Sermon for 12th Sunday after Pentecost 2019
Proverbs 25: 6-7 Psalms 112 Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Struggling to make ends meet as a new pastor, Jim was upset when he confronted his wife with a receipt for a $250 dress she had bought. “How could you do this?” She explained, “I was outside the store looking at the dress in the window, and suddenly I found myself trying it on.” “It was like Satan was in my ear, ‘You look fabulous in that dress. Buy it!’” The pastor responded, “You know how I deal with that kind of temptation. I say, ‘Get behind me, Satan!” The wife replied, “I did, but then he said that it looks fabulous from back here too!” Humility is a prized quality in life, but it is hard. There is so much for us to be proud of. We like to look nice, we like to have good jobs and make money and own great cars and houses. We want our children to go to the best schools, and we want people to notice our achievements. The Episcopal Church is known for its ornate worship wardrobe. But Jesus always reminds us that it is the meek in heart, the humble in character, who find God’s love most in the world. “I am blessed and want to be a blessing to others.” That is what some of my Kairos sisters respond when asked “How are you?” I’m not sure what their idea of blessing to others involves. How do we proclaim that we are blessed? I hesitate on the self assuredness of it – the cockiness of it. I carried a Blessed to be an Episcopalian bumper sticker around for a year before actually putting it on my previous car. What does being blessed mean to us? Are we blessed when we win the lottery, or get all green lights on the way to work, or get good lab results, or get that special invitation? As we age, blessing becomes more complex, more elusive, and more special. Being a blessing is not easy, but trying to jump-start it by scurrying into spaces and places we think will shower us with blessing is much easier, much more doable. In all these cases, the deep theological meaning of blessing is lost, as Jesus is doing more than giving a biblical-world Miss Manners lesson. He is highlighting the ways in which the realm of God establishes its own social and spiritual order; trying to presume a place in that order isn’t smart and perhaps even unfaithful. At Palestinian wedding feasts, the male guests recline on couches, with the center couch being the place of honor; those there are chosen according to wealth, power, or position. If a more prominent man arrives late, as is often the case, someone of lesser rank is asked to move to a less prestigious location. Jesus is offering sound practical advice to choose the lowest place so that you can be invited up, but he is also pointing to something deeper and richer. The realm of God is also about how God offers an invitation in our lives to receive a genuine blessing when we learn that it is not necessary to store up spiritual brownie points to show just how good we are. Receiving a blessing invites us to grow into a deeper relationship with God. It is not something we can work our way into through worthwhile acts. No. God asks us to live into our createdness through our everyday acts toward each other and in and through our relationship with God and creation. Jesus wants us to understand that our all-to-human drive to seek the best seat in the house or at the party will not guarantee participation in God’s mercy or love. Jesus is not done with his teaching, for he has words of wisdom, warning, and blessing as well for the host who may be struggling with a bout of inflated ego by thinking that inviting those who can return his invitation is a sign of faithful witness. This is like arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship – nothing is gained and time grows shorter. Jesus is clear who should be invited: people who are the very fabric of God’s realm – the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. For Jesus, extending genuine hospitality to the least of these through acts of unselfish hospitality and kindness can wash God’s blessing over us and give us a sense of the great blessing that is to come in the resurrection. I read about Hugh Hefner being a scrapbooker. It seems he spent every Saturday working on his scrapebooks. He has since high school. He has 2685 scrapebooks. What do you think he puts in all of them? Do you think he would take a seat at the lower end of the table? Humility is not putting ourselves down. Truly humble people realize their gifts and strengths from God and are willing to use them as Christ directs. It is a realistic assessment and commitment to serve. Being a blessing is even more challenging and grace-filled. Theologically, my Kairos friends, in their comments, are pointing to the power of righteousness. There is so much to understand in how we seek blessings, rather than how we try to live our lives as a blessing. Righteousness or living in right relationship with God encourages us to live our lives with honesty, to seek justice and to pursue sound moral behaviors in our faith community or the variety of communities to which we belong. Perhaps, my friends understand the importance of investing their time and talent within a community as a tangible witness to God’s love lived out through them. Being a blessing, living righteousness in our daily lives, draws us into relationship with those who have less than we do, yet are the true representatives of God’s countless blessings in our lives. How is it we know how and when to give? As you imagine there are countless ways we can be a blessing to help others live into God’s desire to be in relationship with us. God’s desire to know us and love us is the foundation of the blessing that frames righteous living. Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it. We know from the Beatitudes that it is the poor who are blessed, the meek, those who mourn, not the ones we think are happy: the rich, the powerful, the successful. The greatest blessing that we can have is the ability to discern God’s will for our lives and then do it. How can we encourage each other to live justly with those who represent the coming-but-not-yet realm of God? How can we do it as we live our lives framed with mercy? How can we encourage each other to be a blessing to those whose lives we touch? A friend once observed that, in her experience, those who most need to hear a word of grace are more likely to hear a word of judgment, and those who might benefit from hearing a word of judgment are more likely to hear only grace. Humility is certainly a virtue, but exhortations to be humble can be dangerous to those who already have little sense of their own worth. Context is everything. Jesus tells the story in a setting where he has noticed “how the guests chose the places of honor.” The admonition to underestimate ourselves, rather than overestimate is powerful medicine for those too impressed by their own resumes. We may find it difficult to assess exactly where we fit in the pecking order, but Jesus’ story tells the truth: God’s point of view matters more than our own, and more than the assessment of those in a position to turn the spotlight on us or away from us. As if learning humility is not difficult enough, Jesus adds a second admonition to those gathered for the Sabbath meal. When we give a party, don’t invite people who can invite you back to one of their parties. “Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Is this meant to be a literal command, an obligation to anyone who ever thinks of entertaining guests? It can be literal enough, in that it is meant at least to turn us toward the hurting, the struggling, and the vulnerable in every aspect of our lives, so that they are never out of sight, out of heart, out of mind. This teaching may also be intended to help us celebrate selfless-giving rather than always thinking “what’s in it for me?” This says less about manners than about Jesus’ own ministry. He turns himself toward “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” He shares the table with those that the world turns away from. Jesus’ challenge reaches across boundaries of place and time, calling us to be more aware of those from whom we want to avert our eyes, and to follow him. We who “have been baptized into Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:3) are called to follow his ways. To live into our baptism is to be ever mindful of those who are typically left out. Jesus taught two lessons here. First, he spoke to the guests, telling them not to seek places of honor. Service is more important in God’s kingdom than status. Second, he told the host not to be exclusive about who is invited. God opens his kingdom for everyone. In that awareness of the promise of God’s kingdom for all of us, we can stand. We can stand as those blessed by God with gifts and talents to use in the community of faith. We can stand as a blessing to others when we constantly and courageously are in a place that lets God’s light shine through us. And we will be blessed for it. Amen.