June 25, 2017 | Luke 14: 1, 7-14 | Rev. Nancy Talbot
One of the sure signs summer has arrived in my household is the moment I turn on the television and see that another season of the popular reality TV show America’s Got Talent has returned for another season. I like this program and the way it showcases hardworking groups and individuals striving to make their dreams come true. I’m particularly fond of the way every now and then someone shows up in the early rounds of auditions whose talent is underscored by challenges they have had to face in life. This season already we’ve witnessed a young woman overcome her sudden loss of hearing by using her intuition and vocal memory to sing a perfectly pitched melody. Another contestant whose face was severely disfigured from burns she sustained in a plane accident, rendering her unwelcome on many performance stages, sang her heart out to a standing ovation from the America’s Got Talent audience.
Watching these women, reminded me of a contestant from one of the early seasons of the show, a highschool student who had suffered severe epileptic seizures for much of his life. His talent was flying large indoor kites.
I remember being quite moved the first time I saw his act, in part because of his story, and although I would never pay to go see him on a Vegas stage which is the goal of the show, to find a Vegas worthy act, I was surprised when one of the judges buzzed him in the middle of his act indicating he wanted to eliminate him from the show. I was surprised, but the audience was furious with the judge. Their reaction amounted to a collective “how dare you” indicating they were in full support of this young man and his talent – even though his talent really wasn’t that great.
Something about this young man’s vulnerability, his weakness, his woundedness and the way he opened himself up to people, touched their hearts. It was as if his weakness touched their own weakness as if they saw something of themselves in him.
Jean Vanier, who is world famous for his work with people with intellectual disabilities says this about human weakness: “We all have wounded, vulnerable hearts. Each one of us needs to feel appreciated and understood; we all need help…. therefore those who are weak and in need have a secret power to touch our hearts and to bring us together in mutual belonging, whatever our religion or culture.”
In today’s scripture reading we find Jesus at the home of one of the Pharisees eating a meal, telling people where to sit and where not to sit; who to invite to dinner and who not to invite. His imperative is clear, it’s not the rich and powerful who should be sitting at our tables, it’s the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Don’t vy for the best seat in the house, take a seat at the far end of the table.
Often, this story is interpreted as challenging the status quo putting conventional understanding of power and prestige on its head and encouraging us to live lives that are welcoming of those most in need. And that is an excellent interpretation, a message we always need to hear.
Another way to look at this story is to view it not so much as a message about moving over and making room for the weak and vulnerable, but rather as a message about identifying ourselves with and as the weak and vulnerable at the table.
A few weeks ago our Ignatian Spirituality group, spent the evening prayerfully reviewing the last six months of our lives. As I looked back at the time from January to June I was surprised to notice how often I found myself accompanying people through times of brokenness and vulnerability: journeying with those who had been told their medical status was now deemed palliative; in the Intensive Care Unit praying for a miracle of healing; with Wade as he came to terms with his need to take restorative care leave; in conversation with someone who wondered if taking their own life might be easier than living the life they were living; watching many of you in this community slowing down as your age catches up to you and listening to your concerns about that; talking to a daughter making a decision about long-term care for her parents and a parent making a difficult decision to pull her child who struggles with his mental health out of school because his needs were not being accommodated; comforting someone who lost their job when the company they worked for downsized; and all the folks whose names come before the caring team who are known to me only by their circumstance.
There were plenty of life giving and celebratory experiences as well: marriages and anniversaries, births, new jobs and personal achievements but overall as I look back at the last six months I can’t help but notice a common theme of how very fragile we really are. Even those people I would call pretty together folks, scratch below the surface, and they’re not so together afterall.
Now it would be easy to say that the people I’ve just spoken of are not really the people Jesus is talking about when he says invite the poor the crippled the lame and the blind to our tables. In fact, these folks are the very people he’s said not to invite: friends, relatives and rich neighbours, people who are part of our close community.
And yet if one of the main purposes of this story is to encourage humility as it says in verse 11 “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” then it seems to me that being able to identify with the weak and vulnerable is of the utmost importance. Because having empathy with the weaknesses of others is what makes it possible for us to suspend our judgement of others. It’s what prevents us from feeling superior to others.
At the end of the day, we’re all the same: broken vessels bonded together by our common humanity. It’s only the illusion of some of us being more superior or more perfect or more together than others that leads to our need to try and prove that. In other words, we only try to keep up with the Joneses because we think the Joneses will be more important or more valuable than us if we don’t.
It’s also the illusion of some of us being more superior to others that leads to oppression and pecking orders and maintaining status quos.
I’m finding myself painfully aware of that illusion of superiority this week as we approach celebrations for Canada’s 150th birthday. All the hype around the day is making me feel uncomfortable as I consider the ways our colonization of this country and the creation of the residential school system set up a division and a disparity in our country that has many times left me with the illusion of being superior to the indigenous people of this land.
I really appreciated something our friend Chris Corrigan had to say about that discomfort in a blog he wrote last week in anticipation of National Aboriginal Day. He said that when it comes to reconciling our relationship with our indigenous brothers and sisters we settlers have to make the first move. “Indigenous people cannot be expected to be the ones to make it easy for everyone to do reconciliation. Settlers must make the first moves, and must do so in all the vulnerability and fear that comes from making the first move. Do something, do it badly, be open to learning and keep going”
Chris’s words reminded me of an awkward first move Jen-Beth Fulton and I made a few years ago when we went to visit Tsleiwatuth Chief and Elder Leonard George in anticipation of the Truth and Reconciliation commission. I fumbled all the way through the conversation not really knowing what to say or do. In retrospect it was a good experience of making myself vulnerable and I am encouraged by Chris’s invitation to do something like it again, even if I do it badly the next time too.
Jean Vanier says that weakness, recognized, accepted and offered is at the heart of belonging. Its at the heart of everyone having an equal place at the table. That’s because when we acknowledge we are weak, we acknowledge our need for one another and beyond that our need for something larger than ourselves.
One of the metaphors the biblical writers loved to use was the image of the wedding feast as a portrait of the realm of God or the reign of heaven. Today’s reading, which includes a parable about a wedding banquet, is no different.
So although this story serves as a model for who we literally should and should not be concerned about gathering at our tables, ultimately it’s a story about how we are valued in the eyes of God, in the economy of grace.
About this the story is clear. According to conventional wisdom it’s the rich and the powerful who have the best seats in the house. According to Jesus and the ways of heaven not one seat is better than the other. The best seat at the table is reserved for each and every one of us.
You may be familiar with the story about the statue of the clay Buddha from Thailand. For centuries it was kept in a particular temple until in 1955 a new temple was built to house it. When the time came to move the statue into its new home, the crane that came to move it accidentally dropped it in the mud cracking the outer surface. The story goes that in the middle of the night one of the temple monks, concerned about the safety of the statue still lying in the mud waiting for morning to be erected, came out with a flashlight to inspect the damage. There in the darkness the flashlight caught a glint of something shiny. There, just below the surface of the cracked clay lay hidden a Buddha made of pure gold.
There’s something about cracking the surface of our lives or having our lives cracked opened, that allows us to get in touch with our weaknesses and our vulnerabilities. There’s something about getting in touch with our weaknesses and vulnerabilities that enables us to see a rare beauty about ourselves; that enables us to be humble. There’s something about seeing our own brokenness, beauty and humility that allows us to recognize the same qualities in one another.
So it is that Conor Doran, the young man with epilepsy whose passion is to fly indoor kites never won America’s Got Talent, but he won the hearts of everyday Americans. And he will always have a first place seat at the table, as will each and every one of us in the eyes of the God who created us.