8/28/2016 Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Luke 14:1, 7-14.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Who is the greatest? Who is the least? Who gets the seat of honor? And who really cares? I know in this day and age, just getting an invitation to dinner is honor enough for me. But, I know that’s not true for everyone. Every time I read today’s gospel about dinner guests clamoring for the choicest seats in their puffed-up way, I remember the story that appeared in Sports Illustrated a few years back. “It isn’t often,” the article stated, “that somebody succeeds in silencing Muhammad Ali, but a quick-witted airline stewardess accomplished just that. When she politely asked Ali to please fasten his seat belt, Ali replied, ‘Superman don’t need no seat belt.’ The stewardess responded, ‘Superman don’t need no plane either’.” I just love that story. For, the bigger you feel you are, the harder the fall to reality.
But, the late John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a man of many talents and of great wealth, was not like Ali. One day, he was waiting to be ushered to a seat in Riverside Church along with a few other people. As you may or may not know, Rockefeller, who donated a substantial amount of money to build this cathedral, was a pillar of that church. But, when he arrived for services, the church was almost full. So, rather than going to his “regular” seat in a place of honor, Rockefeller offered to go upstairs. “I don’t think I will go to my customary pew,” he said to the usher, “I might disturb some worshippers. I’ll find a seat in the balcony.” A few moments later, a pompous parishioner who overhead the remark, but did not recognize that the man was Rockefeller, said to the usher, “Take me to a seat downstairs. I’m not the balcony type.”
There’s a popular saying which I’m sure you’ve all heard – “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” But, the opposite is a lot closer to the truth. “If you’ve got it, you don’t need to flaunt it because people already know it’s there.” Only those who don’t have it – or don’t think they have it – people who are dissatisfied and want others to think more highly of them – are the ones who tend to be pushy about themselves.
Jesus witnessed this type of pushy behavior and over-inflated egos as guests were taking their seats at a dinner table. Jesus noticed how they were trying to impress each other as they vied for the better seats. So, Jesus told them a story about a man who strove hard to be on top only to be put in his place. This man came to a wedding feast and grabbed one of the higher seats of honor. The trouble is, the host had reserved that seat for someone else, so the man had to move. Can you imagine the expression on this man’s face when he was asked to move to a less desirable seat? Now, Jesus doesn’t go into details about this, but we’ve all witnessed such faux-pas enough to know the variety of emotions and behavior, the excuses which come from embarrassment and the anger which comes from hurt pride. It’s the wise person who knows that if you try to prove to people that you are better than you are, they will know exactly what you are trying to do. But, if you judge yourself as worthy of the lowest place, then the honor comes from how others decide to regard you.
You see, these are not just general table manners. The general rules also apply when it comes to the kingdom of God. Your place at the Lord’s table is a matter of judgment reserved for God alone. To assume you deserve a high position is to stake a claim upon God based on your own merit; while to take a low place, to act humbly, is to claim only the grace of God.
The key to humility is to recognize that we don’t need to “place God,” put others down to puff ourselves up. It is to be at peace with what we are in God’s eyes – loved and forgiven. It is to believe that God values each of us, cherishes us, and can use us for his holy purposes. When I begin to accept this, then I don’t need to push others aside in order to find my worth as a person. My value as a person is something that God, in his grace, bestows upon me.
When I begin to understand and accept this, then I can begin to regard myself in a manner similar to the way Ralph Waldo Emerson regarded himself. Although Emerson was truly one of the greats of American literature, he could admit that “every man I meet is my superior – in some way – in that I can learn something from him.” How appropriate it is that God gave us one mouth that closes and two ears that stay open. Humility doesn’t mean beating your breast and saying how awful you are, nor does it mean hiding your value and the gifts God has given to you. Humility is seeing that all of life is a gift from God, including others who are just as gifted as you are. This means that humility is an attitude that arises from a grateful heart.
Those who are full of pride and think that they are worth more because of achievements, status or wealth, all of which they may have in abundance, miss the point. All these things are to be used to serve others. We can’t keep them to ourselves, for we don’t take anything with us beyond the grave. Everything is from God and everything returns to God.
So if someone wants to gain humility, it would be best for that person to go to the Lord – to the foot of the cross. As Philip Brooks puts it, “the true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you what the real smallness of your nature is.” What we find when we stand next to Christ is not paralyzing humility, but empowering humility. While the cross certainly shows us our great need for salvation, the cross also shows us the strength we have because we are loved by God.
Just think how our world might change if humility, generosity and grace marked all our dealings – those on a person level, in business and even in international relations. Who would receive a place at the table even though they were not able to repay the favor? Who would take the lowest spot and make room at the top for those who had not been listened to before? Who might you find yourself sitting next to, making friends with, joining in service and praise? It could be an amazing world – a world more like the one Christ has in mind for us.
May we take a humble step and find our value and the worth of others in the eyes of Christ. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.