Sunday, September 2

Sermon: Exalting in Humility

Proper 17 (22)
Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14
Sept. 2, 2007
Preacher: The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell

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That Jesus. Always the counter-cultural one. Sometimes I read the gospel and think “I’m supposed to do what?” After all these years the gospel’s been around, it still hits with the shock of newness, feels like a cold splash of water in the face. Shocking. But also refreshing, enlivening. Wakes you up.
After the initial shock, challenge, even dismay that can come when I read Jesus’s words…comes the sense of liberation. The gospel inevitably ends up making me look at some hang-up I have, or that we as a culture have, and provides a more life-giving perspective.
Today’s gospel is no exception.

Don’t exalt yourself, Jesus says. Humble yourself. Choose the least important place at the table, not the most. Easy for him to say, right? Well, maybe it wasn’t easy for him to say. But it’s certainly not easy for most of us to do.

Jesus is on one level talking about table manners, literally choosing the place of least honor at a banquet. But he’s also talking about more than that. Symbolically, there are many ways to the choose lowest place at the table. At home, work, or church, we can sign up for the less glamorous jobs like taking notes, moving chairs, doing dishes, or caring for children. Pretty counter-cultural, right? What about looking out for #1 and getting the position of honor? Isn’t that what our society’s about? Yeah, but it’s not what Jesus is about.

Jesus is talking about service – choosing to be a servant. Which is very different from being forced to be a servant. We have some negative associations with servanthood, and rightly so. It’s wrong to take away another’s freedom or dignity. But Paul talks with pride about being a slave of love. The difference is choice. When we freely choose to be a servant, it can be liberating not oppressing.

Christian author Richard Foster says service can help us gain something vital: humility. Now, humility is tough to acquire. You can’t get it by seeking it. “Thinking we have it is clear evidence that we don’t.”[1] So what’s our best shot at becoming humble in this lifetime? Developing a discipline of service.

Foster differentiates between self-righteous and self-giving service. When we serve self-righteously, we seek to get credit for what we do. It may be very subtle, and we may disguise it in socially or religiously acceptable ways, but ultimately we’re in it for ourselves. On the other hand, when we serve for its own sake, we don’t care about the limelight. We don’t get our noses out of joint if people don’t rush to praise us. God’s approval is enough.

This is hard to live out sometimes. We all need affirmation, just treatment, and fair compensation. But it can be very freeing to serve for its own sake. When we make ourselves useful without looking for the big pay-off, we can tap into a source much deeper and more life-giving than our egos. We break out of petty cycles of proving our worth, looking for external rewards, and self-aggrandizing. These self-oriented behaviors are what Jesus takes to task in today’s gospel, and suggests we take to task within ourselves.

How can service help us develop humility? Richard Foster always offers practical suggestions as well as theology, which is one of the things I like about him.

Some kinds of service you and I can embrace in our daily lives are:

The service of hiddenness. Quietly praying for others without their knowledge. Doing a favor for someone, without their knowing you did it.

The Service of small things. Helping each other in trifling, external matters. Running errands, paying bills, buying groceries, sewing clothes, cooking a meal. As Bonhoeffer says in Life Together “Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.”

The service of charity. Guarding others’ reputations and refraining from gossip. Speaking the truth in love directly to folks instead of gossiping about them. And not listening to slanderous talk.

The service of being served. When we let others serve us, we humble ourselves and acknowledge their “kingdom authority” over us. They need to give as well as receive. It can be wrongful pride to refuse to be on the receiving end. And we can miss out on a lot of good stuff! Like, if someone offers you a backrub, take it! Don’t deprive them of their right to serve. J

The service of courtesy. Some folks dismiss social graces as shallow, even meaningless or hypocritical. But they serve a deeper purpose -- to acknowledge and affirm the worth of others, and to show respect. Remember kind words. Thank you. Please. Letters of appreciation. RSVP’s. Returning correspondence promptly. It’s all good.

The service of listening. We often under-rate its importance. We feel we need to have answers. No. Many times we just need to be with people and listen deeply, without judging, or rushing to fix.

The service of hospitality. This need not be complicated or elaborate. Just opening up our homes and sharing what we have is lovely.

The service of bearing one another’s burdens. Again, just accompanying others, hanging out with them, weeping with those who weep, comforting those who mourn. And letting Jesus, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light, be the one who ultimately gives us all the strength to bear up under hardship.

Finally, the service of sharing the word of God with one another. If something comes to you in prayer, church, from the Bible, wherever, pass it on. Of course, none of us speaks infallibly, but it’s our sacred responsibility to share the insights we have, and our faith journeys.

How to incorporate this life of service? Most of us already have or we wouldn’t be here. But here’s a small prayer with which we can begin each day: ”Lord Jesus, as it would please you, bring me someone today whom I can serve.”

Through service we can know joy and true humility. Our hearts can be lifted up and reach heights our egos cannot take us to. This is the good news.

Today’s gospel falls into two parts: in the first section, Jesus talks about humbling ourselves by choosing the place of least honor at the table. In the second section, he talks about inviting the poor, lame, crippled and blind to supper, instead of friends and neighbors who can reciprocate. These parts are clearly related. The second intensifies and deepens the first, makes an even more radical demand on us. The first part is about humbling ourselves when we’re with our social peers. The second is about humbling ourselves with those our society calls less fortunate.

Many if not all of us have sat down to eat with folks who are poor, blind, crippled, or otherwise struggling. And we know this is often a surprising reward in and of itself. People who serve in soup kitchens and sit down to table with the homeless usually feel very blessed by these encounters. This is certainly my experience. But there are also social prohibitions that make it a relatively rare occurrence. As we all know, the kingdom of God isn’t a reality on earth yet.

Who we eat with is huge. It says a lot about who we are. I think back to junior high. It was so important to have a group of friends to sit with at lunch, right? It mattered a lot who you ate with. In a sense, it defined you socially.

These instincts are alive and well in those of us who have survived junior high. Some tables, like neighborhoods and churches, seem to have invisible fences around them. You know who can get in and who has to stay out.

In a number of ways, we in this room have been and still are in solidarity with those outside the fences. But table fellowship with those who are truly struggling –we could make it more often a part of our daily life and work. There are still a lot of fences, aren’t there?

On my way out of town with my family a few weeks back, we stopped at a fast food restaurant off the highway, and a man approached our car, mumbling he was trying to get to Chicago and needed a meal. I opened my purse to see what kind of change I had. He indicated he’d meet us inside. I found him sitting at a table. I asked what kind of meal he wanted, bought it for him, and brought it to his table. He seemed thankful, and seemed to want nothing else.

I was glad to help. It was easy. And I knew exactly where the money was going. But I realized I had mixed feelings about the possibility of sitting and talking with him further. I was with young children who are vulnerable. That’s one thing. But on another level I wondered, what else might he want or need? How might my life change from the encounter, from hearing his story, learning why he was there at that particular exit on that particular highway? Where had he been? What did his future look like? How might he in some way become my responsibility?

Perhaps no more was required of me that day. He seemed just fine with his meal. I saw him eat peacefully, then leave quietly, walking straight and tall. Perhaps he had wanted solitude, not company. Maybe it was just an opportunity for him to bless us with a chance to serve. No more no less.

But it made me reflect. I saw that my desire to help this man was juxtaposed with what I teach my children, that it’s not safe to talk to strangers. My urge to help someone hungry was juxtaposed with my desire to protect my family and self. I also had a desire not to be scammed. I felt like I was dealing with some invisible social fences, and wondered how to bridge them, what God might be asking of me, what this man really needed, what it all might mean. That meal provided a lot of food for thought.

In various settings in my life, I’ve worked with the poor, blind, and lame, the deaf and developmentally challenged, the very old and very young. It has been true privilege and joy, as well as some hard work. Yet only a handful of times have I invited someone homeless, mentally, or physically handicapped to my home for a meal or party, and I wonder: could I do better, without having it be awkward for the person invited, or taking an unnecessary risk for them or my family? I wonder: How to navigate that line, cross that fence?

These words of Jesus’s challenge me – challenge all of us – to invite folks who are suffering, who’re on the fringes, who can’t reciprocate quid pro quo, into our lives in ways that are meaningful. To have literal and symbolic table fellowship that’s not so fenced in. To serve those who aren’t our socioeconomic and able-bodied peers along with those who are. Then, and only then!! will we have a chance at crushing our subtle, sneaky egos that so often look out for what’s in it for us.

We can be servants to the poor, blind, and lame in all the ways Foster suggests we serve one another. In hidden ways as well as more overtly. Offering hospitality. Bearing burdens. Listening. Running errands. Bringing food. Sharing the word of life. Lobbying for them. Receiving from them. Working for a more just world. And knowing ultimately, there is no us or them. All of us are poor, blind, lame or crippled. It’s just a matter of how. And often the blind see the most, the crippled travel the furthest, the poor are the richest in spirit. I think we know these truths to be self-evident, counter-cultural though they are.

Throughout Jesus’s ministry, he consistently takes aim at our animal natures, our social Darwinism. He challenges our pecking orders, hierarchies, pack mentalities, selfish genes, our fight or flight reflexes. He’s always seeking to get us to crucify the animal within. He shows us another way, an upside-down kingdom. A way closer to the angels than the beasts. In the world Jesus would have us create, the humble are exalted, the last first, the wrong people get into heaven before the right ones, and if you want to be a master, be a servant. And you should eat with the “wrong” people, and those who can’t reciprocate in kind, if you want to get right with God.

I know everyone in this room gets today’s gospel message, and is dealing with it, in ways that are real, diverse and amazing. But that’s the thing about the gospel – it’s so difficult to live out we could always do better. My prayer for each of us is that we’ll notice more closely our opportunities for service. Not only with each other, but with those who can’t repay us in ways we might like or expect. Someone whose eyes or limbs give them trouble. Maybe an old person. A child. Someone with AIDs. Someone hungry. Keep your eyes open. Take the time. Climb the fence. Sit and eat. No it’s not always easy, fun, or without risk, is it. But if we do it with true humility, the angels are exultant and our own hearts likewise will rejoice and be lifted up.

Amen.

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[1] Richard Foster, A Celebration of Discipline.