September 1, 2019

Pentecost 12C

Humility

GOSPEL

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke 14:1, 7-14

SERMON

Our egos would appear to be hungry puppies.  They can demand constant feeding; they are supersensitive to slights that register as deprivation of nurture; and they often can present as insatiable.      

It is small wonder, then, that the social sea in which we swim has the “chutzpah” to registers pride as a virtue. Pride is something to be acknowledged and reinforced.  Be proud of whom you’ve made yourself to be. Take pride in the group that numbers you among its members. Be proud of your personal accomplishments and the achievements of your tribe. 

Curiously, our faith tradition registers pride not only as a sin, but even as one of the seven deadliest sins.  The sin of the angel Lucifer, who in biblical mythology fell from heaven and came to be known as Satan, was the sin of pride. Being an angel among angels was not enough for Lucifer.  He wanted equality with God. The sin of our mythological first parents was also recorded as the sin of pride. The serpent told them that if they ate the apple they would be like God.  Yes, as attested to in the Book of Proverbs, “Pride indeed goes before destruction and an arrogant spirit before the fall”.

Then along comes Jesus, the God who wants to be like us.  Jesus reveals who God really is. He reveals that our God is a God, who rather than being insatiable in terms of wanting our adulation, is rather this paradoxical mystery who comes into the fullness of Himself, and becomes all that God can be, by emptying Himself.

One of biblical passages that speaks so poignantly to this awesome truth is recorded in the advice given by Paul in his letter to the Philippians.  Paul writes:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests,  but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

Paul continues with words that came to be sung as a hymn by the first believers,

“Jesus Christ, who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing, he emptied Himself
    by taking the very nature] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.

 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself further
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!”

 

The parable that Jesus shares this morning invites us to wrestle with the contest between our fragile egos and the “self “that is our core.   

 

I believe that while we are created to esteem what is godly in us; to honor and cherish the “self” that has been made in the image of God; to appreciate that which makes us remarkably different from the other and vice versa; and to acknowledge holiness whenever and whenever it manifests itself in us and in others; we must be ever on our guard against confusing healthy self-esteem with rapacious and prideful ego-massaging.  

                                                                                                            Humility is a virtue that requires pursuit. It is wonderful to share the most positive experiences of our selves, but must we not be careful not to be boastful and give the appearance of trumpeting what we perceive ourselves to have over others?

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus is continuing his journey towards Jerusalem. Jesus takes a provocative step and accepts a dinner invitation to eat with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were rigid in their thinking and practices of Judaism. They viewed Jesus with great suspicion because of His willingness to break with rules and tradition. In this gospel, Jesus heals a person on his way into dinner and asks the Pharisees if it was wrong to do so. After all, it was the Sabbath. But they remained quiet.

Once inside, Jesus pays particular attention to the seating arrangements at the dinner. People are apparently jockeying for the best places at the table. Jesus used this occasion to give a teaching about humility. He tells us not to look for the best seat in the house, but rather to move down to a lower seat and wait to be invited to a perceived place of honor. 

As His disciples must we not recognize, that in the eyes of God, we are all equal?  Therefore, while it might meet an ego need to secure a seat of honor, where we sit is, indeed, less important than the one to whom we offer a seat. 

God challenges us to demonstrate a willingness to make honorable space for others at the banquet table of life. In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are admonished to graciously give up our cherished seat and “show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  Jesus’ banquet table can never be a place reserved exclusively for those who regard themselves as elite for one ridiculous reason or another.  There is no such thing as royal blood. There are only four types of blood: A, B, AB and O. And before God our wealth, no matter how great, counts for nothing.  And certainly the size of the adoring crowd counts for even less.                                                                                                                                        

People who have been marginalized find themselves standing outside of the banquet room. It can be made difficult to impossible to gain entry. People of color struggled and continue their struggle to get a seat at the table. White nationalists like the Proud Boys, fight to deny such inclusion.  They remain deaf to the call of Jesus urging the people of God to show hospitality. 

Ceding any power to others can be frightening especially to those who live from a place of fear. Jesus keeps encouraging us to review the guest list and, in a display of kingdom etiquette, make sure that everyone has a seat. When we live in a spirit of humility, we focus less on ourselves and much more on how to ensure that we make space for everyone. 

Fear of others can incline us to refuse our providing space for a multiplicity of voices and expressions, and thereby, so many are excluded. The full richness of the Church can never be appreciated as long as such resistance exists.  

In fierce opposition to a new model proposed by Francis, some conservative Roman Catholic leaders continue to refuse persons of same-sex affection a place at the table.  The Archbishop of Indianapolis issued a directive that a Jesuit high school fire a teacher in a same-sex marriage or forfeit its Catholic identity. This archbishop does not seem to realize that his directive is itself a forfeiture of Christian identity. Jesus says that exclusion is never the appropriate response. He calls us all to participate in the banquet.   

                                                                                                                                       His relationship with the Pharisees had been rocky. Jesus addressed them on several occasions, sometimes even accusing them of focusing on unimportant matters and missing what is most important.  In last Sunday’s gospel He called them “hypocrites”. Jesus urged his adversaries to focus less on the letter of the law and rather to promote the spirit of God’s kingdom. 

Jesus drew the attention of his followers to those often forgotten. He admonished people to remember the poor, the widows, and orphans. Today He admonishes us to attend to the immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.  The banquet table provides a wonderful metaphor for all who are hungry, whatever the nature of that hunger, enjoying and experiencing God’s radical hospitality.

Should we not exude a spirit of generosity that welcomes all into our community?  Those whom we might be inclined to exclude are perhaps the ones who deserve the seats of honor at the banquet table. In reality, there are enough seats for everyone and there is more than enough room and there are more than enough resources in this nation for us to be as generous as God is generous.

Jesus yearns to nourish all with grace and goodness. Whenever we arrive at the banquet table, we are offered a fantastic meal filled with love and strength. That meal is intended for all who are present with no regard for social status. In those moments, there is no special section earmarked solely for the privileged. There is no reserved seating for those who can purchase a special seat.

As we humble ourselves before God, our goal must never be our attaining the best seat at the banquet. Instead, let it be to open the doors to invite everyone in. We can allow our guests to select their seats first and then we will fill in. In so doing, we will fulfill the instructions provided through the Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of Luke.

The instruction of Jesus is clear: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” 

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna                                          September 1, 2019