In my experience it’s not all that often in our culture that we encounter such a formal situation that we know what it means to be ‘moved up higher.’ As in the time of Jesus, at wedding receptions perhaps. And on airplanes.
My station in life has meant that I’ve never been one who ever really aspired to be seated at the front of the plane — which is why I can remember the three times I was unexpectedly ‘moved up higher.’
The first was when I was flying standby with my family… trying to get from Boston to Chicago after Hurricane Bob. (You probably don’t remember Bob, but yes, it was an actual hurricane which did its share of damage on Cape Cod in August of 1991.) As a result of the storm, our vacation had gone on longer than had been planned. I was glad to be ‘alone’ for a few hours. A kinder person, perhaps, would have offered that seat to one of her parents. I did not.
Another time was when my flight was delayed by weather and I missed a connecting flight in Dallas, got too little sleep in a nearby hotel — and someone, apparently noting my unpleasant experience late the night before, was kind enough to put me in a seat where I could actually nap between there and San Antonio.
And the last one? Well, our group was in the airport in Nairobi, waiting to board Ethiopian Air for Washington, D.C. I’ve you’ve ever traveled to East Africa, you know it can be a grueling journey. I’ve done it a few times and every other time I’ve arrived home convinced that the human body is simply not meant to hurtle across time zones like that. In fact, that’s not it at all. We’re just not meant to hurtle across time zones curled up like a pretzel.
So as I said, we were waiting to board when I was called to the desk. Apparently coach was overbooked and they were going to put our group leaders into First Class. I didn’t say no and was overwhelmed by the difference it made to be able to simply stretch out for that endless flight. Once or twice I ventured back into coach to check on my friends there, but I quickly retreated as the close quarters in the rear of the plane were leading to building resentment among my fellow travelers — no doubt because their experience contrasted so with the imagined luxury I was enjoying.
On all three occasions I was invited to ‘move up higher’ and I did so with gratitude and few regrets, although each time I did feel a bit like an impostor. Like I didn’t quite belong. Indeed, remembering those times I find myself recalling now yet another time when I received such an unearned gift.
It could be that it’s because I just passed a milestone anniversary year that I find myself remembering the following incident from my senior year in college. Or it could be that for reasons which will soon become obvious, I will simply never forget it. Either way, this is how it was:
It was the night before my last final that May. Apparently I must have thought myself well prepared, for friends and I had gathered at the local bar that was located just off campus. It wasn’t long in that small college community that we were joined by a number of faculty — one of whom was my college advisor: the same professor who would grade my last final in the days to come.
I had had many classes with him as had my friend sitting next to me and I suppose by then we were as much friends as people could be under such circumstances. Still, what happened next was entirely unexpected. For as the evening was nearing its end, our advisor looked at the two of us and told us not to come to the final the next morning. We stole glances at each other, not knowing whether he was serious or not. A few minutes later he repeated himself and when he said it yet one more time, his colleague looked at us and told us he was serious when he said not to show up as our A’s were assured. He was offering us a gift which we surely had not earned. We were being offered first class seats for which we had not paid.
My friend and I walked across campus a while later giddy with how this was playing out. When we approached our respective dorms we agreed on a plan… that we would, in fact, not show up for that final test — but that we would also hide out in our dorm rooms until well after the test was over so as not to raise suspicion. So far as I know that’s exactly what he did. I know it’s what I did the next morning. Still, for obvious reasons, I never felt right about it. Putting this in print here I still wonder these thirty years later if I might yet be found out.
I wonder how it would have been in the time of Jesus for the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, who Jesus told his host to invited to his next party. I wonder if he actually did and I wonder if they got over their surprise and showed up. And I wonder if they worried still about the reactions of others — or if they felt entirely out of place themselves having lived their lives with second class status or worse— some of them their whole lives. I wonder if they felt they really didn’t deserve it — or if they simply settled into the party and had the times of their lives.
I wonder about all these things in this life, but I don’t wonder about these so much in the next one. For so much of what Jesus offers has to do with reversals — the sort we hear about in his words today. In ways so very different from how this world usually works, in that time and place humility will be rewarded and associating with the poorest people we encounter will have eternal dividends. No, I don’t wonder about this in the next life for with Jesus such examples are just glimmers of what will one day be. For then only by God’s gift will I once again be one of those upgraded to first class — Indeed, I have been promised an “A” grade I never actually earned. And I expect the same will b true for my neighbor, my friend, my enemy. No, indeed, I won’t have to worry about being found out — for Jesus knows me through and through and he has still issued an invitation with my name on it — and yours, too, — to move up higher for we will one day be among those who gather for that great banquet in heaven. I won’t ever be able to earn it nor deserve it and what a party that will be as we all celebrate in the certainty that each of us is there only by God’s grace. What a wonder that will be!
- Can you think of times when you were unexpectedly, undeservedly ‘moved up higher?’ What was that experience like for you?
- How do such earthly reversals compare to what Jesus offers in today’s Gospel lesson?
- How do you imagine the final great banquet in heaven? What does it look like? Who will be there?