Laboring for the Gospel
Luke 14:1; 7–14
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. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “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; and 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. But 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. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
On February 1st, 1968, a torrential downpour began in Memphis, TN. It was so bad that many people who were our and about for work or other activities took shelter. However, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were still on the job, due to those in charge that the mostly black sanitation workers to continue to work in spite of the weather.
To escape the downpour, these two men took a break in the back of the garbage truck. While they were resting, an electrical switch malfunctioned in their poorly maintained truck, turning the compactor on and crushing the two men to death.
“Eleven days after their deaths, as many as 1,300 black sanitation workers in Memphis walked off the job, protesting horrible working conditions, abuse, racism and discrimination by the city.” The strike received national attention. Martin Luther King Jr., who was in the midst of planning the Poor People’s Campaign, took time away from that important work in order to march with and join the striking workers. Upon arriving in Memphis, King told them: “You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages,” King told the crowd. For King, there could be no civil rights without economic equality. For Dr. King and many other civil rights leaders, they saw this work to support workers and stand against economic inequality as an outpouring of their Christian faith.
I have been reminded this Labor Day weekend of the connection between labor movements in the US and the Christian faith. I recognize that when we talk about labor movements in the United States, we are talking about a diverse collection of movements that have fought for the rights and safety of workers for hundreds of years. Yet there are some core values of the labor movement that line up with the Christian tradition. The idea that workers deserve to be fairly compensated for their work and what their labor produces. That people deserve to stay safe and healthy within their workplace. That owners of companies should not be able to exploit workers in order to line their own pockets. Ideas like this — indeed many more — are seen throughout the i
I spent some time thinking about what it means to live out the gospel of God’s love and justice in light of all of this. Because in one sense, there is something deeply in line with the Christian faith in supporting labor movements in our country. I believe that seeing workers and laborers treated well, paid fairly, and kept safe are part of our call as Christians. To see — as MLK did — the connections between an unjust economic systems and the systemic racism that plagues our nation.
But in another sense, the gospel calls us to more. It calls us not only to stand with people who are oppressed by unjust economic systems, but to re-imagine an economy where people are not only cared for and able to provide for their families, but where life can flourish. To imagine a world in which no one is left behind, where no one fails to see the fruit of their labor, where no one is exploited, and where the economy benefits everyone, not just those with power and privilege.
It is this new reality we are called to bring to our world as followers of Jesus. To live out an alternative economy — a Gospel economy. And we are called to labor in this economy, so that we might see the good news of God’s love and justice break into our world.
But what does this look like? What are some ways that we can begin to practice laboring in this new economy?
Our story today from the book of Luke is a story about a party. A dinner gathering at the house of a local religious leader. More than once in the gospels we see Jesus accepting invitations to parties, though given what he says here, this may be his last one. Jesus arrives at this party, we assume, just like everyone else. However, after observing how people were acting, he told them all a parable. Which in this case was only a thinly veiled commentary on everyone there. (Let’s be honest, Jesus was probably not the most fun person to have at parties.)
Jesus begins by talking about a wedding banquet, and how, when you are invited, you should take the lowest place. This continues a common theme we see in the Gospels, that in God’s economy, the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
On the surface this is a simple but powerful call to live in such a way that we don’t put ourselves above others. This is indeed one way we can live into the Shalom of God. To give up something of ourselves to see other people flourish.
As many of you know, my wife and I had a baby — little Lysa — last month. And for those of you that have have had kids, helped with kids, or know someone that has kids, you probably know: Babies are no respecters of persons. It doesn’t matter how hard my day was. How tired I am. How grumpy I am. When Lysa needs something, she needs it.
And babies that that 6th sense — something I thought was just a coincidence with my first kid, but that I am totally convinced of now — that 6th sense that knows when you just NEED 5 minutes to get something done and totally lose it during that time. Lysa can sleep for hours, but as soon as I am on that one important phone call that day, she turns into a little ball of crying and spit up that cannot be soothed by any human means.
But there is something deeply beautiful about giving up of myself to see Lysa flourish. A simple reminder of the gospel which calls us to be willing to give of ourselves not only for our own kids and people we care about, but for the world.
And this is beautiful. However, there is a deeper level to this story. Jesus is not simply calling us as individuals to be humble. He critiquing a social and economic system that puts people above one another and in which inequality can flourish.
We are not told here too many details about what a wedding party was like here. But we can see even in this brief story that a wedding was a hierarchical affair. There were guests of honor, who got to sit near the front, and there were those that just barely made the cut to get invited, being relegated to the table furthest away.
Jesus story is a critique on this entire system. Jesus tells those invited, rather than take the place of honor, to go sit in the back. Take the lowest place. This would have put the host in an awkward position. The host could have done nothing, which would have messed up the seating order and been frowned upon by those committed to maintaining the social and religious order.
Or the host could have done what Jesus is saying, and gone and asked the guest to move up to a more important place. But this would have disrupted the wedding banquet and drawn attention to hierarchy and inequality that was present.
While most of us don’t attend wedding banquets rife with inequality like this, we do live in the midst of unjust social, political, and religious systems under which inequality and injustice thrive. And a part of our call to live out the good news of God’s love and justice is to resist these systems that cause harm for the sake or our neighbor.
So how can we find ways to disrupt the system in order to live out the gospel?
When I was working with neighbors living outside in Portland many years ago, Portland has a law against feeding people in public. I don’t remember the specifics, but basically it said that if you are going to go to a park and feed more than 50 people, you need a permit to do so, a permit that was quite expensive condersing. This also made it much harder to church and other groups to have meals for people living on the street. However, there was an exemption buried in this law that said meals of 50 people or more were except from the permit if they were family gatherings.
So, what many people did, including the community I was involved in, was to call our meals family gatherings. If a park officer would stop by and ask if we had a permit, we would say, actually, we don’t need one, we are a family gathering. The officer would often stop and look around at our diverse group of people, many dealing with mental illness and addiction, most looking like they had slept outside the night before, and he would look at us, that knowing look that said no way are you all a family. But more often than not, they would let us be to have our meal.
Now, on the one hand we weren’t really lying, because I believe that God’s idea of family includes all of those marginalized by poverty and addiction. But on the other hand, we were refusing to participate in an unjust system, and found a way to stand against it.
While this is one small example, we should always be asking: Where are those places in our lives where neighbors are being harmed? And how can we stand with them? Jesus didn’t give us a blueprint here. He just gave us a vision of a world in which justice and equality flourish. Let us look for ways to help build that world today.
And lastly, Jesus’ harshest critique is directed not at the guests, but at the hosts — those with the power and privilege to be able to host a wedding like this. To these people Jesus says when you throw a party, don’t simply follow the social system and invite the important people. Invite those who are poor, who are hurting, who are marginalized. Those who can’t possibly repay you. Jesus asked them to use the power that they had to turn the unjust system on its head.
Jesus continues a long tradition that we can see throughout the biblical narrative: That we must be willing to stand against, break down, and refuse to participate in unjust systems. And the more power and privilege that we have, the more we might be asked to give up for the sake of the good news of God.
Over the last few years, I have made it a goal of mine to devote time and energy to learning about racial injustice and the legacy of white supremacy in our country. I would be lying if I said this was an easy journey. It has forced me to recognize not only the legacy of injustice in our country, but also the ways I which I was ignorant and even complicit in it. They ways in which I helped to uphold these injustices.
I recognized that as a white person, I have privilege in this area, and I needed to take steps to learn how to best stand up to systemic racism and white supremacy. In this part of my life I held more power, and if I was truly committed to following Jesus, I had a responsibility to commit myself to anti-racism.
Where are those ares in our lives where we have power and privilege? And how are we using those things to see the good news of Jesus come not only to people, but to the social and religious systems around us? These are questions that we all must be asking ourselves.
We have all been called to be laborers for the gospel. To see the salvation that Jesus came to bring break into our world. This work will ask much of us. It will ask us to lay down power and privilege. It will push us out of our comfort zones. To be laborers for the Gospel is no easy task.
But I truly believe that in this labor, we will not only see justice flow and love abound, but beauty and life flourish. May we as people of God give our labor to this task today. And give us the wisdom and courage to do so. Amen.