what they couldn’t finish. I mean, stealing like a single french fry from your brother’s plate was a major crime.
But during college, after I started hanging out with Grace and then going to church with her, we went to a Chinese church right in Boston’s Chinatown, and we’d go out to eat after events in these big groups – 8, 10, 12 people crowded around a single table.
And every single time, we ordered family style. Everyone shares everything. And I figured out fast stuff like: don’t hog all the best pieces from a dish. And don’t take the last thing off a plate unless you’ve offered it to everyone first.
And even social things like: ask other people questions more than you talk about yourself. And slowly, these practices of hospitality became mine too, because they seemed like more generous, socially connected ways to live.
If Jesus is the best human revelation of the nature of God that we’re ever going to get, and I think he is, look what we learn about God from him. Jesus didn’t dominate groups and make everything about himself. He took a genuine, curious interest in everyone he met, and how he could know them just as they could know him. Jesus asked more questions than he gave advice. He didn’t insist upon the best seat at the table wherever he went. This is someone who was born in a feeding trough in a barn after all, because his hometown didn’t have room for his folks anywhere else.
God’s hospitable with us all. God doesn’t need to take the best of everything. God doesn’t dominate or use us. God takes interest in everyone and everything outside Godself and integrates that into God’s being and intentions. And Jesus is like:
try it out. Life’s going to go better for you if you share credit and build consensus, if you take a humbler spot if you’re the kind of person used to being first. And if you’re the kind of person who’s been at the back of the line, you know, go ahead and take your spot at the front when you can. That’s good too. Friend, come up higher.
I think the last word on this is global, but I don’t really have time for that.
So I’ll just ask:
what does it mean for our consumption and our economies, if we were to practice global hospitality?
If we were to take Jesus seriously and think, the proud need to be humbled. And the same people shouldn’t always have the most wealth, the highest consumption, the most cheap consumer goods, the highest carbon footprint, and all that. Those people – which would be a lot of in this room today – ought take a lower seat so we don’t get embarrassed when our grandkids’ oceans flood the coastline and when this world runs out of clean oceans or clean water or habitable climate.
I could name other examples, but you get the idea. Personal, social, and global hospitality isn’t just a nice idea. It’s not just a way to have more friends or be more connected to each other. At stake in these questions and practices of hospitality are the biggest questions of relationship with God, justice and equity, global flourishing, and the future of our species.
So friends, let’s live in this story some more.
Where can we be saying:
Friend, come up higher to other people in our lives?
Where do some of us need to take a lower seat for a time? Where do some of us need to take that higher seat for a change?
Where is God saying to us,
Friend, come up higher? Seeing, encouraging, and saving us into lives of meaning, confidence, and purpose?
Or saying friend,
I see you, kid that I love, but you can chill out on your elevation for a while. Let it be. Let it go.