Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Sermon for Sunday 28 August 2016: Who is this humility for, anyway?

Dear readers: Welcome back to "Knit Purl Pray Preach"! After an eight week preaching and speaking tour in the U.S., I am back in Jerusalem. Here is this past week's sermon from Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. 

In the coming months, I hope to expand this blog to include more than sermons. I will be posting more reflections and photos, along with some liturgical resources. 

Please continue to pray for peace with justice for all the people in the Holy Land! 

Pr. Carrie Smith


Sermon for Sunday, 28 August 2016

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev Carrie Ballenger Smith

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Seven years ago, just after my ordination as a pastor, I attended a regional pastors’ conference. It was exciting to be among so many new colleagues, all with much more experience than my two months in the pulpit. I had big plans for this conference: I hoped to make good friends, but I also hoped to make a good impression.

At lunchtime, I nervously sat down in the last spot available, at a table full of friendly-looking pastors.  

“Is this seat taken?” I asked.
“Of course not! Have a seat,” they responded.

I sat down, and had just picked up my sandwich when I became aware of two things at nearly the exact same moment: First, another pastor was walking toward us with his tray of food in his hand, searching for a place to sit.

And second, there was actually one more seat available nearby. It was at the bishop’s table. In fact, it was the seat at the right hand of the bishop.

I had only moments to act, and I decided this was potentially a win-win situation. I could appear gracious and generous to this tableful of pastors, AND I could get a chance to sit by the bishop.

So I stood up and called to the wandering pastor, “Over here! Please, you can have my seat.”

And then, slowly, casually, as if I had not thought of it until that very moment, I moved toward that open seat by the bishop.

I didn’t say anything, but as I approached the bishop’s table I tried hard to portray the image of a humble person who had just discovered, “Oh look! Here’s a seat. I suppose I can sit here.”

Wow, did I miscalculate that one. That tableful of experienced pastors I had just left? They didn’t miss much, and they weren’t fooled by my performance. One of them spoke up, not in a mean way, but loud enough so I could hear.

“Ah, taking the seat of honor, I see?”

Ouch. As I sat myself down at the right hand of the bishop, it was as if I could hear the voice of Jesus himself, reminding me:

“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, Carrie, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In today’s lesson from the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus does actually speak to me, and to people like me. Jesus speaks to those of us who have the good seats at the head of the table. He’s also speaking to the hosts who planned the guest list. In other words, he’s addressing people with privilege, with status, with honor and authority.

And what he has to say flies in the face of everything we know about how dinner parties—and life—are supposed to work. “Sit in the worst seats” says Jesus. Let someone else have the best spot. Choose to sit by the restaurant kitchen—or even in the kitchen with the workers. Choose the last row on the airplane, the one right next to the bathroom where everyone lines up. Look for ways to humble yourself, for in this way you will be exalted, says Jesus.

There was a man I knew who did exactly this all the time. At church, when we would line up for potluck meals, he would purposely put himself at the end of the line. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this at all. In fact, he was a very faithful person, who was trying to take Jesus’ words literally. But he was so committed to the idea of being last that he absolutely, under no circumstance, would allow anyone else to be at the end of the line. Once, I saw him almost get into a fistfight with another man who was just trying to be kind.

“You can go ahead of me,” said the unsuspecting visitor.
“No, it’s your turn.”

The visitor tried again, “I don’t mind at all. You’ve been standing here for a while.”

“No, really, YOU NEED TO GO AHEAD OF ME!” said my friend, a little too loudly, effectively ending the conversation, just in time. He certainly succeeded in getting his last place in line, but he also succeeded in offending the other guy. “Listen, man, what’s your problem?” said the man now standing in the next-to-last place.

Is this what Jesus had in mind when he spoke about “humbling oneself?”
Is it a contest? Is it about me?
Why does Jesus tell me to choose a lower seat, or to give up my seat altogether?
Who is this humility for, anyway?

The other day I heard the story of a high school, the last high school in a struggling American town, which was closed permanently this spring. The town has many problems, enrollment numbers were down, and the community could no longer afford to keep it open. The class of 2016, 25 students total, would be the last to ever graduate from Wilkinsburg High School.

Because it was such a momentous and emotional occasion, the graduating students were told they could choose anyone they wanted to be their commencement speaker—a professional athlete, a politician, a celebrity—but instead they chose a former teacher at the school. This teacher, Jason, self-described as a “33-year-old white guy”, spoke clearly and directly to the overwhelmingly African-American class, saying:

“There will be people, there will be a lot of people who will do everything they can to keep you from sitting at the table, from having power, and to keep you from being part of the conversation. My advice to each of you, is to push your way in. I’m not saying be a jerk, but I’m saying get there. Because we need a whole lot less of 33-year-old white guys who like to talk at that table, and a whole lot more of you.”

When I heard this graduation speech on the radio, I couldn’t help but compare it to the speech Jesus gave at the Pharisee’s dinner party. “Sit down at the lowest place” sounds a lot different from “Push your way in.” At first, these two statements may even seem contradictory.

But actually, both Jesus and Jason share the same vision: a place for everyone at the table. But the important difference between these two speeches is the audience. 

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus was speaking those at the head of the table. He was speaking to the ones who get the first cuts of meat, the first choice from the bread basket, and the best chance of speaking with the people in power. He was talking to those sitting at the right hand of the host, or of the bishop—people like me.

The Wilkinsburg High School commencement speaker, on the other hand, was talking to a completely different audience. He was talking to kids: poor kids, black kids, Hispanic kids; kids whose friends have been shot, kids whose high school is being closed down, kids who are not likely to be invited into the room, much less given a seat at the head of the table.

For this reason, he said to them, “I’m not saying be a jerk, I’m just saying get there.” He wanted them to know that they also deserve to be fed, that their voices also deserve to be heard, that they also deserve a seat at the table.

And those of us within arm’s reach of the main course, seated by the people in power, would do well to listen to Jesus when he says, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” In other words—we may need to move seats to be sure everyone fits around this table.

This is not an easy parable, is it? It’s easy to understand, but it’s not easy to live.  Humility can be a bitter pill to swallow. It doesn’t feel nearly as good as exaltation! 

Jesus does say: “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Thanks be to God for that, and indeed we look forward to the day when we will be exalted, and all of us will be sitting at the table of the great heavenly feast which has no end! Amen!

But in the meantime…right here, right now…we are called to make sure our neighbors also taste the Good News. As followers of Jesus, we are called to reconsider the guest list at our earthly dinner tables. As followers of Jesus, we are called to wake up, and to notice who’s missing from the table, from the neighborhood, from the conversation. As followers of Jesus, we are called to humble ourselves, so that others may be exalted; to take a step back so others can have a step up; to choose humility rather than fighting to hang on to our seats.

Most importantly, as followers of Jesus, know that we are free to do all of these things without fear, because he has already humbled himself for us. He has already chosen humiliation for our sake. He has already chosen to empty himself—of power, of privilege, of his own divinity—for the sake of this sinful and broken world.

In great love, Jesus chose the way of the cross, ensuring that we all have a place at the table of the righteous. We who have heard this Good News, and have been baptized into his same humble death, have already been exalted. We have been raised up with him, and are now called to continue his mission of love and humility in the world today.

Hear again the words of Jesus, who said: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Today, we have heard that part of the Gospel mission is to ensure all people have a place at the table—even if it means giving up our own.

Can you imagine it? Can you picture that heavenly banquet table? Can you picture us all—Christian, Muslim, and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian, international and local, liberal and conservative, man and woman, old and young, gay and straight, all with full bellies and full hearts? Liberated, reconciled, and satisfied? 

We have a long way to go before we get there. We may need to pull up a few more chairs. We may need to extend the table. We may need to kick the table upside down a few times! But with Christ, we will get there. For the sake of our neighbors, we must get there. In the words of the excellent Class of 2016 commencement speaker at Wilkinsburg High School: “I’m not saying be a jerk. I’m just saying—get there.”

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.