9/1/2019 Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Luke 14: 1, 7-14.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
If there’s one thing that I’m really great at…it’s being humble! This is my favorite oxymoron. But to be fair, I think we all suffer somewhat from a lack of humility. It’s a part of our nature to want to be the best we can be. And it can be difficult to admit our shortcomings.
But often our outward presentation of ‘self’ is impacted by a desire to minimize any internal insecurity we may feel. This certainly makes it difficult not to strive to secure a place of honor whenever the opportunity presents itself. But that’s when we might just find ourselves relegated to a lower place in the hierarchy. At that point we become humble, like it or not; and we must deal with a sense of shame. While conceit, humility, and embarrassment exist in contemporary American society, the concept of honor vs. shame was endemic in the Middle East of Jesus’ time. The Jews were acutely aware that each had their place in the social pecking order in place at the time. But they were also affected by the influence of social hierarchy norms introduced under the Roman occupation of Israel.
This was a system based on patronage; a social structure centered around favors granted and repayment owed. It would be considered shameful if one weren’t able to repay an outstanding obligation. Alternatively, there was a stigma attached to calling in a debt from someone if it was known they were not able to pay. In this morning’s parable, as he often does Jesus turns social norms upside down. First, he urges the guests to practice humility by selecting a lower place at the banquet table. Then, the host is exhorted to invite to his gatherings, not his rich friends, but those who don’t have the ability to respond in kind. Both of these admonitions from Jesus emphasize his revelation that the kingdom of God is fully contrary to the ways of the world. He tells the guests; “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” And, to the rich host; “you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
These statements fly in the face of the social mores of Jesus’ time, and I daresay those in place today. Jesus’ ministry is grounded in reversing what was considered normal for the world and replacing this with the ultimate reality in God’s kingdom. Haughty is humbled; exalted is brought down; the lowest is made high; the poor and the disabled are cared for and the host receives no repayment from them.
A current, popular stand-up comedian relates a story in his act about the manner in which his family determines the amount of a wedding gift. It pains me to say that my bride participated whole-heartedly in this scheme. Immediately after leaving the reception she produced a notebook. I was at a complete loss as to why such a ledger was needed. Apparently, it was to record the names of each wedding guest along with the dollar amount of their gift. I was quite impressed with my wife and congratulated her for planning so quickly to ensure that all our guests would receive ‘thank-you’ notes for their gifts to help us start our married life together. ‘You don’t understand’, she told me. ‘I’m keeping this list so we will know how much to give to these people when they get married’. So much for adhering to Christ’s instruction regarding banquets! Like everyone, we are flawed people.
So, the banquet guests in Jesus’ parable were castigated for their lack of humility and their desire for public glorification. The host was scolded for inviting only his wealthy friends to the party. And the stand-up comic, and my wife and I are guilty of practicing ‘wedding gift reprisal’. We all succumb to our sinful human nature. And it’s much easier to go along with accepted cultural norms than it is to turn our backs on them and act as Jesus would have us do. It’s not easy for us to turn traditions and common practices upside-down and live our lives as Christ admonishes us. I’m probably not wrong in suggesting that most of us would rather have a seat in the front row at the show, than at the back of the theater. And most of us invite our families, friends, and neighbors to our summer cook-outs; and we likely expect them to reciprocate.
I wonder what would happen if we were to refuse to conform to the standards and customs of the world and instead, took Jesus’ words to heart? As I said, it won’t be easy, but I’m willing to bet we could start to make a difference. It’s simply a matter of deciding to be different, and following up on this decision. While individuals are capable of wonderful things, meaningful change is best accomplished by groups. Old quote: ‘there is strength in numbers’. And: ‘many hands make light work’.
You may have heard it said recently that the anticipation is that Emanuel Lutheran Church will emerge from this current transition phase and thrive as a community of God’s people, doing God’s work in this place. As this vision transpires, one of the ways we can help bring it to fruition is to act as one body in proclaiming God’s kingdom beyond our walls. There are countless areas of need in our community, and we are blessed with many untapped resources. This beautiful building would serve as a perfect venue for providing meals for those who do not have the means to respond in kind. Jesus said to invite ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’. And let’s remember how often Jesus admonishes us to feed people in need. Massachusetts is home to 167,000 children suffering from hunger. 21,000 of these children who go to bed hungry at night live here in Worcester county. Emanuel could offer some of these a seat at the table. A seat at the front, one with dignity and honor. Jesus tells us the host should tell the guest, ‘Friend, move up higher’.
Emanuel has been active in mission projects over the years. These have included donations to food pantries, Florence House, Lutheran Healthcare, DSS, and providing fuel assistance. These are worthy endeavors and help this church live into our baptismal promises, and to strive to mirror Jesus’ actions in support of those in need. I’m sure Emanuel will continue in these endeavors to act as Christ’s hands and feet in the world. But how much more impactful would it be if, in addition to these acts Emanuel were to throw open wide the doors to become a place where all are truly welcome and there are no unworthy seats at the table? Where all are told to ‘move up higher’? Working together in some sort of truly meaningful activity to alleviate the suffering of others will help Emanuel discern our role in God’s kingdom. An endeavor that would require all of us to assume a lower place at the table; one that would oblige us to roll up our sleeves and bless others in an intimate, in-the-trenches way.
Whatever direction Emanuel chooses, we must never forget that we would all be seated at the lowest place at the table in the coming kingdom, if it were not for the work of Christ Jesus on the cross and God’s forgiving grace. The Father justifies us through God’s own willingness to accept us just as we are. For as lowly a position we deserve, God says to us; ‘Friend, move up higher’. If the Almighty permits us to occupy an honored place at the table in God’s kingdom, aren’t we obliged to do no less for our brothers and sisters in the world?
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, your Son admonishes us to take a lower place, offering positions of honor to others. Help us to remember that these are the ones who are least able to occupy the nobler place of their own volition. Compel us to act in support of these, knowing they are precisely the ones that Jesus reminds us are unable to repay the gift.
And the people of God say…Amen!
And if you have the opportunity this week; tell someone; ‘Friend, move up higher’.