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Sermon for Sunday 1 September 2019

First Reading                              Proverbs 25:2-10

2It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out. 3As the heavens for height, and the earth for depth, so the heart of kings is unsearchable. 4Take away the dross from the silver, and the smith has material for a vessel; 5take away the wicked from the presence of the king, and his throne will be established in righteousness. 6Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, 7for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble. What your eyes have seen 8do not hastily bring into court, for what will you do in the end, when your neighbor puts you to shame? 9Argue your case with your neighbor himself, and do not reveal another’s secret, 10lest he who hears you bring shame upon you, and your ill repute have no end.

Psalm                                                Psalm 131

1O Lord, I am not proud; I have no haughty looks. 2I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me. 3But I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me. 4O Israel, wait upon the Lord, from this time forth forevermore.

Second Reading                         Hebrews 13:1-17

1Let brotherly love continue. 2Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. 4Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. 5Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” 6So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” 7Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. 10We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 11For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. 17Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Gospel                                                        Luke 14:1-14

1One Sabbath, when {Jesus} went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. 2And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. 3And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” 4But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. 5And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” 6And they could not reply to these things. 7Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit in 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 table with you. 11For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” 12He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”


Some of you remember when Journalist Howard K. Smith was the co-anchor of the ABC Evening News along with Barbara Walters.  In his post as a network news analyst, Smith had the opportunity to interview some of society’s most fascinating people as well as various Presidents.  Yet despite having a job that most would consider high status, he complained that his children never considered him very important.  In fact, they seemed completely under-whelmed by anything their father did.  No matter how many autographs he collected for them, no matter how many famous names he dropped, the kids still didn’t think he was anything special.  That all changed with the Presidential conventions of 1964.

Smith was sent to San Francisco to cover the conventions for ABC.  His family joined him later for a tour of California’s highlights, which included a visit to the new amusement park called Disneyland.  What the kids were most excited about, was the prospect of running into their idol, Mickey Mouse.  The family spent the day riding all the rides and sampling the various snacks.  Then, as they wandered through the park, they happened upon their hero himself, Mickey.  Suddenly, the life-sized rodent stared in surprise and exclaimed in a squeaky voice, “It’s Howard K. Smith!”

Smith reports that his young daughter suddenly looked at him with a new admiration and respect.  Her dad had been recognized by Mickey Mouse, and this raised his stature considerably in her eyes.  Smith reveled in this new-found status.  But as he reflected on the incident, he realized that it was frivolous to base his standing on the words of a cartoon mouse. 

After that, status didn’t mean much to Howard K. Smith.  Instead, he focused on living an upright life and no longer caring about what others thought of him.  Would that all of us felt that way.  But the truth is, all of us like to be recognized, even if it’s only by a Disney character.  It’s one of the most basic of human of desires.  We all want to feel like we’re somebody of status.  Bernie Madoff certainly did.

Many of you are familiar with that name as well.  For those who aren’t, a few years ago Bernie Madoff operated the largest Ponzi scheme in world history.  Through this scheme he committed the largest financial fraud in U.S. history.  Prosecutors estimated the size of the fraud to be nearly $65 billion.  Yes, that’s “billion” with a “b.”  That’s based on the amounts in the accounts of Madoff’s 4,800 clients as of November 30, 2008.  But when he was exposed, it all came crumbling down.  He lost everything dear to him.  A son committed suicide, his family and friends turned their back on him.  He was stripped of all his wealth—his yachts, his private jet, his homes in exotic locations, everything that gave him a sense of place in the world.  And on June 29, 2009, at age 71, Bernie Madoff, the man who seemingly had it all, was sentenced to 150 years in prison, the maximum the law allowed.  Why did he do it?

Obviously, greed played a role, but that wasn’t the key factor.  According to one biographer, Bernie Madoff’s driving motivation was to gain recognition.  He wanted to be somebody.  As a young person Bernie never stood out.  He wasn’t smart enough in school . . . not athletic enough . . . not handsome enough . . . not articulate enough.  He was rejected by one girl after another.  He was a nobody as far as his standards of human worth were concerned.  He seemed to have only one gift.  He excelled at making money, especially money fraudulently taken from others.  And he used that gift to obtain the recognition he craved.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t the kind of acknowledgment anyone would want.  The recognition of committing the world’s largest case of fraud destroyed him and destroyed many of those around him.

My guess is that deep down most people long to be somebody of importance.  Jesus understood that:  He is, after all, a master psychologist.  He knew that all of us crave recognition.  Jesus knew that the desire for status is an innate part of the human condition.  Most of us don’t want to simply keep up with the Joneses—we want to be ahead of the Joneses, the Smiths and everyone else on the block.  The reality is, it’s very human to want to be one-up on our neighbors.

I read about a Harvard study where they asked students, “If prices were the same, which option would you choose:  Option A: you make $50,000 per year and everybody else makes $25,000 per year, or Option B:  You make $100,000 per year, but everybody else makes $200,000 per year?”  Which option do you think most Harvard students chose?  They chose Option A.  They would rather make $50,000 and everyone else make $25,000 than make $100,000 and have everyone else make $200,000.  The study highlights that status is at least as powerful a motivator as money, and that says something about human nature, doesn’t it.  That’s true today and that was true 2,000 years ago.  Jesus knew that, and He saw an opportunity to use that very natural craving for recognition to teach us some very useful lessons.

In our gospel reading for today, Luke records that one Sabbath, Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee.  When He noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them a parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited as well.  If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’  Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.

But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’  Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests.  For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  What an interesting and common-sense piece of wisdom.  But what’s most interesting about Jesus’ instruction is, those in attendance already knew this because, as we read in our first lesson, Solomon had already put this down in writing centuries before (Proverbs 25:6).

I can almost see the smile on Jesus’ face as He rephrases Solomon’s words of wisdom.  You see, in Jesus’ day, money wasn’t the primary motivating factor in people’s lives:  the dominant value was prestige.  Dinner parties were planned according to the social status of the guests.  Everyone had an established place on the social ladder.  The guest list was of absolute important.  It was important that family members and community leaders be honored.  Where you sat at dinner revealed your status.  Therefore, at a formal banquet, it would be absolutely humiliating to be asked to move to the foot of the table.  Every culture, it seems, has its pecking order and this hierarchy seems to be important to people.

I’m reminded of an answer Baron Rothschild once gave when asked about seating important guests.  His answer was, “Those that matter won’t mind where they sit and those who do mind, don’t matter.”  Clearly, Jesus wasn’t interested in helping His disciples win the status game.  He knew, however, how potent this drive to be No. 1 is.  Ask any employer what the most important motivator of employees is besides money and they will say, “Recognition.”  People love their titles and they love things that signal importance.

As you know, the military shows the status of a person by rank.  And for those familiar with military protocol, if a person is a commissioned officer, those of lower rank and all non-commissioned officer are required to salute them.  If a person of higher rank walks into a room, those of a lower rank are required to stand.  In the early part of my career, the base commander’s car had a white painted roof, just so everyone would know to stop and salute him as he drove by.  And those of earlier military days, remember the general flags on cars and jeeps?  But it would even go deeper than who outranks who.  Desire for recognition was even sought out among peers.  We call them ring tappers.

Among the officer ranks in the Air Force there was other ways to gain additional recognition.  Those who had graduated from the Air Force academy would wear their class ring and anytime they wanted others to know this fact, they would “unconsciously” tap that ring on the table.  Among pilots, fighter jocks were always held in higher esteem than those who flew heavies.  And even among the fighter pilots, if you were chosen to fly the newest or one most advance aircraft, you were seen as someone special.  Many a time I was sitting in debrief when one of the F-117 pilots would start a story out with, “when I was driving Eagles.”  To me it’s all kinds of silly; but it’s a fact, people love their titles and they love being recognized as somebody important.  Humility it seems is no longer valued.  As a matter of fact, humility, it would seem, is now seen as a weakness rather than a virtue.  Maybe this is at the heart of the problem.  We think much to highly of ourselves.  There’s also an additional factor to consider here; we also want to be appreciated.  

Jesus understood this so He reminded His disciples of this bit of advice from long ago, about taking a secondary seat, so that you might be moved up to a greater seat.  Jesus then followed this very practical lesson with another.  Turning to the host of the banquet, Jesus said, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.  Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  This is a much less probable scenario, but also a much more serious one.  

Jesus is giving us a lesson about how to make our life really count.  If you really want to make your life count, you won’t do it by playing silly games about status and recognition.  You’ll quit worrying about what kind of car you drive or wearing the latest fashions or even how spacious your house is.  No, the driving force in your life will be serving God and making the world better for all people.

Pastor Tony Campolo tells a story of an experience he had at dinner in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, some years ago.  He was checking on mission programs that his organization carries out day in and day out in Haiti.  He wanted to see how the workers were surviving emotionally and spiritually.  At the end of a long day, he was tired and “peopled out,” so it was with great relief that he sat down to a nice dinner at a restaurant in the heart of Port-au-Prince.

He was seated next to the window so he could enjoy watching the activity on the street outside.  The waiter brought a delicious looking meal and set it in front of him.  Tony picked up his knife and fork and was about to dive in when he happened to look to his right.  There, with their noses pressed flat against the window, staring at his food, were four children from the streets.  They pressed their faces right up against the glass; they were staring at his plate of food.  The waiter, seeing his discomfort, quickly moved in and pulled down the window shade, shutting out the disturbing sight of the hungry children.  The waiter then said to Tony, “Don’t let them bother you.  Enjoy your meal.” 

Think about it, how could anyone enjoy their meal under such circumstances?  Because of his love for Jesus and others, Tony has a passion for helping the forgotten children of this world.  If he can find a way to help, he will.  This reminded me of another story a different pastor told.  It seems that a layman in a church in one of the most rundown sections of the inner city of a large urban area found his newly-called pastor standing at his study window weeping as he looked out over the tragic conditions.  The layman tried to console him: “Don’t worry.  After you’ve been here a while, you’ll get used to it.”  The pastor replied, “Yes, I know.  That’s why I am crying.”

Lord help us if our hearts ever harden to the conditions in which many people find themselves.  It might be children with no one to look after them except a drug addicted parent.  It might be an elderly person who has just lost a spouse, or it might be a young woman with a newly discovered tumor in her breast.  It might be a neighbor who has recently lost their job.  The number of people who are dealing with heart-rending issues are manifold.  God help us if we simply pull down the shade and ignore their needs.

Jesus is giving us a lesson about how to make our lives really count.  It’s not whether you sit at the head table.  It isn’t whether the maître d’ at the finest restaurant in town knows you by name.  It’s where you sit at the final banquet table which Jesus is preparing for all His saints.  Those places are reserved for people with compassionate hearts who are willing to do more than give sympathetic nods to those who are hurting but will also offer a sympathetic hand.

There’s an old story about a young boy who, on an errand for his mother, had just bought a dozen eggs.  Walking out of the store, he tripped and dropped the sack.  All the eggs broke, and the sidewalk was a mess.  The boy tried not to cry.  A few people gathered to see if he was OK and to tell him how sorry they were.  In the midst of the words of pity, one man handed the boy a quarter.  Then he turned to the group and said, “I care 25 cents worth.  How much do the rest of you care?”

Jesus said, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.  Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

In the long run, it doesn’t matter what title you have.  It doesn’t matter if you graduated from Harvard or the Air Force Academy.  It doesn’t even matter if the cartoon character at the amusement park recognizes you, or the President of the United States knows you personally.  When the final day comes, what matters most is how God recognize you.  Will He say, “depart from me,” or, will He say, “well done good and faithful servant.”  Besides, isn’t that the best title any of us could have, God’s good and faithful servant? Amen

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