Sermon illustrations that point you to Christ in the text can be helpful. Illustrations that take lead you down any number of different rabbit trails away from Christ, or distract the hearer from Christ. Which is why I've chosen to share a brief example from my own cutting room floor for this week's sermon. In reading and re-reading the Luke 14:1-14 (at least in the 3 year lectionary...this text also is in the historic one-year lectionary on Trinity 17, by the way), that Jesus' entire encounter with the Pharisees on this particular Sabbath day reminded me of a Steve Carrel movie, Dinner for Schmucks. It's a bit of an odd connection and takes a bit of explanation. Not to mention most people haven't seen the movie. All of those reasons led to this deleted scene appearing here.
The basic premise of the movie goes like this. Top executives and CEO's - the who's who of town - get together for an occasional dinner. Each of them is required to bring a schmuck (using the newer form of the term, idiot or fool, as in Monty Python's village idiot sketches) to dinner. And the prize goes to the one with the most eccentric, eclectic form of schmuckery on display that evening. Paul Rudd plays a rising star type business man attempting to make his way in this rat race of the rich and famous. In order to impress the cool kids he invites Steve Carrel. To cut to the chase and the spoiler alerts, Paul Rudd's character ends up befriending Steve Carrel's character. And in the end, though the entire point of the dinner, at least from the rich folks' perspective, was to revel in the foolishness of others, they ended up being the real schmucks.
And that's the point of connection (at least in my mind) between Luke 14 and this rather unlikely source of a modern day illustration. The Pharisees in Luke 14 (as they do elsewhere) invited Jesus to dinner. This is no coincidence. But beware of Pharisees bearing gifts...and dinner invitations. As Luke narrates, they were watching Jesus carefully. Probably closer and more carefully than the NSA is watching you read this on Facebook or Blogger right now. No doubt, they were parsing every word off his tongue, twitch of his hand, and flicker of his eye - all in order to ensnare him. Admiral Ackbar would've warned Jesus, "It's a trap."
Here's the amazing thing about Jesus; he took the bait. He's not afraid of death. And he's not afraid of a little public humiliation. He goes to this Pharisee dinner party for schmucks precisely because he cares about the Pharisees. Although they invite him in order to mock him, or catch him breaking one of their 39 Sabbath Day laws, or to pile up more evidence which they can use against him, they end up the biggest schmucks.
Three times Jesus upsets not just their entire social system, but their entire way of relating to one another and to God. The first course dealt with healing and the Sabbath Laws themselves. The second course was directed at the guests. And the final course is served up to the host himself.
Why does Jesus systematically work his way from the kitchen to the guests and finally the host? Well, their social system - who sits where and does what and eats this or that - was built on their theology. Doctrine and practice really do go together. Good theology - good practice (Lord willing and with a lot of work; it's not easy being Lutheran). Bad theology leads to bad practice (sadly this is all to easy). And so forth.
So, you can tell a lot about someone or someones congregation by how they behave around the table. Jesus isn't interested in table etiquette in the way of old Adam's religious sensibilities. But he is deeply interested in table etiquette in the way of the Gospel. And it's not by merits, wealth, popularity, or any such thing. It's all about how fools and sinful schmucks like us get a dinner invitation even though we didn't deserve it. You claim any merit or exaltation on your own part and you will be humbled. But if you are humbled by Jesus' words, you'll find an open chair and a gracious invitation: Friend, move up higher.
Jesus words about humility and exaltation are words of great warning and judgment against our Pharisaical old nature. But they are also words of great comfort for us. Christ's words of condemnation humble us. They put us to death. And Christ happens to be an expert in that area, raising people from the dead. He does for you what he did for Lazarus. Arise. Wake up. In Christ's death and resurrection you are no longer a Pharisee or a schmuck or a dead, rotten sinner. In Christ's humility, you are exalted for he was humbled and put to death in your sin. All of your sinful Pharisee ways were nailed to the cross. So, let the feasting commence. Eat, drink, and be merry for your sins - though they were many - are forgiven.
Jesus took the lowest seat in order to give you the honored seat at the best meal in town. Here in the Lord's Supper he who is highly exalted humbles himself in bread and wine in order bring your sinful humiliation to an end and bring you everlasting exaltation in the forgiveness of sins. The dinner invitation has gone out. The wedding feast is prepared. The banquet is served. Jesus dines with sinners once again. Take and eat; this is Christ's body. Take and drink; this is Christ's blood. Friend, move up higher.