What Seat Do You Choose? Proper 17(C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

So American monk Thomas Merton tells us something we may not really want to hear, but we can immediately connect his uncomfortable truth to Jesus’ teaching in our gospel today.

We find it easy to connect with Jesus as a healer, as our savior, as a teacher and even as a prophet. But Jesus as a countercultural revolutionary, someone who speaks against the way our society works? That’s harder to stomach, especially when we realize that he is preaching against behavior that we engage in regularly.

In ancient Israel’s society, who sat where at a dinner party conveyed status as clearly as who has the corner office, who gets the Employee of the Month parking space, or whose child has the most attendees at her birthday party. Our lives are full of subtle status signals and we use them to communicate who we are and how we want others to see us.

Our clothing, what car we drive (or whether we have a car to drive), what neighborhood we live in, where we socialize—it all sends a message about our worth and prestige, usually based on our economic power. We buy a rung on the ladder as often as we “earn” it.

These signals were conveyed in Jesus’ time by the seating at a meal. And the seating as arranged by the host was not just a signal but a tool. If you hosted a dinner and wanted an advantageous marriage match with a certain young man for your daughter, you could seat her father at a higher place at the table than he usually would have. If a competitor in business shorted you in a deal, you could seat him lower at the table to communicate your displeasure. Seating at the table was currency, and it was the stage on which political and social relationships were played out. It was the public display of an individual’s or family’s place on the spectrum of honor and shame.

A similar display in our society with similar messages might be the public encounter with a grocery clerk at the check-out counter. When you pay with food stamps, people draw many conclusions about you. And when you pay with an exclusive, members-only platinum credit card, people draw other conclusions about you. You are labeled and judged and placed within a strict hierarchy based on that public encounter. That is how these dinner seating charts worked in Jesus’ time.

One of the most interesting parts of this gospel is what Jesus does not say. He does not say, “This entire status-by-seating system is bogus and I want you to chuck the whole thing.” Jesus proceeds on the assumption that we will work and live within this system. Jesus says, “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.”

So Jesus leaves the status system intact. That kind of seems like a let-down. You would think that he would get rid of it entirely. He seems to be promising us, “You’re not in the corner office now, but if you take the rattiest old cubicle purposely, one day you will be in the corner office.” At least that’s how we would interpret it. But what if there’s another way to think about it?

Let’s think for a moment about what it feels like to jockey for position as we do so often at work and socially and at church. The endless competition. The unspoken cues and subtle put-downs. The unfairness of who is rewarded and who is shoved down to a lower rung. It’s exhausting, isn’t it? When we get caught up in these games of who’s getting promoted or who’s chairing the new church committee or who’s got a new car in the driveway—we are disconnected from God and our true selves. And that drains us of life and vitality.

Jesus says, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled.” What if he’s referring to the soul-sucking exhaustion of the rat race? He’s telling us that as long as we search for satisfaction in ways to put ourselves above others, we will find ourselves with many shiny things and diplomas and titles, but cold and empty hearts. Exalting ourselves drives us to new lows of integrity and new poverty of happiness.

Jesus says, “All who humble themselves will be exalted.” What if the exaltation Jesus promises is not the corner office? What if it’s not the most Facebook likes? What if it’s not letters after our names or the senior warden’s role or a clergy collar around our neck? What if the exaltation Jesus promises is liberation from the whole status system?

If we decide we’re not going to play the game anymore, we start to make different choices. We stop searching for a leg up at work and look for a chance to lend a hand. We stop thinking we’re too important to set out chairs or wash dishes at church and instead show up early or stay late to do humble tasks. We keep our cars and our clothes and our phones an extra year, thinking of those around the world who make do with so much less than what we’re blessed with, no longer needing to display the latest and the flashiest.

Those choices begin as a spiritual discipline. It goes against our nature that drives us to seek comfort and status and power. But what begins as a discipline—choosing over and over to humble ourselves as Jesus asks us—starts to transform us. Suddenly, that craving to be the best, to have the most, to win at everything, starts to ebb and die away. This is the exaltation Jesus promises the humble. And if we keep working at it, small choice by small choice, the seed of peace that was planted by hard-earned discipline starts to flower.

“Those who humble themselves will be exalted.” When we are still trapped in the status system, we might assume that Jesus means that at the Great Dinner Table in the Sky, the humble will finally, finally get to have the choice seats at the head of the table. They’ll have an eternal corner office, a never outdated smartphone, and an infinity sign where their Facebook like number used to be. But that would not be heaven. It would be the same prison we lived in on earth.

We read in the Letter to the Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The only way out of the chains of the status system is to follow Jesus in his example of downward mobility. We must of course avoid the trap of ostentatiously taking on humble tasks and refusing honor loudly—that’s simply climbing a rung on the ladder of martyrdom and noble morality. It’s the same prison.

We can’t free ourselves from the status system. Jesus points that out by assuming that there will always be a table and there will always be fighting for higher positions at the table. Where we have a choice is where we choose to sit. And if we ask Jesus to be with us and help us to take the lower seat, help us to quit playing the game, help us to abandon the quest for success and money and power, he will exalt us to freedom from the need for status at all.

We won’t need to make a big show of it. We will know our true worth. We will know deep in our bones that our worth is not determined by where we sit, but by whom we are loved. And we are loved by Jesus. Amen.

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Priest-in-Charge of the Shared Ministry of St. Luke’s Shelbyville and St. Thomas Franklin. A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.  

Download the sermon for Proper 17(C).

Awaken the servant within, 15 Pentecost, Proper 17 (C) – 2013

September 1, 2013

Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

There is an old story that goes like this: There was a university professor who went searching for the meaning of life. After several years and many miles, he came to the hut of a particularly holy hermit and asked to be enlightened. The holy man invited his visitor into his humble dwelling and began to serve him tea. He filled the pilgrim’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring so that the tea was soon dripping onto the floor. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “Stop!” he said. “It is full. No more will go in.” The holy hermit replied, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions, preconceptions and ideas. How can I teach you unless you first empty your cup?”

It’s a wonderful story about humility, about the recognition of the limits of our own talents, abilities and authority. It seems like many of our religious traditions hold the virtue of humility in highest esteem. In Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” the virtue of humility is considered the most important of the seven capital virtues. Humility holds the most important place because it is the opposite of what Dante considers the worst of the seven deadly sins, the sin of pride. Dante defined pride as the “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for neighbor.” For Dante, pride, indeed, goeth before the fall. Humility, on the other hand, is radical dependence on God, total trust in God and surrender to His will.

And yet, even though humility is highly esteemed in our religious traditions, it doesn’t seem to be one of our favorite virtues today. In fact, humility seems downright humiliating. Who wants to eat “humble pie,” after all? Don’t we think of pride as a virtue rather than humility?

Aren’t we all rather more interested in buying a book about the “Seven Secrets of Highly Successful People” than a book about the “Seven Secrets of Lowly, Humble People”?

Don’t we love to hold up those big foam fingers and signs proclaiming that our team is No. 1? I’ve never seen a foam finger or a sign proclaiming that our team displays the virtues of temperance, honesty and humility.

Isn’t “American Idol” about the thousands of people who desire fame, if only for 15 minutes? Can we even imagine a program about people who seek to cultivate the classical virtues of justice, temperance and fortitude? It would seem an absurdity to have a televised competition rewarding someone for displaying the greatest humility, but I suppose I wouldn’t put it past some television network to come up with a new reality program entitled “Dancing With the Hermits” or “Who Wants to Be a Franciscan?” or “The Last Monastic Standing” or some such nonsense.

Well, no, probably not.

To quote a pop song from a few years back, “We all want to be big stars.” And it’s not all about becoming rich and famous. Browse the self-help aisle at your local bookstore, and you will see books entitled “Awaken the Giant Within” by Anthony Robbins, “The Hero Within” by Carol Pearson, and “Achieve Anything in Just One Year” by Jason Harvey. For 20 or 30 bucks you can buy one of these books, and apparently be on the road to awakening either your inner giant or your inner hero and achieving anything. I wonder what Dante would think! More importantly, I wonder what Jesus would think.

In our gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus tells one of his most famous stories, a story about pride and humility. Apparently, Jesus was invited to share the Sabbath meal at the house of a leading Pharisee, who would have been something of a big muckety-muck in religious circles.

It’s hard to understand why these upright religious folks keep inviting Jesus to dinner parties, because he always causes a ruckus. At a dinner party at another Pharisee’s house, a disheveled and disreputable woman crashes the party, throws herself at Jesus feet, and begins weeping. The host of the part gets very upset, but Jesus apparently thinks she has done a beautiful thing.

So, in today’s story, when we hear Jesus was invited into the home of a Pharisee for a meal, you know there is going to be trouble. Jesus arrives, maybe he makes a little small talk, and then he watches how the guests jockey with each other for the places of honor. You know that delicate dance where you try to get the good seats next to the really important people.

So Jesus watches this for a while, and then he launches into a story, which basically skewers the pretensions of all the guests. He says, “When you get invited to a banquet, don’t seat yourself in a place of honor, because someone more important than you may come along, and then you will be asked to give up your seat, and you will be disgraced in front of the whole party. Rather, take the lowest seat, so that when your host sees you sitting in the cheap seats, he will say, ‘Friend move up higher,’ and then you will be honored in the presence of all the guests.”

And then Jesus utters the great saying, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Before Jesus leaves the party, he tells his host, “The next time you throw a party, don’t invite your rich friends and neighbors, so that they might return the favor some day and invite you to one of their nice parties. Rather, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they can’t repay you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Robert Coles tells a story about his first encounter with Dorothy Day, who was living and working with the poor in the slums of New York City. Coles was in Harvard Medical School at the time, studying to be a psychiatrist, proud of his status, and also proud that he had volunteered to work with Dorothy Day in helping the poor. He arrived for his first meeting to discover Day sitting at a table, deep in conversation with a very disheveled street person. She didn’t notice Coles had come into the room until they had finished their conversation. Then she asked, “Do you want to speak to one of us?”

Robert Coles was astounded by Dorothy Day’s humility. She had identified so completely with a so-called “nobody” as to remove all distinction between them. Coles said it changed his life. He said he learned more in that moment than in his four years at Harvard.

For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. In this statement, we hear a great truth about humility. In emptying ourselves, we will find fulfillment. In humbling ourselves, we will be exalted. In a culture that prizes “the secrets of highly successful people” and urges us to “awaken our inner giant,” this sounds rather counterintuitive.

But is it true? Is Jesus right? Are Dante and Dorothy Day pointing us to the truth of Jesus’ statement?

We can submit this statement to the test of human experience. Can we walk through life on a perpetual high? Once we have found fulfillment, do we live from that place from then on? Or does the universe have a way of knocking us off our perches and emptying us out?

It seems more like the latter than the former. Even for those who have powerfully known and experienced the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ, who have known in our hearts and minds the peace of God which passes understanding, they have also known the dark night of the soul and the fear and trembling of salvation.

Is this surprising? Disappointing? Should it be? After all, when Jesus called his disciples he didn’t promise them that they would be able to achieve anything in one year. Rather, he said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

It seems that we are constantly moving back and forth between emptiness and fulfillment, between humility and exaltation, between death and resurrection. Life still knocks the wind out of us. The universe still reduces us to tears. Death and loss still bring us to our knees. But rather than try to awaken the giant or the hero within, we try to remember the truth and the promise that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md., and co-author of “A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love” (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

Let mutual love continue, Pentecost 14, Proper 17 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 2:4-13 and Psalm 81:1, 10-16 or Sirach 10:12-18 (Track 2: Proverbs 25:6-7 and Psalm 112); Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Get a group of Episcopal clergy talking, and sooner or later the conversation will turn to their experiences officiating at weddings. Someone in the group will no doubt relate a moving story of an estranged family reconciled and reunited at the wedding of a son or daughter. Before long, another cleric will begin reminiscing about a great-grandmother’s tears of joy as she watched the next generation of her family grow to adulthood and wed. But then – inevitably – someone else in the group will bring up with a sigh of resignation the difficult bride with unrealistic expectations and demands or the tipsy best man who barely made it through the service.

Truth is, no wedding ceremony ever seems to go exactly according to plan. Weddings just seem somehow to bring out the best – and sometimes the worst – in people. Clergy know that. Indeed, we all know it. And apparently, so does Jesus if our gospel account today is any indication. It is probably not for nothing that he sets his parable lesson today at a wedding feast where everyone is already anxious – trying their hardest to look and act their best – and vying for the best seats and places.

At first glance, this story appears to be nothing more than a straightforward, practical lesson in the twin virtues of courtesy and hospitality – among the most esteemed in the ancient world. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,” our Lord begins, “do not sit down at the place of honor.” After all, there may well be other, more distinguished, guests who outrank you. Choose instead the lower places at table, he continues, “so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’”

Common sense, we might rightly say, nodding our heads in agreement. Just good manners.

But Jesus is, of course, no first-century Miss Manners, and he has far more important things on his mind than table etiquette and protocol. Our selfish instincts, he knows, are not confined to wedding banquets and the dinner table. In every age and culture, it has been part of human nature for folks to act in their own self-interest – sometimes even while seemingly acquiescing to the needs and wants of others. We do it all the time, often without even thinking about it.

Whole economies are based on the principle of rugged individualism and self-reliance, the notion that, without interference from others, we are all better off depending on our own initiative and enterprise – acting in our own self-interest. Social scientists might even tell us that this is unavoidable and simply part of human evolution. After all, all creatures have a natural propensity to foster and advance their own survival. We are no exception. As one bumper sticker popular in California puts it: “It’s About Me.” That pretty much says it all.

At a certain level, of course, some might argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with this. Flight attendants warn us to secure our own oxygen masks first before assisting others – and for fairly obvious reasons. Therapists urge clients to be sure they are “getting their own needs met” before trying to reach out to others when already psychically exhausted. And we are all learning anew the importance of self-care – taking responsibility for our own health and well-being every day.

But what takes place at the wedding banquet in Jesus’ parable is emblematic of different and much deeper truths.

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” our Lord concludes, “and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This is not the practical experience of the workaday world we know so well. And if we are to believe Jesus, the ordinary rules of human self-aggrandizement, greed, and pride suddenly no longer apply. In the upside-down, topsy-turvy world of the gospel, everything is turned around. The humble are the exalted ones. The poor are the rich. The crippled and lame are the well. And the blind are the ones who see.

And it is not about me after all.

The world turns out to be not as solid and real as we had believed. Ultimately, our self-reliance turns out to be an illusion. For we all depend upon one another whether we recognize it or not. And whether we like it or not, we all depend on God. More than that, our Lord insists, it is only in emptying ourselves of our selfish impulses and accepting our sheer dependence upon God and others that we truly come to realize our own worth and value. Only by humbling ourselves can we approach the One who humbled himself on the cross.

This is the paradox – and the challenge – of the gospel. The kingdom, of which our Lord so often speaks, is a realm at odds with this everyday world of ours and its values. In the spiritual realm of God’s kingdom, survival of the fittest takes on a whole new meaning. And the second law of thermodynamics no longer applies: there is no limit – no end – to the energy of God’s love; it goes on forever. The “resurrection of the righteous,” as Jesus calls it here, reveals our true and genuine nature. And we will be repaid – not in ever higher salaries and exalted titles – but in the only currency that counts, the love God has for us and which we share with one another.

Any bride and groom who survive the wedding and go on to a happy married and family life soon enough learn first hand the important lesson of Jesus’ parable today; they soon enough come to know the meaning of selfless giving; they soon enough glimpse the kingdom at play in spouse and children. But you do not have to be married to find God and his “angels” masquerading as “strangers” in your midst. The kingdom, after all, is close at hand.

We pray today with the author of our reading from Hebrews, “Let mutual love continue.”

Now, that would make a nifty bumper sticker.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, who is single, serves as interim minister of “The Episcopal Church in Almaden” (www.eca-sj.org) in San Jose, California.

And the glory is not ours, Pentecost 14, Proper 17 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Sirach 10:12-18; Psalm 81:1, 10-16 or 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

There are two senses of the word “pride.”

Sometimes “pride” refers to the self-respect and strength needed to sustain a group in the face of hardship. Thus we have the slogan used in one area of a small Midwestern city: “Pride in the South Side.” Pride of this kind can be acceptable, even necessary.

Another meaning of this word refers to inordinate self-esteem, a self-esteem that is out of line, excessive, unreasonable, and thus dangerous. Pride of this second type is attacked vigorously in today’s readings.

Our passage from Sirach declares, “The beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours forth abominations.”

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus counsels us to take the lowest place at social events and calls on us to show hospitality to those unable to repay the gesture.

Hebrews takes this point and runs with it. Show hospitality to strangers. Demonstrate concern for prisoners. Respect marriages. Shun greed. Do not give in to fear, but live by faith. This passage is loaded with calls to remedy our pride by how we live.

Destructive pride stands in contrast to pride based in self-respect. Yet destructive pride also stands in contrast to something else – a different sin, but a related one. This other sin goes by the name of “accidie.” Sometimes I wonder if this sin is the more common of the two.

In his book Disordered Loves: Healing the Seven Deadly Sins, William S. Stafford offers us this case study of someone with a mild case of accidie:

“Deidre had a cold childhood. She was never quite able to please her parents, never got very much love. She worked hard to win her law degree and does fine work with federal litigation. The salary and the success aren’t as exciting any more, and she’s a bit bored and lonely. The meat market of singles bars turns her off; besides, she’s in her late thirties and doubts she could compete. Deeper friendships are hard, as she’s busy. She was married for eight years to a man who would never fully commit himself to her; never unreservedly love her; and she is not ready for that risk again. As for God, she never thinks much about the god of her childhood religion.
“A major job in the Department of Justice is opening, but it would force her beyond her present limits as a lawyer. Perhaps it is safer not to hope much or try too hard. She’ll do paperwork tonight, then maybe drink some wine and watch a video.”
Pride errs when it places self at the center, when it builds a high tower of isolation. In contrast, accidie involves a person shrinking from existence, slipping into a pool of hopeless non-being. What these sins have in common is they refuse our status as creatures dependent on God. They reject the gift of created, contingent life. Some of us violently assert ourselves; we sin boldly. Others of us shrink into nothingness; rather than climb up, we slide down.

Both accidie and pride are based on a truth ripped from its proper context.

The truth behind pride is that we are something, we are creatures sustained and loved by God. What’s the fatal falsehood? Pride refuses to recognize that we are not God.

The truth behind accidie is that we are nothing, creatures utterly dependent on God for existence from each second to the next. What’s the fatal falsehood? Accidie refuses to recognize that we are loved by God.

In some places the preacher’s priority may be to help people overcome their pride. But in many places in our culture, the priority lies in helping people overcome their accidie.

To overcome accidie, it is helpful to recognize its different forms. William Stafford mentions three: sloth, self-abdication, and despair.

Sloth involves laziness, inertia, procrastination, and shirking responsibility. It is more subtle, more serious than the stereotype of a teenager who resists taking out the trash. Sloth appears when, for no good reason, we turn down opportunities for service and growth.

We avoid interaction with our children or grandchildren. We sleep in on Sunday morning. We value spiritual practices like Bible study, but never get around to them. We sidestep anything that may make us think. Any of these may be symptoms of sloth.

According to Stafford, self-abdication means “to empty out one’s self in idol worship rather than growing toward God, seeking significance in some other human being or cause or circumstance.”

We can live for specific other people and call it love, when in fact it is idolatry, worshipping someone else in place of God. We can become workaholics, or fanatics for some cause, even a religious one, that prevents us from having a life, much less a life with God. Our culture often drives women to engage in self-abdication, but this form of accidie can afflict men as well.

Where accidie can lead us finally is to despair. Here we reject that God is always doing a new thing. We slam the door of our heart on even the possibility of grace.

William Stafford summarizes the overall dynamic of accidie. “Spiritual withdrawal and depression,” he tells us, “often start with dishonest prayer, refusing to raise some issue with God, rejecting a summons, getting tired of God’s silence and walking away. It is natural enough to feel hurt or rejected by God, when disaster leaves wounds, or if one’s spiritual aspirations are simply left hanging for years. Yet those might be taken as invitations to the cross, to die to one’s own self in a new way and live in sheer dependence on God even in the dark. Accidie rejects that invitation. It chooses to live and die on the margins of its own nothingness rather than launch out further into the abyss of God.”

Such then is accidie, a disease of soul no less dangerous than pride. For many of us, accidie is not something that happens rarely; it is instead a chronic condition. Where can we find relief? What is its remedy?

We must see our emptiness, not as a horrid absurdity, but as a necessary prelude to that true life, which is not the swelling our ego, but an unexpected gift from God.

We must believe that the way to fullness takes us through emptiness. William Johnston in his book Mystical Theology: The Science of Love reminds us that this is the pattern found in the Bible. For example, “Abraham ready to sacrifice his only son, is filled with joy as he hears the promise that his offspring will be more numerous than the stars of heaven or the sands of the seashore. Mary cries out that God has regarded the emptiness of his handmaid; so all generations will call her blessed. Blessed are the poor – the radically empty – for they shall be glorified. The merciful, the hungry and the mourners will inherit the kingdom.”

The way out of accidie means conforming our lives to the pattern of Jesus, to the paschal mystery we shout in the Eucharistic prayer: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

The way out of accidie is to live the Eucharist: accepting our emptiness because we have faith that this emptiness will be occupied not by self, but by God.

When pride takes over, we are full of ourselves. When accidie takes over, we slip into nothingness. But when Christ takes over, his experience becomes our own. An emptying occurs in order that we may be filled. A dying takes place that we may rise again. We recognize ourselves at last in the light of humility; as it says in 2 Corinthians, “as dying, and see – we are alive.”

And the glory is not ours, but it belongs to God.

Written by the Rev. Charles Hoffacker
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2002). E-mail: charles.hoffacker@gmail.com.