Church communities are unique in that, a phrase like “A place for everything and everything in its place” will assume biblical stature. I found that out a number of years ago. At the time, I was serving the Chatham church, a very different kind of ministry than my three previous appointments. Those of you who know Cape Cod know it is a vacation site so I realized, shortly after arriving that summers would be challenging. One big issue: where to park.
Shortly after I arrived, I decided to approach the Board of Trustees and request two designated parking slots – one for me and one for the church secretary. During the winter months, even our small parking lot, which could only park about 10 cars at any given time, was more than sufficient for our needs. There was always room. But summers were a totally different situation. During the summer, the little town of Chatham tripled in size and any open parking place was fair game in the minds of the tourists. After all, they were spending a lot of money in Chatham; therefore they should be allowed the privilege of parking anywhere they chose to park.
It did feel a bit arrogant to approach the Church Board of Trustees and make the request for two parking places. Even I thought, “What a nerve!” But I felt like I really had to do something especially after a near catastrophe made it clear that something had to be done.
It was a Sunday evening and I found myself driving frantically about town looking for a place to park. I could see the church building. None were to be found. I had visions of Phyllis, the woman who coordinated the concerts, introducing me to a packed crowd inviting me to come forward and offer a welcome and an opening prayer, only to turn expectantly to the rear of the sanctuary, where I should be making my grand entrance and not finding me waiting there at all. Instead, I would be somewhere down Main Street willing, hoping, praying, perhaps bribing someone to move out of their parking place so I could get to the church on time!
I finally forced myself to make the necessary request for the two parking slots after a good bit of inner conflict and the final straw came due to a story that may seem as frivolous and foolish to you as it did to me. But, thankfully, hearing the story gave me a good laugh and I really needed one of those.
It’s a story about a pastor who was having difficulty with his assigned parking space in the church parking lot. People parked in his spot whenever they pleased, even though there was a sign that clearly said, “This space is reserved.” He decided the sign needed to be clearer, so he had a different sign made, which read, “Reserved for Pastor Only.” Still people ignored it and parked in his space whenever they felt like it.
“Well,” he thought, “Maybe the sign should be more forceful,” So he devised a more intimidating one, which announced, “Thou shalt not park here.” That sign didn’t make any difference either. Finally, he hit upon the words that would work; in fact, nobody ever took his parking place again. The sign read, “The one who parks here preaches the sermon on Sunday morning!” Now that one everyone took seriously.
Well, I have no doubt that some of you could preach a very fine sermon this morning and it may very well be directed at me. In the gospel reading this morning, preaching was, in fact, what Jesus intended to do that day. His audience happened to be some pretty significant people; you might say guests of honor. Jesus wasn’t quibbling about their right to sit where they chose to sit. They weren’t breaking any laws of etiquette. But Jesus wanted them to think about the places they were choosing for themselves and particularly, to think about the ones who were never offered places of honor. If they, as honored guests, gave their place at the table away and sat at a bit removed from the place of honor…next to the host, would the host think as highly of them as they thought of themselves?
Well, that’s no less a difficult question for us as it might be to those listening to Jesus that day. We live in a world where getting to the top is valued and second best doesn’t cut it. Jesus lived in that same kind of world and though he didn’t fall prey to the need to be best, he was certainly aware that others around him were trying to get there. In Christ’s world, God’s favor was evidenced in the amount of wealth one had the status and position one held in one’s social world and the measure of health one possessed. If someone lacked these indicators it was a sure sign that God was angry with that person and no one wanted to be on the wrong side of the Almighty.
But Christ didn’t see things that way. As a man who stood with the impoverished and the ill, who ate with the sinful and the least favored in society, Christ once again flip-flops the expected patterns of behavior and offers another model of engagement. Christ suggests that rather than assuming we have a right to a top position at the table, we should offer it to someone who never makes that assumption and in doing so we have gained a far better reward, God’s blessing.
This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr’s iconic “I have a dream speech.” Perhaps, in the 50 years since that famous speech was delivered we have made progress toward becoming a more inclusive nation but I was struck by the many who spoke about our continued need to make more at the table for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised in our nation. To the list of needs back in 1963 to which King spoke…poverty, prejudice and unfair employment practices, today we could now add the unjust and fear-based attitudes we hold as a nation toward undocumented individuals, the mentally ill, and those whose life styles challenge our understanding of who should love whom. We have a long way to go to make room at the table for those who have been seated far from the thrones of power, money, acceptance and fair employment practices. The dream has not yet been fully realized.
So, once again, these words from Luke have meaning for our day and our circumstances. How do we offer a place at the table for everyone? Well, first of all, we have to move over and make room. Secondly, we have to recognize the equal worth of those around us in God’s eyes. In God’s sight, everyone has value. And lastly, we appreciate and give thanks for the gift that Christ offered us in the sacrifice Christ made on the cross. In that sacrifice, Christ leveled the playing field, opened the door to equal access to the God we worship, and made it possible for all God’s children to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
God’s grace is abundant but not particular. It flows without discrimination on the rich and the poor, on the healthy and the ill, on the ones with status in society and the ones without status. It is God’s gift to us all so that we can in turn be gifts to one another. Amen.