Chinese Fire Drills & Other Holy Matters

A sermon based on Psalm 81 and Luke 14:1, 7-14 preached on August 28th, 2016

Sermon audio

The first days of a brand new school year are complicated. There are so many things to think about and contend with! Do I take the bus or is my mom gonna drive me to school this year? Which one’s worse, waiting on the corner to hop aboard the big yellow cheese wagon, or risking embarrassment when my mom tries to kiss me goodbye in front of all my classmates? And that’s really just the first 30 minutes of the school day!

The most political part of the school day when you make your way through the cafeteria tables trying to figure out who you can eat with. You walk by each table, wondering which one you’re cool enough to sit at. There’s an obvious pecking order in middle school and high school—sometimes even in elementary school—it’s not ever really defined, but still everyone somehow knows their place in it.

Let’s talk more about the school bus. Where you sit on the bus is directly proportional to how cool you are. It’s all very political. The quiet kids sit in the first 4 rows of seats. The normal kids—whatever that means—sit somewhere in the middle, and the cool slash rebellious kids sit go all the way to the back of the bus. The further back you go, the cooler you have to be. I never really knew if I was cool enough to sit in the back. My gut told me I belonged somewhere near the front. Being a teenager is super-stressful because you get the feeling that everyone’s already sized you up before they even know the first thing about you. Before you even have a chance, you’re pegged as a jock or a nerd, a popular kid or a weirdo. An insider or an outsider. You know you’re place in the order of things.

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Outwardly, in this passage in Luke, it just seems like Jesus is sharing some table manners with us. Maybe he’s simply pointing out how we can avoid being embarrassed at a dinner party, or in a school cafeteria. But, it’s too simple to read it that way. Jesus is no advice columnist. Jesus was no Mr. Manners. He isn’t the person you want to look to for how to act appropriately. In fact, he’s really the last person you should look to for such things. What Jesus has to say here has nothing to do with proper party etiquette. This story is really about how when Jesus get involved in our lives and in all the choices we make, the typical order of everything gets shaken up and tossed upside down!

Jesus is really the worst part guest ever. When Jesus shows up at our parties and in our lives, he speaks up and abruptly takes over! He throws around the furniture inside our hearts and lives. He upsets the way things have always been, he challenges the way we have always thought. He leaves nothing in its original place. Once inside, Jesus refuses to be polite, quiet, or nice. Instead he takes over, starts changing things around until up is down, and down is up. Tables get tossed, minds are changed, priorities are turned sideways, and before you know it, Jesus starts making a holy mess of our lives. Really, Jesus should come with a warning label that reads: “Danger: Inviting me into your life might just wreck you!”

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As it turns out, our teenage years aren’t the only time in our lives when we have to figure out what table we’re cool enough to sit at. A few years ago, I was asked to attend a Chamber of Commerce Gala Dinner at the Pullman Plaza Hotel and offer a blessing at the beginning of the ceremony. They didn’t really invite me, I kinda crashed their party a little bit. Pastor Dana Sutton was the one who was really supposed to be there, but he had another commitment that night and ask me to fill in for him. I really had no idea what to expect, and Dana had never done it before, so he didn’t know either.

So, when I got there, they ushered me to my seat at the head table! I was sitting with all the bigwigs in Huntington! I even had a better seat than Nick Rahal. And once I figured out that I was sitting with all these super important people, one part of me wanted to laugh, but a much larger part of me wanted to high-tail it right out the door. Here I was a pastor among presidents! I felt like an imposter. A jester among dignitaries. These were not my people! I don’t belong at the important people table. My calling as a pastor and a proclaimer of the Gospel makes me a servant, not a celebrity.

Luckily, the woman next to me, who was a teacher at Marshall, felt the same way I did. She, too, had no idea why she had a seat at the big people table, and as the different courses came along, the two of us helped each other figure out what utensils we were supposed to use. It wasn’t too long before we were both eating with our elbows on the table—the two of us, a pair of misfits who somehow got invited to a party full of dignitaries! This must be a mistake, we said.

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There’s a story about a Benedictine monk, Brother Anthony, who lives at a monastery in Cleveland. His task there is to take care of the dining hall for his fellow monks and all the guests who eat there. Whenever they were assigning roles, you’d think that Brother Anthony got the short end of the stick, but that’s not the case at all. Brother Anthony chose that role. Each and every morning when he gets up, he looks forward to preparing the dining hall for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and he does so with joy and purpose because he finds sacramental meaning in what he does. Brother Anthony believes that every time bread is broken around a table, God shows up. He believes that God is present in the food we eat, as well as in its sharing, and he’s honored to be a steward of that. Brother Anthony says it’s his job to prepare a place for that kind of encounter with the Holy.

Every weekend during the school year, the monastery feeds dozens of teenagers. So, every Saturday and Sunday, Brother Anthony sets each place in the dining hall with plates for pizza and cups for soda. He does so as if he’s preparing the table for communion. That’s because Brother Anthony realizes that with each Solo cup and Dixie plate he sets down, he’s making room for one of God’s children.

When the deliver guy arrives at the monastery, he’s supposed to take the pizzas to the office, well out the way of the dining hall, so they can seat the teenagers quietly, have a prayer before they eat, and usher the them through the line in an orderly fashion. But on one Sunday, the pizza was mistakenly delivered straight to the cafeteria, where the students had already arrived. Brother Anthony heard the commotion of a few dozen hungry teenagers diving across each other for a slice. He ran down the hall to see what was happening. It was chaos.

Well, Brother Anthony was later confronted by his superior about the incident. He defended the teenagers’ behavior because he knew their hunger—how they had to fight all their lives to get enough food to fill their bellies. For the sake of what he considers holy, he explained that sometimes being hospitable means understanding your guests, being willing to enter into the mess of their lives—it means we welcome the chaotic behavior of 3 dozen teenagers if that’s what it takes! The only thing that really matters is that everyone gets fed.

Brother Anthony, just like Jesus in our story for today, knows that true hospitality requires a certain abandonment of our own sense of respectability. For, it’s only when we lay down our lives for others that God’s truth and love can shine through.

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If you were a teenager once, or you are one now, you know what a Chinese fire drill is. It’s when you’re driving down the road with a car-full of friends, stop at a traffic light, throw it in Park, and everyone gets out of the car, races around to the other side of the car, and into a different seat all before the traffic light turns green. It’s a chaotic scramble for a seat—any seat. Whenever you do a Chinese fire drill, it hardly matters where you were sitting or where you end up. You could start out being in the driver’s seat and by the time the fire drill is over, you end up in the trunk! In all that chaotic shuffling around, no one really cares where they end up, because place doesn’t matter. As long as everyone ends up inside the car again, that’s all that matters.

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We cannot shake a stick at the Gospels without hitting a story where Jesus is talking about food and our place around a table. Whether it’s this Table down here, the tables down there in the Fellowship Hall, the tables in our school cafeteria, or the kitchen tables in our homes, the Gospel says that what we do around our tables is holy.

At this month’s Greater Barboursville Community Outreach Dinner, our area churches served over 175 meals. We participate in that ministry, serving a monthly meal to our area’s undernourished families. If you’re wondering how our church is making a difference in our community, show up at the Barboursville Senior Center on the last Saturday of every month sometime around 3p. Christians from all around Barboursville are enacting the Gospel of Jesus Christ by setting tables for our hungry and undernourished neighbors.

We cannot faithfully follow Jesus and ignore passages like this one, where Jesus asks us to “give banquet feasts and invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and blind among us.” According to Jesus, it’s just about the holiest thing we could ever do! Because it’s only when we lay our lives down for others, when we prepare a place at the table for everyone, that God’s truth and love can shine through.

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The call of the Gospel looks a whole lot like a free meal for the hungry. It looks a whole lot like the chaotic reshuffling of a Chinese fire drill. It’s the call to abandon all of our self-preserving ideas of respectability and honor, to give ourselves over to the sudden reshuffling of our place among others, to disregard every respectable notion of who belongs where and why, and who deserves what and why. That’s because, the Gospel of Jesus Christ reorders everything. It welcomes all, no matter what they look like, or where they come from. Insiders and outsiders both are welcomed, gathered in from all their scattered places, because a place has been set for them as well as for us around one common table. And there will be plenty of food and space for all, no scrambling for seats involved!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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