I went to a number of different schools growing up. Each time we moved, I would have to relearn the rules of social order for the school I was now going to. Maybe some of you know the rules I’m talking about, maybe you don’t.
These rules were the unspoken how-to’s of elementary and high school survival: who the cool kids are, how to avoid being labelled poorly, how to avoid being tormented/bullied/made fun of, which seats on the bus were fair game and which were forbidden, which teachers could smell fear, and how to either keep your head down and just get through it, or how to rise above it all. There were so many rules that weren’t written down in a handy booklet. You simply had to figure it out.
By the time I got to the high school that would be my last, I thought I had figured it all out.
Yet, I remember that first week of school so clearly.
The memory sits in the pit of my stomach – you may know of it; that secret compartment that can only be found when it feels like your stomach has dropped a couple of feet. Once it’s dropped, you can find the compartment that keeps the memory of my first week of grade 10.
My mother and I walked into the school and through the carpeted entranceway that was the lobby for both the gymnasium and the theatre, through a pair of doors, and up a rather pretty, if empty, hallway with long benches that ran the length of the bottom part of a t-shaped hallway that kept the Main office window at the main junction. It was there that we met with the principal to make a plan for my first semester after a year of long-distance course work.
Despite how pretty that hallway was, I think I only ever walked it a two or three times during the regular school hours after that first walk. And every time I think of that hallway, the first thing I remember is the floor. The benches and walls and ceiling are an utter blur, lost to the mists of time. But that floor I remember in almost perfect detail.
To any visitor, that hallway was a quaint bit of architecture. However, any person who attended that high school when I did, knows it best as ‘Eyeball Alley.’
At lunchtime, the coolest kids took up residence on the long benches and passed judgement on all who dared to walk, unaccompanied, the length of that seemingly longer and longer traumatizing hallway.
I only ever walked it two or three times while I was a student there.
And, I remember the floor.
In perfect detail.
There is no good way to describe the feelings that rise within us when we come face to face with intense scrutiny. But, I would like you to think of those feelings for a moment while I bring our attention to the gospel.
Those who invited Jesus to a Sabbath meal were watching him closely. Jesus was facing intense scrutiny – not all that different from my hometown ‘Eyeball Alley’. Everything that Jesus did and said at that meal was deliberately and critically measured and detailed. The motive behind the invitation to eat was not necessarily one of hospitality – it was likely an attempt to find him so far from the rules of conduct, to trap Jesus and catch him at odds with the larger and more powerful religious groups of his time, and to put him in his proper place.
I think it’s safe to say that Jesus is really familiar with intense scrutiny. I sometimes imagine that God’s time dwelling amongst the human race was a bit like high school.
There are any number of people who told me that high school was going to be so much fun. Having made it through, I can safely say that for the most part, it wasn’t. There were a lot of divisions, fights, and labels. But there were two places in my teenaged life where all those barriers came down. One was the bi-annual high school musical – everybody wanted to be a part of it and somehow it didn’t matter who you were ‘out there’ once we were all in the theatre together.
But the other was the most important one to me. It was a multi-denomination youth group I went to with some regularity.
Youth Group was a gathering of teenagers from all walks of life: jocks, punks, drama kids, loners, geeks, nerds, hippies, stoners, rich kids, and poor kids. Brought together in one place and held there by the simple fact that no matter how they were labelled by other teens or by society, everybody meant something and was someone special to God. And, over time, we learned to recognize that the same God who wanted so much to be a part of our lives also wanted to be a part of the lives of all those around us, the people we liked as much as the people we didn’t like.
It was in this gathering of young Christians that I learned that Jesus was a people watcher, just like me.
It was in this gathering of young Christians that I learned that every single one of us carried the weight of an intense worldly scrutiny – regardless of label or station in life.
It was in this gathering of young Christians that I learned that God was involved in something bigger than high school.
The power of learning those things in that particular faith community was when we would encounter each other at school, from within our other social groups. There was an unspoken bond that developed between those particular jocks, punks, drama kids, loners, geeks, nerds, hippies, stoners, rich kids, and poor kids – we knew and saw God residing in each other. Our faith community changed the way we moved through the world.
It was in our regular gathering of young Christians that we all learned that instead of trying to fit in with the right crowds or get the right invitations or avoid the most public shaming or live lives asking of everyone who comes to us: “What have you done for me lately?” – we were all called by God to live out lives that were true to the One who would never leave us or forsake us, whether the rest of the world thought we deserved it or not.
And that seems to me to be what Jesus is getting at in this gospel reading. To all the table guests jockeying for the most important spot at the table and the hosts looking for recognition and payback for their so-called good deed, Jesus presents a different way of being. He helps us to see that instead of seeking the ways to be recognized, honoured, or being labelled cool, God is calling us to seek out the ones who we can lift up, honour, recognize, and make a little more special in the everyday. I think he also speaks to our motivations as Christians in our own everyday lives: are we only extending a welcome, a loving and caring, hand when we can be seen by those around us who would praise us for our work?
Or are we living lives that find us extending a loving, caring, and welcoming hand because we know that it’s the way God treats us and how God wants us to treat all those around us? Instead of focusing on how we can guarantee the best place at God’s side, we are encouraged to focus on finding a way to make a place for everyone at the banquet because The Lord’s table is open to all – even though there is nothing really that we can do in return for what God is offering to us at that table.
The rules for social order in God’s kingdom don’t look at all like the rules we seem to have developed for ourselves. They certainly don’t fit within the power and status divisions of a high school.
But there are some concrete ways we can participate in God’s kingdom in our everyday moments. Kids, teenagers, and adults alike. These ways are risky, definitely outside the norm, and hard to do. I would ask you the same questions David Lose asked some readers back in 2013:
What would it be like to reach out to someone who is very different from you, or who is often ignored, or who is almost always alone?
What would it be like to stop someone from bullying someone else?
What would it be like to post on Facebook something kind about someone who rarely gets noticed, or invite someone that doesn’t often get invited to a party or outing?
What would it be like to tweet a quotation — maybe even verse 13 from this week’s reading — about looking out for others?
What would it be like, if someone asks you why you’re doing this, to say it’s because it’s what you think God wants?
Perhaps, those of us who have gathered together and contemplated this week’s texts will see each other throughout this coming week. Maybe we will feel an unspoken bond between each of us – we will know and see God residing in each other. And we will know that we are all called by God to live out lives that are true to the One who would never leave us or forsake us, treating those around us as God treats each of us.
Let us pray,
Holy Trinity, we know that you have experienced the intense scrutiny of social expectation, and that you have risen above it time and time again, showing us a different way. Help us to remember Jesus’ invitation to the banquet, and to remember how much God has given us, so that we might live with the knowledge that God who wants to be so much a part of our lives also wants us to see that in all the people around us. Empower us to live differently as children of the light and to nurture and demonstrate a different kind of community in our homes and schools and church. A community founded not upon status but grace and not upon what we can do for each other but on what God has already done for us. Amen.
- Lose, David. “The Kingdom of God… at School.” Dear Working Preacher. Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
- Ministry Matters. “A Sacrifice of Praise.” Sermon Options: August 28, 2016. Ministry Matters.
 David Lose. “The Kingdom of God… at School.” Dear Working Preacher. Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
This week’s image is entitled “The Cliff Dwellers” by George Bellows, an intriguing work of art about social order and status. You can learn more about the painting here, and the artist here. The work of art is public domain.