Sunday, August 29, 2010

14th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 17C

Preached @ St. Barnabas, Temple Hills, MD, 8/29/10

The beginning of today’s Gospel selection tips us off that Jesus is heading to hostile ground, as right after we are told Jesus was on his way to a leader of the Pharisees for a Sabbath meal, we are told that they were watching him closely. Jesus returns better than he gets by observing them and then gives a two part lecture: one to the guests, about humility, and one to the host, demanding that a self-examination take place about the motives behind generosity. True humility and what motivates us to be generous are themes we are given to consider this summer day. And they are intertwined.

Both of these points by Jesus, on true humility and true generosity, are polar opposites of how the world works. The social behavior of both guests and hosts to which Jesus pointed two thousand years ago still exist today…. We have all heard sermons demeaning and devaluing our cultural standards. Devaluing and threatening does not get us anywhere. But trying to look at life and the world around us with clear eyes, evaluating and taking appropriate corrective action, is not so much devaluing and threatening, as honest evaluation and assessment of how we are doing in our efforts to be the Body of Christ in the world today.

Jesus talks about the humility of guests at a banquet and the motivation of hosts. We all know feigned humility when we see it. When Jesus instructs the guests at the dinner to sit down in the lowest place, Jesus is not instructing us to feign humility as a strategy for recognition. On the contrary, Jesus is saying that humility is a manner of life, a true “life-style choice”. Taking the low seat because one is humble is one thing, taking it as a way to move up is quite another. Humility is a quality of life open to persons who know their worth is not measured by recognition from their peers but by the certainty that God has accepted and loves them: and all else falls away.

Jesus’ guidance to the host of the party about who should be invited: the poor, crippled, lame and blind (as opposed to friend, brother/sister, relative or rich neighbors) focuses on the theme of self-examination in regard to our motives for doing things. Jesus instructs us not to invite people so that we may incur a return favor or receive something in return. Jesus is telling us to do the work, expecting and wanting nothing in return. If that isn’t opposed to our cultural milieu, very little else is. But it was as opposite the culture two thousand years ago when Jesus first said this, as it is today. We are still trying to get what Jesus is telling us, and that is okay. But we have to continue trying to get it.

One of the truths Jesus is trying to get us to hear when he tells us not to sit at the place of honor is that true honor is not gained by seizing prominence. It must be given to us. The Greek word translated here as “honor” (doxa) is usually translated in a different way. It is usually translated when we see it in other places in the Gospel as “glory”. And this is a particular kind of glory. Any time this Greek word is used it is God giving the glory. This glory is truly a glory only God can give. The particular usage of this word by Luke signals a significant hint that Jesus is talking about something other than who gets to sit at the head table and invited to the feast, as Jesus then says, in the future tense: you will be honored, you will be blessed.

Jesus saw meal-time as an opportunity for inclusion and fellowship. The Pharisees saw meal-time as a self-propagating and self-aggrandizing time. What Jesus is emphasizing here is that God does the blessing. God does the praising, the honoring. God gives the glory.

The challenge of today’s Gospel is the challenge of trying to free ourselves from our culture’s pull to power and esteem. God does not care about the glitter of our guest list. If this Gospel is to be believed then God looks to see that we have practiced the generosity and inclusiveness and love of the kingdom in our daily social relationships. The Gospel, in very stark terms, is setting social recognition up against recognition of God’s favor. The Gospel is challenging us to look at what we do, how we act and our reasons behind those actions.

How do we find this humility? If we are blessed to have found it, how do we stay humble? Perhaps we can remember that no matter how much we know, there is always more to learn. When we start to get a bit large for our britches, perhaps we can think about perfection. I am a golfer, a pretty poor one at that. But even if I was not a duffer with an unimaginably large handicap, all I would have to do is look at the professional golfers to re-orient my understanding of my prowess.

Jesus is clear, if we give to receive something in return we are not living into the kingdom he is announcing and we are missing his point about humility. Jesus is pointing us to a different mindset: giving with no thought of what we get in return. This is a “God-giving” mind-set. Think about God’s love and the oft-heard scriptural citation: God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus, the only Son…..

Jesus is pointing us to a humility that is a way of life…. a reversal of how the world has operated. Jesus is pointing us to a world where the first are last and the last are first. A world where the poor, the crippled the lame and the blind are no longer excluded… excluded from the priesthood, excluded from the kingdom, but are the invited and honored and glorified guests.

God’s blessings onto us come from our finding and incorporating this humility into the very core of our being. The glory is not ours to find. The honor is not ours to achieve. That glory and honor is bestowed by God onto us by this change of mind-set, by being God-giving in all we do.

We all are a work in progress….always. Our Gospel challenges us to remember that we, as Christians, are supposed to be different. We are challenged to set and show a different manner of being that exemplifies the God-giving humility from which glory is bestowed, without that reward being sought…. Challenging…. Life-altering…. We won’t be the most popular person on the block, but that isn’t what we are called to by Jesus. A work in progress we certainly are: we just need to keep cracking at this and we will see the kingdom forming all around us.


Copyright 2010, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.

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