On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’
This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.
In this 1st century setting, where you were seated at the meal table gave away your social status. Meals were one place that social disparities were on display. Perhaps it is not so different with meal tables today. Some people can afford to go out to lunch. Some cannot. It’s a casual afterthought for some to pick up a bucket of chicken on the way to the potluck. It’s a major expense on a tight monthly budget for others. Some can say yes to the dinner invitation without having to consider if there will be stairs at the restaurant. Those in a wheelchair or with a walker or cane have to think about those stairs, and if their body will be able to make it to the table at all. The table, then and now, is a place where social, class, and disability status become glaringly clear.
Jesus knew that his society centered certain kinds of bodies in their gatherings of power. That’s what he is observing in this Sabbath meal he is attending as an invited guest. And he starts his teaching by first trying to guide those around him in how to live out the values of the Kin-dom in the world as it is. “Don’t seek out the highest seat, but go to the lower one.” On one hand, this is sound, practical “Miss Manners” advice for his time, advice that accepts the world those in power have designed – where some bodies are honored and some are ignored or thrown away. On the other hand, maybe Jesus is using this as an opportunity to emphasize that if his followers have to navigate this stratified world, they best choose the path of humility – seeking the low seat first. If you have to accept the unjust premise of your host, at least your humility will later exalt you!
But then Jesus does something unexpected. He turns his attention to the host – and all hosts of tables from here on out. “Hosts!” he says, “when you throw a dinner party, don’t invite the people you always do, who you know – or at least hope – can return the favor. Invite those who are poor, who cannot walk as able-bodied people do, people who cannot see! You’ll be blessed because they can’t pay you back. You’ll be paid back at the resurrection of the righteous.” Apparently just giving advice for navigating an unjust world as it is was not enough for Jesus. He looks to the hosts who wield the power of deciding which bodies matter at the table and he says, “Do not accept the world as it is! Reorder it all! Practice something new! Center the voices of the poor and disabled at your table, and resurrection life will start to grow!”
This theme of grand reversal is all throughout Luke’s Gospel. It begins with Mary’s protest song where the hungry and poor are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty. Given that context, we can be confident that Jesus is not suggesting that rich hosts invite poor and disabled people to the table because they feel bad for them or to soothe their guilt. No, Jesus is inviting hosts to center the voices of those who have been fighting the empire’s forces of oppression all along because they know the way to freedom for all of us. As Alabama Poor People’s Campaign tri-chair Carolyn Jean Foster puts it in the ‘We Cry Justice’ book our church has been reading, “Justice looks like poor people at the table, having meaningful conversations with equal voice to articulate solutions to problems that directly impact them. All too often,” Carolyn writes, “people in power pose solutions to systemic issues without engaging people who are directly affected. People who live in poverty know the solutions that would alleviate their suffering; they just do not have the resources. They need to be at the table. Place matters.” (Carolyn Jean Foster, “Band-Aids or Justice”, We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign, edited by Liz Theoharis, foreword by William J. Barber, pg. 217.)
In the days to come, we know that every body will at some point fail to perform the way our capitalist, constantly-producing society wants. If it hasn’t already, movement will become more difficult as we age. Eyesight and hearing will change and even fail. Having an able body is always, always a temporary situation. In the days to come, as we have already seen in times of increasing wildfires and flooding, the infrastructures we depend upon will fail us. Doesn’t matter how much money you have in a bank account if the electricity grid goes down and that credit card won’t work. So many living at or near the poverty line already know the necessity of depending on their neighbors, their community networks, to find ways to take care of every body’s needs. As Nicola Torbett puts it, “people with disabilities, and especially people of color with disabilities, already know about how to survive, because really they have already survived multiple apocalypses…” (Nicola Torbett, The Word Is Resistance Podcast, “Episode 105: What Wondrous Love Is This? 5.12.19” transcript and SURJ Website)
That’s why it is so often those who have suffered in our current medical system that are the first to demand universal healthcare that would provide for all of us. This is why years of accessibility demands from disabled communities for online event access were not-so-magically put into place almost overnight when able-bodied people suddenly needed that access in the pandemic too. What disabled folx had always been asking for was something we all ended up needing. This is why those most impacted by police brutality and incarceration have been the first to model safety teams made up of grandmothers living on their block that do not rely on the police, because they know that every last one of us will thrive if we respond to harm not by calling 911, but rather by showing up for our neighbors with shared resources, compassion, and creativity. Those on the margins have always been the leaders in practicing the new world Jesus came to bring.
One of the things I love about the Presbyterian theology of baptism – which includes our practice of baptizing babies – is that for us, baptism is a sign with water that we are loved before we can ever do anything productive, before we can ever be of any use to a capitalist society that wants our labor to make the rich richer. Our baptism is a tangible sign of the reality that we are loved not in accordance with our ability to fit society’s standard of a white, cisgender, male, straight, able body, but because God made us and we are precious exactly as we are. Period. It’s right in line with what oppressed communities have been saying all along – that every body deserves a seat at the table simply because they exist. So, I had this bright idea not too long ago that I wanted more opportunities for y’all to remember your baptism. You may have noticed that, on occasion, I’ve been moving the font – full of water – to the entrance of the sanctuary as you come through the doors with a little sign that says “You are loved!” But it only took me one Sunday to realize that I had placed that font of our belovedness right in the pathway of anyone trying to use a walker or a wheelchair to enter our sanctuary. I have never had to think twice about how I’m going to get into a space as a person is able to walk unassisted. I’ve only recently been reading the work of disabled theologians and becoming more familiar with the disability justice movement. Unjust actions like placing a symbol of belonging in a place that literally blocks the entrance of some bodies from easily coming into this space is a sign of just how far I have to go in living Jesus’ teaching in this passage, to throw out the guest lists of empire-approved bodies I was handed throughout my life in church and at seminary, and to instead sit at table to listen deeply to the poor, the disabled, and all those who are oppressed by a society that only wants to use up our bodies instead of love them.
To those here today in bodies that the empire will never validate as valuable, I promise to do better and I thank you for the vulnerability it has taken every time you have said, “I have an access need in order to join you – will it be met?” Your voices need to be centered at every table we set. To those here in bodies that are always just a disaster, accident, or year older away from not being welcomed on the world’s guest list as it is, let’s tune in and listen to our oppressed siblings who know the way for all of us to get to freedom. May church leaders like me ask, “Can every body join this gathering?” May we go out into this world and ask in every space we are in, “Can every body truly find welcome here?” Let’s reorder the world, dear ones. It won’t all change overnight, but we can practice together, here in this very church family, so that day by day our community starts to look more like Kin-dom of heaven where every body, claimed in our common baptism, is celebrated and loved. Amen.