This summer we’ve been preaching on food, meals, and banquets in the Bible. What comes to your mind? What stories and passages would you include?

I was given Luke 14:7-11. Here Jesus gives some advice: how-to-behave at dinner parties. Don’t take the best seats and then be bumped down in humiliating fashion. Instead, seek an inconspicuous, lower-tier seat and be honored when the host says to you “‘Friend, move up higher.”

I was a bit unimpressed. Uninspired. There is nothing wrong with Jesus’ wisdom here. It just feels prosaic. It seems like nothing more than etiquette. As I age, I’ve come to appreciate, or at least accept, etiquette as more than bougy power dictums. It can make the world a gentler place.

Still, I want more from Jesus. I expect more from my Lord than I expect from Emily Post or Miss Manners.

My people, my congregation, including me, don’t really need advice on how to behave at dinner parties. By and large, we’re quite accomplished at that. We know how to behave. We are polite. We know how to act humble.

*****

After tossing and turning, mulling and churning, and being dissatisfied with how I was hearing the passage, finally, just hours before Sunday morning, the Holy Spirit broke through.

“Go and sit at the lowest place.”

Jesus is giving us more than advice for a dinner party.

I’ve come to realize that I must–intentionally, deliberately, frequently–be among people who are unlike me. I find myself blessed when I am sitting in the so-called lowest places.

This is the humility Jesus is encouraging. Something much deeper than where to sit at a dinner. Where to hang out, who to befriend, who to side with–with the friends of Jesus.

*****

A couple years ago Sophie flew out of Minneapolis to see her parents. On longer trips, sometimes the leg out of a small airport, like Des Moines, is the most unreliable part of the journey. So she drove to Minneapolis and I agreed I would meet her there on the way back. She’d be jet-lagged and I’d drive her home.

But how to get to Minneapolis when one of our cars was already waiting at the airport? Bus! I looked at their website. It looked modern and convenient. Free wifi. Good schedule.

At 5am I waited at the Des Moines bus station. So far, so good. My bus was coming from Kansas City and farther south before that–Oklahoma and Texas.

It was still dark when it rolled in. The door opened but no lights came on. Apparently they were malfunctioning. I stumbled up the steps, down the aisle, and plopped into the first empty seat I found. I had to wedge myself in because the seat in front of me was bent or broken in a reclining position.

Frustrated, contorted, in the dark, I took out my phone to get on the free wifi. There was nothing. When I inquired I got a lethargic nod, or maybe it more pitying. I gathered it hadn’t work worked for months. Now I was beyond frustrated. I was seething. From Des Moines to Ames, I fed my anger. I was furious. What a nightmare this trip was going to be.

By the grace of God, somewhere north of Ames I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until Mason City. The sun had risen and somehow my own darkness had also lifted. Yet again, the Spirit works in me without me.

I looked around the bus and realized I was one of the few white people. Now that it was daylight, people began to talk more. I heard muffled conversations in Spanish. Some people looked to be what I would guess as recent or first-generation African immigrants. And the whites there were, didn’t look like they attended the same dinner parties I do.

At the different stops, as groups of people trundled down the aisle, I realized how many had been on the bus before I boarded, how many people had been riding much longer than my five hour journey.

I don’t want to be naive and romantic, as if that bus was a rolling Shangri-La. I didn’t interact much. I mainly observed. Watched people chat and laugh and help one another. I saw them open their satchels and share food. I felt glad, even honored, to catch a little glimpse of this world.

Almost to Minneapolis, I think it was the St. Paul stop, a young mother, schlepping some sizeable luggage, and her three or four year old daughter made their way to the door. I was certain I had not seen them board the bus, so they had come much farther than I.

At the bottom of the stairs, the little girl spotted an older man, presumably her grandfather, waiting for her. He was a Latino man, wearing a cowboy hat and boots, as well as nice, pressed jeans. He was probably about my age but looked like he had worked harder in his life than I can even imagine.

The little girl squealed with delight, and ran to her grandfather who scooped her up into a big hug.

Being a freshly minted grandpa myself, the scene brought tears of joy to my eyes. These people who seem so different from me were in some ways so similar. I watched grandpa and the little girl hug and squeeze and rock back and forth. I felt so fortunate, so blessed to see this.

And it was as if I could hear Jesus saying to me, “Friend, move up higher. Be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

11 Comments

  • mstair says:

    Love these two quotes of yours:

    “I must–intentionally, deliberately, frequently–be among people who are unlike me. I find myself blessed when I am sitting in the so-called lowest places.”

    “And the whites there were, didn’t look like they attended the same dinner parties I do.”

    My church too, would rather be and function like a members-only country club. It is “pulling teeth” to get them outside of the antiseptic interior and obey Christ’s command to “go…” Their preferred, safe, clean, method of ministry (which has a definite completion time – by the way …) is to gather in the fellowship hall with other like-servants, and make shawls, stuff book-bags, sort canned goods … Someone (I’m not even sure they know who) actually has to to deliver the items into the “low places.” Your thoughtful piece reminds us what we’re missing when we minister like that.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Nice.

  • Nolan Palsma says:

    Steve, your article points out again that we need to sit in the lower chair to understand what the upper chair is all about. Thanks for taking the bus!

    • John vanStaalduinen says:

      On your next ride, talk to your neighbors, and soon you will be bussing and training all over this great land!!! Now that we are retired we love to take the train across the country, in coach class, the roomettes are too isolated. You will have a wealth of sermon notes after one trip!

  • Jeff says:

    A wonderful story… I found myself thinking of a bus ride from Cam Doc to Saigon, Vietnam. I was the only person speaking English. The bus was overcrowded and the stench was heavy. BUT, there was sharing of food, it was even offered to me and I pulled out food and offered it to those around me. We miss a lot if we insist on the best.

  • Very interesting twist on a familiar gospel reading.

  • Mike Weber says:

    Thank you. Gave me a lot to ponder, think about and change.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    I gave up driving 4 miles to my work at the local community college, shortly after this past winter’s polar vortex event. It conveniently coincided with Lent, so I told myself that the reason for taking the regional transit was a spiritual exercise, not just in response to my 17-yr-old car’s demise after 250,000 miles. Bus-riding in the suburbs can be a strange exercise in humility, as people of means all drive, and only the poor and stretched (and community college students) take the bus; strange in that if I were a city-dweller I’d not think twice about taking the subway or bus to get around. I received lots of sympathy ride-offers from colleagues, and on rainy days I do take them up on their generosity. What has bus-riding for 5 months given me? A respect for a greater community that provides public transportation. A sympathy for those who depend upon public transportation. An awareness of the great amount of needs, physical/mental/spiritual/medical, of an otherwise unnoticed group of individuals. An opportunity to be generous with smiles, recognition, conversation, and an occasional shared bus-fare. A relief from the stress of driving to work (even “just” a 4-mile commute), and a reprieve from others’ less-than-acceptable driving skills. A focus on being more purposeful and scheduled in the a.m.—otherwise, I miss the bus!

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Thank you. A new take for me on this familiar passage.

  • Rowland Van Es Jr says:

    Good timing as this is the RCL text for Sept 1. We need other people. We also need to interact with the Cultural Other to know our neighbors enough to love them, and then we can know and love God just a little more. We all need o do more to reach out to the poor, blind, crippled, lame, and others

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